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Twain on Dickens: “Only a Man”

Charles Dickens, probably the greatest nineteenth-century British novelist, is celebrating his 200th this week. Or would be if he were alive. This week I also happen to be working up a short seminar called “Mark Twain: The Man and His Images,” about probably the greatest of nineteenth-century American novelists, and I got to thinking about their relationship.

Dickens (1812-1870) and Twain (1835-1910) had a lot in common. Both were self-made men, autodidacts who came from families where cash was often in short supply. Both began their storytelling careers as journalists, and both became famous early on as much for their money-making lecture tours as their fiction. As writers, both had what seems a natural-born genius for creating comic characters, yet in their best work each has a penchant for taking on serious themes with big implications for social justice. And there are several points where they had a specific personal connection. George Dolby, the man who had managed Dickens’ lecture tours, also organized Twain’s lecture series in England.  The publisher who brought Dickens’s works to America, James Osgood, later published Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

One of the earliest references to Dickens in Ron Power’s lively biography Mark Twain: A Life comes in the early 1850s when young Sam Clemens (he’d not yet picked up Mark Twain as his pen name) is working as a printer for his brother Orion’s Hannibal Journal newspaper. The mischievous Sam occasionally writes crude backwoods parodies or sketches for the small-town paper, which has perhaps 100 subscribers. Sam is supposed to get $5.00 a week salary, but the feckless businessman Orion never quite manages to deliver his brother’s pay.

Orion, a high-minded fellow, wants to elevate the paper’s tone so he offers Emerson and Thoreau $5.00 via commissioning letter to write an essay (and doesn’t get a reply). In this vein, he buys a copy of Dickens’ latest novel Bleak House and reprints excerpts (it was a time of loose copyright mores) and then passes the book along to young Sam to improve his writing. We don’t know what Sam thought of Dickens as a model, but we do know that he and Edgar Allan Poe were among the novelists Clemens read nearly every evening as a young man.

Photo of young Mark Twain

Young Sam Clemens well on the way to becoming Mark Twain.

Dickens next appears in a letter Sam Clemens sends to his mother. It’s 1867 and he’s just finished the last batch of travel letters covering the voyage to Europe and the Holy Land that will become his first book, Innocents Abroad, a collection that will be a huge seller when published and make his name as Mark Twain. Sam is feeling flush at having finished the book, and he writes home, “When Charles Dickens [then on a tour of America] sleeps in this room next week, it will be a gratification to him to know I have slept in it also.”

Clemens here is writing in the characteristically teasing, slyly humorous mode that he used with his mother, and that would become a hallmark of his literary persona. But obviously he sees Dickens, a generation older, as the standard for popular authors, and he’s beginning to put himself in the same league, if only jokingly. This is one of those transforming moments where a young writer begins to see himself as a colleague of a great writer, always a breakthrough for the young writer’s self-image.

Twain and Dickens were in the same room only once, a little later that year when Twain attended a Dickens reading on New Year’s Eve in New York. He wrote up an account of the event for the Alta California newspaper. It’s worth quoting Twain at length:

Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, “spry,” (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole, gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came! He did not emerge upon the stage – that is rather too deliberate a word — he strode. He strode — in the most English way and exhibiting the most English general style and appearance — straight across the broad stage, heedless of everything, unconscious of everybody, turning neither to the right nor the left — but striding eagerly straight ahead, as if he had seen a girl he knew turn the next corner. He brought up handsomely in the centre and faced the opera glasses. His pictures are hardly handsome, and he, like everybody else, is less handsome than his pictures. That fashion he has of brushing his hair and goatee so resolutely forward gives him a comical Scotch-terrier look about the face, which is rather heightened than otherwise by his portentous dignity and gravity. But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty, bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work. This was Dickens — Dickens. There was no question about that, and yet it was not right easy to realize it. Somehow this puissant god seemed to be only a man, after all. How the great do tumble from their high pedestals when we see them in common human flesh, and know that they eat pork and cabbage and act like other men.

A Freudian analyst would have a very fine time doing a close analysis of Twain’s wording here, particularly the way he admires “the old gentleman” at the same time he makes clear that the great Dickens “is only a man.” At this point Twain had had some success as a storyteller on stage with his lectures in San Francisco, so he’s watching Dickens with a wannabe’s fine discrimination to pick up tips from the grandmaster. A later passage in the same review makes this clear.

He read David Copperfield. He is a bad reader, in one sense — because he does not enunciate his words sharply and distinctly — he does not cut the syllables cleanly, and therefore many and many of them fell dead before they reached our part of the house. [I say "our" because I am proud to observe that there was a beautiful young lady with me -- a highly respectable young white woman.] I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens’ reading — I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed. The Herald and Tribune critics must have been carried away by their imaginations when they wrote their extravagant praises of it. Mr. Dickens’ reading is rather monotonous, as a general thing; his voice is husky; his pathos is only the beautiful pathos of his language — there is no heart, no feeling in it — it is glittering frostwork; his rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads to himself. And what a bright, intelligent audience he had! He ought to have made them laugh, or cry, or shout, at his own good will or pleasure — but he did not. They were very much tamer than they should have been.

Note how Twain is very specific about the great Dickens’s weaknesses on stage. A Freudian reading of art holds that each generation of artists needs to slay their father artists to clear the ground for their own work. It is perhaps not so far-fetched to see Twain’s review of Dickens this night as doing exactly that.

Photo of Olivia Langdon as a young woman.

Olivia Langdon as a young woman.

Oh, and one more thing. Twain had some other things on his mind that evening because “the beautiful young lady” he gives a shout-out to happens to be Olivia Langdon, the young woman who in two years will become of his wife and the love of his long life. Twain was friends with her brother, and attended the Dickens evening with her family. In an 1867ish way it’s their first date.

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