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Rudyard Kipling, An interview with Mark Twain

April 22, 2010
Rudyard Kipling

Kipling, somewhat older than 23! (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

How could I resist reading this offering from the Library of America, featuring as it does two giants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Both are writers I know well in a superficial way: I’ve really read only a little of their works. This essay, I thought, presented an interesting opportunity to get to know them from a different perspective.

“An interview with Mark Twain” was published in 1890, the year after Kipling, then 23 years old and on his overseas tour to Europe and the USA, interviewed the great man. Twain was 54, and staying in Elmira, NY, at the time. We know from the opening lines that Kipling idolises Twain:

You are a contemptible lot, over yonder. Some of you are Commissioners, and some Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the V.C., and a few are privileged to walk about the Mall arm in arm with the Viceroy; but I have seen Mark Twain … Understand clearly that I do not despise you, indeed I don’t. I am only very sorry for you, from the Viceroy downward …

Clearly this is going to be a positively reported interview! The essay starts though, rather humorously, with the challenges Kipling faced in locating Clemens (as he was known) but, one-third of the way into the essay, we finally meet Twain who, despite his grey hair (that “was an accident of the most trivial”) looked “quite young”.

Kipling’s next comment rather continues his hero-worship – and reflects the way many of we readers think when we think of our favourite writers:

Reading his books, I had striven to get an idea of his personality, and all my preconceived notions were wrong and beneath the reality. Blessed is the man who finds no disillusion when he is brought face to face with a revered writer.

You might think, from all this, that the rest of the interview will be rather hagiographic, with Kipling hanging on Twain’s every words. But, while there is an element of that, Kipling is delightfully self-conscious and there is a lovely sense of like minds engaging. Kipling reports on a conversation that ranges over a number of issues, including copyright, about which Twain has strong feelings, believing that a writer (and his heirs) should maintain control over “the work of his brains” (Kipling’s words) in much the same way as you might own “real estate” (Twain’s analogy). If you search the Internet, you will find a number of references to Mark Twain and copyright. As an (ex) librarian/archivist, I have a complicated relationship with copyright. I believe in abiding by it, I believe that creators need recompense for their work and that copyright is one way they can ensure that, but I also like people to be able to access the works they wish. According to my Internet research, Twain did not seek perpetual copyright, but enough to protect/provide for his immediate heirs. That sounds fair enough to me. And, it sounded fair enough to Kipling, though he was a little tongue-in-cheek in reporting that he saw Twain’s point, because he follows it up with “When the old lion roars, the young whelps growl. I growled assentingly”.

[If you are interested in copyright in the USA, check this timeline prepared by the Association of Research Libraries.]

Anyhow, they move on to discuss Twain’s books, and the possibility of a sequel to Tom Sawyer. Twain, teasingly, suggests that he hasn’t decided, that he could “make him rise to great honour and go to Congress” or he could “hang him”! This was too much for Kipling who says “I lost my reverence completely” arguing that Sawyer “was real”. Ah, fiction and reality I thought! This essay is speaking to me again.

Twain replies that Sawyer “is real … he’s all the boys that I have known or recollect” but then goes on to say that:

Suppose we took the next four and twenty years of Tom Sawyer’s life, and gave a little joggle to the circumstances that controlled him. He would, logically, according to the joggle, turn out a rip of an angel.

He calls this Kismet, and asks whether Kipling agrees. Kipling does to a degree, but suggests that Sawyer isn’t Twain’s property any more, “he belongs to us”. Hmmm…I’m not sure that this is the aspect of “reality” in fiction that interests me, but the discussion (which is not reported further) is interesting, if only because it reflects topics that engaged these two writers.

They they go on to discuss “truth and the like in literature” but the discussion focuses more on autobiography and Twain’s view that no matter how much an autobiographer may lie about him/herself, the “truth” will out. Ain’t that the truth! All of us writing blogs give ourselves away, regardless, I think, of how we may try to “present” ourselves… But, I think I’ll move on from this possibly murky mire!

And then, in a fascinating little discussion of novel-reading comes this point which may interest we bloggers. It’s about assessing novels. Twain says:

You see … every man has his private opinion about a book. But that is my private opinion. If I had lived in the beginning of things, I should have looked around the township to see what popular opinion thought of the murder of Abel before I openly condemned Cain. I should have had my private opinion, of course, but I shouldn’t have expressed it until I had felt the way.

Is he saying what I think he’s saying? A little later in the essay, and on a slightly different topic, Kipling says “and I am still wondering if he meant what he said”! Knowing a little of Twain, I must admit I’m wondering what was “true” in his comments, and what wasn’t … so much of his “truth” is behind rather than in his words.

Twain goes on to talk about fiction and fact, implying that he prefers the latter, that he doesn’t “care for fiction”. He then gives this advice which I love:

“Get your facts first, and” – the voice dies away to an almost inaudible drone – “then you can distort ’em as much as you please”.

I can’t think of a better point upon which to close this post … but, by way of conclusion, I found at The Huffington Post this comment made by Twain, many years later, about the meeting:

I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before–though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would. . . . He was a stranger to me and to all the world, and remained so for twelve months, then he became suddenly known, and universally known.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2010 11:22 am

    Very interesting! Twain continues to offer us so much, and his quotes are wonderful treasures. Thanks for this post.

    • April 22, 2010 11:24 am

      Thanks, Dilettante, glad you liked it. I feel that I should really read more Twain, like Innocents abroad perhaps.

  2. April 22, 2010 11:43 pm

    Twain is an interesting character, brilliant in his own way yet myopic too. This is the 100 year anniversayr of his death and there are lots of Twain celebrations being planned. I didn’t know about his feelings on copyright. Copyright in the U.S. has gone all haywire thanks to Sonny Bono. I thought the life of the author plus 20 years was reasonable but now it’s up to 70 years which is utterly ridiculous. And don’t get me started on audio and film copyright. Gah!

    • April 23, 2010 8:19 am

      LOL Stefanie … Twain, I keep discovering, had feelings on a lot of things!

      I spent almost all my career working with film and sound (left book librarianship 18 months after I started work) so I know all about that (or know nothing, as the case may be!) We have gone 70 years too … and it’s all YOUR fault, to do with our countries signing a Free Trade Agreement. But I think, though I could be wrong, that the international “standard” is now 70 years so most countries, particularly western democracies, have that.

      • April 23, 2010 11:38 pm

        Eeek, really? Our 70 years has also affected the rest of the world? I’m sorry. I had no idea. I’ve been living in ignorant bliss, imagining moving to the UK one day and living in a freer world of public domain happiness. I should have known it was too good to be true 🙂

  3. Kevin Neilson permalink
    April 23, 2010 9:43 am

    Thank you for this. I’m slightly obsessed with Twain. Best, Kevin

  4. April 23, 2010 6:31 pm

    The Huffington Post?! Surely you made that up LOL!

  5. April 23, 2010 8:38 pm

    Another interesting Library of Congress Archive piece. I’m trying to work out who the “Robert” is who wrote such impressive novels!

    “But as regards Robert, the effect on me was exactly as though a singer of street ballads were to hear excellent music from a church organ. I didn’t stop to ask whether the music was legitimate or necessary. I listened, and I liked what I heard. I am speaking of the grace and beauty of the style”

    • April 23, 2010 9:09 pm

      LOL Tom, I did some research on this when I read it and Robert is actually the title of a book apparently: Robert Elsmere (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Elsmere ). It was written by Australian born (would you believe!) but English based novelist Mrs Humphrey [Mary Augusta] Ward. I’d rather like to read it. It may be available on Gutenberg but I don’t like to read books that way so haven’t checked.

  6. April 24, 2010 6:35 am

    Amazing – I had a glance at it on Gutenburg and it looked a bit too wordy for me to embark on it however

  7. April 24, 2010 10:27 am

    Stefanie: LOL. Actually, we’d need to check the history. It may be that the 70 years is not USA infecting everyone else but an outcome of cooperative work at WIPO (perhaps instigated by USA, though I’m not sure) – but certainly the Free Trade Agreement hastened out adoption of the 70 year rule.

    Tom: Yes, I agree. I’d need this in a nice little pb I could pick up and put down.

  8. May 1, 2010 10:21 am

    Great commentary on the piece. I am sorry I did not see this *before* I posted my favorite things last week. I would have linked to you instead. I am sometimes a little slow in making the rounds…

    I really enjoyed your riff, and Kipling’s “interview.” Great stuff. Twain is absolutely fascinating.

    • May 1, 2010 3:37 pm

      Thanks Kerry. It’s always nice to be linked to, but I totally understand – I’m often slow getting around everyone too (and was particularly slow last week when I was out of town). I am really glad you liked the post … and will get to your favourite things post (whose announcement I filed away in “to do when I get back”) soon.

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