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The following review appeared 16 April 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Kent Rasmussen has done it again: he has come up with a book that will give every Twainiac and lots of others with only a casual interest in Mark Twain much enjoyment and a non-trivial amount of insight into one of the most remarkable writers the world has ever known. The book's selection of 200 previously unpublished letters from ordinary readers that Clemens received from 1863 to 1910 provides a window on his world and ours that exists nowhere else.
"My works are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water." Everyone, indeed. One of the special pleasures of Rasmussen's fine book is getting a sense of just how many different sorts of people felt a sense of personal connection to the famous writer. Clemens's books, often sold by subscription, reached readers who might never set foot in a book store. Working people who relished having their load lightened at the end of the day with some moments of laughter that Twain's work reliably supplied. Children who appreciated meeting children in books who were more like themselves than the insufferably moral mannequins they met in the usual fare they were offered. Many of these readers wrote Twain out of a sense of gratitude. When their prose moved him, he returned the gratitude in a few short but sincere and effective sentences.
As Ron Powers reminds us in his engaging Foreword, the book "gives us an extremely rare, and thus exhilarating, glimpse into the sensibilities of nineteenth-century people" (p. xii). Rasmussen's effortlessly erudite annotations provide fascinating background about who the correspondents were (in addition to giving the reader a general sense of the particular works to which the letter-writers refer.) Rasmussen has left the correspondents' occasional misspellings and awkward constructions as he found them, uncorrected--a wise choice that allows their voices to come through.
Sam Clemens was one of the greatest listeners of the 19th century, a gift that allowed him to capture on the printed page the dizzying array of distinctive vernacular voices he discerned in the cacophony that surrounded him. But this book reminds us that he had another point of access to those ordinary voices he evoked so well: all those people from every walk of life who wrote him letters. The myriad ordinary people who corresponded with Twain may have helped teach him how to evoke a range of emotions on the page that few of his peers had any inclination or capacity to convey--naïve admiration, myopic self-absorption, humble gratitude, self-abasing begging, unalloyed pique, to name just a few.
As Rasmussen reminds us in the Introduction, answering letters--even appreciative ones--wore Clemens down. In September 1879, he wrote to his Quaker City friend Mary Mason Fairbanks that he was so tired of his correspondence that "I went to Europe mainly to get rid of my inane, brain-softening letter-answering" (p. 5). Rasmussen quotes Albert Bigelow Paine's comment that the letters Clemens received put him into "a constant state of siege, besought by all varieties and conditions for favors such as only human need and abnormal ingenuity can invent. His ever-increasing mail presented a marvelous exhibition of the human species on undress parade" (p. 4).
Many of the letters came from autograph hounds; some were cheeky bids for an endorsement for a correspondent's mediocre manuscript; others were undisguised begging letters; still others were begging letters masquerading as opportunities too good to be missed. Clemens's responses to many such letters--scribbled in a note to himself or his secretary--are themselves fun to encounter ("from an ass" on more than one occasion. Or "D---d rubbish." Or "The idiots seem to be especially thick this year.")
Some correspondents offered what they thought were practical suggestions for his next book. A New York cheese merchant, for example, asked Clemens in 1880 to let him know "by what rule a fellow can infallibly judge when you are lying and when you are telling the truth," and suggested that his next volume "be published with the truth printed in italics" (p. 75).
Others sent him anecdotes they thought he'd enjoy. A traveling wholesale hardware dealer wrote Clemens that his four-year-old son became so infatuated with the story of the Connecticut Yankee he had read to him when it appeared in Century magazine, that he insisted on being addressed as "Hank," and required his parents to read or repeat the story several times a day. "He got a piece of clothes line," the father wrote," and made a Lasso and using me for a horse he Has a tournament every evening and I wish you could see him drag Sir Sagramour, Sir Galahad and Sir Launcelot out of their saddles." Although, he continued, "Its kind of tough on me to trot up & down the 'lists' for Half an hour at a time," there were advantages: for the past two years "it has been a fight of about an hour "to get the child to go to bed but now "after a Tournament he goes to bed without a word" because that's what Hank would have done. Clemens wrote, "A pleasant letter. preserve it" (p. 143).
Clemens was delighted with this letter that a "J. A. McM." From West Lynn, Massachusetts sent him in 1907:
Dear Sir:-- 'Apropos of your very entertaining little book on "English as she is Taught"--the following true story fits in well--A teacher asked her class of boys to tell the difference between herself and a clock. A bright little urchin in the rear row raised his hand and said--"You have a face and the clock has a face, and you have got hands and the clock has got hands, and--and (reflecting) the clock has got a pendooleum and you aint."
Clemens response: "Preserve this. Frame it. It is the second time in 40 years that a stranger has done me a courtesy & charged me nothing for it. Such a thing is usually accompanied by the man's address, so that I can pay him a hundred dollars' worth of Thank-you for 2 cents' worth of a complimentary attention. SLC" (p. 243).
Some of the most interesting letters involved Twain's turn-of-the-century anti-imperialist writing. A pastor from Darlington, Indiana named A. S. Buchanan wrote that he had just finished reading "To the Person Sitting in Darkness": "Please excuse seeming impertinence but for the sake of some of us poor Hoosiers who have been kept busy making apologies for you of late tell us. Were you ever ajudged insane? Be honest, truly how much money does the Devil give you for araigning Christianity and missionary causes?" (p. 190).
Hostile critics who were the most blunt sometimes hid behind pseudonyms, preventing even the indefatigable Kent Rasmussen from divining their real identities. "Rob Roy" wrote Clemens in early February, 1901, "Please take the advice of one who has known you for quite a quarter of a Century and go back to the Old World. You are not needed here and are unworthy to live under the folds of the American flag. In quite everything you have said and done since your return you have made a consummate ass of yourself. Your Mugwump life has made a pessimist of you in the extreme. You and three hundred pounds of Cleveland ought to go & sit in the shadow of a granite rock & chew the cud of bitterness. You were not made for sunshine & hope" (p. 185). Another letter--signed "many students"--urged Twain to go abroad "& stay. You are not worthy of citizenship in a land which you so outrageously slander & vilify--while you have nothing but praise & comfort for its enemies--shame on you--" (p. 191).
But any irritation that "Rob Roy" and "many students" may have caused was probably soothed in short order by the letters Clemens received from Abner Goodell, W. A. Croffut, and Clayton Ewing.
A Massachusetts attorney named Abner C. Goodell wrote Clemens to aver that his "Salutation" to the new century that ran in the _New York Herald_ in December 1900 was "the best thing you ever did." (Clemens had written, in response to a request from the Red Cross Society for a new years' greeting, "I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiao-Chow, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass.") "I rank it with Lincoln's immortal speech at Gettysburg," Goodell wrote. He continued, "It has done me good. I have stopped taking medicine, now that somebody has done something effectual to rouse the public from their chronic apathy in this universal reign of terror" (p. 177).
Clemens wrote Goodell a grateful reply on December 31, 1900: "I think you are right: it is a 'universal reign of terror.' There seems to be a universal reign of error also--& a strange indifference to that formidable fact, in pulpit, press & people. The standard of honor is shrinking pretty fast every where, I think,--among individuals--& has fairly disappeared from Governments. I find but few men who disapprove of our theft of the Philippines & of our assassination of the liberties of the people of the Archipelago. I thank you very much for your letter. I shan't receive many of its kind" (p. 177).
Clemens similarly appreciated the letter he received in February, 1901, from a Washington, DC journalist named W. A. Croffut, who had read "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" soon after it appeared in the North American Review: "The case has doubtless been put as vigorously before by others, but the splendid satire and blistering irony will give your words a momentum which nothing else could. And hundreds of thousands will read this because you wrote it who could not be got to taste of such truths from any other source . . ." He went on to add that when a man like yourself "dares to come out with such an unlimited roasting of the powers that be, it gives us great hope" (p. 183). Croffut asked a senator to read it into the Congressional record. Rasmussen, with characteristic thoroughness, checked: it did not make it in.
A few weeks later, a twenty-four-year-old railroad clerk named Clayton Ewing from Peoria wrote Clemens, "Your article touched my heart deeply and it has raised you in my estimation even higher than ever before. Men with sufficient moral courage to speak their convictions are not so numerous. Your article has all the marks of genius and, aside from its humor, is a scathing arraignment of sham and hypocrisy . . ." Clemens's comment: "Very handsome" (p. 186).
Shortly thereafter, an eastern Connecticut farmer and high school principal named Gilbert A. Tracy wrote Clemens that "The carping, censorious editors pecking at you are like a flock of jackdaws pecking at the great American eagle. A man of your comprehensive views need have no fears. Stand by the courage of your convictions." Clemens wrote back, "Although you, in charity and kindness for a busy man, have forborne to require an answer, I cannot deny myself the pleasure of saying, out of my heart, I thank you" (p. 186-87). Clemens reserved answers with this sentence--repeated several times in responses in this volume--for correspondents whose letters genuinely touched or cheered him.
N. E. Guyot, a former soldier from Cripple Creek, Colorado, also responding to "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" in the North American Review, wrote ". . .[I]n my judgment it is the most compact, truthful and withering criticism of the McKinley policy that I have read. . . I served as a private in the Colorado Regiment and was on the island of Luzon from July 18, 1898 until July 16, 1899. We thought we were there to liberate the Filipino. . . But the Americans who crossed the Pacific 'to liberate' remain there to enslave. . . I congratulate you on your overwhelming, truthful exposition of the great crime." On Guyot's letter to him, Clemens wrote, "from a soldier--first rate" (p. 187-88).
Kent Rasmussen's enterprise and energy made the book what it is, but the venture would not have been possible without Clemens's penchant for saving so many letters he received (along with his notes to himself or his secretary about how to respond to them) and without the Mark Twain Project's heroic efforts to collect every letter Mark Twain wrote (or at least a copy, if not the original). Without this happy confluence of obsessions--Twain's pack-rat habits and the Mark Twain Project's omnivorous approach to collecting--this volume might not exist. The fact that so many letters from readers are extant is still surprising, given that Twain moved multiple times in the United States and spent substantial periods of his life living abroad, and that the papers he saved passed through various hands after his death, in some cases kept intact, in other cases, being sold and widely dispersed.
Rasmussen clearly made an extraordinary effort to track down as many of Clemens's correspondents as he possibly could. As he notes, the Internet has revolutionized historical research, making it possible to identify many individuals who would have remained obscure in an era when massive numbers of records were not online. Had he tried to write this book even a decade ago, we probably would not know who many of these correspondents were. The immense amount of research behind this extremely readable book is one of its special strengths.
The window on nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century American life that one gains from reading the annotations are as intriguing as the letters themselves. Who were these people who put pen to paper to write letters to Mark Twain (or, in at least one case, to "Huck")? What did Clemens's books mean to them? What did their comments mean to Clemens? The captivating annotations give the reader a lens through which to approach these questions. For scholars, having this sheaf of responses of ordinary readers to Clemens's writing is stimulating and suggestive, opening up a host of potential directions for future research. It is likely to be no less absorbing for other readers, as well.
Reading other people's mail can be deliciously titillating in any era. Eavesdropping on epistolary conversations that involve Sam Clemens are a special treat, however--both because so many different kinds of readers shared their thoughts with him as candidly as they did, and because his responses to them--even his most impatient ones--strike us as so pitch-perfect apt.
I know of no other book quite like this one. The closest might be Alice Calaprice's 2002 book, Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein's Letters to and from Children. But while there are a number of letters in Dear Mark Twain from children, the letters from adults are equally riveting.
Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers is a delight. Kent Rasmussen deserves our thanks for having produced an impressive work of scholarship which is as much fun to read as it is illuminating and instructive.