Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels--From Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe

Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels--From Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe

by Anthony Arthur

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A submarine's deadliest antagonist is another sub. Some of our most illustrious writers have tried their best to sink their enemies, using all the weapons at their command-wit, humor, sarcasm, invective, and the occasional right cross to the jaw. In these eight profiles of quarrels between famous authors, Anthony Arthur draws on a lifetime of reading and teaching


A submarine's deadliest antagonist is another sub. Some of our most illustrious writers have tried their best to sink their enemies, using all the weapons at their command-wit, humor, sarcasm, invective, and the occasional right cross to the jaw. In these eight profiles of quarrels between famous authors, Anthony Arthur draws on a lifetime of reading and teaching their works to describe the feuds as lively duels of strong personalities. Going beyond mere gossip, he provides insights into the issues that provoked the quarrels-Soviet communism, World War II, and the natural tension between the critical and the creative temperaments among them. The result reads like a collection of short stories, with the featured authors as their own best characters and having the best lines. For example:

--Ernest Hemingway on his one-time friend and tutor: "Gertrude Stein was never crazy/Gertrude Stein was very lazy."

--Sinclair Lewis to Theodore Dreiser "I still say you are a liar and a thief."

--Mary McCarthy on Lillian Hellman " . . . every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the. ' "

These great writers are a quarrelsome bunch indeed, and these true tales of bookish bickering are guaranteed to enlighten and entertain even the most discriminating literature lovers.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Fulbright scholar Arthur (The Tailor-King; Deliverance at Los Banos) wrote this entertaining compilation of essays to help readers "appreciate and understand [the authors'] work." However, these 20- to 30-page accounts of sparring and enmity between famous, predominantly American authors (e.g., Mark Twain vs. Bret Harte; Ernest Hemingway vs. Gertrude Stein; Tom Wolfe vs. John Updike), although very well written, sometimes seem more like gossip than literary analysis. It would have been more edifying if Arthur had written a detailed, lengthier piece on just one or two of these feuds. He could then have made more detailed reference to the authors' works and expanded on some of the more interesting aspects of his or her work, such as the social climate and cultural milieu in which the authors were living, working, and, of course, arguing. As it stands, Arthur's work will mostly prove useful as a reference for students concurrently studying the works of one or more of the authors discussed. It also provides some useful material for cultural historians interested in the construction and maintenance of celebrity throughout the 20th century. Rebecca Bollen, Jersey City, NJ Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Readable, engaging look at memorable fights among (mostly) 20th-century literary personalities. Fulbright scholar Arthur (The Tailor King, 1999, etc.) maintains a lively enthusiasm in examining conflict among prickly literary lions, believing that these episodes address the "paradoxical relationship between these writers' lives and their works." His eight chapter-length essays also provide a rich background in different literary epochs. Ironically, some feuds grew out of writers' early friendships in their years before fame, as in with Mark Twain and Bret Harte; although Twain was initially indebted to Harte, he turned on his mentor after Harte succumbed to impoverished mediocrity. Similarly, Ernest Hemingway's early expatriate experiences, when he worshipfully attended the Paris salon of Gertrude Stein, were savagely mocked by him once his own fame was established, particularly in response to Stein's cooling on his work. Interestingly, the most genteel clashes recounted here occur over aesthetic and philosophical conflicts (between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, and, less strikingly, C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis), while the most vicious feud replays important political schisms between the Old and New Left, via Lillian Hellman's ill-advised libel suit against Mary McCarthy. Finally, there is the post-1950s free-for-all among privileged white male celebrity writers as Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, John Updike, John Irving, and Tom Wolfe have at it, managing to appear both witty and puerile in their elaborate jousts at one another's expense. Although this is studded with fine-tuned bons mots (as when Vidal opines that to attack Capote is "attacking an elf"), the reader mayfinally agree with Wilson's observation that literary feuds find notable authors at their most "querulous and unattractive." Too, Arthur might have produced a more provocative work had he included more obscure writers and contemporary mud-slingers like Curtis White, Dale Peck, and Francine Prose. Still, for literary enthusiasts, an amusing compendium of the vitriol and ego for which our most enduring writers somehow set aside the time.

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Literary Feuds

A Century of Celebrated Quarrels

By Anthony Arthur

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Anthony Arthur
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-7042-6


Partners No More


Here's how it started, this famous and doomed friendship: It was mid-morning, early in the summer of 1864 in San Francisco. If it was a typical morning, the pale sun was parting the fog that curled past the third floor of the San Francisco Call building on Commercial Street, where the offices of the United States Mint were located. Two men, both in their mid-twenties, slightly built and short, sat in friendly conversation. The younger man (though only by a year) was the host, for it was his office — that of the assistant to the district supervisor of the Mint. His guest was the recently hired beat reporter for the newspaper downstairs.

Writing, not watching over the government's money, was what interested Bret Harte. At twenty-seven, he was seen by the thriving literary set in San Francisco as a comer, even as a genius if taken at his own word, according to which he read Shakespeare at the age of six, Dickens at seven, and Montaigne at eight, though he stopped short of claiming to have read the latter in the original French.

Harte was not a native Californian — few Americans were. He had come west from Albany with his widowed mother in 1854 and worked as a tutor and at other odd jobs, many more interesting in his creative retelling than they were in actual fact. (His brief, uneventful stint with the Wells, Fargo Express Company in 1857 soon became a perilous tour of duty riding shotgun on a stagecoach; the man who preceded him was wounded by bandits and his successor was killed, he said.) He wandered through northern California, eventually finding work in Humboldt County, near the border with Oregon, as a newspaper reporter. One true story from this period reflects well on Harte as a man of generous spirit and some courage. He wrote a blistering attack on a mob massacre of about sixty Indians — one of the more notorious incidents of early California history — and barely got out of town with his own life when the lynchers came looking for him.

Returning to San Francisco in 1860, Harte won the favor of Jessie Benton Frémont, wife of the famous explorer, who hosted a literary salon in her house overlooking the bay. It was through Mrs. Frémont that Harte won his position with the Mint, more a sinecure than a real job, though he performed his simple duties capably enough. Widely published within the next few years in local newspapers and magazines, he took his first step toward national recognition by appearing in the October 1863 issue of the country's leading magazine, the Atlantic Monthly. In May 1864 his friend Charles Webb initiated a new literary journal, the Californian, with Harte as one of its main contributors and as occasional editor. Within two years Harte would publish a vast number of pieces in the Californian — thirty-five poems and seventy-eight prose pieces, including parodies of James Fenimore Cooper ("Muck-a-Muck"), Dickens, Dumas, and Charlotte Brontë.

Newly married, to a pretty but severe young woman named Anna Griswold, and securely if undemandingly employed, Harte was beginning to gather the material for some of the stories that in a few years would make him famous: "The Luck of Roaring Camp," about a baby born to a dying prostitute in a rough gold-mining town who makes rowdies and killers into softhearted daddies; "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," in which the righteous townsfolk send a gambler, a prostitute, and other undesirables out to die in a snowstorm; and "Tennessee's Partner," about two miners whose friendship survives even death.

An elegant if not foppish dresser, Bret Harte favored tailored suits and white broadcloth shirts set off by a diamond stickpin and a bright red necktie. Though his face was marked with smallpox scars, he was a handsome man, with curly black hair, finely chiseled features, and a luxuriant black mustache. He wasn't famous for his conversation; when he did talk, he affected a witty, sardonic pose not unlike that of his notoriously cynical friend Ambrose Bierce.

Harte's guest on that summer morning in 1864 provided a vivid study in contrasts with his elegant host. He was rumpled and bombastic, with bushy reddish eyebrows and mustache, wildly luxuriant brown hair, and an intensity of eye so like that of an eagle, Harte later wrote, that "a second lid would not have surprised me." His "general manner [was] one of supreme indifference to surroundings and circumstances." The guest's name was Sam Clemens, and he had grown up on the shores of the Mississippi River, hoping to become that most romantic and picturesque of mortals, as he later said — a steamboat pilot. He achieved his aim just in time to see it sunk by the Civil War, which closed off all river traffic and made the nation dependent on the railroad instead.

Mildly patriotic for the South, Clemens saw early and brief service as a Confederate militia volunteer. An inconsequential but bloody skirmish persuaded him that "war must be the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity," and that he was "not rightly equipped for this awful business...." He went with some similarly disillusioned comrades to inform his captain that "the war was a disappointment to us and we were going to disband." In fact, he deserted.

Many years later, Twain would end his most famous novel with Huckleberry Finn's rueful observation that Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally was planning to "adopt me and sivilize me," a horrible prospect. Huck says, "'I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ...," that is, the West, where a man could be free to do as he pleased. Sam Clemens, leaving behind not civilization but war, lit out in 1861 for the territory of Nevada, where his older brother, Orion, had been hired as secretary to the territorial governor. He found his calling there as a reporter for the newspaper in Virginia City, gathering material, sharpening his eye for vernacular humor, and adopting his pen name, Mark Twain. He also made a bad enemy, the husband of a woman he had smilingly insulted in print and who proposed to shoot him.

He left town in a hurry for San Francisco, taking with him a whole skin and a bag full of stories that he planned to start selling. Here was one, he told Harte a few days after their first encounter, that he thought had potential. It was about a jumping frog named Dan'l Webster, whose master, Jim Smiley, had trained him so well — educated him — that Dan'l could out-jump any other frog in the world. A smooth-talking stranger boasts that if he had a frog, he could make it a winner. He'd be willing to bet forty dollars. Smiley volunteers to catch a fresh frog from the nearby swamp. While he is gone the stranger pours quail shot down Dan'l's gullet. When the race begins, "the new frog hopped off lively, but Dan'l gave a heave and hysted up his shoulders — so — like a Frenchman, but it warn't no use — he couldn't budge; he was planted as solid as a church, and he couldn't no more stir than if he was anchored out." The stranger disappears with the forty dollars, and Smiley is left with a shot-filled frog and eternal renown.

Years later, Harte would remember the moment when he first heard "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which defined Mark Twain's genius and set him on his path to literary greatness. The story is still "known and laughed over wherever the English language is spoken; but it will never be as funny to any one in print as it was to me, told for the first time by the unknown Twain himself on that morning in the San Francisco Mint."

It was one of those golden moments in literary history, remembered by both men in slightly different ways. Though neither of them would stay much longer in California — it had already lost, for them, much of its earlier charm, having been turned over to economic buccaneers and civic uplifters — their paths would cross often in succeeding years.

For a while, the relationship was cordial. Harte hired the "genial humorist," as he called Mark Twain, to write weekly articles for the Californian and praised him generously, even as his own influence grew. Early in 1868 he became the first editor of a new magazine based in San Francisco and called the Overland Monthly. Under his astute guidance, the magazine became prosperous and influential, featuring his own stories as well as those of Bierce, Twain, and lesser writers. All of them, including Twain, were fortunate to have Harte as their guide and mentor. "Waves of influence" rippled out from Harte at this time, a literary historian wrote later: "indeed the literary West may be said to have founded itself upon the imagination of Bret Harte."

Harte, for his part, saw immediately that Mark Twain was "inimitable" and was one of the first to praise his genius both as writer and platform speaker. In a review of Twain's public lecture on his adventures in Hawaii, he said the young Midwesterner took his audience "by storm," in no small part because he displayed such "shrewdness and a certain hearty abhorrence of shams." Twain "can write seriously and well when he chooses, which is perhaps the best test of true humor," Harte noted; minor faults of "crudeness" and "coarseness" could not obscure the clear signs that Mark Twain was "a new star rising in this western horizon."

Harte not only published and lauded Twain's early stories, he taught the less experienced writer much about style, control, and voice while editing his magazine submissions. He "trimmed and trained and schooled me patiently," Twain said in 1870, "until he changed me from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesquenesses to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favor in the eyes of some of the very decentest people in the land."

But even at the height of his fame, in the early 1870s, some readers saw Harte's stories as too sentimental, too cloying. Though his own experience had taught him that the West was often vicious, Harte laid the foundation for several generations of platitudes and clichés, obscuring the truths that readers might have found too unpleasant for comfort. He was, in essence, a writer of romance. Mark Twain's reputation, by contrast, would come to be based upon puncturing sentimental hypocrisy; he thought of himself as a realist, not a romantic, and he soon regretted his identification with Harte as a local colorist celebrating the virtues of the Old West.

Moreover, Twain was by nature competitive. Like Ernest Hemingway, a Twain admirer who later spoke of himself as eager to "get into the ring" with "Mr. Proust" and "Mr. Tolstoi," he wanted above all to "shine ... to make money, to rival and outrival those whom the public most admired." As early as 1866, Twain clearly thought of himself and Harte as competitors : "Though I am generally placed at the head of my breed of scribblers in this part of the country, the place properly belongs to Bret Harte, I think, though he denies it, along with the rest." By 1871, though, he is vowing to "top" Bret Harte or "bust."

In 1871, we should remember, the upward trajectory of Mark Twain's astounding career was barely perceptible, his critical reputation hovering somewhere between those of Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor today. He had published his first collection of stories, which included Jim Smiley's "Celebrated Frog," in 1867, and The Innocents Abroad, an intermittently funny Ugly American collection about traveling in Europe and the Holy Land, in 1869; but The Adventures of Tom Sawyer would not appear until 1876 and his long-delayed masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, came out in 1884. In 1871, he had done nothing to justify his later beatification as "the Lincoln of our literature" by his friend William Dean Howells, and had not even conceived of the story that would lead Hemingway to call him the father of modern American literature ("It all begins with Huckleberry Finn" ).

Today, of course, Twain is an American icon, lovingly reincarnated by Hal Holbrook as a mischievous old gent with a cigar, a hanky, and a white linen suit. The public Twain was amusingly cantankerous but essentially wise, patient, and tolerant of human foibles, in his manner if not in his words. His life is regarded as an extraordinary American success story, and his afterlife, in terms of public esteem and unflagging sales of his works, not to mention movies made from them, is a continuing triumph. He remains one of the few American authors to inspire real affection among readers and nonreaders alike.

But the late nineteenth century was full of stories about schizophrenic characters whose frightening doubles belied their public appearances. Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, Dostoyevsky's underground man, Wells's invisible man are only the best known of many. Sam Clemens's most effective fictional character would be that of Mark Twain, as many of his biographers have noted — Justin Kaplan would even call his popular life of the author Mr: Clemens and Mark Twain. Twain himself (as most of his commentators now refer to him) was fully aware of the disparity between his public image and his private; particularly in his later years he was, in Hamlin Hill's apt words, "a man whose sense of rage at the world in which he lived grew and grew to mammoth proportions...." A primary target of Twain's rage, perhaps because he was reachable — unlike the world itself — would be Bret Harte.

Bret Harte's early fame was about to fade even as Twain enviously vowed to overtake him or "bust," though he seemed to be poised for triumph. In 1871 Harte was offered a contract by the Atlantic Monthly for ten thousand dollars — enough money to live well on for two years. The Atlantic Monthly had fallen on hard times, and its energetic new editor, William Dean Howells, thought Harte's popularity would serve to rejuvenate the magazine's sagging circulation numbers. For Harte, who wanted to be a larger frog in a larger pond than was possible in San Francisco, the offer was a career-maker. All he had to do was submit a dozen usable pieces of writing within a year, and the best magazine in the country would print them.

Harte and his family, which now included two boys, seven and five years old, left San Francisco by train in February 1871 for New York. It was a leisurely and pleasant passage, marked by stops in Denver, Chicago, Syracuse, and other cities, where he was interviewed and feted as the celebrated author of the Gold Camp stories and, more recently, "Plain Language from Truthful James." The best part of this long narrative poem, published in the Overland Monthly in September 1870, was "The Heathen Chinee." Intended by Harte as a satire of anti-Chinese phobia in the West, it was misread by most of his audience as a humorous expose of "the yellow peril," and it became a huge popular success. Harte had no illusions about the poem's quality, saying he had composed it in a rush to fill out the issue, and was unhappy with the misperception of his satire. But he was at the peak of his popularity and not inclined to climb down from it. He was, Mark Twain said in March 1871, "the most celebrated man in America today ... the man whose name is on every single tongue from one end of the continent to the other" — and "Plain Language from Truthful James" was what "did it for him." One can almost hear the envy in Twain's voice as he records that Harte "crossed the continent through such a prodigious blaze of national interest and excitement that one might have supposed he was the Viceroy of India." Howells later said Harte's trip was "like the progress of a prince" in the way it prompted "universal attention and interest" in the press.

His reception in Boston was everything that Harte could have wished for. Howells met him at the train station and took him to his home for a week. He dined with the luminaries of the literary set at the Parker House, men whose dignity and reputations were symbolized by their weighty triple names: James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana. Harte had some reason to believe that he had been accepted as a member of this Olympian group. His pedigree, despite his years in the ruffianly West, was good on his mother's side, as she was descended from Revolutionary War heroes and old Knickerbockers. His literary fame, if not his actual accomplishments, led him to think himself the equal of anyone. And, indeed, he was cordially received, at first, by everyone he met — Emerson, with whom Harte spent a day walking around Walden Pond, thought him "an easy, kindly, well-behaved man."

Bernard DeVoto, whose work on Twain remains important, thought Harte had succeeded in winning over the literary establishment, mostly by obsequious flattery, in a way that Twain did not, and that this accounted for some of Twain's distrust of Harte. In DeVoto's words, doors that were "incapable of opening to Mark Twain" did so for Harte, a "schoolteacher and the son of schoolteachers," whose "sympathy, embedded in sweet tales, greatly comforted the nice people." But Gary Scharnhorst, the foremost authority on Harte, plausibly argues that Harte was regarded by Howells as merely an attractive personality and as a popular writer who could help revive the Atlantic Monthly, not as a writer of genius like Mark Twain. Harte "always remained an outsider" for Howells and for his charmed circle, Scharnhorst says, "a 'salaried contributor' and a 'delightful guest'" but no more.


Excerpted from Literary Feuds by Anthony Arthur. Copyright © 2002 Anthony Arthur. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Anthony Arthur is a Fulbright Scholar and the author of Deliverance at Los Banos and Bushmaster, both narrative histories of World War II. He is also the author of The Tailor-King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster. Anthony Arthur lives in Woodland Hills, California, where for many years he has taught writing and literature at California State University, Northridge.

Anthony Arthur is the author of numerous works of history, including Deliverance at Los Baños, Bushmaster, and The Tailor-King. He was a Fulbright Scholar in 1980 and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

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