Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Clemens, Samuel Langhorne (Mark Twain) (1835–1910)
Author:
Britton, Wesley A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Clemens, popular for his fiction written under the pseudonym "Mark Twain," and Whitman are often compared as vernacular writers of nineteenth-century American democracy. Clemens's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is often considered the literary companion piece to Leaves of Grass, both works subjects of book bannings that were eventually hailed as turning points in American literature.

Comparisons include the authors' similar backgrounds, time spent as apprentice printers, their personae as self-made, rough-hewn artists, and their sympathy with downtrodden peoples. Both championed American idioms and speech and the individual against conformist society.

Yet the two showed only perfunctory interest in each other. Whitman said Twain "might have been something. He comes near being something: but he never arrives" (qtd. in Kaplan 339). In turn, Twain noted, "If I've become a Whitmanite I'm sorry—I never read 40 lines of him in my life" (qtd. in Gribben 2:764). This claim is probably an exaggeration; Clemens's personal copy of Leaves of Grass contains many of his marginal comments, and in 1892 Clemens-owned Charles L. Webster and Company published Selected Poems, by Walt Whitman with Whitman's special permission.

Clemens provided financial support for Whitman on several occasions, including one hundred dollars for a horse and buggy and two hundred dollars for a cottage to "make the splendid old soul comfortable" (qtd. in Bergman 3). In 1889 Clemens sent Whitman a complimentary copy of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

In 1884 Clemens grouped Whitman with other writers in an anecdote, and he attended Whitman's 1887 eulogy for Lincoln at Madison Square Theater in New York. His ambivalent feelings about Whitman were reflected on Whitman's seventieth birthday, when Clemens sent an impersonal, ambiguous telegram, and in an unfinished essay, "The Walt Whitman Controversy," in which Clemens worried about the sexual frankness in Leaves of Grass, saying the book should not be read by children.

Bibliography

Bergman, Herbert. "The Whitman-Twain Enigma Again." Mark Twain Journal 10.3 (1957): 3–9.

Gribben, Alan. Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction. 2 vols. Boston: Hall, 1980.

Kaplan, Justin. "Starting from Paumanok . . . and from Hannibal: Whitman and Mark Twain." Confrontation 27–28 (1984): 338–347.


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