THE NEW YORKER: Youngest Ever – The Teen Adapting Twain
BY MICHAEL SCHULMAN
When Samuel Clemens was eighteen, he was working as an itinerant typesetter and sending money back to his mother and brother, in Hannibal, Missouri. He was ten years away from becoming Mark Twain, and twenty-three years away from publishing “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” He dreamed of running off to South America to work in the coca industry, and met a steamboat pilot who taught him the river for five hundred dollars. “At Noah’s age, he was not telling his mom anything—he was just off and on his own,” Cindy Lovell, the executive director of the Mark Twain House & Museum, in Hartford, Connecticut, said the other day.
Noah is Noah Altshuler, who turned eighteen in June, and is writing a stage adaptation of “Tom Sawyer” which producers hope to bring to Broadway. He is the museum’s first playwright-in-residence. Blond and six feet five, with wide eyes that get wider when he talks Twain, Altshuler grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began his playwriting career in the seventh grade, with a “brutally terrible” play about Cotton Mather. During his junior year at Groton, he wrote a twenty-minute comedy called “Making the Move,” about a teen-ager’s first kiss. The play went up at the Edinburgh festival, and Altshuler licensed it to some fifty high schools. “At a certain point, I stopped licensing it, because I didn’t want to deal with it anymore,” he said, over a bottle of the museum’s house-blend “Huckleberry Fizz” soda. “That sounds sort of flippant, but I wanted to see how it went and then try something new.”
His father had read him “Tom Sawyer” as a boy, but his connection to Twain stretches back to his paternal grandfather, the author Frederick Buechner, who kept a bust of Twain in his library. Altshuler reread the book in eleventh grade, he said, “and that’s when I got the idea that I’d like to do something with it.” He graduated from high school in May, and is now taking a gap year to work on the play and to visit Twain sites, including Hannibal and Elmira, New York, where Twain kept a summer cottage and is buried. A number of celebrity “Twainiacs” have offered their support, among them Hal Holbrook, Roy Blount, Jr., and Sheryl Crow. Altshuler reached into a fleece pocket and pulled out a silver dollar from 1876, the year that “Tom Sawyer” was published—it was a gift from his grandfather, a token of “his literary blessing.” Altshuler is well aware that Twain himself tried to adapt “Tom Sawyer” for the stage, without success. “The great lesson I learned from my Cotton Mather failure is that you have to write either what you know or what you are deeply curious about,” he said.
Altshuler had been given the run of the Hartford house, where Twain lived from 1874 to 1891. “It’s almost like Twain’s around the corner, but in another sense it’s hauntingly empty,” he said, despite the sound of tour groups shuffling upstairs, as he opened the front door. Altshuler removed a rope to the master bedroom (“They let me go wherever I want”) and stood beside Twain’s ornately carved headboard. “He would sleep in this direction, because he loved the headboard so much that he wanted to look at it,” Altshuler explained. “He used to come in with all his papers and books around and smoke a cigar in bed.”
Up in the billiard room, where Garrison Keillor once broke a cue ball, and which a tour guide described as “the original man cave,” Altshuler had laid out items from the archives, including a letter from Twain to his daughter Susy. He read aloud: “ ‘Keep the squirrel supplied with nuts, if he comes around. If you have a very fine sunset, put a blanket over it & keep it till I come.’ ” The night before, Altshuler had been in the house alone, playing a century-old mandolin he inherited from his grandmother. “Check this out,” he said, picking up the instrument, and plucked out some Bach. Then he stood in the stairwell and played a bluegrass tune, letting the sound waft down to the tourists.
In the drawing room, Altshuler sat at a period Steinway (not Twain’s) and told a visitor to stand in the hall as he played “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” just to hear how it echoed. Altshuler is less Tom Sawyer the rapscallion than Tom Sawyer the romantic: he is focussing his adaptation on Tom’s “pure, innocent love” for Becky Thatcher. “Look, I’m only eighteen, so I’m not out of the adolescent rough patch yet,” he said. He opened his paperback edition to page 122 and recited a favorite line: “ ‘Tom decided that he could be independent of Becky Thatcher now. Glory was sufficient. He would live for glory.’ ” ♦
Read it in The New Yorker: www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/21/youngest-ever