My Friend Mark Twain

Mark Twain's Funeral at Brink Church

100 years ago today at approximately 6:22 PM, Mark Twain died in Redding, Connecticut. At his deathbed were his daughter Clara and her husband, Dr. Robert Halsey, Dr. Quintard, his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, and two nurses.

His last scribbled note was a request for his spectacles and a glass pitcher.  He was reading Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution when he slipped into a coma around 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

This time, the reports of his death weren’t exaggerated.

Mark Twain has been a great comrade of mine for over 30 years and the centennial of his death is proof again how his immense celebrity has not dimmed over time.

It is a remarkable accomplishment to be truly appreciated in one’s lifetime and the editorials that appeared in virtually every newspaper in the country a few days after his death are uncannily accurate in describing him as a writer and humorist who had transcended those simple descriptions.

In Twain’s house in Hartford, there is a quote by Emerson over the fireplace in the library.  “”The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”

Twain’s writings can stand on their own. But my admiration of Twain came from the words of his three best friends who frequented his home the most: William Dean Howells, Joseph Twitchell and Henry Rogers.

It is an over simplification but these three men gave Sam Clemens three kinds of salvation.  Howells, the influential editor of the Atlantic Monthly and a highly-regard author was his literary benefactor and champion.

Howells and Twain

Howells wrote about Twain’s funeral in My Mark Twain:

“I looked a moment at the face I knew so well; and it was patient with the patience I had so often seen in it: something of puzzle, a great silent dignity, an assent to what must be from the depths of a nature whose tragical seriousness broke in the laughter which the unwise took for the whole of him. Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes–I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.”

Twichell and Twain

Joseph Twichell was a Hartford-based Congregationalist clergyman who was undoubtedly Clemens best friend for nearly 50 years. and spiritual (when the occasion called for it) muse. They met at a church social after the Civil War when Hopkins was pastor of Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, his only pastorate for almost 50 years. Reverend Twichell performed Twain’s wedding and christened his children, and counseled him on literary as well as personal matters for the rest of Twain’s life.

The Associated Press wrote eloquently about Twain’s funeral.

“At 3 o’clock the immediate family seated themselves in front of the coffin. Rev. Dr. Henry Van Dyke of Princeton and Rev. Joseph H. Twitchell of Hartford, Twain’s old chums, robed in their vestments, took their places in the chancel. For a quarter of an hour the two ministers sat silent, their heads bowed in prayer.

No sound was heard through the dark old edifice save a muffled sob. Dr. Twitchell, Twain’s oldest and dearest friend, was convulsed with tears. His massive frame shook as he brushed the white locks from his forehead and gazed down into the face of his dead friend.”

Rev. Dr. Henry Van Dyke read the Scriptural part of the Presbyterian funeral service.

When he had finished he entered without a break on his address. It was a simple and dignified estimate of the worth of the work that Mark Twain’s life had produced. Throughout it was evident that the speaker was making a strong effort to keep down his emotion and control his voice. There was a noticeable break in his voice when he said: “Now he is gone.”

In part, Van Dyke said:

“Those who know the story of Mark Twain’s career know how bravely he faced hardships and misfortune, how loyally he toiled for years to meet a debt of conscience, following the injunction of the New Testament to provide not only things honest, but things ‘honorable in the sight of all men.’

“Those who know the story of his friendships and his family life know that he was one who ‘loved much’ and faithfully, even unto the end. Those who know his work as a whole know that under the lambent and irrepressible humor which was his gift there was a foundation of serious thoughts and noble affections and desires.

“Nothing could be more false than to suppose that the presence of humor means the absence of depth and earnestness. There are elements of the unreal, the absurd, the ridiculous in this strange, incongruous world which must seem humorous even tot he highest Mind. Of these the Bible says, ‘He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Almighty shall hold them in derision.’ But the mark of this higher humor is that it does not laugh at the weak, the helpless, the true, the innocent; only at the false, the pretentious, the vain, the hypocritical.”

“Mark Twain himself would be the first to smile at the claim that his humor was infallible. But we may say without doubt that he used his gift, not for evil, but for good. The atmosphere of his work is clean and wholesome. He made fun without hatred. He laughed many of the world’s false claimants out of court, and entangled many of the world’s false witnesses in the net of ridicule. In his best books and stories, colored with his own experience, he touched the absurdities of life with penetrating but not unkindly mockery, and made us feel somehow the infinite pathos of life’s realities.

“Now he is gone, and our thoughts of him are tender, grateful, proud. We are glad of his friendship; glad that he has expressed so richly one of the great elements in the temperament of America; glad that he has left such an honorable record as a man of letters, and glad, also for his sake, that after many and deep sorrows, he is at peace, and we trust happy in the fuller light.

“Rest after toil, port after stormy seas,

Death after life doth greatly please.”

Rogers and Twain

Henry Rogers was Clemens’s financial muse and one of the 25 wealthiest men in American History . As the  Vice President of Standard Oil, he was in equal measures a Robber Barron and a kind-hearted philanthropist.

When Twain lived in New York City, he would often walk into the Standard Oil Headquarters and take a nap on Rogers office couch – an act that would probably not be tolerated by Rogers by anyone but Twain.

When critics would ask Twain how he could be friends with a man who’s money was  “tainted.” he replied. “His money is tainted, it taint mine and it taint yours.” Twain admitted,  “He’s a pirate all right, but he owns up to it and enjoys being a pirate. That’s the reason I like him.”

Twain was a bit of pirate, a scoundrel, a practical joker, a smoker, billiard player and when time allowed, one genius of a writer.

That’s the reason I like him.

Bless you Mr. Clemens.

Martin Baker

April 21, 2010

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