Famous writer admires Twain’s wit, adds own in book intro

Paul Thissen

Dave Eggers, author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” spoke to a packed hall of students, professors and local residents Monday, delivering insights on as topics as varied as Mark Twain and Scandinavian drinking habits.

Arriving at the speech, sponsored by the American studies department as part of the Great Authors on Great Books Program, Eggers fans were greeted only with a note on the blackboard that read: “Because of a late airplane, Dave Eggers’s (sic) talk will be somewhat delayed.”

Forty minutes after the appointed starting time, a disheveled Eggers arrived and began to speak to the still-assembled crowd of about 300. After detailing his painful experience in European airports, he began the meat of his talk.

“So, what were we going to talk about?” Eggers began. “Mark Twain? Boy, oh boy. This is my first kind of academic lecture, though I kind of had one at Michigan that I completely blew.”

Following this self-deprecating beginning, he moved through the introduction he wrote for Mark Twain’s “A Tramp Abroad” in the freewheeling style characteristic of his writing. In his moments of seriousness, he showed copies of original Twain first drafts on which little changed before publication and extolled Twain’s ability to build humor over a sequence of pages.

Eggers reserved his strongest praise for Twain’s humor, although he said he realizes that most high school students no longer realize the humor in the book. To convey Twain’s real comical ability, he read an extended passage from “A Tramp Abroad” describing French duels.

More commonly, however, Eggers was more conversational and tangential, touching on subjects such as the appearance of people he met at the Twain library at the University of California at Berkeley and the sketches found in Twain’s original notes.

“He’s the worst artist who ever attempted to be an artist,” said Eggers. “I do not know why he bothered.”

At the conclusion of his speech, Eggers spent some time discussing some charitable organizations in which he is involved, including a tutoring program in the San Francisco Bay Area and his attempts to help someone from a group of Sudanese refugees, the Lost Boys, publish an autobiography.

Audience members said they did not mind the informal demeanor of the presentation; some who had read his book even expected it.

“The way he talks, the way he writes, he’s very comfortable going off on tangents,” said George Nelson, an Evanston resident who described the talk as “tremendous.”

Other listeners were surprised by Eggers’ style, especially those who hadn’t read his work.

“(The talk) was not what I expected at all,” said Weinberg freshman Courtney Spalding-Mayer. “He was a lot more random than I expected.”