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Mark Twain’s Reputation

In response to:

Twain on the Grand Tour from the May 23, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

In the essay entitled “Twain on the Grand Tour” [NYR, May 23] Mr. Gore Vidal refers many times to me and to one of my books, The Man Who Was Mark Twain (Yale University Press, 1991). In a number of places he represents me as having sentiments or beliefs that I do not hold, but what I particularly call to your attention are three passages in which he indicates that I say things which I do not say and which do not appear in the book.

Mr. Vidal writes, p. 25, col. 1, “…an academic critic tells us that Clemens was sexually infantile, burnt-out at fifty (if not before), and given to pederastic reveries about little girls….” Although the passage summarizes what Clemens and others say about impotence, not what I say, what I question is the phrase “given to pederastic reveries about little girls….” That Clemens dreamed of little girls is well known. That his dreams and reveries were pederastic is not said in my book by me or by anyone else.

Mr. Vidal writes, p. 25, col. 1: “…the professor wants to demolish its owner, who, sickeningly, married above his station in order to advance himself socially….” I cannot find that I use the italicized words. (I do not desire to demolish Mark Twain but to suggest revisions in the conventional portraits; and, unless the word station is restricted to mean economic status, I do not say or believe that Twain married above his station.)

Mr. Vidal writes, p. 25, col. 3: “…he also lusted for money (in a ‘banal anal’ way, according to the Freudian emeritus—as opposed to ‘floral oral’?” I discuss possible meanings that money had for the writer, but I cannot find that I or anyone whom I mention uses the words “banal anal.”

Guy Cardwell
Lexington, Massachusetts

Gore Vidal replies:

While writing about Mark Twain’s views on imperialism, I checked some recent “scholarly” works to see how his reputation is bearing up under the great fiery cross of political correctness. We were all astonished, some years ago, when a squad of sharp-eyed textual investigators discovered, to their manifest surprise and horror, that the noblest character in Twain’s fiction was called “Nigger” Jim. There was an understandable outcry from some blacks; there was also a totally incomprehensible howl from a number of fevered white males, many of them professors emeritus and so, to strike the tautological note, career-minded conservatives unused to manning barricades. In an apparently vain effort at comprehension, I quoted a number of malicious and, worse, foolish things that these silly-billies are writing about Twain. Thanks to an editorial quirk, one hot-head was mentioned by name, for which I apologize. I always try to shield the infamous from their folly in the hope that they may, one day, straighten up and fly right. But a single name was mentioned and now we have its owner’s letter at hand. For serene duplicity and snappy illogic it compares favorably to some of the screeds, I believe they are called, from my pen pals in the Lincoln priesthood.

Although my new pen pal does acknowledge that I am reporting the views of other critics on Twain’s impotence, sexual infantilism, fondness for small girls, he declares mysteriously that this is “not what I say.” But it is what he says and presumably means. The Jesuits like to say: “The wise man never lies.” But in the army of my day, any soldier (or indeed discomfited general) who spent too much time twisting about the language of regulations in his own favor was called a guardhouse lawyer. I now put the case on the evidence at hand, that we have here a compulsive guard-house lawyer or quibbler. Straight sentences must be bent like pretzels to change meanings to score points. But then much of what passes for literary discourse in these states is simply hustling words to get them to mean what they don’t. “That Clemens dreamed of little girls is well known.” Thus Quibbler wrote but now he has—tangential?—second thoughts. Actually who knows what Twain’s dreams were. But let us agree that he doted on the company of Dodsonesque girls and so may well have dreamed… fantasized about them in a sexual way. Why not? But Quibbler is getting a bit edgy. He thinks, too, that I have given him a splendid chance to open the guardhouse door. Now we improvise: “that his dreams and reveries were pederastic is not said in my book by me or by anyone else.” But, of course, that’s what he (and presumably, those whom he adverts to) means in the course of a chapter entitled “Impotence and Pedophilia.”

But Quibbler has leapt at the adjective “pederastic.” Like so many Greekless Americans with pretensions, he thinks that the word means a liking for boys by men with buggery on their mind. But I had gone back to the original root noun, paedo, from which comes pederasty, pedophilia, etc.; and paedo means not boy but child. A quibble can be made that, as vulgar usage associates the word with boys, that’s what I mean but, as context makes clear, it is Lolita-paedo—not Ganymede-paedo—that Twain may be dreaming of. So this quibble is meaningless.

The idea of impotence excited Clemens’s anxious interest: apparently he suffered from erectile dysfunction at about the age of fifty.” I noted in my review that “so do many men over fifty who drink as much Scotch whisky as Twain did.” Next: “Psychoanalysts have noted many cases in which diminished sexual capacity…has been related to a constellation of psychic problems like those which affected Clemens.” All right. Which psychoanalysts? Did any know him? As for his psychic problems, did he really have a “constellation’s” worth? “Evidence that he became impotent ranges from the filmy to the relatively firm.”—I had some fun in these pages with those two loony adjectives. “Likelihood is high that diminished capacity may be inferred…” All these “apparentlys,” “likelihoods,” “inferreds” as well as filmy to firm “evidence” appear in one short paragraph.

What we have here is not a serious literary—or even, God help us, psychoanalytic—view of Twain’s sex life as imagined by a politically correct school teacher but what I take to be outright character assassination of a great man who happens to be one of the handful—small hand, too—of good writers our flimsy culture has produced. (“Filmy,” of course, may be the mot juste if we count the movies.) At one point, in the midst of a prurient flow of nonsense, the professor suddenly concedes, “We do not know the intimate details of Clemens’s life very well….” I’ll say we don’t, so why go to such imaginative length to turn him into an impotent pederast, or pedophile?

Point two. Here we get the denial-of-meaning quibble based on Absence of Quotation Marks. I remark on Twain’s having, sickeningly, in the professor’s view, “married above his station in order to advance himself socially.” Blandly, the professor quibbles that he never used the italicized words. Yet they are an exact paraphrase of how he interprets Twain’s marriage to Olivia Langdon. Quibbler has reinvented his own text. Actually, it is his view that Twain did not marry above his station in any but the economic sense although, “like the most bourgeois of the bourgeois he delighted in money, and high living, and he fervently wished to become a member of the eastern establishment.” Surely, to get from Hannibal, Missouri, to the Gold Coast of Hartford, was going to take a bit of social climbing which he did by marrying into the Langdon family.

Clemens was what Freud would call a narcissistic suitor.” Quibbler acts as if he is quoting some sort of authority in these matters. Ward McAllister might have been more to his point on American social climbing. “[Clemens] ardently wished to marry a woman who typified not what he was but what he wished to be—rich and possessed of status, a member of the eastern social order.” So, as I said in a phrase to which Quibbler objects, for no clear reason, “he married above his station.” (I’m surprised he does not make the point that Grand Central Station was not in use that hymenal year.) My use of the adverb “sickeningly” was meant to be ironic, something to which the teaching of school tends to make impervious even the brightest and the best. Anyway, Twain’s hypergamous marriage was a happy one, so what’s the big deal?

A lust for money that is banal anal (as opposed to floral oral) is simply a verbally symmetrical way of setting up Freud’s notion of money as “feces.” How did I happen to get this juxtaposition in my head? At one point, our author suddenly quibbles that Twain didn’t marry Olivia for her money, at least “not in any banal sense of the phrase; but he very much wanted to be rich.” As I read the word “banal,” I knew that Freud’s theory of anality was coming up. I turned the page. There it was. “Freud stresses the anal character of money and equates money and feces: it means power, vitality, potency.” The one good thing about bad writing is that one is never surprised by any turn an argument, much less a cliché, may take.

Let me now indulge in quibbler creativity. Freud would never have characterized Twain as narcissistic—an adjective currently used to describe anyone better-looking than oneself. As performer-writer Twain took by storm Vienna in general and Freud in particular. Freud was also something of a connoisseur of jokes and he enjoyed Mark Twain in person and on the page quite as much as he would have revelled in the letter of Professor Emeritus Guy Cardwell. Ich kann nicht anders, I can hear Sigmund chuckle through his cigar smoke. (c.f. The Strange Case of Dr Luther Adler by an Unknown Actress—op. cit. Just about anywhere.)

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