Dear Mark Twain
Letters from His Readers
By R. Kent Rasmussen
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
More than one hundred years after his death, Mark Twain ranks as one of the most thoroughly documented and studied writers of his time. In addition to countless reprints of his books, the past century has seen publication of scores of editions of his previously unpublished works, plus collections of his journalism, speeches, letters, notebooks, autobiographical dictations, and interviews. Books about Mark Twain now number in the hundreds, articles in the thousands, with no letup in sight. Can anything truly fresh still be added to our understanding of him? One answer may be found in this volume.
Dear Mark Twain presents a selection of previously unpublished letters Samuel L. Clemens received from readers between 1863, the year he adopted the pen name "Mark Twain," and 1910, the year he died. Most are from ordinary people he never met. Though long known to scholars, these letters constitute an important documentary resource that has been little tapped. More than any other type of documents, they reveal what average readers thought of Clemens, "Mark Twain," and his works. Writing with no thought that their letters would ever be seen by other eyes, many readers expressed an incredible warmth of feeling and closeness to Clemens, often bursting with eagerness to declare how he touched their lives. Although many letters exhibit considerable passion, the warmth they exude is not always positive. Numerous letters are highly negative. Others are self-serving bids for personal help, attention, or publicity.
This volume is not a collection of "fan mail," but rather a broadly representative cross section of the wide range of opinions, feelings, and subjects expressed in all the letters Clemens received from readers. Each letter offers a fascinating glimpse into what people outside the worlds of professional criticism and scholarly study thought of Clemens during his lifetime. Many are deeply moving, more than a few are hilarious, some may be shocking, few are dull.
Dear Mark Twain may lay claim to two notable firsts. It is the first published collection of letters to Clemens from readers. As early as a century ago, Albert Bigelow Paine, Clemens's literary executor and the first editor of the Mark Twain Papers, inserted extracts from reader letters in his monumental study, Mark Twain: A Biography—The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (New York, 1912). Since Paine's death in 1935, Clemens's correspondence files have been open to other researchers, many of whom have discussed and quoted reader letters in their own books. Until now, however, no one troubled to gather a selection of these letters into a book. This long delay may have had something to do with the fact that no collection of similar letters to any nineteenth-century author had ever been published. Had other such collections already existed, a book like Dear Mark Twain probably would have appeared well before now. The present volume therefore is also very likely the first published collection of authentic reader letters to any nineteenth-century author and, at the least, one of the few such collections for an author of any era.
The absence of similar collections of letters to other authors in itself says much about Clemens, who was not the only writer known to receive large volumes of mail from readers. Some writers, in fact, may have received even more mail than he did. The English novelist Charles Dickens is one possible example. Although he received an immense volume of mail from readers; however, virtually none of it has survived. Alarmed by the prospect that his intimate correspondence might one day be published, Dickens put his accumulated letters and papers to the torch in 1860. He continued to burn his mail throughout the rest of his life. More than fourteen thousand of his own letters have survived, but almost none written to him escaped the flames.
The French novelist Jules Verne, a closer contemporary of Clemens, provides another interesting case. In 1890, a magazine reported that Verne had "filed away over two thousand letters" from his American readers alone. Claims that Verne received more fan mail than any other author cannot be confirmed, however, because virtually all his reader letters have apparently disappeared.
Clemens differed from most authors in his attitude toward saving manuscripts and correspondence. He seemingly tried to keep almost everything. Equally remarkable is the fact that so much of his manuscript material survived the dislocations not only of his shifting residences and extensive travels but also vicissitudes in their later stewardship. Some correspondence has certainly been lost, but thanks to Clemens's pack-rat habits and the meticulous preservation of documents by the Mark Twain Papers of the University of California's Bancroft Library, a substantial trove of letters from readers has survived to make possible the present book. One wonders why Clemens saved these letters. Did he simply hate to discard manuscript material? Was he conscious of its possible value to his future literary reputation? Or did he think he might later find uses for some of the letters?
CONTENT OF THE LETTERS
Considered purely on their intrinsic interest, these letters make for fascinating and often entertaining reading. Many strain to be humorous, but the funniest are often those that are unintentionally amusing, such as a Dane's autograph request written in English so badly fractured that Clemens specially marked it for preservation. Especially common are letters with presumably serious but outlandish requests and propositions. What makes them comical is their authors' presumption in thinking that Clemens would respond with anything other than angry expletives. A curious example is a struggling writer who wanted to test the literary judgment of editors by having Clemens write for him an article he would try to sell under his own name to see if it would fetch ten dollars. If his experiment worked, he promised to send Clemens the ten dollars.
Some letters are amusing because their authors' attempts to be funny actually succeed. Such letters are rare, but when Clemens received one—such as a Protestant minister's complaint about his hands getting stuck to a self-pasting scrapbook—he was not above recording his appreciation. However, most readers' attempts at humor fail dismally. A common thread running through many is lame attempts to amuse or provoke Clemens by throwing his own words back at him—typically in the form of puns. The frequency of letters playing on "Innocents Abroad" and "Roughing It" alone must have become irksome, and more than a few letters offered weak puns such as "Clemens-y."
The letters can also be read as mirrors reflecting the images Clemens cast on the world. Clemens worked hard at crafting his own public image and must have been gratified by the obviously sincere affection many readers expressed. An 1877 letter from a Pennsylvania man asking for help in getting published in the Atlantic Monthly expresses a reaction to Clemens's writings that many other readers felt: "I have not thought of preparing this request to any one else, and hardly know why I have ventured to thus address you—except it is, that I like you—through your writings and sayings—so suggestive of the man behind them." One of the currents running through this collection is how closely readers associated Clemens the man with Mark Twain the writer.
The genuineness of readers' affection for Clemens is undeniable, but he sometimes found the fulsome admiration he received cloying, and it may even have engendered in him a degree of arrogant contempt. The letters also may have made him more cynical about the intelligence of his readers and human beings in general even as they fed his ego. Nevertheless, comments he recorded on the letters and their envelopes occasionally reveal his appreciation of intelligently expressed praise and criticism. Because Clemens was acutely aware of the value of pleasing the book-buying public, we can be certain he paid attention to what his readers told him.
CATEGORIZING THE LETTERS
Readers wrote to Clemens for an astonishing variety of reasons, putting him in what his biographer Paine called "a constant state of siege, besought by all varieties and conditions of humanity for favors such as only human need and abnormal ingenuity can invent. His ever-increasing mail presented a marvelous exhibition of the human species on undress parade." Another biographer, John Lauber, outlined a rough typology of the correspondents: appreciative fans, inspired readers, question askers and suggestion offerers, complainers, religious cranks, aspiring writers, beggars, and hoaxers. To this list might be added categories such as condolence givers, commentators sending real-life examples of Clemens's fictions, and exaggerations and tourists reporting on how they used his travel books during their own travels. Rigid categorization may be a mistake, however, as many letters would fall into more than one category and some might not fit any.
Autograph requests may have been the most common type of letter nineteenth-century authors received from readers, and Clemens probably got more than his share. In an 1882 reply to a persistent young autograph hound, Clemens claimed that he received one-half dozen such requests per week, "three hundred letters a year!" His estimate is probably exaggerated, but he doubtless received a great number of requests. He wearied of their dreary sameness early in his career but became more amenable to responding favorably during his last years. He especially disliked autograph requests accompanied by demands for special "sentiments." In 1882, for example, a Pennsylvania journalist sent him a politely worded request for an autograph but foolishly added, "Will you kindly preface your 'auto' with a 'sentiment' of some kind?" That mistake moved Clemens to comment, "From some low-bred & unrefined son of a bitch in Pennsylvania." The supplicant's unused self-addressed and stamped envelope is still filed with his letter.
Clemens also received many requests to supply biographical information or pithy messages from members of literary societies scheduled to present papers on him at meetings. Such petitions were akin to autograph requests—of which they may occasionally have been disguised forms. The fact that these letters meant that Clemens was the subject of appreciative discussions flattered him, but being repeatedly asked the same questions wore him down. In September 1879, he wrote to his Quaker City friend Mary Mason Fairbanks that he was so tired of his correspondence that "I went to Europe mainly to get rid of my inane, brain-softening letter-answering." He continued, "These letters are compliments, consequently one cannot disrespect them. But constantly answering the very same questions in the very same way is another form of climbing a treadmill—you seem to be nearing the top, but you're not." The following year, he wrote on one such request, "A heavy curse fall on the particular devil who invented this most offensive form of persecution."
Clemens received scores of requests for advice on writing and getting published. Some were long, detailed descriptions of books the correspondents had written or intended to write. Others simply wanted him to read their manuscripts or intervene with publishers on their behalf. Clemens struck many as a successful writer who had built his own career from unpromising beginnings, and he also projected the image of a warm and generous person willing to offer help. Moreover, any assistance writers could get from someone as famous as he was might set them on their own roads to success.
Many letters tried to soften up Clemens with lavish praise of his talent and with appeals to his generous nature. In 1890, for example, a Baltimore man signing himself "Ajax" wrote, "I come to you and throw myself at your feet, as it were, because you are a benefactor." His long, tedious letter goes on to explain his frustrations over not getting published and asks Clemens—or "some friend in your line of business"—to intervene in his behalf. Clemens was especially impatient with would-be writers seeking shortcuts to success. His curt comment on Ajax's envelope sums up his attitude toward such writers: "The same old thing. Man wants to know the royal road, & would like help—"
Although Clemens generally declined or ignored requests for writing and publishing help, he occasionally did make a difference in another writer's career. A prime example occurred in 1884, when a young Kansas journalist, Edgar W. Howe, sent him a copy of his privately printed novel, The Story of a Country Town. Howe included the usual praise: "I regard you as the foremost American writer." He then meekly added, "I would greatly prize an opinion from your pen, but I suppose this is asking too much." Not only did Clemens read Howe's book, he also responded with generous praise and suggestions for improvements, gave Howe permission to use the "public" part of his letter as he pleased, and even invited Howe to visit him. Later, he gave Howe the names and addresses of other literary figures who might help. Armed with Clemens's warm endorsement and similar praise from W.D. Howells, Howe later published his novel in a trade edition that enjoyed considerable success.
Clemens's initial reply to Howe reveals something about why he responded favorably to that writer's request and unfavorably to most others. The big difference was Howe's sending him a printed copy of his book. Clemens remarked, "I can tell hardly anything about a book which is written in an unfamiliar hand; & so, lest I express a lame & unjust opinion, I express none at all." He concluded: "Out of the six & thirty million times I have been asked for an opinion about a book, I believe this is the first time I have ever furnished one—not that I am loathsome & unsympathetic, but because the books were worthless." That last remark seems to contradict his point about handwritten manuscripts but probably expressed his true feeling.
Another reason Clemens avoided answering requests for advice was the danger of being drawn into unproductive arguments with writers dissatisfied with what he might tell them. In 1902, he made the mistake of telling Mary A. Geisse, an aspiring poet, that her work showed talent but lacked the genius that makes a poet a success. Geisse then expressed her disappointment:
Having learned this by experience, and knowing that you must have a large acquaintance among those interested in our leading magazines I thought perhaps if I told you of my hard struggle, and you saw any talent in my work you might be willing to speak a word for me. But if I have erred in my judgement, I can only regret it, as it has entailed trouble upon you and been a keen disappointment to me.
In the margin of Geisse's letter, an exasperated Clemens wrote, "I tried to make this fool understand (without saying the naked brutal words) that she has neither talent nor genius with this damned result."
The most detestable communications Clemens received must have been begging letters, which developed into an art form in Great Britain and the United States during the nineteenth century. He was the target of a steady stream of pleas for financial aid that ranged from invitations to invest in dubious schemes to artfully worded appeals for loans and requests for outright gifts of cash. At least seventy-five such letters have been preserved. Their details vary enormously, but most follow a predictable formula. After opening with a warm compliment or two, they recount their supplicants' misfortunes, offer a cannot-miss plan for recovery, allude to Clemens's alleged wealth, remind him of how he had once struggled, and offer impressive references. They then typically claim there is no one else to whom they can turn, specify what they want from him, and assure him of their undying gratitude. After his publishing company declared bankruptcy in 1894 and his own financial problems were publicized, such dried up. (Continues...)
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