Mark Twain: literary lion, steamboat pilot, intrepid adventurer, American legend, and…ferocious critic.
As the 100th anniversary of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ death approaches (on Wednesday), another aspect of Twain’s prolific talent comes to light in a New York Times article regarding his personal book collection. Courtesy of The Mark Twain Library in Redding, CT, hundreds of previously overlooked volumes from Twain’s own collection, pages and margins thick with the author’s scribbled notes, have emerged.
In his comments on the quality (and often quantity) of the literature he perused, Twain spared no one, not even his friends. He changed a word in Rudyard Kipling’s “Departmental Ditties, Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses” from “heaved” to “hove” and added a semi-colon a few pages later, where he felt his friend’s grammar had gone amiss. Both Kipling and Twain received honorary degrees from Oxford in 1907 and Twain was otherwise an admirer of Kipling’s work. However, Kipling wouldn’t have felt too slighted by Twain’s corrections: Samuel Johnson and Robert Louis Stevenson also received umbrage from Twain’s pen.
Twain’s comments are pert and biting; he called “Saratoga in 1901″ by Melville Landon “The Droolings of an Idiot” and suggested that Kate Saint Maur’s “The Earth’s Bounty” would be vastly improved by eliminating pages 370 and 371. He was also a wide and avid reader — his collection included both the Bible and the Koran, Epictetus, works by H.G. Wells and Charles Darwin, and “Memoirs of Hans Hendrik, the Arctic Traveller”, to which he gave unusual praise.
Reading of Twain’s notes makes me smile, and wish that I could look at these pages, thickly blanketed in
Twain’s “cramped, scratchy handwriting.” I love that the Times article described him as “irrepressible” in his desire to comment on other authors’ work. I can almost see him, sitting in a deep leather chair in a rumpled white suit, perhaps with one of his fantastically-named cats* on his knee, a long, curling pipe protruding from beneath his voluminous mustache, scribbling through the books with the occasional bad-tempered mutter. To see these books, covered with these small gems of criticism, little corners of his thoughts left on the page, must be an extraordinary experience.
The Times article also touches on another, seldom-acknowledged fact of Twain’s later life: his devotion to the creation of a library for the town of Redding, now The Mark Twain Library. The author donated $6,000 and thousands of his own books to form the institution, and badgered his friends, such as Andrew Carnegie, to pitch in. Heather Morgan, director of The Mark Twain Library, said that the shelves are still peppered with a few of Twain’s own books, like the 105-year-old volume of G.K. Chesterton’s that she unearthed last month.
* Twain’s cats: Sour Mash, Appollinaris, Zoroaster, and Blatherskite, to name a few.