Reading: Semisincerely, Mark Twain | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Semisincerely, Mark Twain 

Even in his "private," "candid" letters, Samuel Clemens wore the mask of the voluble, innocent, easygoing teller of tales.

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"You had better shove this in the stove," 29-year-old Samuel Clemens wrote in a postscript to his older brother Orion and Orion's wife, Mollie, on October 19, 1865, "for . . . I don't want any absurd 'literary remains' & 'unpublished letters of Mark Twain' published after I am planted."

Orion never was very good at following instructions--his reputation as one of the great hapless klutzes among literary relatives only grows more secure as more of Mark Twain's private papers come to light--nor apparently was the young writer's mother. At the time of her death in 1890, she had preserved some "four trunks" almost full of his letters to her, despite Twain's periodic pleas that his epistles be destroyed. Those trunks passed on to Orion, then, on his death in 1897, to Mollie; when she died in 1904, the executor of her estate--aware, according to an Associated Press account of the incident, that he was committing "a monstrous crime against biography, history, and the record of a man who belonged to the whole world"--followed the instructions that came with the treasure trove (and that had been reinforced by a letter from Twain to him personally) and over the course of "several long evenings" burnt every letter in the collection. "Mark Twain had written those letters to his mother in perfect candor," the AP reporter lamented, "and about the whole sum of his candid writing was in them."

Well, yes and no. It would be hard to overestimate the value of the treasure lost at the hands of that conscientious executor, but it certainly wasn't the sum total of the author's private "literary remains"--the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley has published three thick volumes of Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals so far and is only up to 1891 (Twain died in 1910). Nor did the treasure contain the last of his "unpublished letters." Some 10,000 of his letters are known to survive, and all are slated for publication in the University of California Press's mammoth Mark Twain Papers series under general editor Robert H. Hirst. That number even includes quite a few of Twain's letters to his mother and to Orion, originals and copies of originals that had found their ways into the hands of other family members or other parties and so, providentially, escaped immolation. On May 15, the University of California Press issued the first, and probably the most significant, of what will be a long line of epistolary compilations, Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 1: 1853-1866. In a gesture Twain would have to have admired for its sheer cheek, the dust jacket bears a facsimile of that 1865 letter to Orion admonishing him against publishing Twain's letters.

But then there's the matter of candor. The aforementioned anonymous AP writer's lament is certainly understandable--today more than ever, when we seem to have developed an insatiable appetite for the minute details of the private lives of our literary (and other) lions, fueled by decades of revelations about Scott and Zelda, Arthur and Marilyn, Gertrude and Alice, Elvis (like Edgar Allan) and his teen queens, Ernest and his manhood. We know how old George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats were when they had their first sexual encounters (both in their late 20s); we know that Thomas Carlyle never slept with his wife (he angrily bolted from the room on their wedding night when she burst into giggles as he lay masturbating beside her in the dark and never shared a bed with her again--that's the way I heard it). But the private life of Mark Twain has always remained persistently, perplexingly, perniciously beyond our grasp. He seems to have enjoyed sex--his characterization in one of his manuscripts of heaven as an infinite orgasm would indicate no less--but we know virtually nothing of his sex life beyond what can be surmised from the dates of his marriage and the births of his four children (the first, who died young, born almost exactly nine months after the wedding).

It's not, I think, that the world needs, or that anyone really wants, a detailed, blow-by-blow record of the sex life of Samuel L. Clemens--although I imagine that a Mark Twain-style account of first love, a youthful affair, or a visit to a prostitute could be delicious. But Twain's reticence about sex is symptomatic of a great deal else about the man and the writer. Perhaps we feel if we knew something more about his relations with women we could understand better why the only ones who appear in his novels are little girls, maiden aunts, and the occasional pale, romantic adolescent (the only exception being Roxy, a fully fleshed out, conceivably sexually active woman in Pudd'nhead Wilson, who also happens to be black--and therefore somehow safe?).

And his feelings about women are only a part of what Mark Twain never really tells us: the exact nature of his sympathies during the Civil War, for example, and how and why they changed; his real attitudes toward race relations, particularly with blacks and, in San Francisco, with Chinese; his religious beliefs and how they evolved. Mark Twain, America's greatest writer, was also our national tease. He was as guarded as he was outspoken, as conventional as he was outrageous, and as intensely private as he was flamboyantly public. The dichotomy has led some writers to posit that he had a kind of split personality, that Mark Twain was the public persona and Sam Clemens the private man, and that as he aged--and outlived his wife and two much-loved daughters--the embittered public humorist subsumed the real man. Others have championed a different split: that Mark Twain was the real McCoy, the rough-and-ready, iconoclastic, brash young storyteller from the west, Sam Clemens the civilized, acceptance-seeking veneer imposed by his genteel eastern wife Livy, so thoroughly laid on that the real Mark Twain was smothered beneath it.

Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 1 should go some way toward the truth of the matter. The 127 letters and telegrams collected here (at this rate it'll be a good long time before we see the end of the 10,000) cover the period from when Twain ran away from home at age 17 to his departure from San Francisco as a 31-year-old writer already on the road to fame and fortune. These are the years of his youthful rovings as an itinerant printer, of his career as a Mississippi River boat pilot, of his journey to the west with Orion and adventures in Nevada prospecting, of his Nevada and San Francisco journalism, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog," the trip to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and his first lecture tour--the years when Samuel Langhorne Clemens became Mark Twain. Together with the material in the first volume of the Notebooks & Journals, and the articles assembled in Henry Nash Smith and Frederick Anderson's Mark Twain of the Enterprise, Bernard Taper's Mark Twain's San Francisco, Edgar Branch's Clemens of the "Call", and such compilations, these letters--half of them never before published--comprise the documentary literary remains of the first three decades of Twain's life, the period transmuted into literary gold in Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, and Roughing It. (Twain's own reminiscences in his autobiographical dictations are not entirely trustworthy; as he himself warned, he'd stretched the truth on some points so often and so long that it couldn't reasonably be expected to resume its original shape.)

This is a book rich with potential promise for the literary miner, and UC Press--like some of the claims holders Twain writes of in his letters from Nevada--has dressed up its stake ("salting," I believe is the term) to emphasize its attractiveness to both the serious academic prospector and the passing reader who may want to invest some time and money in the exploration. It's an exceedingly handsome book, with a dust jacket featuring a gilt-framed photo of the dapper 31-year-old Mark Twain on the cover and a smaller snapshot of a much younger, Huck Finnish, uncompromisingly impudent Sam Clemens on the spine.

And what the cover promises, the contents deliver. The book is handsomely designed throughout. Not only are there photos of young Sam from age 17 (the impudence softened a few degrees, with watchful eyes, tousled, thick, wavy black hair, and full, pouting, sensual lips) to 30 (with the hair even wavier and muttonchop whiskers framing those same sensual lips; then with the sideburns gone and the lips hidden by that public act of privacy, the mustache)--there are also photos of his family, friends, and acquaintances, reproductions of manuscript pages, detailed maps of the Nevada mining regions Twain explored, and illustrations of some of the buildings, places, and events he described. And there's enough scholarly apparatus to warrant the inclusion of six editors' names on the cover (with seven more "contributing editors" listed inside).

There's a Clemens family genealogical chart, a steamboat calendar with arrivals and departures for all of Twain's known and surmised piloting assignments, and so many notes following each letter, identifying everybody and everything Twain mentions, that they frequently run longer than the texts. Wherever there's a gap between letters--a tantalizing full year here, a few months there--the editors fill in with pleasantly informative narratives drawing on all the resources the mighty Mark Twain Project has been able to muster (which is all that are known to exist). And then there's the lengthy essay on the making of the text--where the letters came from, how Twain's handwriting, orthography, and various symbols have been translated into type, etc--followed by lengthy, line-by-line textual commentaries that look like eruptions of algebra with bits of calculus occasionally sneaking in from the sidelines.

It all sounds deadly serious, and to a certain extent it is; the book is, as it was meant to be, of great value to any serious student of American literature. But it's also--if you exclude as much of the scholarly stuff as you care to--a fascinating read. No one, it would seem, could work on Mark Twain's manuscripts without being affected by his humor. The editors' numerous notes and their narrative passages draw heavily on other sources--Twain 's published writings, his notebooks and later reminiscences, his family's and contemporaries' accounts--to flesh out the letters, help you read between the lines, and, often, provide illuminatingly humorous anecdotes that seem thrown in gratis.

They tell tales of drunken revelries, including one Christmas Eve Twain and the then-celebrated humorist Artemus Ward (from whom, Twain later said, he'd borrowed much of his lecturing style) spent clambering over the rooftops of Virginia City in the Nevada Territory. The binge ended the next morn in front of a saloon "where, astride a barrel, sat Mark Twain, whom Artemus Ward, with a spoon, was diligently doping with mustard, while he inquired of bystanders if they had ever seen a more perfect presentment of a subjugated idiot." They tell of Twain getting bushwhacked in the Gold Country, robbed, though he didn't know it till sometime later, by his friends as a practical joke; of Twain bumbling into a boxing match and emerging with a nose "like an egg-plant," causing him to leave town (Virginia City) until the swelling subsided. And they tell these tales without comment, laying them before the reader amid the more prosaic notes without any indication that what's to come may be comical or of unusual interest, as if they're not even aware that might be the case. It is, in its way, a scholarly equivalent of the approved western story telling approach, the "solemn idiot" school of which Twain became undisputed master.

As with the substance of the letters (as opposed to the references within them), the editors know enough to let the tales speak for themselves.

Ah, but the letters! Just about the first thing we learn about Mark Twain from his own adolescent pen is that he was practically a born tease. "My dear Mother," he begins his earliest surviving letter, written August 24, 1853, from New York City: "You will doubtless be a little surprised, and somewhat angry when you receive this, and find me so far from home; but you must bear a little with me, for you know I was always the best boy you had, and perhaps you remember the people used to say to their children--'Now, don't do like Orion and Henry Clemens but take Sam for your guide!'"

If she wasn't angry, Jane Clemens must've been at least a bit startled. Sam had left their Hannibal, Missouri, home a couple of months before; he'd become fed up working as a journeyman printer for Orion's Hannibal Journal (his brother the publisher hadn't appreciated Sam's few attempts to enliven the paper with a bit of satire when he'd been left in charge). But so far as she knew, young Sam was in Saint Louis, where he'd been employed as a typesetter for the Evening News. As it turned out, he was to remain in the east for about a year, writing letters home from New York, Philadelphia, and Washington--complaining about how hard it was to find work, describing the sights, griping about the lack of letters from home--until, broke and with no prospects of employment, he returned to his family, which by then had moved to Muscatine, Iowa.

The author of these early letters is a callow youth and in no way a skilled writer. His prose is often wooden, his descriptive passages slavishly conventional, his attempts at humor a bit strained. But he also has an eye for detail and a curiosity so active that the letters soon begin to evoke a different age--a time when poetry was routinely printed in newspaper obituaries, when U.S. senators were paid $8 a day and had to slog through the mud to get to the Capitol, when the Washington Monument was still under construction and the Croton Aqueduct, bringing water into New York, was one of the engineering marvels of the age.

Between the letters, their notes, and the connecting biographical passages, the book considerably amplifies what little most of us know about Twain's early years. After his eastern sojourn he goes back to Saint Louis, then back to work for Orion, who has now set up a printing shop in the frontier community of Keokuk, Iowa; he develops a plan to head for Brazil to make his fortune and ends up apprenticing himself to a steamboat pilot. The few letters from his four years on the Mississippi are enough to give some idea of how hard, glorious, and often dangerous that life was, and how thoroughly immersed in it Sam Clemens was--until the Civil War broke out and the river was closed. Twain's brief, two-week enlistment in the Confederate army goes unmentioned in the letters; shortly thereafter, Orion was appointed secretary to the new territorial government of Nevada, and the two brothers headed for the west. The western letters comprise the bulk of the book, and those from Nevada contain considerably more detail about silver- and gold-mining speculation than will interest most readers. Sam is all over the territory, checking out promising "ledges," buying "feet" in one claim or another, riding high on the promises of speculation and crashing in disappointments and missed opportunities all over the place. He's also, for one extended period, out working a claim himself--in Aurora, just east of Mono Lake and what is now the state line (then disputed) between California and Nevada--betore the combination of hard labor and endless poverty finally drives him to journalism, and hence, by degrees, into the arms of literature.

Through it all, the letters show a continuous, steady growth in Twain as a writer. His style becomes easier, looser, his descriptions more original in phrasing; by 1859 he's writing an extended account of Mardi Gras to his sister Pamela that's filled with characteristic Mark Twainisms--a toddling example of the free and easy control of the language, the ability to bend a sentence and shape it and pull rabbits out of its hat and make it chuckle at its own cleverness, that was to become his stock in trade.

And through it all, the letters continue to tease his mother. He teases her about his drinking; he teases her about religion and his penchant for swearing. Once he even writes her a melodramatic tale, brings the story to a cliff-hanging denouement, and then renders the conclusion illegible. But he never teases her about women.

Despite that distressed Associated Press reporter's assumption, there's nothing inherently "candid" about anyone's letters. Some letters are clearly meant for the widest possible circulation from the outset--Lord Chesterfield's to his son, for example. Some are so intensely private they make you feel like a voyeur--James Joyce's salaciously analingual letters to his wife, at the opposite extreme. Most of course fall somewhere in between. But even in the letters of a fairly formal, by today's standards, gentleman like Anton Chekhov, we feel we get an in-depth portrait of the man. Mark Twain's letters, at least at this pivotal stage of his career, are not so forthcoming.

In part that may be because the line between public and private letters is blurred for many of Twain's communications. He knew that his letters to his mother or sister would be shared with other members of the family; as long as Orion was still running a newspaper, in Hannibal or Muscatine, many of them would end up in print as well. In fact, that first surviving letter to his mother appeared in the Hannibal Journal, and many of the letters from Philadelphia and Washington were quite self-consciously penned as contributions to the Muscatine Journal, as were many of the letters from Saint Louis. Twain's journalistic apprenticeship actually predated by quite a few years the day in 1862 that he went to work for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise.

The key difference between his public communications and those to his family isn't so much a matter of candor (besides, to dispose of that AP writer once and for all, what sort of fool looks for complete candor in a straying boy's letters to his mother anyhow?) as it is of playfulness, a quality that made its way into Twain's journalism a little more slowly. But it's ultimately the same kind of playfulness; the tales he tells on himself in his private letters are the kinds he will later tell in public, as in his frequent confessions of laziness: "I get up as early as 8 o'clock, sometimes, on purpose to enjoy the gorgeous spectacle of Sunrise. After signifying my approbation, I go back to bed again. I have been practising this sort of thing for some time, and I mean to keep it up, for I am already improving in health, and am convinced that early rising is the cause of it."

There's a bit more of the bad boy in his letters to his frontier cronies--fart jokes, a reference to Fanny Hill, a passing "Oh, Shighte," and a generally freer use of profanity but even in these letters he always uses the circumlocution "d--d" for "damned." And even in these letters there are no references to any liaisons with the opposite sex, either achieved, wished for, or just as a matter of gossip; these were matters, apparently, that Clemens didn't feel appropriate for discussion--in fact, even in his private journals of his Hawaiian expedition, when Princess Victoria Kaahumanu Kamamalu, heir to the throne, died in an abortion, Twain referred to her celebrated, heroic promiscuity with the circumspect phrase, "kept half a dozen bucks to do her washing."

Not that Twain takes care to hide all his private emotions. He is consumed with grief, and expresses it, when his beloved younger brother Henry dies in a steamboat accident. There's genuine hurt in a brief mention, in a letter to Orion, of the breaking off of his correspondence with his "platonic sweetheart," Laura Wright--an abortive romance that was to haunt him for quite some time. The frequency and extent of his enthusiasm for one mining venture after another were of a kind that would surely be embarrassing to reread many years later. And his growing impatience and anger with Orion comes through clearly in his business-filled letters to him--especially when Twain has finally succeeded in finding a buyer for the family's problematic Tennessee land, the sale of which would provide much needed cash for the strapped San Francisco journalist and prevent the loss of the land for unpaid taxes, only to have the newly teetotaling Orion nix the deal because the purchaser wants to grow wine grapes.

To a certain extent, in fact, Twain's turning away from religion seems to be in direct proportion to Orion's growing religiosity. "What a man wants with religion in these breadless times," he writes Orion in 1861, "surpasses my comprehension." And in 1865, just before Orion botched the Tennessee sale, Twain responded to a letter he called a "sermon" by his brother: "I have a religion--but you will call it blasphemy. It is that there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor."

On matters of state, however, Twain and Orion were more closely aligned. Twain's sympathies may have lain with the south at the beginning of the war, but they soon changed, perhaps in part because he was working for Orion and Orion was a territorial employee of the Union, but also in part because of that California-Nevada boundary dispute. The claims Twain was working in Aurora were on land claimed by California, and the pro-California party in Aurora were vocal "secesh" sympathizers. When that group armed and took to violent demonstrations, Twain played a key part in getting Union troops into town to quell the riots. By the time he moved to San Francisco, there seems to be no question where his sympathies lay.

The evolution of his feelings about race, though, are somewhat murkier. The man who was later to write one of the great novels of human brotherhood starts out in the first letter in this book with expressions of outrage about "infernal abolitionists" and the amount of freedom afforded "niggers" in New York. Passing xenophobic and anti-Catholic remarks in his Saint Louis letters make it seem that he supported, at least in part, the immigrant-baiting and aptly named Know-Nothing Party in his youth. An extended burlesque on Paiute women in a letter from Nevada is about as nasty a bit of racism as you'd care to encounter in a dark alley, even granted that the purpose of the passage is part of Twain's lifelong debunking of romanticism. And early in his stay in San Francisco there's a clear reference to his throwing bottles from his hotel window onto the roofs of Chinese shacks in order to see the inhabitants run out into the streets.

It's hard to see how you get from this Mark Twain to the one who wrote Huckleberry Finn, and yet while he was in Nevada, Twain was circulating antiracist humor among his friends. Though there's no reference to it in the letters, it was Twain who broke ranks with his fellow white San Francisco reporters in 1865 to cultivate the friendship of their black colleague Peter Anderson. And it was Twain, too, who took umbrage at the vicious mistreatment of the Chinese and began to take the police to task for failing to protect them. (So far as I know, though, he never did overcome his racist attitude toward Indians.) Twain, it seems, was a man of enthusiasms, quick to express half-baked opinions and engage in thoughtless actions based on the prejudices of his times. But he was also capable, through personal observation, of overcoming those prejudices and, if not apologizing for them, taking action against them.

There are other wonderful gems for the literary miner in this book. There's the revelation that the prospector turned journalist was not above using his new trade to enhance his old, "puffing" in print the claims he held or was given stock in (though not nearly as assiduously as some of his colleagues). There's the series of letters issuing challenges to the publisher of a rival Nevada newspaper--literal challenges to a duel; what started out as a misguided piece of satire on Twain's part ended with him fleeing Nevada for San Francisco. Then there's his flight from San Francisco to Jackass Hill in the Gold Country--partly a result of his having attacked police corruption in San Francisco a bit too often--where he first heard and began to write the "Jumping Frog" story. ("If I can write that story the way Ben Coon told it," his crony Billy Gillis quotes Twain, "that frog will jump around the world.") And, with the enthusiastic reception of that tale by the eastern press, there's Twain's famous epiphany, his recognition of what is to be the course of his life: "I have had a 'call' to literature, of a low order--i.e., humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit."

It is, in a way, an unusually candid statement for Mark Twain to make. "I always did hate for any one to know what my plans or hopes or prospects were," he'd written his sister Pamela, "for, if I kept people in ignorance in these matters, no one could be disappointed but myself if they were never realized." And that statement is as revealing as anything else in these letters. Mark Twain was the mask that the intensely private, guarded Samuel Clemens found to hide behind--the voluble, innocent, easygoing, vernacular, outwardly dumbfounded storyteller and all-around tease. It was, and is, an inspired literary persona, but part of its inspiration was that it was so apt. No sooner had Sam Clemens become Mark Twain in print than he became Mark Twain in his letters; the two names became interchangeable. He even signed letters to his mother "Mark."

It remains to be seen now how much he let his guard down in his letters to his wife Livy, but for that we'll have to wait for the second volume. Meanwhile the Mark Twain that emerges from his letters so far is the same one that David Levine portrayed in a memorable New York Review of Books cartoon: the author, in his classic whitehaired, white-suited guise, seated at his desk, taking dictation from a scruffy Huck Finn seated beside him. From the expression on Huck's face it's clear that he's stretching the truth more than just a bit. And from the expression on Twain's face it's clear that he knows it, relishes it, and is just as delighted in the thought of sharing it with the world as he is in the prospect that we might fall for it.

Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 1: 1853-1866, edited by Edgar Marquess Branch, Michael B. Frank, and Kenneth M. Sanderson, University of California Press, $35.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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