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Renewed interest in Mark Twain's journalistic career has yielded several recent
collections of his newspaper writing: Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express;
Mark Twain in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1874-1891; and the republication
of Mark Twain's San Francisco. This attention to Twain's lesser known
writings continues in the latest Keepsake issued by the Friends of the Bancroft
Library. The short pamphlet brings to the attention of the Twain community two
previously unpublished essays on journalistic topics from different moments
in Twain's career.
"Interviewing the Interviewer" (1870) portrays Twain as a humble reporter interviewing Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun. At this time, Twain himself was not simply a reporter but also part-owner of the Buffalo Express, his stake a gift of his soon-to-be father-in-law, Jervis Langdon. So the narrating persona that he adopts for this piece underplays the extent to which he both resented and admired Dana's power in the business in which he'd cut his own literary teeth and now hoped to rise as an entrepreneur in his own right.
The Dana that he describes is a notoriously brash hustler willing to print anything about anyone of note for sensational advantage:
Interesting murders, with all the toothsome particulars; libels upon such men and women as have deserved the attention by being prominently blameless; aggravated cases of incest, with improving and elevating details; prize fights, elucidated with felicitously descriptive technicalities; elaborate histories of executions, assassinations and seductions; zealous defences of Reddy the Blacksmith and other persecuted patrons of the Sun who chance to stumble into misfortune (13).
Dana grants Twain's request for an interview in part because of vanity; he notes that since other journalists have failed to pay him the respect that he feels he deserves, he will reward the one lowly newspaperman who has come to seek his wisdom. Dana begins by pontificating about the principles that he's followed in making the Sun a success:
Never let your paper go to press without a sensation. If you have none, make one. Seize upon the prominent events of the day and clamor about them with a maniacal fury that shall compel attention. Vilify everything that is unpopular. ... Laud that which is popular--unless you fell sure that you can make it unpopular by attacking it. Libel every man that can be ruined by it. Libel every prominent man who dare not soil his hands with touching you in return But glorify all moneyed scum and give columns of worship unto the monuments they erect in honor of themselves, for moneyed men will not put up with abuse from small newspapers (14).
With bombastic ruthlessness like this, Dana might have served Orson Welles
as a suitable model for Charles Foster Kane if William Randolph Hearst hadn't
been more readily available.
But Dana's bloviating is simply a prologue to a humorous performance of his questionable precepts. The interview is punctuated by one of Dana's reporters barging in to run a story idea past the editor:
"Mr. D., there is a report that Gen. Grant was drunk yesterday."
"Is there any truth in it?"
"Then publish it by all means--say it is true--make a sensation of it--invent affidavits" (15).
Thus, Dana demonstrates his journalistic practice with an example of libel
that would have been close to Twain's concern. Grant was an honorable man in
Twain's eyes and his bid to publish Grant's memoirs in 1885 was as much a business
decision as an attempt to support the legacy of a man whom Twain saw as wrongfully
When the topic turns to obituary writing, to which Twain himself alluded in a hoax he'd written for the Golden Era (1865) about his own prosecution for fraud, the interview is again interrupted, this time with a report that Mark Twain has died. As Dana dispenses instructions about how to write the obit, Twain interjects that he is, in fact, not dead, but interviewing Mr. Dana at the moment. This turn presages Twain's rather famous bon mot from nearly forty years later in which he pronounced reports of his death as "premature." The editor insists that nothing can be done about Twain's inconvenient persistence in life:
The obituary must be published. We are not responsible for your eccentricities; you could have been dead if you had chosen--nobody hindered you. The obituary is fair game, for whatever is Rumor to another paper is Fact to the Sun (17).
But he will at least interview Twain (hence the title of the piece) in order
to spice up the obituary: "Please to give me the details of any aggravated
or unnatural crimes you have committed" (17). And with this, Twain's report
comes to an abrupt end.
The companion essay, "The American Press" (1888), is a response to Matthew Arnold's criticism of American journalism for lacking "reverence," precisely the quality that earns Twain's praise. In a speech one year earlier, Twain had taken on Arnold for criticizing General Grant's grammar in the memoir published by Twain's own Charles L. Webster Publishing Co. In this piece, which Twain had printed on a prototype of the Paige Typesetter, he responds to remarks in Arnold's essay "Civilization in the United States" (April 1888). Although he never published this response, Twain did on more than one occasion react to Arnold's Victorian criticisms of America's lack of gentility. The argument in this piece will certainly sound familiar to anyone familiar with A Connecticut Yankee. Moreover, the tone of the prose suggests that Twain was rehearsing the attitude that he struck in the Pudd'nhead Wilson calendar maxims that served as epigraphs in the eponymous novel and in Following the Equator:
Well, the charge is, that our press has but little of that old-world quality, reverence. Let us be candidly grateful that this is so. With its limited reverence it at least reveres the things which this nation reveres, as a rule, and that is sufficient: what other people revere is fairly and properly matter of light importance to us. Our press does not reverence kings, it does not reverence so-called nobilities, it does not reverence established ecclesiastical slaveries, it does not reverence laws which rob a younger son to fatten an elder one, it does not reverence any fraud or sham or infamy, howsoever old or rotten or holy, which sets one citizen above his neighbor by accident of birth; it does not reverence any law or custom, howsoever old or decayed or sacred, which shuts against the best man in the land the best place in the land and the divine right to prove property and go up and occupy it (28).
No doubt, Twain could be as severe a critic of American customs and institutions as the next man, probably even more so at this stage of his life when he had moved onto a different level of the literary business. Indeed, as his fragment "License of the Press," included in the appendix of Mark Twain Press Critic exhibits, he could take the press itself to task. But when an outsider like Arnold dares to offer criticism, Twain's American chauvinism comes shining through.
The small volume is beautifully designed and produced with an introduction and explanatory postscripts to each of the two pieces by Thomas Leonard, University Librarian and Professor of Journalism. These texts are complemented by the appendix, which Twain himself said always dresses up a volume, three photographs of Twain (one by Matthew Brady from 1871), and four photographed manuscript pages of the featured writings. This is the kind of production that demonstrates the virtue and value of the Mark Twain Project. Their careful editorial work on Twain's papers makes these kinds of treasures widely available. The two pieces in this volume are particularly noteworthy because not only do these heretofore unpublished writings generate thought and pleasure for readers, but they also put contemporary debates about journalism and media into historical perspective.
We have the Friends of the Bancroft Library to thank for these particular specimens of Twain's evolving thought on the role of the press in society. It bears noting that the opportunity and responsibility to support this important work is available to anyone who would like to contribute to the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library.
Additional information on joining Friends of the Bancroft Library is available