A voracious pack-rat, Mark Twain hoarded his readers' letters as did few of his contemporaries. Dear Mark Twain collects 200 of these letters written by a diverse cross-section of correspondents from around the world—children, farmers, schoolteachers, businessmen, preachers, railroad clerks, inmates of mental institutions, con artists, and even a former president. It is a unique and groundbreaking book—the first published collection of reader letters to any writer of Mark Twain's time. Its contents afford a rare and exhilarating glimpse into the sensibilities of nineteenth-century people while revealing the impact Samuel L. Clemens had on his readers. Clemens’s own and often startling comments and replies are also included.
R. Kent Rasmussen’s extensive research provides fascinating profiles of the correspondents, whose personal stories are often as interesting as their letters. Ranging from gushing fan appreciations and requests for help and advice to suggestions for writing projects and stinging criticisms, the letters are filled with perceptive insights, pathos, and unintentional but often riotous humor. Many are deeply moving, more than a few are hilarious, some may be shocking, but none are dull.
Dear Mark Twain Letters from His Readers
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Virginia, Feb 9, 1863.
Mark Twain: I received so good a compliment for you this morning that I am bound to communicate it to you. John Nugent inquired of me who Mark Twain was, and added that he had not seen so amusing a thing in newspaper literature in a long while as your letter in the Enterprise this morning. I gave him an account of you "so far as I knew." I suppose you know that Nugent was John Phoenix's most intimate friend. While we were talking about you, Mr. Nugent showed me an unpublished letter of the great humorist who is now in heaven.
I didn't suppose it was necessary for me to write this to you but I thought I would, because praise from Nugent is "praise from Sir Hubert Stanley," as it were. [Oh! the last three words are original with me, you know.] But considering the critique of the Union on you the other day, I thought I would administer to you a strengthening plaster, if you felt like weakening, you know.
Yours, hoping you will not weaken,
Clemens first signed "Mark Twain" to his second "Letter from Carson," which appeared in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise on 3 February 1863. Putnam's letter is the earliest surviving one addressed to that pseudonym. Ironically, its own author has not been identified because he used a pseudonym himself. "Isreal Putnam" may have been a play on the name of the Revolutionary War leader Israel Putnam (1718-1790). It could also have been a pun for "Is real Putnam," in reference to Clemens's Enterprise colleague Charles Putnam.
There is a problem with the letter's date: 9 February was a Monday-a day on which the Enterprise was not published. Putnam probably alludes to the 8 February issue, in which another "Letter from Carson" appeared. It contains a burlesque account of a wedding at which a rival reporter, "the Unreliable" (Clement T. Rice), supposedly made an ass of himself (H.N. Smith, ed., Clemens of the Enterprise [Berkeley, 1857], 57-61).
John Nugent (1821-1880) was the former owner-editor of the San Francisco Herald and was a federal agent in the West during the early 1860s. John Phoenix was the pen name of George Derby (1823-1861), a humorist who had built his reputation in California. The phrase "Praise from Sir Hubert Stanley" comes from a line in a play by Thomas Morton (1764-1838): "Approbation from Sir Hubert Stanley is praise indeed." The Union was another Virginia City daily with which the Enterprise had an ongoing rivalry.
Nov 15th 1869
Mr Samuel L Clemens, "Mark Twain"
I trust you will excuse the liberty I now take in thus intruding on your notice as I wish to ask you for your Autograph also Nom de plume
I am getting a Collection and should be very much pleased to receive yours, for I should prize it highly, as I admire your humorous Lectures and Writings. They contain so much genuine wit, and such fine ideas, your description of Places and Persons being so correct and expressed so prettily. A few lines with your Name would be very acceptable.
With many kind wishes for your continued Success and hoping you may be pleased to grant my request,
I remain Sir, very respectfully
Mrs. Wm. W. Pearce
This may be Clemens's earliest preserved autograph request. Newspaper publication of his Quaker City voyage letters in 1867 gave him a national reputation, but much greater fame would come from publication of The Innocents Abroad in July 1869. An 1870 census report for Providence, Rhode Island, lists thirty-two-year-old Harriet H. Pearce as the wife of William W. Pearce, a jeweler.
New York, 8th July '70
Mark Twain, Esq.
My Dear Sir,
I regret exceedingly that your agricultural editorship has not been appreciated. Other laborers in that field have met with the same ingratitude from an ignorant community. Some years ago one of the governors of Indiana devoted himself to the improvement of the stock in that benighted state shortly before a general election. A constituent addressed him a note inquiring what he thought of the hydraulic ram? Mr Governor immediately and properly replied that it was better than Southdown for mutton equal to Merino for wool, and would you believe it-the prejudices of the people were such that he lost his re-election.
Very truly yours,
Readers enjoyed telling Clemens about real-life oddities resembling his fictional inventions. This letter responds to his July 1870 Galaxy sketch "How I Edited an Agricultural Paper Once," a burlesque account of a newspaper publishing nonsense such as claiming turnips grow on vines. The letter alludes to Joseph A. Wright (1810-1867), the governor of Indiana in 1849-1857, who was publicly embarrassed for suggesting that the "hydraulic ram" (a water pump) could improve sheep breeds (Ouachita, Ks. Telegraph, 12 Feb. 1870; D.J. Powers and E.W. Skinner, eds., The Wisconsin Farmer [Madison, 1856], 40). Wright did not run for reelection in 1856 but was later appointed to fill an empty U.S. Senate seat. The anonymous correspondent's pseudonym, "Virgilius," recalls the medieval European grammarian Virgilius Maro Grammaticus and the ancient Roman poet Virgil, who was also known as Virgilius.
McBean p.o. Richmond Co Georgia
August 23, 1870
Mark Twain Esq
Sir-I am an old man, a farmer, and an invalid of two years standing. My occupation if I may call it so, is reading the papers and Magazines, of which together I subscribe to eighteen-among them the Galaxy, next I think in its standing to Appleton's Journal-I write to thank you for filling a void in the Galaxy, which I have long felt in the literature of the day. The mind is like the body, it needs relaxation and rest-for it is hard labour to read continuously the stilted sentiment of the time and of the hundreds of books papers I have read during several years back, excepting Mr Dickens works. I do not remember to have seen humour enough in any one to excite a laugh, until yr appearance in the Galaxy-It is a great feature in the work, with me at least, and poor down trodden devils as we are, it must be genuine humour that can produce a cachinnation in a Southern gentleman-I trust you will continue this department, with profit to yrself and benefit amusement to yr readers-For God's sake dont think I have written this to have it published-it is for yself alone-I dont know even yr real name-
Very respectfully yr
A C Walker
Clemens's comment: Letter from a Southern Gentleman.
Galaxy was a New York monthly for which Clemens wrote a monthly column in 1870-1871. Appleton's Journal was another New York monthly. The correspondent, "Colonel" Alexander Curran Walker (1816-1883), was a lifelong Georgia resident married to a New Yorker. A farmer, he was later eulogized as "a gentleman of the old school, scholarly and cultured, public spirited and bold" (obituary, Augusta, Georgia, Chronicle, 12 Jan. 1883). In 1856 he used the pen name "Viator" when he published "The Night Funeral of a Slave" in the northern magazine Home Journal (W.A. Clark, A Lost Arcadia, Or, The Story of My Old Community [Augusta, Ga., 1909], 12). Inspired by Walker's grief over the death of a slave, the widely reprinted story concluded with a northerner observing that "the negroes of the south are the happiest and most contented people on the face of the earth." When Walker's friend the future Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens resigned from the U.S. Congress in 1858, Walker declined the offer of the nomination to succeed him. After the Civil War, Walker successfully applied to the Union government's pardon and amnesty program, swearing he had opposed secession and had never served the Confederate government.
Walker wrote to Clemens again on 6 February 1880, but Clemens then responded less charitably. Evidently thinking that Clemens edited a Republican newspaper, Walker compared The Innocents Abroad's attacks on the Roman Catholic Church with Republican editors' attacks on the South, adding that the "only thing is, that I cant conceive how Mark Twain can edit a republican paper." Despite these criticisms, he invited Clemens and his wife to be his guests in Georgia for an extended stay. Unimpressed, Clemens simply noted, "From an ass."
Hartford (one of 'em) Aug 30th/70
In a late number of the Galaxy you give an interesting specimen of this class of literature with an expressed desire for Some more.
First let me give you my experience with that same article-After carefully reading it over twice, in silence, I tried it upon a somewhat romantic and sensitive young lady friend (of course, omitting your introductory remarks)-before I had reached the end of the twaddle her eyes were "bathed in tears"
Woman like, she had got a long way ahead of the story-had identified herself with the poor sorrowing creature-so miserable with all her luxurious surroundings-had doubtless conjured up no end of Bluebeard or other troubles-(heaven knows what-I didn't cross examine)-Here was a good, earnest, modest girl, with a fair share of common sense, as well as educational advantages-
Now I wish to call your critical attention to Lippincott for August "The hungry heart"
The animus of the whole thing you will find on the first page of the story-
"Every woman in these days needs two husbands-one to fill her purse and one to fill her heart" (whatever that may be)
As to J.W. De Forest-he may be a woman or she may be a man-things get terribly mixed up now-a-days-
Any how, the principles instilled are those of that old hermaphrodite-The Atlantic Menstrual-Boston-
J.W. De F. wants taking down a peg or two-bad-and you are the man "as can do it"
Yours very truly
Thomas Swift, M.D.
To/Mr Mark Twain
Clemens's "Hogwash" editorial in the June 1870 Galaxy quoted a reader's letter he called a "miracle of pointless imbecility and bathos," offering it "for competition as the sickliest specimen of sham sentimentality that exists." The present letter's writer, Thomas Swift, responded to this challenge by describing-fairly accurately-a magazine story by the New England author John William De Forest (1826-1906). De Forest served in the Union Army during the Civil War, which is the setting for his best-known novel, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867). De Forest himself wrote to Clemens on 31 July 1874, proposing they publish a joint collection of sketches. He suggested that Clemens select from his (De Forest's) previously published sketches, throw in some of his own, and "add some machinery of story-telling tourists to string the narratives together." Clemens evidently ignored this offer. Swift uses "The Atlantic Menstrual" as a sarcasm directed at the prestigious Boston literary magazine Atlantic Monthly. Nineteen U.S. states have towns named Hartford. Because Swift's letter was postmarked in New York City, it is not certain in which Hartford he lived. Clemens himself did not settled in Hartford, Connecticut, until 1871, so the name had little significance to him in 1870.