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The Surprising and Familiar Mark Twain

Published: November 26, 2011

He was America’s best known author when he died, as he is today. But in the 101 years since his death, Mark Twain’s reputation has been so polished by admiring generations that it’s taken on a rich, unnatural luster. It’s hard to distinguish the man from the legend.

Fortunately we have contemporary accounts of Twain, which give a touch of human dimension to the Great Man. One of these contemporaries was the drama critic Brander Matthews. In 1920, he wrote his “Memories of Mark Twain” for the Post, which told of their 30-year friendship.

Much of his account agrees with the popular image of the man. For example, there is his ready wit in public speaking:

A score of American men of letters were invited [to a dinner with Andrew Carnegie] and half a dozen of us were summoned to stand and deliver. When Mark’s turn came, he soared aloft in whimsical exaggeration, casually dropping a reference to the time when he had lent Carnegie a million dollars.

Our smiling host promptly interjected: “That had slipped my memory!”

And Mark looked down on him solemnly, and retorted, “Then, the next time, I’ll take a receipt.”

He referred to Twain’s love of tobacco:

He was an incessant smoker, yet he was wont to say that he never smoked to excess— that is, he never smoked two cigars at once and he never smoked when he was asleep. But [William Dean] Howells has recorded that when Mark came to visit him, he used to go into Mark’s room at night to remove the still lighted cigar from the lips of his sleeping guest.

But Matthews also saw aspects of Twain that are less well known, such as his desire to be taken seriously.

Many of those who have written about him have dealt with him solely as a humorist, overlooking the important fact that a large part of his work is not laughter-provoking and not intended to be.

[He once told me] “I’m glad that you…have been telling people that I am serious. When I make a speech now, I find that they are a little disappointed if I don’t say some things that are serious; and that just suits me—for I have so many serious things I want to say!”

And there was a surprisingly resentful side to Twain, which nearly ended his friendship with Matthews. After Matthews had publicly taken a position different from Twain’s—

I soon heard from more than one of our common friends that Mark was acutely dissatisfied; and when I next met him, he was distant in his manner—and I might even describe it as chilly. Of course, I regretted this; but I could only hope that his fundamental friendliness would warm him up sooner or later.

Twain with Brander Matthews and the editor of Harper's Magazine, Laurence Hutton

I knew that Mark had a hair-trigger temper and that he was swift to let loose all the artillery of heaven to blow a foe from off the face of the earth. I was aware moreover that a professional humorist is not infrequently a little deficient in that element of the sense-of-humor which guards a man against taking himself too seriously. I had been told also that Mark, genial as he was, and long suffering as he often was, could be a good hater, superbly exaggerating the exuberance of his ill-will. His old friend, Twitchell, once wrote him about a piece of bad luck which had befallen a man who had been one of Mark’s special antipathies; and Mark wrote back:

“I am more than charmed to hear of it; still, it doesn’t do me half the good it would have done if it had come sooner. My malignity has so worn out and wasted away with time and the exercise of charity that even his death would not afford me anything more than a mere fleeting ecstasy, a sort of momentary, pleasurable titillation, now—unless of course, it happened in some particularly radiant way, like burning or boiling or something like that. Joys that come to us after the capacity for enjoyment is dead are but an affront.”

But this was Twain being outrageous—something he did well and something he was encouraged to do. In fact, Twain could barely manage to hold a grudge very long. Not a year passed before Twain put aside his resentment when he met Matthews again at an artist’s retreat.

Within a week after our arrival Mark stepped up on our porch, as pleasantly as if there had never been a cloud on our friendship,

“I hear you play a French game called piquet,” he began. “I wish you would teach me.” And we taught him, although it was no easy task, since he was forever wanting to make over the rules of the game to suit his whim of the moment—a boyish trait which I soon discovered to be entirely characteristic.

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  • Charles Neumann

    Very interesting. Mark Twain was a very complex man. Remember, the writer was a friend of his, a more objective writer likely would be more likely to find other “faults” with the great man.

  • James (Jim) Kelly

    Humor is the best way to get your point across and have it remembered. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is the proof of that. He came in with Haley’s Comet in 1835 and went out with it in 1910.

    Will Rogers was of the same mentality. Will went out with a plane crash in Alaska.

    I hope, as well as being remembered, they have done some good. Sad to say, it seems what they predicted about politics has come about, and is still headed in that selfish direction. God Bless America! The current President’s pastor said the opposite and that President still got elected. And re-elected?

  • Ima Ryma

    Samuel Clemens used pen names,
    Before deciding on “Mark Twain.”
    He would sign “Josh” to sketching frames,
    And “Snodgrass” to lettered refrain.
    Mississippi riverboating
    Gave Samuel the Mark Twain choice.
    When shouted it meant just one thing,
    “Safe to pass,” from a boatman’s voice.
    So famous Mark Twain came to be.
    Did he live up to its truth told?
    In reply he would say that he
    Was too modest to talk so bold.

    Whatever name, one thing is sure.
    He left us great literature.