December 7: On this day in 1906, Mark Twain spoke in Washington before a Congressional Committee on patents, arguing for a proposed bill establishing copyright at life + fifty years. Other eminent authors and musicians spoke – John Philip Sousa, for example – but Twain, just turned seventy-one and an advocate of copyright law for decades, got all the attention. This was due to his fame, his entertainment value and his white suit – the debut of the iconic garb which Twain wore over his remaining three-and-a-half-years. “Nothing could have been more dramatic,” wrote William Dean Howells, “than the gesture with which he flung off his long loose overcoat, and stood forth in white from his feet to the crown of his silvery head.” Given the next day’s New York Times headline, “MT in White Amuses Congressmen,” the new suit may have been counter-productive to the copyright cause – or perhaps just counter to earlier statements:
We must put up with our clothes as they are – they have their reason for existing. They are on us to expose us – to advertise what we wear them to conceal. They are a sign; a sign of insincerity; a sign of suppressed vanity; a pretense that we desire gorgeous colors and the graces of harmony and form; and we put them on to propagate that lie and back it up. (from Twain’s Following the Equator, a collection of travel pieces published in 1897)
Willa Cather, born on this day in 1873, would not have bought the white suit. Cather started publishing in the Nebraska State Journal while still at the University of Nebraska. One of her articles from 1895, her senior year, describes Twain as a “clever Yankee who has made a ‘good thing’ out of writing,” his success possible only in America, where “a hostler with some natural cleverness and a great deal of assertion” can masquerade as a writer and a gentleman:
The association and companionship of cultured men has given Mark Twain a sort of professional veneer, but it could not give him fine instincts or nice discriminations or elevated tastes. His works are pure and suitable for children, just as the work of most shallow and mediocre fellows. House dogs and donkeys make the most harmless and chaste companions for young innocence in the world. Mark Twain’s humor is of the kind that teamsters use in bantering with each other, and his laugh is the gruff “haw-haw” of the backwoodsman. He is still the rough, awkward, good-natured boy who swore at the deck hands on the river steamer and chewed uncured tobacco when he was three years old. Thoroughly likeable as a good fellow, but impossible as a man of letters.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.