Sunday, January 4, 2004

The Twain legend
S. Raghunath

Mark Twain was self-mocking about his literary abilities
Mark Twain was self-mocking about his literary abilities

"WHEN your audience is restive," a lecture manager once advised a new client, "Itís always a good idea to tell a story about Mark Twain."

Fresh stories about Twain keep popping up in magazines and radio programmes (Hal Halbrookís enormously successful impersonation of Twain), old ones are resurrected and refurbished and given new tag lines. Since the great humorist is in no position to repudiate them, the Twain legend continues to grow.

At a banquet in New York, Twain was seated next to the guest of honour who decided to test some of the stories he intended to use in his speech. "I hope you havenít heard this one," he would begin and then barge on without waiting for Twainís courteous but increasingly weak " No, I donít think I have." As the 14th story began, Twain lost his celebrated temper. "Sir", he declared angrily, "your previous 13 stories were old and badly told, but at this story I positively draw the line. Not only have I heard it a dozen times before, but I invented it."

The guest of honour, crushed, declared, "I was afraid of addressing this hypocritical audience before I came here, but youíve now destroyed the last vestiges of my self-confidence."

ĎDonít worry," counselled Twain, "Remember, they expect very little of you."

A businessman once told Twain, "Before I die, I plan to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Iíll climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud." "Iíve a better idea", said Twain, "Why donít you stay right here in Boston and keep them?"

In Richmond, Virginia, Twain complained of a severe pain in the head. "It canít be the air you breathe or the food you ate in Richmond", said a native son boastfully, "why, Richmond is the healthiest town in the State and our death rate is already down to one person a day". "Run down to the newspaper office," begged Twain, "and see if todayís victim has died yet."

Mark Twain completed Tom Sawyer in the summer of 1875 in the comfort and seclusion of his Hartford, Connecticut home. He was disturbed so seldom, reported his wife, that he scarcely lost his temper more than five or six times a day!

One great crisis occurred when a neighbour decided to teach his young nephew how to use an air gun outside Twainís study window. "Tarnation," cried the humorist leaning out of the window, "take that boy elsewhere and teach him how to shoot ducks." The neighbour literally took him at his word, but unfortunately the duck he shot turned out to be the prize possession of Twain.

There was another side to Twainís character. He was often irritable, cantankerous and unreasonable and it was his business partner and publisher, Charles Webster, who bore the brunt of his displeasures. In his delightful book Mark Twain, Businessman, Charles Websterís son Samuel has related his fatherís tribulations. "About once a week, he writes, "Mr Clemens wanted a law suit commenced against someone or have an advertisement prepared that would have started several against him." Samuel Webster thinks that if wiser counsels had not prevailed, Mark Twain would have been one more author who wrote his most famous book in prison.

A neighbour of Twain in Hartford was Harriet Beecher Stowe. Frail and failing mentally, she used to wander into the Twain greenhouse and pluck his favourite flowers. Mark Twain fretted and fumed and wrote to Charles Webster, "She seems to think that my house is Uncle Tomís cabin," but he did nothing to stop her.

When Twainís Huckleberry Finn was due to be published in the summer of 1881, he wrote to Charles Webster " I see nothing that will prevent another disaster" and called Webster an "Incorrigible" optimist for disagreeing with him. When the book became his biggest best-seller (and incidentally an all-time American classic), Twain commented ironically, "My publisher tried to discourage me by discounting my prophecies about Huck Finnís high literary and commercial value and merit."

Twainís method of disposing of supplicants was to refer them to Webster. One man appeared before Charles Webster with a note which read, "Dear Charly, give this man what he wants or shoot him. I donít care which. Yours truly. S.L. Clemens." Samuel Websterís laconic footnote is, "My father shot him."

A reporter visiting Twainís old haunts in Hannibal, Mississippi, ran down an old acquaintance who discounted Mark Twainís fame and glory. "Shucks," he said, "I knew just as many stories as Sam Clemens did. He just wrote them down."

Samuel L. ("Mark Twain") Clemens, the humorist, would have gladly agreed with the old friendís assessment of his fame.