Neag professor nurtures the Scottish connection

By Karen A. Grava, CLAS Today

Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain had a lot in common. So much, in fact, that Tom Hubbard built an entire class on the relationship between the two.

Hubbard, who is from Fife, Scotland, was the Lynn Wood Neag Distinguished Visiting Professor in CLAS during the spring semester. He is a poet, translator, performer and literary scholar.

Twain and Stevenson met in New York City and enjoyed chatting and smoking during long sessions on a bench in Washington Square, Hubbard says. They became a two-man mutual admiration society, savoring and praising each other’s books.

Treasure Island is based on Tom Sawyer,” he says. “Stevenson had wanted to come down from his American base at Saranac to visit Hartford and ‘Huckleberry’s grandfather.’”

That didn’t happen, hence the tête-à-tête in New York instead. “Twain wasn’t so keen on an earlier Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott, whose medieval fantasies had been lapped up by Southern readers and used by them to validate slavery. Abe Lincoln joked to Harriet Beecher Stowe that she was the little lady who started the big war. But Twain accused Sir Walter of doing just that,” says Hubbard.

Hubbard, also taught a course in CLAS on Scottish literature; the Lynn Neag visiting professorship brings to the English department visiting scholars from British universities, with a preference for those who specialize in Scottish literature.

Hubbard also gave a talk at the Mark Twain House in Nook Farm in Hartford, where the mantelpiece in the living room was imported from a Scottish castle.

Hubbard calls himself a “wandering Scot” and has taught at a number of other universities, including the University of Budapest, the National University of Ireland, and several universities in France. He brings his knowledge of Scottish literature with him, but also gets ideas from other countries.

His 2008 novel, Marie B, based on the life and work of the late 19th-century Ukrainian-French artist Marie Bashkirtseff, grew out of a his curiosity about her self-portrait, which he saw in France. “The expression in the face was very tragic. I looked at the label and learned that it was painted within a year of her death at age 26.”

Hubbard began researching the novel while at UConn as a visiting assistant professor in 1993/94. “That was a year after I had seen the painting in Nice. When I’d finished grading papers I decided to research the painting in the Homer Babbidge Library. The idea began to germinate into a novel. You could say that the library was its unwitting midwife.”

Hubbard is also the co-editor of an anthology, Fringe of Gold, the Fife Anthology, a collection of writing about his part of Scotland, the county of Fife, on the east coast, a peninsula just over the water from Edinburgh.

The book includes a Twain essay and some passages from the work of Herman Melville. “I just couldn’t keep these darned Americans out,” he says. “The Twain essay is about a wee girl from my home town of Kirkcaldy. She wrote poetry and died at the age of eight; Twain had lost his own daughter Susy at age 24, so I think writing the essay may have helped him emotionally. I hope it did. As for Melville, his ancestors came from Fife, and he writes about the county here and there, so he just had to be in the book.”

Scottish literature, he says, is notoriously full of bitter, dry humor, and that accounts for much of its attraction. It has so many characters, such as Stevenson’s Master of Ballantrae, who charm their way out of difficult situations. Since much of it is written in Scots, there are usually a number of what Hubbard calls “hilarious linguistic quirks.”

He wishes that Scottish literature was taught in other countries, as is Irish literature. “It’s excruciating that so many folks’ idea of Scottish culture is garbage such as the movie Brave Heart and the Loch Ness monster, not to mention that God-awful musical Brigadoon. The Irish are so much better than we Scots are at getting their good stuff across. They make sure people can go beyond all the tourist crap like leprechauns and pots of gold.”

Hubbard’s latest book, The Chagall Winnocks wi ither Scots poems and ballants o Europe, includes poems about Scots and Europeans written in and translated into Scots.

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