Mark Twain and Male Friendship: The Twichell, Howells and Rogers Friendships

The impact of three significant relationships on the ‘father of US literature’ fascinates J. D. Stahl

December 17, 2009

A man of volcanic temperament, Samuel Clemens – known to his reading public as Mark Twain – formed some strong and enduring friendships, but he was equally capable of turning against his friends, designating them as traitors, and fighting them with vicious enmity. We know comparatively little about Clemens’ early life, but a great deal about the second half of his thickly documented life, through letters, eyewitness accounts and autobiographies. Andrew J. Hoffman recently stirred up a hornets’ nest of Twain critics by arguing that, during his years as a reporter in California and Nevada, “Clemens engaged in a series of romances with men”. Furthermore, Hoffman argues, “evidence suggests at least one connection of this sort during the years of his marriage”.

Studiously avoiding this controversy, Peter Messent presents a study of three well-chosen, enduring male friendships in Clemens’ later life. The importance of these close friendships with Joseph Twichell, pastor of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut; William Dean Howells, “the Dean of American letters” and editor of The Atlantic Monthly; and Henry Huttleston Rogers, the Standard Oil “robber baron”, is not in dispute.

Clemens engaged in a decades-long, increasingly darker religious debate with his pastor Twichell, “with Twichell acting as the positive counterpoint to Clemens’ pretty thunderous nay-saying”. Clemens, as Twichell recognised, was a Calvinist who railed against a God he no longer believed in, especially in times of personal loss, which became more frequent as he grew older. Twichell’s orthodoxy was liberal, “muscular” Christianity, reinforcing a “manliness” that American Victorians admired. Messent restores a sense of how influential a public figure Twichell was in his own right – an actor on the stage of American public life, and not the comic straight man Twain often portrayed him to be in his fictional anecdotes. Messent persuasively demonstrates that the “spiritual rupture” that Twain’s official biographer, A.?B. Paine, claimed to have occurred between Twain and Twichell in 1878 did not occur then, but came later, if at all.

Equally important to his social status, and even more to his literary career, was Clemens’ friendship with Howells, “My Dear ’Owells”, as Clemens sometimes addressed him. Howells’ favourable reviews of The Innocents Abroad and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (“altogether the best boy’s story I ever read”) helped establish Twain’s national reputation. Their friendship was joyous, warm and open-hearted. Like truant boys, they enjoyed planning extravagant ventures and took an ironic pleasure in the failure of these shared schemes.

Clemens was a daring, foolhardy gambler and squandered his considerable fortune investing in a brilliant but temperamental new typesetting machine developed by the equally eccentric inventor James W. Paige. Facing bankruptcy, he turned to Rogers, an admirer, for rescue. Rogers took over Clemens’ financial affairs and gradually restored him to prosperity. Characterised by “bluff good humour” and “the mutual exchange of light-hearted insults”, their friendship ranged beyond the boundaries of conventional genteel behaviour, offering a realm of freedom similar to what Canadian author Robertson Davies called “the freemasonry of the rich”.

Theorising about friendship may seem a callous, perhaps even blasphemous endeavour. Fortunately, Messent’s theorising is relatively tentative and not insistently dogmatic, and although his conclusions are at times too general and at other times too self-evident, he retains respect for the fascinatingly particular qualities of the lives and friendships of the men he examines.

Readers interested primarily in biography will want to skip the more heavily theoretical first chapter, but Messent’s in-depth research illuminates fascinating subtleties and eccentricities of three male friendships of the private man behind the mask of America’s iconic writer.

Mark Twain and Male Friendship: The Twichell, Howells and Rogers Friendships

By Peter Messent
Oxford University Press
260pp, £32.50
ISBN 9780195391169
Published 12 November 2009

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