Brain Pickings

The Lincoln of Literature: Mark Twain, The Atlantic, and the Making of the Middlebrow Magazine

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How Twain entered the literary elite and purged literature of elitism.

“Maybe … Mark Twain was a devious fraud with no morals at all who used journalism for his own foul ends,” Hunter S. Thompson grumbled in his meditation on journalism, politics, and the subjective, intimating that Twain was a media-opportunist who masterfully manipulated his public editorial output to serve his personal agendas. The “devious fraud” label has, of course, been slapped at one point or another onto just about every public persona who dared to reach critical success. But whether or not Thompson’s assessment was fair, Twain — who was himself curmudgeonly critical of the popular press, human nature, and even his fans, and from an early age dispensed delightfully irreverent advice — was a man who knew how to get what he wanted. And what he wanted, perhaps ironically, was very often public approval — not just the mere troves of fan mail he received from the common people, but the literary world’s highest seal of approval.

That’s precisely what he saw in the opportunity to write for The Atlantic Monthly, so he pursued it with unequaled relentlessness. In the process of this professional push, however, he made a lifelong personal friend. In the introduction to The Mark Twain Collection — a short but endlessly enjoyable compendium of the beloved author’s critical essays, short stories, and recollections published in The Atlantic during his stint there between 1874 and 1880 — Ben Tarnoff, author of the forthcoming The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, traces the genesis of that relationship, both professional and personal:

He might’ve been a beggar, or a drunk. He swayed when he walked, and spoke slowly. His clothes were careless, his hair an ungovernable knot of curls. In the winter of 1869, he entered the bookshop at 124 Tremont Street in Boston and took the stairs to the second floor. There he knocked on the door of America’s most prestigious periodical, and swaggered in to introduce himself.

This was how Mark Twain’s relationship with The Atlantic Monthly began. From its founding in 1857, the magazine served as the nerve center of the New England intellectual establishment. Its contributors included the biggest names in American letters — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe* — and its taste set the standard for the rest of the country. Moral seriousness, moderate liberalism, and a respect for the classical tradition pervaded its pages. Its judgments reigned supreme: no one wielded more power over that still-forming idea called American literature than the editors of The Atlantic.

Twain’s march into the magazine’s office was precipitated by a review of his book The Innocents Aboard, the humorous autobiographical travelogue that catapulted him into literary celebrity, had received from an Atlantic writer named William Dean Howells, the magazine’s assistant editor. “There is an amount of pure human nature in the book that rarely gets into literature,” he had written. “Even in its impudence it is charming.” Tarnoff surmises:

Naturally, Twain wanted to meet the author of that review. … Twain must’ve been curious: the book’s irony, irreverence, and freewheeling flow made it an unlikely focus for The Atlantic’s praise. Worse, Twain wrote for a popular audience, not a literary one. The Innocents Aboard wasn’t sold in bookshops but by traveling salesmen who hawked it door to door alongside cookbooks and the Bible. Its readers belonged to the rising bourgeoisie of a rapidly industrializing nation — the Great American Middlebrow, hungry for fun and distraction.

William Dean Howells with Mark Twain

And so a relationship of mutual gratification commenced:

The wild-haired stranger who swept into 124 Tremont Street in the winter of 1869 desperately wanted approval from the world that The Atlantic represented. He craved the respect of America’s cultural elites, despite his tendency to provoke and bewilder them. In Howells, he found a perfect partner in crime: someone who spoke with highbrow authority, yet also understood the genius of Twain’s popular art.

[…]

They had differences to overcome. Twain was intense and impatient; Howells was mild and genial. Howells dressed conservatively; Twain dressed outrageously, with a “keen feeling for costume” that only grew more extravagant as he got older. Yet they also had much in common. Despite Howells’s lofty position in New England’s literary firmament, he came from modest, Midwestern origins. Born in backwoods Ohio, he had started out as a typesetter like Twain. He had grown up listening to the shrill whistles of steamboats, like Twain, and to the drawling, hollering sounds of Western speech. Both men had hustled their way up with hard work and, despite their success, always felt like outsiders in the East.

It took five years for them to feel comfortable enough with each other. Twain published his first piece in The Atlantic in 1874 and the two became fast friends, smoking cigars, sipping Scotch, and laughing well into the night. In fact, Howells became for Twain what Ursula Nordstrom was for Maurice Sendak — his fierce editor and greatest public champion, his relentless private confidant, his unflinching friend:

He didn’t simply make Twain a better writer; he also explained Twain’s significance to the wider world. He elevated the author of The Innocents Aboard from a popular entertainer to a transformative literary figure — into the “Lincoln of our literature,” as Howells called him.

When Twain submitted his first story to The Atlantic in 1874, titled “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” he cautioned Howells, who had by that point become editor in chief of the magazine, that the sketch “has no humor in it” and hardly warrants any pay. Instead, Howells fell in love with it and persuaded the publisher to pay Twain the highest rate in the magazine’s history — a feat particularly heartening in light of Twain’s famous advice to aspiring writers: “Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” Tarnoff writes:

Howells wanted more. Soon, Twain had another idea: he would resurrect the “glory & grandeur” of his years as a Mississippi steamboat pilot in a series of reminiscences for The Atlantic. Twain suggested doing one every other month, but Howells insisted on one every month. Twain agreed. The Atlantic didn’t pay as much as other magazines, but, as Twain told a friend, its “awful respectability” made up for it. Also the chance to work with Howells, in whom Twain had total faith.

Howells was also an indispensable purveyor of timeless wisdom on writing, and once gave Twain an essential piece of advice that Joyce Carol Oates would come to echo more than a century later:

Don’t write at any supposed Atlantic audience, but yarn it off as if into my sympathetic ear.

To be sure, however, the relationship was one of mutual benefit — while Howells helped Twain hone his craft and bask in the literary glory of writing for The Atlantic, Twain helped the magazine become a more marketable commodity for a popular audience:

Although he remained respectful of The Atlantic’s origins, the editor recognized the need to push the magazine into new territory. The Civil War and its aftermath had transformed America. The rules of warfare, politics, and business were being rewritten; conventional wisdom of all kinds was crumbling. The modernizing nation demanded new literary forms, and Howells found them in the faithful representation of everyday life — realism, he called it, although he awarded the term to any author he admired, from European novelists like Zola and Tolstoy to Americans like Henry James and Twain. What these writers had in common was their lifelike use of detail, Howells believed. Their work struck a refreshing contrast to the “intense ethicism that pervaded the New England mind” — the preacherly tendency to make literature serve up a moral. In the pages of The Atlantic, Howells crusaded against this cultural residue of Calvinism, forging his realist revolution from inside the heart of the establishment.

Twain gave Howells a soldier in this revolt: an artist with a gift for what Howells called the “simple, dramatic report of reality.” He also served a more practical function: he was popular, and Howells needed to sell** magazines. Despite The Atlantic’s prestige, its circulation fell sharply in the 1870s, against competition from more-middlebrow magazines like Harper’s and Scribner’s. So Howells leaned on Twain for marketable stories to prop up The Atlantic’s flagging finances.

[…]

These masterpieces helped purge American literature of its genteel moralism. They challenged the elitism that had excluded large swaths of ordinary life from literature. They fulfilled Howells’s demand for greater realism, and secured Twain’s permanent place in the culture.

The Mark Twain Collection presents ten of the masterpieces born out of the Twain-Howells collaboration, from the maddening stickiness of jingles (“A Literary Nightmare,” February 1876) to a timeless, timely rant on the dehumanizing effect of modern technology (“A Telephonic Conversation,” June 1880). Complement it with Twain’s critique of the press, issued mere months before he began writing for The Atlantic.

* Missing from the roster of notable contributors: The Church of Scientology

** Still the case. ibid.

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