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The following review appeared 22 May 2017 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Three men, above all others, rose to the surface to become the most influential men in the life of Samuel Clemens. They were the only men to whom Clemens himself admitted he could divulge his intimately personal and particularly private thoughts. They were author and editor William Dean Howells, Standard Oil business tycoon Henry H. Rogers, and Hartford Congregationalist minister Joseph Twichell. The correspondence exchanged between Clemens and Howells was first published in the two-volume edition of Mark Twain-Howells Letters edited by Henry Nash Smith and William Gibson in 1960. Mark Twain's Correspondence with Henry Huttleston Rogers edited by Lewis Leary was published in 1969. Both collections are considered indispensable resources to Mark Twain studies. Now The Letters of Mark Twain and Joseph Hopkins Twichell joins their ranks and provides an unprecedented glance into the heart and soul of Clemens's relationship with a man frequently referred to as "Mark Twain's pastor."
The three editors of this volume are Peter Messent, author of Mark Twain and Male Friendship: The Twichell, Howells, & Rogers Friendships (2009); Steve Courtney, author of a definitive biography Joseph Hopkins Twichell (2008); and Harold K. Bush, author of Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age (2007) and Continuing Bonds with the Dead: Parental Grief and Nineteenth-Century American Authors (2016).
This volume features 310 letters exchanged between Clemens and Twichell from 1868 to 1909. Of these, 146 letters were written by Clemens. The authoritative transcriptions for Clemens's letters were provided by the Mark Twain Papers & Project. Messent, Courtney, and Bush provided the transcriptions of Twichell's letters. Rather than adhering to the meticulous style of publishing letters as established by the Mark Twain Papers & Project, with all textual variants and emendations displayed, these editors have implemented a simple format that provides a readable text with minimal annotations. The editors ask not to be compared too harshly to the previous scholarly editions issued from the University of California Press for this decision. As a result, this volume is similar to the style implemented by Smith, Gibson, and Leary in previous collections. However, in a stylistic departure for heading each letter, this volume identifies the correspondents as "Twichell" and "Twain" rather than "Twichell" and "Clemens." This is perhaps a concession to the fact that Twichell addressed Clemens as "Mark." Only twice in this collection of correspondence did Clemens sign letters to Twichell with any name other than "Mark"--in one letter written immediately after the death of his daughter Susy in 1896 and in one after the death of his wife Livy in 1904. Both letters he signed simply "SLC."
Thirty-six letters from Clemens to Twichell dating from 1868 to 1880, along with their textual variants, have been available on the Mark Twain Project website for a number of years. Six volumes of Mark Twain's letters to all his correspondents through year 1875 have been available from the University of California Press since 2002. In one misstep by the editors of this current volume, they indicate Clemens's letters from 1880 are not available online. They are.
Of the 146 Clemens letters, approximately 110 have not been readily available in an authoritative text. Thirty-five of these letters, dating from 1881 onward, were published by Albert Bigelow Paine in a two-volume edition of Mark Twain's Letters (1917). For a century now, Paine's edition has been the most popular source for these texts. Being able to compare Clemens's letters in this new edition to those in Paine's edition reveals the full extent of Paine's silent editing and extensive censorship. Scholars researching Paine's influence on preserving Mark Twain's public reputation and legacy will be well advised to make the comparisons.
An example of a passage from a Clemens letter of 23 October 1897 from Vienna that was censored out of Paine's 1917 edition: "I woke up in a rage with somebody, & with this remark falling from my lips: 'You humiliate me--& publicly. You make me feel like an exposed & conspicuous person whose legs a dog has been surreptitiously pissing on whilst he was absorbed in looking at a procession'" (pp. 201-202). Paine also censored passages from a July 1903 letter regarding Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science: "Everything the old sow does, interests me" (p. 322). From that same letter Clemens expresses his delight that Twichell's daughter Harmony is no longer working as a nurse in Chicago and writes, "I am so glad young Harmony is out of those Chicago slums. I was always cordially glad to have her ease the pains of those unnecessary people, but it distressed me to have her trying to delay their dissolution" (p. 322).
This volume is divided into five sections, each representing a specific time period. Each section is accompanied by a well-written essay discussing the major events occurring in the two men's lives. From 1871 to 1891, when they both lived in Hartford, their surviving correspondence is scant. This is likely due to the fact they were in frequent contact with each other socially and only wrote when one of them was out of town. For a number of these years only one or two Clemens letters survive and the editors advise readers to "be alert to the resulting jumps in time and location" (p. 8). For some of these time jumps additional commentary would be welcome.
From the beginning of their correspondence, Twichell, an extremely fluent and descriptive writer, comes across as a man neither embarrassed nor ashamed to offer unconditional love. His letters are openly affectionate and effusive in his praise and desire to share Clemens's company while Clemens's letters are often more restrained and show Clemens playing a devil's advocate sharing bawdy stories and offering up theological challenges which Twichell enjoyed. By 1875 their friendship was deeply ingrained in the public mind with Twichell writing, "It would appear that the Hartford public have somewhat got the notion that I am the proper medium of approach to you " (p. 55). Throughout his lifetime Twichell would often be called upon to be a conduit to Mark Twain's favor both at home and abroad.
Whatever special research interest in Mark Twain any reader holds, there will likely be something fresh and new to be found in this volume. Topics range from domestic issues to international affairs and from the trivial to the profound. Many of the insights and quips Clemens dishes up regarding America's contentious politics are as timeless as ever. The 21-page index is a worthy attempt to cover all topics. A few examples from the letters:
An example of Clemens's delight in sharing bawdy stories, written from Paris in 1879: "Boyesen called on Renan & Victor Hugo, also, & had a good time with both of those old cocks, but I didn't go--my French ain't limber enough. I can build up pretty stately French sentences, but " A number of double entendres follow (p. 91).
Insight into family dynamics appears in a letter Clemens wrote shortly before the birth of his daughter Jean in 1880 when he shared his hopes with Twichell for a male heir. Writing from Elmira in July 1880: "I think we are doubtful about the son & heir. Sometimes we say, 'He cometh not at all, & is a delusion & a fraud; at other times we be dimly hopeful, & say, 'Mayhap this is not so; peradventure he cometh by slow freight'" (p. 98).
The correspondence is rich in discussions of the latest medical advancements as well as home remedies. In 1882 when Twichell was apparently trying to make kumis, a fermented mare's milk, for his ailing wife, he wrote, "My sin, as a total abstainer, now finds me out. I haven't a beer bottle in the house. I have the idea that we cannot buy the kind we want for our Koumiss. Will you kindly spare us a few of your empty ones?" Twichell explained he was having difficulty opening bottles of kumis without them apparently exploding. Clemens offered this bit of helpful household advise, "Now there is no sense in all people being idiots: take a big 2-quart pickle-jar, up-end your Koomis-bottle, & uncork downwards into that" (pp. 113-114).
In 1883 Twichell and Clemens experienced a difficult time in their friendship when Twichell violated a confidence by allowing a portion of one of Clemens's letters to be published in the Hartford newspaper. Clemens's vicious letter of complaint and accusations was evidently destroyed by Twichell, but judging from Twichell's reply, Clemens unfavorably compared Twichell to his friend William Dean Howells. Twichell eventually managed to get back in Twain's good graces with a letter defending his actions and stating, "If you wish I will subscribe a vow never to do anything of the kind again. I'm as safe as Howells henceforth. But he'll give you away sometime--anyhow if he happens to survive you" (p. 132).
In June 1888 Clemens sent Twichell a playfully indelicate letter musing on the physical advantage women have over men when it comes to relying on a "monthly" excuse. "But land! suppose we had it. We would play it 31 days in the month & 365 in the year, & in our gratitude count its temporary discomforts as nothing. To wit: " Clemens then proceeds to offer examples of monthly excuses (p. 148).
Clemens frequently commented on materials he was reading. From an 1899 letter he wrote, "Annie Trumbull's a duck--she does certainly turn out the cunningest & sparklingest dialogue of anybody I know" (p. 229). In an annotation, the editors theorize he is reading A Wheel of Progress which was published in 1897.
The turn of the century in 1900 saw the United States embroiled in global skirmishes. The Philippines, China and the Boxer Rebellion, Russia, and the South African War figured in much of Clemens's correspondence and he wrote with growing pessimism. Writing from England in July 1900, "It's the human race--that explains everything; I don't want to train with any angels made out of human material" (p. 267). Twichell's reply to this tirade: "Mark, the way you throw your rotten eggs at the human race doth greatly arride me. We preachers are extensively accused of vilifying human nature, as you are aware; but I must own that for enthusiasm of misanthropy you beat us out of sight" (p. 271).
I found one error in transcription in this volume related to one of Twichell's letters written shortly after the death of former president Ulysses Grant. The editors transcribe Twichell's words as, "I'd give more to sit on a log with you in the woods this afternoon, while we turned a wreath together for Launcelot's grave" (p. 135). The correct phrase is "twined a wreath together." The annotation for this letter incorrectly describes double slash marks before and after the sentence and theorizes they were likely placed there by Clemens. The double slash marks appear before the entire paragraph and were more likely placed there by Albert Bigelow Paine who quoted Twichell's passage in his book Mark Twain: A Biography (Paine, p. 816).
Missing from this volume are three letters that were apparently overlooked inadvertently. An "S. L. Clemens" inscription inside one of Twichell's books is dated 14 April 1874 and should be regarded as part of the men's correspondence. This note is readily available for reading and printing from the online collection of Clemens's letters from the Mark Twain Project. A second missing letter dated 17 November 1899 from London features a long discussion of osteopathy, church going, and Hartford city taxes. A third letter dated 12 September 1901 from Saranac Lake, New York features a news clipping related to Vice President Teddy Roosevelt and a typical Twain dressing down of the human race. It is hoped the editors will find a way to make these additional letters easily available for readers.
In preparing a "wish list" for this volume, one must include the vital birth and death dates of people mentioned in the annotations. Names are given, but vital statistics are missing. It would also have been helpful if some annotations had been presented earlier in the text and been more extensive. Twichell's family included nine children whose names surface throughout the correspondence. Having a Twichell family tree to consult would be a choice enhancement. A bibliography of the major works cited as well as a list of known previous publications of Mark Twain's letters would also have been welcomed.
Twichell succinctly summed up his admiration for Twain's writing skills in a letter from January 1903, "The story flows off the end of your pen taken carelessly up to beguile the tedium of an anxious, slow-footed day; perfect literature from the word go; lights and shades all right; the complex plot continuously lipid in clearness; the style M.T.'s own at its best; diction, for ease, vigor and grace the choicest. . . . By George, it is not fair--that inequitable distribution of talents by which it is given to only one man to do without consciously trying what to all others is, granting it possible, prodigiously difficult" (pp. 319-320). This collection of letters perfectly aligns with Twichell's description of Mark Twain's talent as a correspondent but also exhibits his own. This book is a "must" for all Mark Twain scholars and researchers.