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The “Truth” of Mark Twain

Susy and Mark Twain: Family Dialogues

arranged and edited by Edith Colgate Salsbury
Harper & Row, 444 pp., $7.95

Mark Twain and Bret Harte

by Margaret Duckett
Oklahoma, 365 pp., $6.95

Mark Twain: Jackleg Novelist

by Robert A. Wiggins
Washington, 130 pp., $5.00

To say that Mark Twain was more of a performer than a novelist, as his critics have said in both praise and disparagement, is to say that he was a Victorian. The theatricality of his prose, the conception of his public as an audience of responsive listeners rather than as solitary readers, the episodic nature of his fiction, cut to an oral rather than a literary measure—all this reminds us of the peculiarities of the novel of his century, and of one novelist in particular, Charles Dickens. Twain was surely the American Dickens, however much he would have hated the phrase—and however high a tribute it seems today.

Both Dickens and Twain read in public, partly to make money (to prop up the lavish style of life erected on their unprecedented literary fortunes), partly to satisfy their craving for theater. Both reacted to the experience with glee and self-disgust. But how different the sound of their voices, as anyone knows who has ever read aloud the stories of their orphan boys, David and Tom: the first voice rapid, precise, insistent, mysterious; the second, drawling, teasing, careless, and sly.

Twain began to talk to paying audiences in California in the 1860s. As DeLancey Ferguson has pointed out, listening to his own voice and copying the sound of it onto paper completed his long education as a prose writer. The laziest human noises of the Southwest went into the making of that sound: boys jawing over the back fence; townsmen in rocking chairs rambling on over a cigar; rivermen swapping stories over a bottle of whiskey, as they sprawl around the raft; miners drawling their histories as they lean against the saloon bar. (From one of these last Twain said he heard the story of “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which made him famous.) Time hangs heavy and there is nothing else to do but listen to the providential stranger with his funny story, which (as Twain said) “may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular.” Between method and material there was a close bond: Twain was as obsessed with the theme of laziness as Dickens was with that of energetic endeavor.

The Jumping Frog,” Roughing It, and Innocents Abroad (like Boz and Pickwick, Dickens’s first works) were addressed to the predominantly male public among whom Twain lived comfortably as a bachelor for thirty-five years. It was only after his marriage that he turned to what can properly be called fiction: The Gilded Age (1873) was written by Twain with Charles Dudley Warner to provide better fare than the pap which, both men complained, their wives were in the habit of reading. From Huckleberry Finn on, every book Twain wrote, if his own statement can be credited, was not merely submitted to his wife for the editing so often bewailed by later critics, but was actually read aloud to his wife and daughter, chapter by chapter, nightly as it was written. We are reminded again of Dickens, reading aloud his own works in the same fashion, to his wife and sister-in-law—but of whom else? Only the Victorians could conceive or survive so extraordinary a method of serious literary work.

To understand the Twain of Huckleberry Finn, then, we must understand not only his Virginia antecedents and his Missouri upbringing, his Mississippi piloting and his Nevada prospecting, his California journalism and literary associations—but his home for twenty years in Hartford, Connecticut. Wife and three daughters; cats, dogs, servants, ducks, carriage, and sled; neighbors, telephone, and amateur theatricals; “Ombra,” garden, and billiard room; silver stencilled mahogany panelling, peacock-blue library, red soap, Tiffany glass, the Italian water-color called Emmeline, and the Emerson motto over the library fireplace—all these were stage and audience to Twain’s performance as a literary man. In the words of Edith Colgate Salsbury, who has put together in Susy and Mark Twain the best possible memorial to the improbable Clemens establishment, they were also “creations reflecting the powerful influence of Sam Clemens.” Carefully selected representatives of the outside world were admitted to wonder and applaud: house guests like G. W. Cable, “Uncle Remus,” and the Howells family; neighbors from the surrounding genteel literary colony of Nook Farm; and story-book servants. “It used to strike me as heavenly,” said Katy Leary, the Irish maid who stayed thirty years. “‘Twas a home just like you’d make for yourself—like a dream house, don’t you know, that you would like more than anything else in the world.”’

For the twentieth-century sensibility such theatrical enchantment is difficult to recapture. But where relatives, hangers-on, and worshippers have failed in the past, Mrs. Salsbury succeeds because of the cleverness of her method. Susy and Mark Twain is made up almost entirely of the words of the Clemens family, their servants, guests, and neighbors, all drawn from letters, journals, and reminiscences. The lines are parceled out, like lines in a play, to such characters as SAM (Twain), LIVY (his wife Olivia), and SUSY (his oldest daughter). Mrs. Salsbury herself appears, briefly, as NARRATOR. She writes neither as a critic nor as a biographer, but as an artist whose work on the restoration of the Twain house in Hartford led to research into the life of that house, and so to this book.

A great deal of Twain is left out, just enough to make the book as endearing a portrait of the artist as we have. Seen from the setting of the Hartford house, Twain appears an adoring and beloved husband and father; a superlative entertainer (some of whose impromptu fairy tales are recorded here, without, however, his billiard-room smut); a gentle and loving friend to all who entered into the spirit of the dream-house (Mrs. Salsbury spares us Bret Harte’s disastrous 1873 visit); a lovably impractical businessman (the Charles Webster fracas happens off stage); an endearingly eccentric Nobleman of Letters (such embarrassments as the Whittier birthday dinner are merely glanced over).

If the seamy side of Twain is missing from the picture, the tragic side, on which criticism has dwelt since Van Wyck Brooks’s Ordeal of Mark Twain, is certainly present. The 1890s were for the Clemenses years of disaster. In 1891 the family went abroad to economize, closing up the Hartford home temporarily—as they thought. In 1894 Twain’s publishing firm went bankrupt, and the invention in which he had placed all his hopes and spare cash, the Paige typesetter, failed irrevocably. In 1895, Twain set out on a round-the-world lecture tour to repay his creditors and the next year, just as she was sailing to rejoin her parents, twenty-four-year-old Susy died. Other horrors were to follow, but Mrs. Salsbury’s story properly ends with the death of Susy, the most beloved, the rarest spirit, and the closest to Twain.

All the painful themes of the Victorian father-daughter relationship are present in Susy’s last years, reminding us of Dickens’s possessiveness, autocracy, and egotism—though Twain was incapable of Dickens’s ruthlessness toward his children. When the news of Susy’s death came, Twain carried on about his own responsibility, but Livy, sensible even in grief, said “Susy’s gone—Life has killed her!” Life was the enemy against which the dream-house had been built as a refuge: the home called childhood, to which, as Twain had difficulty understanding, there was really no possibility of return. He was particularly moved by the knowledge that Susy had been carried into their Hartford home, now occupied by tenants, to die. “She died in our own house—not in another’s,” he said; “died where every little thing was familiar and beloved; died where she had spent all her life till my crimes made her a pauper and an exile. How good it is that she got home again.”

On April 15, 1879, Twain wrote his good friend Howells a long letter from Paris, where he was living with his wife and young daughters. One brief paragraph from the letter appears in Susy and Mark Twain: an account of a visit from “a mighty nice old gentleman,” Tauchnitz, the great German publisher of English-language works, who, in those barbarous days before international copyright, was eccentric enough to pay foreign authors. “One can’t have the heart to dicker with a publisher who won’t steal,” Twain wrote Howells. Though it is irrelevant to her study of Twain as a family man, Mrs. Salsbury excerpts the paragraph to enhance her portrait of Sam Clemens as a genial, upright Victorian literary man. What she omits is quite another man, who was capable of writing in the same letter paragraph after paragraph of vituperation on the subject of his old California friend, collaborator, and mentor, Bret Harte, who had in fact brought about the meeting between Twain and Tauchnitz. That Twain was capable of characterizing Harte to Howells as a shameless scoundrel, a drunkard, a thief, a deliberate swindler, a hypocrite and snob, a slovenly worker, and an ass; that he was even capable of writing President Hayes that Harte was an unfit appointee to the American foreign service, at a time when Harte desperately needed such an appointment (the puzzled President elicited a contrary opinion from Howells, his relative by marriage) will come as no surprise to readers of the hysterical memoir that Twain consecrated to his hatred of Bret Harte, posthumously published by Bernard DeVoto in Mark Twain in Eruption. But it would surprise unsuspecting readers of Susy and Mark Twain.

Bret Harte’s side of the story, and a rougher, nastier side of Mark Twain are the subject of Margaret Duckett’s Mark Twain and Bret Harte, a study of the relationship between the two “frontier” authors. Though slightly younger than Twain, Harte was the first to see literary material in the characters and scenes of goldrush California. Mrs. Duckett proves effectively that Twain as a literary debutant set his sights on imitating Harte’s success, that he resented Harte’s easier entry into the salons of literary gentility, in England as well as America, long after Harte’s talent had run dry and Twain’s fame and fortune had become assured. (She also makes out a good case for the influence on Tom Sawyer of Harte’s story of a wild frontier child, “M’liss.”)

Bret Harte was apparently just the sort of man-about-letters to exacerbate the Victorian sensibilities of Twain and even the more merciful Howells. Whenever the conjugal yoke pressed hardest, whenever costly establishments, debts of honor, domestic monotony, a high-minded, sickly wife and adorable but noisy children appeared a burden rather than a blessing, Harte became a convenient scapegoat. Though apparently guiltless of the major sins of which Twain accused him, Harte was an irresponsible, improvident fellow with expensive tastes, who borrowed money without much intention of returning it, and lived abroad in reasonable contentment for many years without the encumbering presence of his wife and children. (He was also, as contemporary New England anti-Semites were well aware, part Jewish.) Harte’s style of life may now appear less oppressive than the overblown cosiness of Twain’s Nook Farm establishment. (Susy Clemens envied the more adult way of living she found, in the last year of her life, at the Howellses’ in New York: “an attractive little flat, little housekeeping care, and Society on the easy and intellectual form of a foreign city…the atmosphere was alive in a wonderful large way.”) But to a man like Twain, for whom political and social moralities were of far less importance to his self-esteem than a finicky domestic morality, Bret Harte was an offense.

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