Twain's outing

June 20, 1997

A biography of Mark Twain that claims he had several gay encounters has added a new twist to a literary legend. Tim Cornwell reports.

Andy Hoffman has dropped a bombshell on the world of Mark Twain scholarship with his suggestion that the master of American letters had a series of homosexual encounters. With his biography Inventing Mark Twain published in Britain this month, Mr Hoffman is surprisingly self-effacing.

"I don't like people to think that I'm saying that Mark Twain was gay," says Hoffman, a visiting scholar at Brown University. The term, he adds, comes laden with so many 20th-century attitudes as to be meaningless in 19th-century frontier America.

Dr Hoffman was bitten by the Twain bug in his undergraduate days at the University of Pennsylvania. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Twain at Brown and in 1993 presented a paper titled "New Sex in Twain Biography". While some critics groaned at this literary "outing" of yet another prominent American novelist, others declared the theory intriguing.

The theme of the new biography is how the man born Samuel Langhorne Clemens invented not just the American classic, Huckleberry Finn but its author, Mark Twain himself.

Clemens's 19th-century childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, was the material for Tom Sawyer; his four years as a riverboat pilot inspired Life on the Mississippi, and his marriage into a wealthy New York family produced three daughters. In 1862, Clemens moved to the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada and joined the reporting staff on the Territorial Enterprise, who wrote together at one long wooden table. It was there he first started signing himself Mark Twain. And it was there also, according to Hoffman, that there are hints of sexual closeness to other men, though he admits there is no way of proving it and likely never will be.

In 1863 a fellow journalist would describe Virginia City's saloons and their "burning poison", the "hurdy-gurdy girls singing bacchanalian songs in bacchanalian dens. All is life, excitement, avarice, lust, devilry and enterprise". The mines, saloons and brothels were open round the clock. Violent death was common.

Twain's close relationship with Clement Rice, a rival reporter with whom he lived in Virginia City and dubbed "the Unreliable", created "barroom conversation" and "sparked the rumour mill", Hoffman reports. Later there was Artemus Ward, a "frankly homosexual" columnist, who also lived under a pseudonym and who penned a letter to Twain beginning with the words "My Dearest Love". And there was Dan DeQuille, a fellow Territorial Enterprise writer. As well as running the paper together, the two were room-mates. "We have the 'sweetest' little parlor and the snuggest little bedroom," DeQuille wrote. "Here we come every night and live - breathe, move and have our being, our bodies."

Women were scarce in a frontier man's world. It was common for men to profess ardent love for each other, in what came to be labelled homo-erotic relationships. "Though most western men appear to have visited female prostitutes, they also typically lived in male pairs, sharing resources and beds; this was especially true among prospectors," Hoffman writes. How often they "physically expressed their affection escapes determination," he continues. "There is no simple way to define the sexual connection between two men who visit a bordello together and then go home to sleep in the same bed."

Hoffman notes that the British scholar, Peter Stoneley, has written about the marriage-like bonds between men in the American West. "It was not only Mark Twain, it was the Wild West," he said. "If you imagine John Wayne falling into a loving embrace with another cowboy, you get a visceral image of what I mean."

Inventing Mark Twain, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, Pounds 25.00

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