Feb 20, 2013

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Red Booth Notes: Something of the Same Magic: Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton

Red BoothThey were writers with an ocean between them. One was nearly forty years older than the other. One was raised in the ante-bellum American south, the other in late Victorian London.

At first blush, Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton would seem to have little in common. All the available evidence suggests they never met, the more unfortunate as Twain was in England for an extended stay in 1907 to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Chesterton’s early fame was then at its height, so a meeting of the two men could easily have been arranged. It’s a tantalizing thought, as Twain did make time to see George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton’s great friend.[1]

So perhaps the best chance for Twain and Chesterton to have met slipped by. But we do have a marvelous consolation prize in the quip that Twain offered on receiving the news of his great academic honor. “I don’t know why they should give me a degree like that,” he said. “I never doctored any literature: I wouldn’t know how.”[2]

Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton

Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton

This said, Twain certainly knew who Chesterton was. And there’s very strong evidence that one of Chesterton’s books, an early collection of mystery stories called The Club of Queer Trades, was once part of Twain’s personal library. In April 2010, The New York Times reported the discovery of a treasure trove of hundreds of books owned by Twain that had been given to a library in Redding, Connecticut. Many of the books, the Times confirmed, are “filled with notes in [Twain’s] cramped, scratchy handwriting.” In March 2010, the library’s director discovered Chesterton’s book among the stacks. As of the Times’ reportage, it was awaiting authentication as a one-time Twain possession.[3]

More than this, Chesterton had been signatory to a congratulatory cable sent from England to mark Twain’s 70th birthday (pun intended!). Among those who signed were: J.M. Barrie (the author of Peter Pan), Chesterton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Lang, and the renowned illustrator Sir John Tenniel (whose images conjured the world of Alice in Wonderland). So Chesterton may be said to have “corresponded” with Twain, albeit rather obliquely. Indeed, the cable was among the papers Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, drew upon when writing his four-volume biography of Twain (published in 1912).

 

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I was struck by the thought of how similar Twain’s voice, and Chesterton’s, could be at times when writing my literary biography of Chesterton, Defiant Joy. A striking example begins with Twain’s statement in a letter to his great friend William Dean Howells: “Ah, well, I am a great & sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, & all His works must be contemplated with respect.”[4]

Reading that, I could only think that there were reasons enough to think Chesterton would have relished Twain’s affirmation that he was “God’s fool”—and reasons enough to think he would have said as much of himself.

As it happens, he did—writing in his Autobiography: “I daresay that there are a good many fools who can call me a friend and also (a more chastening thought) a good many friends who can call me a fool.”[5]

And Chesterton, considered by many the pre-eminent critic of Dickens, was no less discerning when taking the measure of Twain. Where so many contemporaries saw Twain largely as an amiable, seemingly endless font of good humor, Chesterton detected the somberness that infused so much of his writing. As Twain’s biographer Ron Powers has observed: “Twain insisted that the secret source of humor was not joy, but sorrow. G.K. Chesterton was among [the few] who noticed this sometimes subtle dialectic…Twain was ‘always serious to the point of madness,’ he observed—‘an unfathomably solemn man.’”[6]

Chesterton knew a kindred spirit when he saw one, and once said of Twain: “he was chivalrous in his power of fighting for unpopular causes, in his contempt of clamor and coarse unanimity, [and] in a certain instinct for saying defiant and dramatic things, if they were only a sort of grim jokes, on great and crucial occasions.”[7] Reading that, I could only think one might write a literary biography of Twain called Defiant Joy. Come to think of it, maybe Chesterton had—in the space of this telling sentence.

To delve into Chesterton’s many reflections about Twain, his 1910 memorial essay, his introduction to a 1923 edition of Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, could easily run to several pages. Two statements will have to suffice here. They hint at the promise of a thorough exploration of the affinities between these writers.

“I have always admired the genius of Mark Twain,” Chesterton told Twain’s cousin, Cyril Clemens, when they met toward the end of Chesterton’s life. “He was the greatest master of the tall story who has ever lived, and was also, what is more important, a thoroughly sincere man.” Then, taking up Cyril Clemens’ autograph book, he wrote in it: “Greetings to The Mark Twain Society from an Innocent at Home, G.K. Chesterton, known as the unjumping frog of Bucks County.”[8]

This is a marvelous tribute. But if I were asked to pick a favorite among the many Chesterton wrote, I think it would be this, a wonderful allusion to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. “If,” Chesterton wrote, Twain, “had ever found the real court of King Arthur, he might very well have been knighted there.”[9]

Last of all, when it comes to seeing Twain and Chesterton in the same light, one comes to a little known fact: they were both photographed by the same artist, Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Something about the two men caught Coburn’s eye, and something of the same magic seems to have been cast over the two pictures. Using the marvelously evocative photogravure process, Coburn’s artistry was on full display when he created his images of Twain and Chesterton. Both men seemed to have stepped from beyond the rim of the world into our own: Twain, dressed in white, looks as though he’s just walked through hazy doors that are really a portal from another realm—Chesterton coming out of an indistinct darkness, looks intently at a light just starting to play over his face.

Set the photographs side by side. One persistent thought arises: maybe these two men weren’t so different after all. And maybe, they had a great deal in common.

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 An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).

 



[1] Twain’s lunch meeting with Shaw is a story in itself. That afternoon, Shaw told Twain that “America had produced two great geniuses—Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain.” Sometime later, Shaw wrote Twain a letter saying: “I am persuaded that the future historian of America will find your works as indispensable to him as a French historian finds the political tracts of Voltaire. I tell you so because I am the author of a play in which a priest says, ‘Telling the truth’s the funniest joke in the world,’ a piece of wisdom which you helped to teach me.” See page 1398 of Mark Twain: A Biography, vol. 4, by Albert Bigelow Paine, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912).

[2] From page 16 of Mark Twain’s Letters, vol. 1, ed. by Albert Bigelow Paine, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1917).

[3] This article is posted online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/19/nyregion/19twain.html?_r=0

[4] From a letter written by Twain to William Dean Howells (c. 28 December 1877). See page 215 of Henry Nash Smith and William M. Gibson, eds., Mark Twain-Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens & William D. Howells, 1869-1910, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1960). See also “God’s Fool,” Stefan Kanfer’s excellent review of Alzina Stone Dale’s biography of Chesterton (The Outline of Sanity), which appeared in the Monday, Feb. 14, 1983 issue of Time Magazine.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, fifth impression, (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1936), p. 141.

[6] See page 89 of Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life, (New York: Simon and Schuster/The Free Press, 2005). See also page 396, where Powers states that Chesterton was one of the few to take note of the seriousness and sorrow present in Twain’s writing.

[7] From pages xiii-xiv of Chesterton’s introductory essay to vol. 16 of the Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition of Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, by Mark Twain, (New York: Gabriel Wells, 1923).

[8] From pages 202-203 of My Cousin Mark Twain, by Cyril Clemens, (New York: Haskell House Publishers, Ltd., 1939).

[9] From page xiv of Chesterton’s introductory essay to vol. 16 of the Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition of Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, by Mark Twain, (New York: Gabriel Wells, 1923).

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  1. Do we know whether Chesterton ever read Mark Twain’s PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC?
    It is a Twain book that reads, in many ways, as if it had been written by Chesterton.

    Track down & read a copy: you owe it to yourself.

    • Thomas Brent says:

      Yes, it sounds like he did: “One of the first really popular attempts at a rationalist rehabilitation came, of all people in the world, from Mark Twain. His notion of the Middle Ages was as provincial as the Yankee at the Court of King Arthur; but it is to the credit of this rather crude genius,of the late culture of a new country, that he did catch the flame from
      the pyre of Rouen, which so many cultivated sceptics had found cold.”
      – from “The Early Bird in History”

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