“I, Mark Twain”: Generic Marginalization and an American Comedic Identity1

Brad Hunt

All unattributed content Copyright © 2007-2010 Bradley A. Hunt

1

Excerpted and adapted from my original research and subsequent thesis entitled “'I Mark Twain': Generic Marginalization and the American Comedic Identity,” written under the guidance of Professors Celeste Langan and Kent Puckett at the University of California, Berkeley and completed in the Spring of 2007. Twice the length of the present text, the original paper differs from the current in its further elaboration of the notion of comedic identities as well as its juxtaposition of Mark Twain to the present-day examples of ardently American comedic identities provided by “fake news” icons Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

1
Costello: Well then who’s on first? Abbott: Yes. Costello: I mean the fellow’s name. Abbott: Who. Costello: The guy on first. Abbott: Who. Costello: The first baseman. Abbott: Who. Costello: The guy playing... Abbott: Who is on first! Costello: I’m asking you who’s on first. - Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Who’s On First?

Comedy is not to be taken seriously. I repeat: I will not take comedy seriously. But suppose we were to overturn two millennia of marginality, beginning with Aristotle’s damning decree in Poetics that “comedy is…a mimesis of inferior persons.”2 Suppose we were to shrug off assertions that humorists are in a perpetual state of “just joking,” that the genre and all tributary modes are, in fact, undeserving of exploration. By granting these clowns and fools a textual throne through critical inquiry we may upset some unseen balance. Perhaps a Pandora’s box of denigrated genres will unintentionally unlatch, and humor itself (and laughter with it) will begrudgingly join the Dodo. This, indeed, is a risk, therefore consider yourself warned. But perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of comedy that could be called an ‘event.’3 Locating the precise time and place of this ‘event’ would be both impossible and unproductive; we can only deduce that it has taken place based on residual evidence. This evidence is necessarily both over-apparent and tangible: walking, talking, engaged and engaging individuals who carry and exude “the history of the concept of comedy” as definitely as they

2 3

Aristotle, Poetics, trans. George Whalley, (Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 63. I am, of course, “playing” on the opening to Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” a text which itself represents somewhat of an ‘event’ in contemporary academic discourse (though the author would undoubtedly resist this characterization). Also, I open with a play on Derrida’s “The Law of Genre.” Though his ideas heavily influence my reading of American comedic identities, Derrida is seldom cited in this text, and my “playing” serves as a tribute to his fundamental yet unavoidably underrepresented role in the formation of these arguments.

2 carry teeth, hands, or hair.4 All this is to say the history of the concept of comedy contains an event that the histories of the concepts of drama and tragedy do not. It is safe to assume all genres harbor and always have harbored the potential for an adjective form: one might be dramatic, tragic, epic, comic, et cetera. But, unless I’m mistaken, no one has (yet) been accused being a dramatian, tragitician, or epicedian.5 This is a function exclusive to comedy, the ability for an animate individual to be so consumed by genre that s/he becomes, is transformed by, exhibits solely the characteristics of said genre. The comedian, though born of humans, is arguably less “natural” than test tube children. Indeed, at some point in the history of the concept of comedy this tangential potential for the genre—this mode as I will call it—must have been forged. An indeterminable and unimportant ‘event’ took place allowing the creation of this unnatural identity, and the residue of this event— the comedian—demands an era of rethinking and re-teaching our relationships to genre.6 Literary genre, a concept once considered merely textual, is now evident in both person and page, begging a concentrated consideration of this unprecedented amalgamation of the once separate human and comic. Discussing the relation between tradition and narratives in his Just Gaming, Jean-François Lyotard articulates the under-appreciated importance of “the teller” to a tale, insisting that variance and performativity—not continuity—separate “good storytellers” from “indifferent ones.” He continues: …the teller expends vast amounts of poetic and rhetorical inventiveness, including of course plays on words, jokes, and even mime, to animate his narrative…The relevant
4

I beg the pardon of any reader who might not have these specific physical attributes (teeth, hands, and/or hair). My point, I hope, still remains. 5 These are invented words to prove a point. I am aware, however, that writers of these genres may be given genrederived titles, but this is hardly the same as performing a genre and adopting a genre-derived title for that purpose (particularly one in which the performer appears to be exclusively trapped). 6 Rethinking then re-teaching. In that order, please. It should also be noted that the concept of genre has potential beyond literature, but for the purposes of this essay both genre and mode refer exclusively to literary applications.

3 feature is not faithfulness: it is not because one has preserved the story well that one is a good narrator, at least as far as profane narratives are concerned. On the contrary, it is because one “hams” it up, because one invents, because one inserts novel episodes that stand out as motifs against the narrative plot line, which, for its part, remains stable, that one is successful. When we say tradition, we think identity without difference, whereas there actually is very much difference: the narratives get repeated but are never identical.7 Despite their shared etymological origin, “identity” disrupts the potential for “identical” narratives. Lyotard gives priority to storyteller over story and implies that this hierarchy has always existed: the tradition of tradition is variance, not dogma, and the identity of the storyteller drives this distinction. Consider the era-centric popular conception of the “history” of the English discipline: the Romantic to the Victorian to the Edwardian to the Modern to the Postmodern, an organization of culture and art that implies movement, not static complacency, feasibly because the storyteller (not the story) is perpetually required to reinvent, to “ham” it up. Now, let us imagine a storyteller who publicly confines himself to a single genre. In announcing this decision, the storyteller begins a life of storytelling separate from her private affairs, and in restricting herself to comedy, the storyteller begins to become a literary genre, to perform the characteristics of said genre and be subject to the preexisting opinions of said genre. In an era of dead authors, that is, in an era of “Death of the Author,” it is far too easy to forget that the author alone creates. Texts must be forged, and in doing so the forger inserts herself into the text, is compelled to create due to identity, and is himself more textual, more generic for having authored. We can see the results of our event (the comedian), the potential cause of it (variance by storytellers, storytellers modifying and thus becoming a text/genre), and have no need to consider the actual ‘event’ for reasons of practicality. Left alone on our plate is the question of

7

Jean-François Lyotard, Just Gaming, with Jean-Loup Thebaud, trans. by Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979) 33.

4 implications. What does it mean that comedy consumes the identities of living individuals? What does it imply to be—not comic—but a comedian?8 Below I will explore the authored conceptions of comedic self in the early works of Mark Twain, his asserted marginal origins, and their implications on his comedic identity. But marginality is only relevant if one defines the system within which s/he is marginal. For the purposes of this text, that system is Americanness, broadly defined because there is simply no other way to define it. My pursuit is ultimately similar to the conflict in Abbott and Costello’s classic “Who's on first” routine: questions of identity are answered with an identity that is a question. Both “Mark Twain” and “Who’s on first” are each simultaneously concrete declarations and interrogations, at once a seemingly impossible absence and a presence that begs further investigation.

An Identity Two Fathoms Deep It is to the great benefit of Samuel Clemens specifically and American Letters in general that Captain Isaiah Sellers died of natural causes in 1864. Without that event, the world would potentially credit some of the most popular works of American Literature to either “Sergeant Fathom” or “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab.”9 According to Clemens in Life on the Mississippi, Captain Sellers “used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the [Mississippi], and sign them ‘Mark Twain,’ and give them to the New Orleans Picayune.”10 Twain continues:

8

Or a “humorist,” as Mark Twain preferred. Both are pseudonyms used by Samuel Clemens chronologically preceding “Mark Twain,” according Samuel Clemens’ letters. Twain, Mark, Mark Twain’s Letters Volume I: 1853-1891, Ed. Edgar Marquess Branch, Michael B. Frank, and Kenneth M. Sanderson (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988) 32. 10 Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York, NY: Penguin Books Ltd, 2001), 264. Referred to hereafter in parenthetical citations as Mississippi.
9

5 [Captain Sellers] never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again signed “Mark Twain” to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands—a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say. (Mississippi 266-267) This ironic questioning of his own claims to “truth” is conspicuous, specifically in regards to his appropriated “nom de guerre.”11 The fact of Mark Twain’s existence is not fact at all, but rather a case of a pseudonym with comedic intentions (“Mark Twain” meaning “two fathoms deep” in steamboat lingo) that rose like Frankenstein’s monster to unprecedented levels of animation. For my purposes, the problem of ambiguity concerning where Mark Twain begins and Samuel Clemens ends is not a problem at all but rather the subject I will engage for the intention of determining its relationship to marginality and comedic identities. However, this ambiguity has been and remains a rather severe issue for biographers of Clemens, a group that cannot be as coy as the author regarding the truthfulness that accompanies said identity. Had Mark Twain remained a pseudonym, and Samuel Clemens alone interacted with the world, biography would be a decidedly easier task. But that at some indeterminable date12 a man named Samuel Clemens began declaring “I, Mark Twain,” with systematic regularity—but without sufficient explanation —is problematic for biographers of the author. There are essentially three generations of Mark Twain biographies, each epitomized by an exceptional work representing the period’s general approach to the Clemens/Twain split. First, the three volume Mark Twain: A Biography by Clemens’s close friend Albert Bigelow Paine oscillates between “Mark Twain” and “Samuel Clemens” as if the two were synonymous entities, by and large preferring “Twain” and using “Clemens” only in conjunction with others
11

A stylish substitute for “nom de plume,” literally translating as “name of war.” Consider the implications of choosing a combative construction (guerre, war) for constructing a pseudonym with comic intentions. 12 Likely between 1865 and 1868 when Clemens first began using the nom de guerre while lecturing.

6 bearing that surname. Published in 1917, seven years after Clemens died, the book was as successful as it was embellished, and subsequent research discounts much of the information presented by Paine. Though only speculation, it is reasonable to suspect that attempting to juggle real and fictitious personas prompted the seamless blend of real and fictional information in Mark Twain: A Biography. Many of the biographies that immediately followed Paine’s work drew heavily on his influence, for good and bad, and continued a posthumous complication of competing identities in much the same manner that Clemens fostered during his life. Justin Kaplan’s 1966 work Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain raised the bar for biographies generally, simultaneously raising the integrity of accounts on the life of Samuel Clemens. The text maintains the “Clemens identity” (for lack of a better phrase) throughout but merely nods at the complicated identity split while never fully addressing the issue in depth. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain won both the Pulitzer Prize for biographies and National Book Award for arts and letters, and remains a staple text in Twain studies despite its shortcomings concerning the topic at hand.13 The last biography I will mention, Andrew Hoffman’s 1997 work Inventing Mark Twain, takes an unbridled approach to the issues surrounding the relationship between the author and his fictitious façade. Hoffman begins his text with this very impediment, suggesting To write a biography of Mark Twain would be as absurd as writing a biography of Huckleberry Finn, or any invented character, with one significant difference: Huck Finn lived in a fictional world, and Mark Twain lived in the real one.14 Though quite responsibly engaging this issue in depth for arguably the first time (a full ninetytwo years after Clemens’ death) Hoffman relies heavily on circumstantial psychological evidence, pointing—among other things—to a supposed early homosexual experience as rational for the created persona. By exploring Clemens’ first novel length work The Innocents Abroad,
13

Speaking of shortcomings, Kaplan is also widely criticized for beginning the biography with Clemens leaving San Francisco at the age of thirty, never fully detailing any events prior to that year. 14 Andrew Hoffman, Inventing Mark Twain, (New York: William Morrow and Co, 1997) x.

7 as well as the biographical information surrounding the writing/publishing of these texts, I intend to offer a counter-rationale for this split, one prompted not by sub-conscious fears but rather the real world implications that comedic associations have in a social system of card-leaving and polite company. In Clemens’ estimation, I argue below, it is not enough to be a ‘wise fool’ if you still retain the identity of a fool in the process. In order to fulfill his social desires, most notably the marriage of Olivia Langdon, Clemens makes an unprecedented distinction between himself and the character he portrays (or often, the character that portrays him) in lectures and books. Twain leaps out of the text and into the world as the bearer of the burden of humor, forcing himself to the margins of society (and quite literally the margins of the country in Roughing It) in order to elevate Samuel Clemens by juxtaposition. In the process, he forces us to reconsider our widely expressed contemporary desire to quarantine text from author.

“Is there anything of Mr. Clemens, except his humour...” Before diving head first into a largely biographical explanation of the manner in which the marginality of comedic associations manifests itself in the life and works of “Mark Twain”15 it is important that I draw attention to my awareness of the complications that contemporary criticism and theory bring to such an audacious endeavor. I suppose that, were he alive, Roland Barthes might consider the following symptomatic of “ordinary culture [which] is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his tastes, his passions” as my aim is unabashedly author-centered rather than an exclusively textual enterprise.16 However, be assured that my analysis is working in conversation with and not ignorance of texts such as Barthes’ and I will progress in my belief
15

For the duration of this text the quotations around “Mark Twain,” and all connotations inherent in such a gesture, will be implied rather than present. Forever encasing that name in quotations as a means of reinforcing its complex fictionality would grow very tiresome very quickly. 16 Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, Second Edition, ed. David Lodge with Nigel Wood (Essex, United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited, 2000), 147.

8 that author and text cannot be so easily divorced (as Michel Foucault points out17), especially in an instance when author is text. Though the names “Barthes” and “Foucault” will recede into the background, the issues of authorial intent that they identify influenced the conception and organization of the following arguments. When Samuel Clemens set out for Europe aboard the Quaker City on June 8, 1867, he resided comfortably in a stateroom intended for the civil war celebrity General William Tecumseh Sherman.18 Sherman was among several notables (including the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the excursion’s main proponent) to bow out of the trip at the last moment, and these unexpected withdrawals left Clemens with the dubious honor of being “the only passenger who possessed something of the celebrity about him” (Quirk xix). Conversely, by his own admission in The Innocents Abroad, when Mark Twain embarked for Europe aboard the Quaker City in June of 1867 he “had prepared [him]self to take rather a back seat in that ship, because of the uncommonly select material that would be permitted to pass through the camel’s eye of that committee on credentials” which approved passengers only after receiving substantial assurances of their respectable character.19 Twain was surrounded by ...three ministers of the gospel, eight doctors, sixteen or eighteen ladies, several military and naval chieftains with sounding titles, an ample crop of “Professors” of various kinds, and a gentleman who had “COMMISSIONER OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TO EUROPE, ASIA, AND AFRICA” thundering after his name in one awful blast! (Innocents 12) The reality of Clemens’ moderate celebrity aboard the Quaker City is lost in Twain’s recounting of the trip, and in its absence the character proclaims a decided marginality in comparison with
17

Michel Foucault, “What Is An Author,” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, Second Edition, ed. David Lodge with Nigel Wood (Essex, United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited, 2000) 174-187. Though, admittedly, Foucault does not fully celebrate the idea of biographical information coloring a text’s interpretation, his term “author-function” itself implies a belief that the notion of an author does indeed have some function in literary criticism. 18 Tom Quirk, “Introduction,” in The Innocents Abroad (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), xix. 19 Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 12. Referred to hereafter in parenthetical citations as Innocents.

9 the ship’s many “venerable people”—a phrase he uses synonymously in the text with “elderly people” to humorous effects (Innocents 16). This and many other curious disjunctions between the ‘truth’ of the trip and the text of The Innocents Abroad confuses the categorization of the novel, making it as impossible to decide what in the book is ‘real’ and what is ‘fiction’ as it is to determine the extent of Twain’s own fictionality as an ‘existing’ individual. But in this example, the distortion of fact has two important motives: to aid a humorous observation by denigrating the “venerable people” as merely “elderly,” and to disassociate the narrator from any “venerable” status he himself may have held on the ship, thereby allowing space for such a bitingly satirical comment. From this singular example (of what I intend to prove is a pervasive and intentional position) it is logical to establish a (potentially reductive) system of centrality and marginality pertaining to Twain’s construction of ‘self’ in The Innocents Abroad. In his The Illusions of Postmodernism Terry Eagleton attempts to challenge many arguments that structure the notion of a postmodern ideology or chronological period. Though the specific subject in Eagleton’s scope is not presently pertinent,20 his more broadly applicable arguments concerning the ability to challenge the center of a system are. Eagleton denies that such a simple and seemingly dichotomous system of centrality and marginality can exist, stating: Even if [such a system] existed, and even if there were something outside it, then whatever that was would be less oppositional than incommensurable, unable to gain any effective leverage on the system itself. If such a force were drawn into the orbit of the system so as to challenge it, its otherness would be instantly contaminated and its subversive power would dwindle to nothing.21 The flaws in Eagleton’s otherwise useful claim, and the manner in which the Clemens/Twain split can inform this argument, comes from Eagleton’s assumption that a marginal force in
20 21

That is, postmodernism. Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1996), 6.

10 opposition to the center both necessarily wants to “gain leverage” on the dominant force and must exist “outside” of a so-called “system.” This oppositional position is not necessarily incommensurable, destined to be drawn into the identity-compromising gravitational pull of centrality as Eagleton suggests, if its conscious and primary intent is to distance itself from said centrality as we have seen Clemens intend for Twain in the previously cited biographical/textual discrepancy. Like the Feast of Fools, this marginality within a system can work as an essential element of the system, laboring to maintain that system’s essential vitality against outside forces while simultaneously staking an adversarial position against the center. Indeed, the author of the author (Clemens) achieves a degree of social centrality by the time The Innocents Abroad is conceived, composed, and published, a fact which appears to challenge such an organization of centrality/marginality. But Clemens’ ever growing stature in polite society further mandates the need for a humorously-burdened scapegoat. In order to maintain this decidedly comfortable social position the Twain identity is simultaneously created22 and banished to the margins without any hope or desire to “gain leverage” on the center of the system, because doing so would indeed challenge the traditional author of the textual author. Fearing the potentially damning result of a comically rooted identity, Clemens allows Twain to embrace—and, indeed, further—the marginal associations of such a presentation of self, an approach that leaves the Twain persona free to hold an oppositional relationship to the ‘center’ without any threat that it will compromise either the center or Twain’s conceived and presented oppositional notion of self. In perhaps Twain’s most symbolic attempt to distance himself from the venerable bulk of the Quaker City’s passengers, he recounts the purchase of a pair of kid gloves in Gibraltar, an
22

I do not mean to suggest that the Twain pseudonym is created at the precise moment of Clemens’ decision to achieve a place in ‘higher society,’ but rather the pseudonym evolves into a more complicated identity, one that holds an ambiguous relationship with its author, during the chronological period I am presently exploring for reasons detailed in the body of this text.

11 elegant item worn commonly to the theater or an opera. While trying on the first glove, Twain notices that, “the size was too small for me,” but is persuaded to pretend otherwise by the shopkeeper’s persistent flattery (Innocents 47). He continues: I made another effort, and tore the glove from the base of the thumb into the palm of the hand—and tried to hide the rent. She kept up her compliments, and I kept up my determination to deserve them or die...I paid the bill, and as I passed out with a fascinating bow, I thought I detected a light in the woman’s eye that was gently ironical; and when I looked back from the street...she was laughing all to herself about something or other... (Innocents 47-48) The symbolism can hardly be missed: the character Twain, in a rare attempt to mimic those of a higher social order, tries on an item representing society and class. He quite literally does not fit, and in the process of attempting to force that fit Twain hurts his pride and brings destruction upon the social object. Most telling of all is the final product of this episode. After the damage has been done to both author and object, a third party—the shopkeeper and observer of the incident—is compelled to laughter, having been the only individual to benefit from this scene through both her sale and the humor of the incident. Readers are invited to share in the shopkeeper’s perspective, in both this moment and the entirety of the book, as we find humor in the juxtaposition between Mark Twain and his relationship with the propriety of those around him. This third party, “laughing all to herself,” is crucial to the success of the independent-ofauthor Twain persona as said persona desires a wide (and humored) audience to solidify itself as both definitively humorous and—essentially—as real as Samuel Clemens. Mark Twain quite intentionally and explicitly does not fit into upper class society, a fact which necessitates a very public distinction between Twain and the man who creates him. During this excursion aboard the Quaker City, Samuel Clemens met and fostered a relationship with Mary Fairbanks, an educated and distinguished woman seven years his elder

12 that he referred to for the rest of his life as “mother.”23 Fairbanks held strong opinions concerning the propriety of print and lowness of humor, and would exert her letter-writing power and the publishing power granted through her husband’s Cleveland newspaper to tidy up the public perception of her surrogate son, the lowly humorist. But importance lies in observing Fairbanks’ own distinction between Clemens and Twain, and the influence it had in elevating Clemens’ stature while maintaining Twain’s subordinate ‘humorist’ status. In the middle of January, 1869, more than a year before the publication of The Innocents Abroad, Fairbanks arranged to have two letters, written to her by Clemens, published in the Cleveland Herald. The first by Clemens, a letter accepting an invitation to deliver a charity lecture for the benefit of the Cleveland Protestant Orphan Asylum, remarks “I shall be glad—and who would not?—to do what in me lies, in aid of so generous a charity as that which you represent.”24 The cordial and highfalutin correspondence ends “I have the honor to be, very respectfully,/SAM’L L. CLEMENS,/(“MARK TWAIN.”).” Preferring the Clemens identity in this context is peculiar considering that, in nearly the entirety of their salvaged written correspondence, both Fairbanks and Clemens usually prefer the respective identities of “Mother” and “Mark.”25 It may seem merely respectful on Clemens’ part to strip the humorous facade when dealing with such a grave matter as Protestant orphans, but this continuous effort to elevate Clemens’ name/identity becomes more pronounced four days later when the Cleveland Herald printed (despite the initial wishes of Clemens himself) the following Christmas letter to Fairbanks: Christmas is here--eighteen hundred and sixty-nine years ago the stars were shedding a purer lustre above the barren hill of Bethleham [sic], and possibly flowers were being
23 24

Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography (Touchstone, New York: 1983), 44. Cleveland Herald, 12 January 1869, 3, from film #110, Mark Twain Papers & Project (Berkeley, CA). 25 This is evident from a survey of the only published collection of exclusively Twain/Fairbanks correspondences: Mark Twain, Mark Twain to Mrs. Fairbanks, ed. Dixon Wecter (Huntington Library: San Marino, CA, 1949).

13 charmed to life in the dismal plains where the shepherds watched their flocks, and the hovering angels were singing, peace on earth, good will to men--for the Savior was come...And now that the greasy monks and the noisy mob, and the leprous beggars are gone, and all the harsh cold hardness of real stone and unsentimental glare of sunlight are banished from the vision, don’t you realize as in other years, that Jesus was born there, and that the angels did sing in the still air about, and that the wondering shepherds did hold their breath and listen as the mysterious music floated by? I do...26 In the publication, the letter is preceded by the insistence that, “The following charming extracts which we are permitted to make from the private correspondence of that gentleman, will present him favorably to the public in another role than that of humorist...” and followed by another plug for the charity lecture at the Orphan Asylum, reminding readers that “Mark Twain” (original quotes) will be in town on the twenty-second. The quotes surrounding Mark Twain in the Christmas letter printing are a wink to the reader, a not so subtle reminder that, of course, “Twain” is not the author of this passage, and he is most certainly something more than “a humorist.” He is actually Samuel Clemens, the benevolent gentleman who so recently committed to the virtuous cause of helping Cleveland’s orphans. Clemens is granted the honor of recognition for charitable offerings, and even shown to harbor writerly abilities beyond that of mere humor. Though “Mark Twain” will be speaking at the event, his appearance is seemingly arranged by Samuel Clemens, author of the solemn and profoundly protestant Christmas letter that Fairbanks dutifully had printed in her husband’s publication. Clemens’ then fiancé Olivia Langdon reiterates this conscious ascension of character via denial humor in a letter expressing gratitude to Fairbanks “for persuading Mr C. to put that extract from your Christmas letter in print.”27 Olivia continues to assert that,

26
27

Cleveland Herald, 16 January 1869, 3, from film #110, Mark Twain Papers & Project (Berkeley, CA). Olivia L. Langdon to Mary Mason Fairbanks, 15 January 1869, Elmira, N.Y., from manuscript #08626, Mark Twain Papers & Project (Berkeley, CA).

14 I want the public, who know him now, only as ‘the Wild humorist of the Pacific slope,’ to know something of his deeper, larger nature—I remember being quite incensed by a ladiey’s [sic] asking, ‘Is there any thing of Mr Clemens, except his humour,’ yet as she knew of him it was not an unnatural question— Importantly, Clemens himself was quite vocally self conscious of Olivia’s concerns for his humorous associations, remarking himself in a letter to Fairbanks sent one month after the printing of the Nativity excerpt “Poor girl, anybody who could convince her that I was not a humorist would secure her eternal gratitude. She thinks a humorist is something pretty awful.”28 As a continued effort to convince both herself and her parents of Clemens’ virtues beyond the marginal realm of humor, Olivia requested in the fall of 1868 that Clemens supply a list of references who might be called upon to, as Justin Kaplan phrases it, “tell them whether [Clemens] had been an immoral man or just a worldly one” (90). Clemens complied, offering (among others) the names of several Nevada Politicians, the proprietor of the Occidental Hotel near Santa Rosa, CA, and Robert B. Swain, the employer of author and then-friend Bret Harte.29 Harte himself did not appear on the list, nor did any other close friend or professional acquaintance who might know Clemens in an informal enough capacity to mistakenly praise the undesirable merits of Mark Twain. No journalist or publisher associated with The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County—Twain’s first and then most popular piece (of a humorous nature, of course)—appeared, and Elisha Bliss, the man who promised to soon catapult Twain to unprecedented fame by publishing The Innocents Abroad, was also conspicuously absent. The list was comprised of men intended to construct a narrative of Samuel Clemens independent from that wild humorist of the pacific slope, assuring the Langdons that Olivia would not accidentally wed the motley fool Mark Twain.
28 29

Mark Twain, Mark Twain to Mrs. Fairbanks, ed. Dixon Wecter (Huntington Library: San Marino, CA, 1949) 63. Though close during their early years, Clemens and Harte later had a very public falling out, culminating with Twain’s ruthless attack of Harte’s poetry in The Autobiography of Mark Twain published four years after Harte’s death.

15 As the letters of supposed recommendation trickled in, Clemens was shocked to discover that—though he was eager to distance himself from Twain by unloading all disreputable characteristics onto him—the rest of the world did not yet understand his identity distinction. Again, Justin Kaplan: [Clemens] told his friend Charles Warren Stoddard eight months later, they “came within an ace of breaking off my marriage.” “Clemens is a humbug,” a San Francisco clergyman named Stebbins reported, “a man who has talent, no doubt, but will make a trivial use of it.” A San Francisco bank cashier who had once been a Sunday-school superintendent in Elmira predicted that Clemens “would fill a drunkard’s grave.” (91) Jervis Langdon, Olivia’s father, was first shocked by the almost uniformly negative reports, but soon found the irreconcilable incongruity between the newly constructed Clemens he knew and the less self-conscious individual reported on by the references all too conspicuous. As Twain reports in his autobiography, Jervis Langdon finally conceded “I’ll be your friend myself. Take the girl. I know you better than they do.”30 This assertion, that in the mere year they had been acquainted Jervis Langdon managed to “know” Clemens better than his references, is in a sense simultaneously true and false. All evidence points to the likelihood that these individual reports from San Francisco were relatively accurate. Indeed, during the journey that removed him from his initial stay in San Francisco, the passenger records of the ship carrying Clemens to New York listed him (by his own approval) as “Mark Twain, barkeeper, San Francisco.”31 After the name Mark Twain rose to national prominence, some of his western acquaintances attributed the origin of the pseudonym to marking up drinks in pairs on a bar tab, rather than marking the depth of the Mississippi (Kaplan 15). Though he had been back east for three years, Jervis Langdon was not acquainted by either personal experience or word of mouth to this particular version of Clemens. Samuel Clemens was selling Samuel Clemens to the Langdons, not the jovial, inebriated, humorous Mark Twain.
30 31

Quoted in Kaplan, 92. See note 10 above. Ibid., 15.

16 It seems that the courting of Olivia was the first event necessitating this distinction, as the western references—though carefully chosen—still did not acknowledge or understand Clemens’ newfound desire for identity separation. Mark Twain, the “man who has talent, no doubt, but will make trivial use of it,” accepted this lot in life, embracing the reported triviality of humor and marginality of his humorous identity in sharp, intentional contrast with Samuel Clemens. Twain is forced to the margins in an attempt to illustrate the difference between Clemens and his authored character, and Twain’s marginality thereby reinforces Clemens’ much sought-after centrality. In 1906, a full forty years after Clemens left his home in San Francisco, Sigmund Freud was asked by the publisher Hugo Heller to produce a list of “ten good books” to be used in a pamphlet amongst the recommendations of thirty-one other prominent individuals.32 At the bottom of the list, below such titles as Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Emile Zola’s Fécondité, resides an early collection of Mark Twain’s short stories simply entitled Sketches. As detailed by Peter Gay, in addition to his list Freud includes an elaboration on what exact qualities must be present in order to truly consider a book good. ...what the adjective “good” released in Freud was something rather unbuttoned. It reminded him of titles to which he stood, in his graphic analogy, “somewhat as one stands with ‘good’ friends, to whom one owes a portion of one’s knowledge of life and one’s world view.” They were books “that one has enjoyed oneself and gladly commends to others” but that did not induce the “element of shy reverence, the sense of one’s own smallness before their greatness.” (Gay 98) Twain, of course, would not have found this distinction offensive, as he suggests similar sentiments in an 1887 letter to William Dean Howells: “...high and fine literature is wine, & mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”33
32 33

Peter Gay, Reading Freud: Explorations and Entertainments (New Haven: Yale University Presses), 95-104. Mark Twain, Mark Twain-Howells letters; the correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens and William D. Howells, 1872-1910, eds. Henry Nash Smith, William M. Gibson (Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 1960), 587. I say that “Twain” wouldn’t have found the distinction offensive, because—for all intents and purposes

17 This quality of standing “as one stands with ‘good’ friends” rather than pining for greater legitimacy and grandeur is a fine, succinct articulation of what Clemens desired for the status of Mark Twain and his books. At the start of 1872’s Roughing It, another piece of travel literature this time featuring the American West, Twain comments on the effort to downsize his and his brother’s luggage to accommodate the twenty-five-pound-each weight limit afforded by their stagecoach. It was a sad parting, for now we had no swallow-tail coats and white kid gloves to wear at Pawnee receptions in the Rocky Mountains, and no stove-pipe hats nor patent-leather boots, nor anything else necessary to make life calm and peaceful.34 The explicit reference to the discarding of kid-gloves in this early, gently ironic passage is certainly a throwback to the previously discussed Innocents Abroad excerpt, but with one crucial distinction. By the time Clemens sat down to detail the adventures of Twain in the American West, he had achieved his goal of marriage with Olivia Langdon and gained a greater appreciation for the dynamic between his two opposing identities. With that experience in mind, he makes no attempt in Roughing It to make Twain ‘fit’ into the kid-gloves. They are discarded in favor of “war-footing... a rough, heavy suit of clothing, woolen army shirt and ‘stogy’ boots included,” the appropriately uncultured attire for an American humorist traveling the untamed West (Roughing It 4). Twain’s place at the margins is articulated, solidified, and welcomed, as it fits Clemens’ personal desires for the donning of kid-gloves in proper north-eastern society.35 This is not to say that all ends well for the Clemens/Twain split. As his life progressed, and Twain became more prolific, the space between author and creation was continuously re—Sketches is written by Mark Twain, and the vast majority of letters sent to W. D. Howells by the author are signed “Mark” (the cited letter being no exception). 34 Mark Twain, Roughing It, Ed. Lin Salamo, Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), 4. 35 It is worth noting that, though the subject of Roughing It is the rugged American West, the book itself was composed primarily in Hartford, Connecticut. The fictional author engages the literal margins of the nation via the pen of the literal author, writing from New England.

18 navigated. Twain surpassed his creator, becoming arguably the most famous American man of letters, and thereby allowing the humorist persona to swell beyond that of the New England socialite. After being introduced at a court ball as merely “the daughter of Mark Twain” Susy Clemens, the author’s eldest daughter, exclaimed “How I hate that name! I should never like to hear it again!” (Kaplan 308). Still, the acknowledgement of two individuals where most now see only one is implicit in Susy’s comment, but downplayed in many contemporary assessments of the author. In the index to his previously mentioned biography Justin Kaplan offers only one reference next to the name Mark Twain: “Twain, Mark, see Clemens, Samuel Langhorne” (423). This synonymous assessment, though largely symbolic, masks the fact that Clemens and Twain were intentionally separate and unequal individuals. One might have tea with Samuel Clemens in the afternoon before going to see Mark Twain speak, but the two were rarely in the same room, and only by accident if it did occur. And each approached the world with his own quite consciously self-tailored relation to legitimacy, one with silk fringes of propriety, the other coarse and sharpened by humor.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful