Mark Twain playing cards with Stephen Cushman’s grandmother, Joy (far right), her sister Louise (second from right), and their friend in Redding, Connecticut. (Image from twainquotes.com)
BETSY: It’s Mark Twain?
STEPHEN: Mark Twain, with three little girls. And the littlest girl farthest from him is my father’s mother. And the one next to her is Louise. And she is the little lady to whom Paine told “Mr. Dog’s Christmas.”
BETSY: That’s wonderful.
STEPHEN: So that picture was taken in Redding [Connecticut] in 1908. And I don’t know if you know the story of how Twain and Paine were connected.
BETSY: I know that Paine was Twain’s biographer.
STEPHEN: Biographer, and executor. And editor. Some people say not a very good one. And Paine was the one who got Twain to come out to Redding, which seems to be the setting for the Hollow Tree. Certainly, those are New England winters you’re reading about.
BETSY: From your first email to me, it sounds like the reading of this story has been a tradition in your family forever.
STEPHEN: Yes. I was born in 1956 and I cannot remember a time when my father didn’t read these books to us all, all year, because there are three volumes and there’s the summer too and everything. Some terrifying characters in there: “Mr. Turtle’s Thunder Story,” “Old Man Moccasin,” and a lot of others as well. Oh, these all come back: “Mr. Turtle’s Flying Adventure.” Mr. Possum’s Sick Spell.” There are so many good ones here. And then, here’s the final one: “The Hollow Tree Snowed Inn” book. And I remember this one! Yes: “The Bark of Old Hungry Wolf.” That’s a story about them all being hungry in the winter.
But, certainly “The Hollow Tree Christmas” was a ritual. And I was just thinking before you called of all the things that we grew up saying from the story. For example, it could be the middle of July and sweltering outside, but if something good happens to somebody you might say, “Oh, there’s something in all our stockings!” So it’s very much part of the lore. We did that throughout my childhood. And then: I got married to Sandra in 1982, and our first son was born in 1987. His name is Samuel. Then the second son is Simon. And we always read them to them as well. So I guess if you count my father, we’re on generation three.
But these stories have some sadness in them, some grimness in them. Because this is a pre-internet, pre-television, pre-radio world where storytelling was a major way to pass cold, snowy New England evenings. And there is in these books loneliness and solitude and some hard things. Which I didn’t think about it that way as a child so much, but now that I look at them again, I see it.
BETSY: It will be interesting now for me to go and read some of those because I’m not as familiar with them, and I think that the Christmas story is really pretty lighthearted.
STEPHEN: Yes, although, what’s interesting—I recently re-read it—there’s really a great dramatization in the Christmas story about Mr. Dog thinking at first, “what a great joke this will be.” But then thinking, “how sad this would be to play a joke on them.” So he’s going to play the role. He really becomes sort-of this artist-author figure who’s going to create this illusion for the sake of his friends. What a shame to let them down. So then, even there, it seems to me there’s some pathos in that, too.
BETSY: The thing that I particularly love about it is that it’s very much about friends and family, and all of the best things. But there’s also that total late-night stress miracle when he’s getting things together. And, how hard it is for him, how hard he works to pull off this surprise for his friends. I absolutely love that part about it.
STEPHEN: You know, there are two sides to it. While we’re having a great time there are a lot of people who are not, for any number of reasons. And so I feel that one of the things that story’s about is Paine’s projection onto Mr. Dog of this desire to share the pleasures with people who might otherwise not have them. And I think it’s very moving in that way.
BETSY: What do you think about the story being republished now?
STEPHEN: Oh, I think it’s wonderful. You know, to have a book go out of print is a very sad thing. It’s not quite like a death, but it’s a little bit odd. And, so, to have a book that I love come back into the world, I only have good feelings about it. What I’m going to be interested in is if your project brings out of the woodwork people who have been leading lives parallel to ours, who have been reading these things all along and so on, as well as making new readers out of young people and other people.
BETSY: There has been at least one person that my parents discovered quite by accident that grew up reading the “Hollow Tree” stories.
STEPHEN: Oh, no way!
BETSY: Yes, and she’s ordered copies for two friends and had them inscribed because both of these people grew up with the Hollow Tree stories as well. The thing I love about the Christmas story is it’s just so timeless. It definitely has a lot of period stuff in it, and there are some funky things, like my dad, when he reads it, always likes to pause at the point where they say they’ll leave the latchstring out for Mr. Dog. And my dad always makes a sort-of hokey point of, “Now, do you know what a latchstring is?”
STEPHEN: Right! Well, one of the things we haven’t talked about yet is the timelessness of the Christmas story, yes, but the timelessness of beast fables in general—from Aesop’s on. I think that animal stories become even more resonant against the backdrop of environmental degradation and all kinds of things. I mean, to “the little lady”—my grandmother, or her sisters in the late-19th,early 20th century—these weren’t animals, these were people. They had latchstrings, and they had deep snows, and they were snowed in for a week, these things. Well, that never happens to anyone anymore. So there’s a kind of remoteness, a nostalgia for a time when life was a little different, life was a little closer to the animals and to the rhythms of the seasons. And, I think that aspect is always going to reach out. Read today the story might appeal to a deep longing for a non-urban, pre-modern pastoral world. And, I think you’re always going to get that being attractive to people especially at Christmas, when we’re fighting against so many other distracting forces: Shopping, doing your taxes, whatever, you know, all these terrible things! And you have this chance to be transported back. It’s wonderful!
BETSY: I’m curious, too, since you’re so familiar with all of the other stories, how often does Mr. Dog feature in all of them?
STEPHEN: Lots of Mr. Dog: “Mr. Dog Takes Lessons in Dancing,” “Jack Rabbit Plays One More Joke on Mr. Dog,” “Mr. Polecat Makes a Morning Call & Mr. Dog Drops In.” And then, there’s one about, “How Mr. Dog Got Even.” So Mr. Dog comes up a lot. And the reason is—and I was thinking about this before you called too—he’s the intermediary between the human world and the world of the forest. So, we need him as a kind of go-between. And there’s this sentence in the Hollow Tree Christmas: “Well, the Hollow Tree People had never heard of Santa Claus. They knew about Christmas, of course, because everybody, even the cows and sheep, knew about that.”
BETSY: I love that.
STEPHEN: “They had never heard of Santa Claus.” Well, that’s the only faint acknowledgment of the Christ story. You know: There’s the manger, and there are the animals. Otherwise, it’s a thoroughly secular Christmas. And it’s a kind of wonderful touch there, where on some level, all the animals knew about Christmas. But they didn’t know about this particular human version of Christmas. It’s gotta be the cattle are lowing or the shepherds are out with their sheep, their flocks abiding by night, and so on.
BETSY: I just remember, when I was in junior high and high school that sometimes on Christmas Eve, a bunch of my friends would come over to listen to this. And it was such a child-like thing that you would think that a jaded teenager would go, “What the hell is going on here?” But they were all, to the last one, every single time, every one of them no matter who it was, totally charmed by this story, and just completely present and really, really loved it.
STEPHEN: Well, it’s an interesting thing you say right there. In the full bloom of the Christmas readings when my sister and I were adults (if that was the right word), we would do, “The Hollow Tree Christmas.” But, we had other readings, too.
BETSY: Yeah? Tell me!
STEPHEN: Well, one of them—if you don’t know this, this would be a great thing for your family, in two forms—do you know Dylan Thomas’s, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales?”
BETSY: That’s another favorite. Absolutely.
STEPHEN: Ok. So, have you ever heard him read it?
BETSY: Yeah, so that’s another one of our traditions. On Christmas Eve, it’s the reading of Mr. Dog. And on Christmas morning, we have an album of Dylan Thomas reading, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and that is on every Christmas morning.
STEPHEN: Well, this is scary, because this sounds as though we probably were cloned in the same… [laughs]
BETSY: That is so weird! [laughing]
STEPHEN: …and the other ones that we do: My dad had an ancient record I think he bought when he was in the army, a ’33 rpm. But on one side was Ronald Coleman reading an abridgment of “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens. And on the flip side, was Charles Laughton dramatizing an abridged version of “Pickwick Papers,” for Christmas. So that was our our trilogy: that record, the Thomas recording, and then our reading of, “The Hollow Tree.”
BETSY: Wow. We need to somehow get our hands on that third one. That sounds pretty special.
STEPHEN: Are you ready for the holidays?
BETSY: I am going to be so ready for the holidays!
STEPHEN: Well, I will tell you that here on the East Coast, the sun is going down, and I have a Mr. Dog I have to take out.
BETSY: I bet you do! Thank you so much for your time. I will send your books soon, and I look forward to staying in touch. And thank you so much for your warm reception of this project. It really means a lot to me.
STEPHEN: Well, thank you so much for the project, and seeing it through. And I wish everyone in your family a very happy Christmas.