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Mark Twain: A Lifeby Ron Powers
On a chilly mid-November afternoon in 1869, a small man with a deranged mop of curly red hair and a wide-swept red mustache sauntered among the pedestrians in the 100 block of Tremont Street in Boston. He was desperately out of place amid these men in their muttonchops and tailored Scottish tweeds, and these women in their jeweled bonnets and brilliant brocade-lined shawls. Tremont bisected the epicenter of American cultural authority and power, announced by the Park Street Church across the thoroughfare and the sweep of the Boston Common behind it; the Georgian residential rooftops lining the far side of the Common; the wrought-iron balconies of Colonnade Row; the great domed neoclassical State House that commanded this elegant realm from the top of nearby Beacon Hill.
It was not just his clothing, black and drably functional, that marked him as an interloper (he owned a smart white collar and swallowtails, but they were reserved for other purposes). It was his gait, a curious rocking, rolling shamble, conspicuously unurbane — the physical equivalent of a hinterland drawl, which he also possessed.
None of this seemed to faze him. At 124 Tremont Street, a dignified little four-story town house recently converted to an office building, he pushed open the door and let himself inside. He stepped past the heavy tome-scented shelves that filled the commercial shop at street level, the bookstore of Ticknor and Fields, and climbed the staircase leading to the second floor.
The stranger was — well, that depended. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in "the almost invisible village of Florida, Monroe County, Missouri," he had taken to calling himself "Mark Twain" as a newspaperman in Nevada and California, after experimenting with such other pen names as Rambler, W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab, Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, and Josh. Lately he had been called "The Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope" and "The Moralist of the Main," tags given him by his friend Charles Henry Webb.
Ambiguous as he was, he was penetrating an enclave quite certain of its own place in the universe. Only Harvard College itself could have fetched him closer to the core of the young nation's most important intellectual forces.
Ticknor and Fields comprised not only a bookseller but a prestigious publishing house whose authors, many of whom lived nearby, commanded the first ranks of America's emerging literature: the "Sage of Concord," Ralph Waldo Emerson; the originator of the "Brahmin" aesthetic, Oliver Wendell Holmes; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Harriet Beecher Stowe; Henry David Thoreau.
The visitor's destination was an extension of this authoritative domain: the tiny editorial office of the Atlantic Monthly, a literary, cultural, and political magazine whose views, taste, and diction were supplied by the same New England literary aristocracy, and which was distributed to the nation (or at least to some thirty thousand of its citizens) as the highest cultural standard. The Atlantic had been founded twelve years earlier by a group of progressive-minded intellectuals, with the support of Emerson, Holmes, Longfellow, Stowe, and others. Harvard professor James Russell Lowell was appointed its first editor.
After knocking on the office door, the red-haired man was greeted by a robust figure enwreathed in flowing curls of hair and beard: the magazine's editor, James T. Fields, publishing partner of William D. Ticknor, and the Atlantic's editor since 1861. Fields was a self-educated businessman from New Hampshire with a genuine love of writers and ideas. He had guided the magazine through the Civil War years as the principled voice of abolitionist sentiment. But perhaps even more importantly, he had retained its emphasis on poetry, criticism, essays, and fiction — an ongoing affirmation of civilization's values in those morbid and despairing times. Now Fields, who had a whimsical taste for eccentrics, swept a pile of handwritten manuscripts from a sofa opposite an open fireplace, and the two men chatted for a few moments.
But it was not Fields for whom Clemens had made this unannounced visit. He had come to meet Fields's young assistant, a moist, bookish fellow by the name of William Dean Howells. Howells had written a favorable, albeit unsigned, notice of Clemens's — make that Mark Twain's — new book for the Atlantic's current issue. The Atlantic did not usually deign to review books of this ilk: a humorous travelogue peddled door-to-door by common "subscription" salesmen, titled The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim's Progress. Now, a few days after reading the review, Clemens had arrived in Boston in the course of a lecture tour that, along with the book, was implanting his Western reputation in the formidable circles of the East, and not a moment too soon: he was a few days from turning thirty-four. Clemens knew that no other endorsement was as crucial as the Atlantic's: Howells had handed him an entrée into literary legitimacy. He couldn't help but be curious about who would do such a thing, and why. He'd ascertained the reviewer's identity a few days earlier in Pittsburgh, through a cousin of Howells's whom he'd met there. And now here he was in Boston to look this man in his face and shake his hand.
To the thirty-two-year-old Howells, rising to his height of 5 feet 4 inches from behind his desk, the visitor chatting with his boss was nothing less than — well, what? Graphic? Bold? Shakespearean? ("Or, if his ghost will not suffer me the word," Howells later mused in print with typical fine-tuning, "then he was Baconian.") The fastidious Howells had seldom laid eyes on such a swashbuckler. Discreet dark woolens draped his own plump frame, punctuated by black bow ties. He wore his hair plastered down and parted at mid-scalp. His own mustache drooped softly over his upper lip, its long, tapering points adding to his aspect of sleepy introspection. His first impulse upon seeing this apparition labeled "Mark Twain," as he later recalled, was of alarm for the proprieties violated. Specifically, he shuddered at what "droll comment" might have been in the mind of his employer Mr. Fields as the two men of letters contemplated the disheveled, blazing-eyed figure in front of them. (And this was one of Clemens's good-grooming days. Others who had encountered him at this stage of his life remembered him as "disreputable-looking," "seedy," even "sinister," and equipped with "an evil-smelling cigar butt.")
The book that Howells had praised was a daring choice for an Atlantic review, given that it lampooned much of what the magazine stood for. Exuberantly un-Eastern, impious, and unconcerned with moral improvement, it amounted to a genial pie in the face of the European classicism that still regulated the tone and values of the American intellectuals while they struggled to liberate their nation from it. The Innocents Abroad was Mark Twain's eyewitness account of a transatlantic excursion by some sixty-five reverential American tourists, from New York harbor to Old Europe and the Holy Land — the first successful organized "luxury cruise" in U.S. history. The idea for the voyage had been dreamed up by Henry Ward Beecher, the nationally renowned pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. Beecher had conceived it as a way to finance his gathering of material for a biography of Jesus — the idea being, presumably, that the Gospels had preempted the market for such a work quite long enough. Beecher himself soon opted out of the journey, as did eventually a number of highly advertised celebrity-passengers including the Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman. Beecher left the expedition and its ship, the paddlewheel steamer Quaker City, in the care of a Plymouth Church Sunday-school teacher, one Captain Charles C. Duncan.
No Sunday-school teacher could have been prepared for the alcohol-reeking figure who showed up at the cruise's Wall Street booking office, introduced by his equally disheveled companion Edward H. House as "the Reverend Mark Twain," a Baptist minister who wondered whether Reverend Beecher would allow him to preach Baptist sermons en route to the Holy Land — and who returned the next day, sober, to book the passage under his real name and profession. This voyage was exactly the sort of caper Clemens had been looking for. A veteran of larky, outlandish newspapering exploits in the far West during the Civil War years, he had come back East a prudent year and a half after Appomattox to cash in on the postwar boom in popular journalism and literature — and his own nascent fame as a humorist and platform presence. After securing a berth on the ship, Clemens took steps to adjust his commission from the Alta California in San Francisco to pay for his passage in exchange for the letters he would send to the newspaper during the expedition. On his return, he contracted with the Hartford-based American Publishing Company, a subscription house run by Elisha Bliss, to expand the newspaper dispatches into a book.
The result was something previously unseen in the annals of travel literature, in literature of any kind. Fact-laden and reportorial along its narrative spine, heavily illustrated with woodcuts, the book did not hesitate to shift its tone unpredictably. It erupted frequently into playful comic riffs, as when Mark Twain "confessed" to a weeping spell inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, when he came across the tomb of his beloved ancestor, Adam; and it unleashed wicked set-piece send-ups of Italian art, the biblical landscape, and the behavior of Mark Twain's fellow pilgrims aboard the Quaker City. As such, it figured to have about as much chance of delighting the dutiful, doubting Howells as an ash dropped into his lap from Clemens's ever-present cigar. But Howells had indeed given his sanction, at least tentatively. "There is an amount of pure human nature in the book that rarely gets into literature," he had written — an insight that bridged the gap between American "high" and popular prose writing. He added: "It is no business of ours to fix his rank among the humorists California has given us, but we think he is, in an entirely different way from all the others, quite worthy of the company of the best."
Mark Twain's career prospects depended on what happened next. Everything in the nation, it then seemed, depended on what happened next. It was a charged moment in American history. At the end of 1869, the national trauma of the Civil War was replaced with new urgencies — competing new visions of the national future. The war's greatest hero sat in the White House, not knowing exactly what to do. The golden spike at Promontory Point in Utah finally linked the East Coast to the West by rail, collapsing distance and time, and erecting unimagined new structures of financial power. The Fifteenth Amendment gave former slaves the right to vote, and the risk of paying for the privilege with their lives. The city of New York was rising on an immigrant tide to challenge Boston as the arbiter of national aspirations.
It was, in short, exactly the sort of moment when a fugitive from one version of America, the nasty and brutish West, could intrude into the settled, exclusionary East and make a pitch for a piece of the action — provided that the fugitive observed the courtesies and deferred to the standards of Brahmin delicacy in manners and language. Sam Clemens was capable of such deference. He had also trampled, at some earlier time, on most of these considerations, and now he was about to lay waste one of the most tender. "When I read that review of yours," Howells recalled Clemens drawling, "I felt like the woman who was so glad her baby had come white."
This audacious little joke set the animating tenor of the long Clemens-Howells friendship: Clemens goading Howells to imagine something beyond the borders of gentility and to laugh at it even as he squirmed; Howells stretching those borders to give it sanction. Howells must have heard a familiar voice under the surface of that vulgarism, as he had under the horseplay of The Innocents Abroad. It was the voice of a boy from Howells's own neck of the West; perhaps the improper boy Howells himself had wished he could be.
So Howells chuckled and let it pass, and the two shook hands and exchanged kind words and the hopes of meeting again. On that note of truant recognition began a symbiotic friendship of forty-one years' duration that would elevate both these men.
Sam Clemens was the greater beneficiary. He was not only reviewed in the Atlantic; by 1874 he was contributing to it, to great acclaim. Life on the Mississippi, his strange, fabulistic "travel" masterpiece of 1883, began as a series of essay-reminiscences in the magazine, encouraged and edited by this newfound friend. Howells's embrace helped propel the former steamboat pilot to status as the representative figure of his nation and his century, and bequeathed America a torrential literary voice more truly, more enduringly its own than any then existing or being conceived by the reigning gods of New England probity and taste.
Howells benefited as well. Mark Twain's rise to critical and popular stardom in his magazine ratified the editor's instincts for finding new, unorthodox writers in America and, later, Europe. Other native-born writers who emerged to prominence under his championing included Emily Dickinson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Norris, and Stephen Crane. He later helped introduce such international figures as Ibsen, Zola, Pérez Galdós, Verga, and Tolstoy. As he moved from editing other people's works to writing his own — he completed more than a hundred books of fiction, poetry, travel essays, biography, reminiscence, criticism, and even dramatic plays — Howells seemed to take inspiration from his fellow Midwesterner. (The novelized memoir of his youth, A Boy's Town Described, published in 1890, contained strong echoes of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.) At his best, Howells was considered a novelist on a par with his other great friend, Henry James. Though that level of esteem did not survive the 19th century, Howells finished his long life enjoying the sobriquet, "the Dean of American Letters."
Breaching the ranks of New England literary culture was Clemens's most important achievement (short of his actual works), and a signal liberating event in the country's imaginative history. His audacity, and Howells's accommodation of it, may seem unremarkable to an America long since accustomed to the leveling of hierarchies, the demythifying of great artists and the complexities of their works, the triumph of careerism over apprenticeship to a tradition. In the slipstream of the Clemens-Howells creative bond, American literature ceased its labored imitation of European and Classical high discourse, and became a lean, blunt, vivid chronicle of American self-invention, from the yeasty perspective of the common man. Without Howells's friendship, Mark Twain might have flared for a while, a regional curiosity among many, and then faded, forgotten. On its legitimizing strength, he gained the foundation for international status as America's Shakespeare and struck a template for the nation's voice into the 20th century and beyond.
Mark Twain's great achievement as the man who found a voice for his country has made him a challenge for his biographers. His words are quoted, yet he somehow lies hidden in plain sight — a giant on the historic landscape. He has been so thoroughly rearranged and reconstructed by a long succession of scholarly critics that the contours of an actual, textured human character have been obscured. And his voice, not to mention his humor, has gone missing from many of these analyses.
Twainian critical literature from 1920 onward has been dominated by theory, rather than interpretive portraiture. His biographers have tended to evoke him through the prism of Freudian psychoanalysis. In that way he is seen as an interesting, if not terribly self-aware outpatient — a walking casebook of neuroses, unconscious tendencies, masks, and alternate identities. Important questions are inevitably excluded in this approach. What was it that bound Mark Twain and his half of the American 19th century so closely together? In what ways, and by what processes, did this man become, as those who knew him repeatedly claimed, the representative figure of his times? What liberating personal magnetism did he possess that moved his contemporaries to forgive him for traits and tendencies that biographers of a later time have found deplorable? What was it about his voice that satisfied American readers in ways that the New England founders of American literature could not? What is it about his writing — nearly all of it problematic, much of it mediocre, a healthy part of it unfinished, some of it simply awful — that continues to exercise the very scholars who expend so much energy trying to reduce him to their pet formulas and crusades?
The answers to these questions lie within Mark Twain as he lived, breathed, and wrote; within the preserved viewpoints of the people who knew him best, and in person; and within the annals of the American 19th century that he helped shape, and that he loved when he could find it in himself to love little else. The answers will remind us of who he was. And of who we are.
Copyright © 2005 by Ron Powers
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