“His voice seemed to say like the river, ‘Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.'”
By Maria Popova
Given my Circles of Influence collaboration and my fascination with first-hand accounts of famous encounters, it’s of little surprise I find myself mesmerized by Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (public library) — an enchanting daisy chain of true encounters spanning more than a century of cultural heroes (and some villains) — from Freud to Tchaikovsky to Hitchcock to Hitchens — spanning science, literature, art, music, film, politics, and more, culled by British writer Craig Brown from diaries, personal correspondence, and various other historical ephemera. Martha Graham strikes fear and awe in a young Madonna. Marilyn Monroe asks Frank Lloyd Wright to design “an elaborate house with which to impress the world.” Walt Disney edits Igor Stravinsky and sparks his creative indignation.
But my favorite intersections revolve around the inimitable Mark Twain.
In 1889, a 23-year-old Rudyard Kipling sets out to meet and interview his hero, Mark Twain. Determined, he dashes from Buffalo to Toronto to Boston on a wild-goose chase that eventually takes him Elmira, where he is told by a local policeman that Twain or “someone who looks like him” (a surprisingly unhelpful description at the time) lives nearby, at East Hill. Brown writes of the encounter:
He is led into a big, dark drawing room. There, in a huge chair, he finds the fifty-three-year-old author of Tom Sawyer with ’a mane of grizzled hair, a brown mustache covering a mouth as delicate as a woman’s, a strong, square hand shaking mine and the slowest, calmest, levellest voice in all the world … I was shaking his hand. I was smoking his cigar, and I was hearing him talk — this man I had learned to love and admire 14,000 miles away.’
Kipling is transfixed. ’That was a moment to be remembered; the landing of a twelve-pound salmon was nothing to it. I had hooked Mark Twain, and he was treating me as though under certain circumstances I might be an equal.’
The two men discuss the difficulties of copyright before moving on to Twain’s work. ’Growing bold, and feeling that I had a few hundred thousand folk at my back, I demanded whether Tom Sawyer married Judge Thatcher’s daughter and whether we were ever going to hear of Tom Sawyer as a man.’
Twain gets up, fills his pipe, and paces the room in his bedroom slippers. ’I haven’t decided. I have a notion of writing the sequel to Tom Sawyer in two ways. In one I would make him rise to great honor and go to Congress, and in the other I should hang him. Then the friends and enemies of the book could take their choice.’
Kipling raises a voice of protest: to him, Tom Sawyer is real.
We now know that Tom Sawyer was real, in the most literal sense, but Twain’s response bespeaks, metaphorically, the magic of suspending disbelief:
’Oh, he is real. He’s all the boys that I have known or recollect; but that would be a good way of ending the book, because, when you come to think of it, neither religion, training, nor education avails anything against the force of circumstances that drive a man. Suppose we took the next four and twenty years of Tom Sawyer’s life, and gave a little joggle to the circumstances that controlled him. He would, logically and according to the joggle, turn out a rip or an angel.’
’Do you believe that, then?’
’I think so; isn’t it what you call kismet?’
’Yes; but don’t give him two joggles and show the result, because he isn’t your property any more. He belongs to us.’
And yet, Twain shares his own fascination with fact over fiction:
Twain talks of the books he likes to read. ’I never cared for fiction or story-books. What I like to read about are facts and statistics of any kind. If they are only facts about the raising of radishes, they interest me. Just now for instance, before you came in, I was reading an article about mathematics. Perfectly pure mathematics. My own knowledge of mathematics stops at “twelve times twelve” but I enjoyed that article immensely. I didn’t understand a word of it; but facts, or what a man believes to be facts, are always delightful.’
After two hours, the interview comes to an end. The great man, who never minds talking, assures his disciple that he has not interrupted him in the least.
But the most magical part of all, as is the case with many of the encounters in the book, is the way in which influence and admiration come full-circle:
Seventeen years on, Rudyard Kipling is world famous. Twain grows nostalgic for the time he spent in his company. ’I believe that he knew more than any person I had met before, and he knew I knew less than any person he had met before … When he was gone, Mr Langdon wanted to know about my visitor. I said, “He is a stranger to me but is a most remarkable man — and I am the other one. Between us, we cover all knowledge; he knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.”’
Twain, now aged seventy, is addicted to Kipling’s works. He rereads Kim every year, ’and in this way I go back to India without fatigue … I am not acquainted with my own books but I know Kipling’s books. They never grow pale to me; they keep their colour; they are always fresh.’
The worshipped has become the worshipper.
A decade later, in 1909, Twain gets a visit from Helen Keller, whom he has befriended fifteen years earlier and with whom he has forged a unique relationship of intellectual and creative camaraderie. Brown writes:
For his part, Twain is in awe. ’She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.’ Shortly after their first meeting, Twain formed a circle to fund her education at Radcliffe College, which led to her publishing an autobiography at the age of twenty-two, which in turn led her to become almost as celebrated as Twain himself.
But the intervening years have struck Twain some heavy blows. One of his daughters has died of meningitis, 7 another of an epileptic fit in a bathtub, and his wife Livy has died of heart disease. Throughout Helen’s stay he acts his familiar bluff, entertaining old self, but she senses the deep sadness within.
’There was about him the air of one who had suffered greatly. Whenever I touched his face, his expression was sad, even when he was telling a funny story. He smiled, not with the mouth but with his mind — a gesture of the soul rather than of the face.’
In a vignette perfectly prototypical of his character, Keller recounts seeing card on the mantelpiece instructing burglars where the valuables of the house were located. There had recently been a burglary and, Twain’s rationale went, the note would prevent future burglars from bothering him once they break in.
Keller, like Kipling, is transfixed by Twain’s billowing voice:
’He seemed to have absorbed all America into himself. The great Mississippi River seemed forever flowing, flowing through his speech, through the shadowless white sands of thought. His voice seemed to say like the river, “Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.”’
The closing scene of that encounter gives you the kind of chills that grip you, often by surprise, frequently throughout the rest of Hello Goodbye Hello:
As she says goodbye, Helen wonders if they will ever meet again. Once more, her intuition proves right. Twain dies the following year. Some time later, Helen returns to where the old house once stood; it has burnt down, with only a charred chimney still standing. She turns her unseeing eyes to the view he once described to her, and at that moment feels someone coming towards her. ’I reached out, and a red geranium blossom met my touch. The leaves of the plant were covered with ashes, and even the sturdy stalk had been partly broken off by a chip of falling plaster. But there was the bright flower smiling at me out of the ashes. I thought it said to me, “Please don’t grieve.”’
She plants the geranium in a sunny corner of her garden. ’It always seems to say the same thing to me, “Please don’t grieve.” But I grieve, nevertheless.’