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.