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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

22 JULY, 2013

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

By:

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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17 MAY, 2013

Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling Critique the Press

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“There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”

Modern history is peppered with public intellectuals speaking up against the follies of popular media, including E. B. White, Einstein, and David Foster Wallace. But among the most articulate critics of the press are Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, who famously met in 1889.

On March 31, 1873, Twain — adviser of little girls, recipient of audacious requests, cat-hater — gave a talk before the Monday Evening Club at Hartford, titled “License of the Press” and critiquing the state of the popular press. It was later included in the altogether indispensable volume The Complete Essays Of Mark Twain (public library). Though his admonitions target the newspaper as the archetypal press, it’s remarkable to consider how prescient his remarks are in the context of today’s online media. Twain writes:

[The press] has scoffed at religion till it has made scoffing popular. It has defended official criminals, on party pretexts, until it has created a United States Senate whose members are incapable of determining what crime against law and the dignity of their own body is, they are so morally blind, and it has made light of dishonesty till we have as a result a Congress which contracts to work for a certain sum and then deliberately steals additional wages out of the public pocket and is pained and surprised that anybody should worry about a little thing like that.

I am putting all this odious state of things upon the newspaper, and I believe it belongs there — chiefly, at any rate. It is a free press — a press that is more than free — a press which is licensed to say any infamous thing it chooses about a private or a public man, or advocate any outrageous doctrine it pleases. It is tied in no way. The public opinion which should hold it in bounds it has itself degraded to its own level.

There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.

[…]

It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm. We ought to look upon the establishment of a newspaper of the average pattern in a virtuous village as a calamity.

After bemoaning the downward spiral of newspaper integrity over the previous 30 years, Twain takes Raymond Chandler’s belief that “the reading public is intellectually adolescent at best” to an even more unforgiving degree:

It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people — who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations — do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.

Among us, the newspaper is a tremendous power. It can make or mar any man’s reputation. It has perfect freedom to call the best man in the land a fraud and a thief, and he is destroyed beyond help.

He then foretells with astounding, uncompromising accuracy the “sponsored content” and “native advertising” debates of today and laments:

In the newspapers of the West you can use the editorial voice in the editorial columns to defend any wretched and injurious dogma you please by paying a dollar a line for it.

He ends with his signature package of keen cultural observation tied with a bow of irreverent satire:

I have a sort of vague general idea that there is too much liberty of the press in this country, and that through the absence of all wholesome restraint the newspaper has become in a large degree a national curse, and will probably damn the Republic yet. There are some excellent virtues in newspapers, some powers that wield vast influences for good; and I could have told all about these things, and glorified them exhaustively — but that would have left you gentlemen nothing to say.

More than a quarter century later, in September of 1899 — a decade after he had met Twain and had his fanboy moment — Kipling penned a poem of similar sentiment. Titled “The Press”, it is one of fifty newly discovered Kipling poems found in the recently released hardback set The Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 3 (public library). It echoes the heart of Twain’s concerns with a satirical tone, perhaps ironically, more typical of Twain and his own little-known verses:

The Press

Why don’t you write a play –
Why don’t you cut your hair?
Do you trim your toe-nails round
Or do you trim them square?
Tell it to the papers,
Tell it every day.
But, en passant, may I ask
Why don’t you write a play?

What’s your last religion?
Have you got a creed?
Do you dress in Jaeger-wool
Sackcloth, silk or tweed?
Name the books that helped you
On the path you’ve trod.
Do you use a little g
When you write of God?

Do you hope to enter
Fame’s immortal dome?
Do you put the washing out
Or have it done at home?
Have you any morals?
Does your genius burn?
Was you wife a what’s its name?
How much did she earn?

Had your friend a secret
Sorrow, shame or vice –
Have you promised not to tell
What’s your lowest price?
All the housemaid fancied
All the butler guessed
Tell it to the public press
And we will do the rest.

Why don’t you write a play?

Whether or not Twain’s essay was a direct influence on Kipling’s poem, of course, will never be known, for the anatomy of influence is a complicated matter. But what we do know is that all great art builds on what came before, every “new” idea a combination of past fragments, and creativity is a slot-machine of knowledge end experience. After all, it was Twain himself who told Helen Keller that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

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08 APRIL, 2013

On Loves, Lunacies, and Losses: The Little-Known Poetry of Mark Twain

By:

“Advance your cue and shut your eyes / And take the cushion first.”

Literary history is peppered with famed novelists who also wrote verse — James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury. Even such unlikely cultural icons as Marilyn Monroe found refuge in poetic practice.

Some time ago, while doing some research for my Twain-related labor of love, I came upon On the Poetry of Mark Twain with Selections from His Verse (public library) — a 1966 gem, published by the University of Illinois, in which Arthur L. Scott sets out to debunk Twain’s famous “literary declaration” that he detests poetry. Instead, Scott demonstrates that Twain’s impulsive remark was more likely a reflection of his skill at poetic practice — “the Muse of formal poetry held Mark Twain at arm’s length,” writes Scott — rather than of his affection for the form. For a man who “detested poetry,” Twain produced more than 120 poems over the course of his life — 95 humorous and 31 serious, with the majority of the latter written after 1890, when life began to throw Twain devastation after devastation.

Scott notes:

To compare Mark Twain’s early verse to his late is a bit like comparing a clown to a tragedian. In their unpretentious areas, many of the early poems are quite successful. The serious poems are less spontaneous, but their lack of gusto is offset by the increase in emotional and intellectual content. They show also that Mark Twain had improved in poetic imagination, sensitivity, and discipline. His good ear and his originality were qualities he had from the start; but it took time for him to cultivate expository power, verbal felicity, and — above all — a genuine respect for poetry as a vehicle of serious expression.

[…]

The worst is embarrassing. The best may not make the soul soar, but it is good enough and extensive enough to prove that here is a novelist who did more than merely dabble in verse. The range of his poetry in both topic and mood is immense. The trivialities and ‘hogwash’ are offset by poems of unquestionable power in a number of diverse fields.

[…]

They help suggest that Mark Twain’s so-called ‘literary declaration’ about detesting poetry has been common currency for too long. … It may take time for us to learn to ignore Mark wain’s hasty declaration and to convince ourselves that the evidence all proves that, in truth, he loved poetry.

Here are seven of Twain’s poems that fall on various points of the spectrum, from the playful to the poignant, and land with equal delight.

'Last Meeting & Final Parting,' which Scott calls 'the gayest poem of the early 1890's,' was not written for publication but entered in the guest book of Twain's good friend Laurence Hutton, then literary editor of Harper's Magazine.

More than four decades after his advice to little girls, Twain penned some verses for one of the favorite little girls in his club, which he called the Aquarium, trailing off into complete deviation from the meter and ending with a note of playful self-awareness:

POEM TO MARGARET

Be good, be good, be always good,
And now & then be clever,
But don’t you ever be too good,
Nor ever be too clever;

For such as be too awful good
They awful lonely are,
And such as often clever be
Get cut & stung & trodden on by persons of lesser mental capacity, for this kind do by a law of their construction regard exhibitions of superior intellectuality as an offensive impertinence leveled at their lack of this high gift, & are prompt to resent such-like exhibitions in the manner above indicated — & are they justifiable? Alas, alas they

(It is not best to go on; I think the line is already longer than it ought to be for real true poetry.)

Though spoken by the narrator of Twain’s Jumping Frog tale, this sketch could easily apply to the author himself:

HE DONE HIS LEVEL BEST

Was he a mining on the flat —
He done it with a zest;
Was he a leading of the choir —
He done his level best.

If he’d a reglar task to do,
He never took no rest;
Or if twas off-and-on — the same —
He done his level best.

If he was preachin on his beat,
He’d tramp from east to west,
And north to south — in cold and heat
He done his level best.

He’d yank a sinner outen (Hades)
And land him with the blest —
Then snatch a prayer ‘n waltz in again,
And do his level best.

He’d cuss and sing and howl and pray,
And dance and drink and jest,
And lie and steal — all one to him —
He done his level best.

Whate’er this man was sot to do,
He done it with a zest:
No matter what his contract was,
HE’D DO HIS LEVEL BEST.

Adding to history’s famous fatherly advice, Twain takes on Hamlet:

POLONIUS’ ADVICE TO HIS SON — PARAPHRASED FROM HAMLET

Beware of the spoken word! Be wise;
Bury thy thoughts in thy breast;
Nor let thoughts that are unnatural
Be ever in acts expressed.

Be thou courteous and kindly toward all —
Be familiar and vulgar with none;
But the friends thou hast proved in thy need
Hold thou fast till life’s mission is done!

Shake not thy faith by confiding
In every new-begot friend,
Beware thou of quarrels — but in them
Fight them out to the bitter end.

Give thine ear unto all that would seek it
But to few thy voice impart;
Receive and consider all censure
But thy judgment seal in thy heart.

Let thy habit be ever as costly
As thy purse is able to span;
Never gaudy but rich — for the raiment
Full often proclaimeth the man.

Neither borrow nor lend — oft a loan
Both loseth itself and a friend,
And to borrow relaxeth the thrift
Whereby husbandry gaineth its end.

But lo! above all set this law:
UNTO THYSELF BE THOU TRUE!
Then never toward any canst thou
The deed of a false heart do.

Though a far cry from John Updike’s heartbreaking poem about the last days of his dog, Twain’s verses mourning the loss of his beloved canine companion don’t fail to stir:

MY DOG BURNS

No more shall bear beauteous form
Be seen in the raging storm.
No more shall her wondrous tail
Dodge the quickly dropping hail.

She lived a quiet harmless life
In Hartford far from madding strife;
Nor waged no War on peaceful rat
Nor battled with wild fierce tomcat.

No, No, my beloved, dear ’cause dead
What tough thy coat was a brick dust red?
Like a good author, thou was a trusty friend
And thy tail, like his, red to the very end.

Written at a German health resort in 1891-1892, this tongue-in-cheek “love song” first appeared in St. Louis’s Medical Fortnightly on May 15, 1892:

LOVE SONG

I ask not, “Is thy hope still sure,
Thy love still warm, thy faith secure?”
I ask not, “Dream’st thou still of me? –
Longest alway to fly to me?” –
      Ah, no — but as the sum includeth all
            The good gifts of the Giver,
      I sum all these in asking thee,
            “O sweetheart, how’s your liver?”

For if thy liver worketh right,
Thy faith stands sure, thy hope is bright,
Thy dreams are sweet, and I their god,
Doubt threats in vain—thou scorn’st his rod.
      Keep only thy digestion clear,
      No other foe my love doth fear.

But Indigestion hath the power
To mar the soul’s serenest hour –
To crumble adamantine trust,
And turn its certainties to dust –
To dim the eye with nameless grief –
To chill the heart with unbelief –
To banish hope, & faith, & love,
Place heaven below & hell above.

      Then list — details are naught to me
            So thou’st the sum-gift of the Giver –
      I ask thee all in asking thee,
            “O darling, how’s your liver?”

Susy Clemens

Twain penned this shorter, more unguardedly serious and beautiful meditation on love, in 1896 — it is believed to be a loving tribute to his daughter Susy, who died of spinal meningitis in August of that year at the age of twenty-four, leaving Twain heartbroken:

[LOVE CAME AT DAWN]

Love came at dawn, when all the world was fair,
When crimson glories’ bloom and sun were rife;
Love came at dawn, when hope’s wings fanned the air,
      And murmured, “I am life.”

Love came at eve, and when the day was done,
When heart and brain were tired, and slumber pressed;
Love came at eve, shut out the sinking sun,
      And whispered, “I am rest.”

Olivia Langdon Clemens as a young wife

Twain turned to poetry as a salve for mourning once more in February of 1904 when Livy, his wife of thirty-four years, was on her deathbed in Florence. The poem has never previously been published.

[GOODNIGHT, SWEETHEART, GOODNIGHT]

Goodnight, Sweetheart, goodnight —
The stars are shining bright,
The snow is turning white,
Dim is the failing light,
Fast falls the glooming night, –
      All right!
      Sleep tight!
      Goodnight.

The collection ends on a more empowering note, with a poem said to have been inspired by Twain’s favorite billiard shot, embodying his remarkable gift for weaving from the thread of everyday life poignant existential metaphors for life itself:

CUSHION FIRST

When all your days are dark with doubt;
      And drying hope is at its worst;
When all life’s balls are scattered wide,
With not a shot in sight, to left or right,
Don’t give it up;
Advance your cue and shut your eyes,
      And take the cushion first.

Complement On the Poetry of Mark Twain with Twain’s mischievous advice to little girls and some heart-warming letters from his readers.

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