Twins of Genius IV
Bill Long 2/18/06
Finishing the Tour
In Keokuk, IA, where Twain's mother lived, the brilliant duo of Cable and Twain held forth for an evening in January 1885. Twain's humor was evident from the outset. The Keokuk Daily Gate City reported on January 15:
"Mark Twain came next and the appearance of the ungainly body and the shaggy head was the signal for applause. He remarked after the performance that he had grown handsomer of late. If this is the fact, and it is generally understood that Twain is truthful, we feel grateful that he didn't appear before us in his previous condition. As far as looks are concerned Twain would never capture a premium at a beauty show, but when it comes to story telling the best judges would pronounce him chief. He called the audience friends and fellow townsmen, told them he was glad to resume an intercourse that had been broken off years ago, said he was sorry to have been the cause of bringing them out upon such a night, but that they were no worse off than the people of some seventy-five cities already visited by them this season, that a storm generally preceded their coming, and that if feeling well they always left a famine behind them."
With the revamped program, where Twain spent most of his time reciting the "Celebrated Jumping Frog" and excerpts from the upcoming Huckleberry Finn, Twain was now fully in his element. Though he could deride his companion unmercifully (Twain said in a letter that "With his [Cable's] platform talent he was able to fatigue a corpse"), he wrote to his wife near the end of the tour that "Cable is a great man." After their Dec. 6, 1884 appearance in Rochester, NY, they visited a local bookstore and Cable pointed out a copy of Le Morte d'Arthur to Twain, saying that Twain would "never lay it down until you have read it cover to cover." This conversation was the stimulus for Twain to write A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court shortly after the publication of Huckleberry Finn.
A Final Glimpse of Twain
But after the tour Twain leaked stories to a Boston newspaper which painted Cable in a poor light. Cable had visited Twain in Hartford before the trip and was taken sick while there. The story that ran in the May 7, 1885 Boston Herald was catty in the extreme. While Cable was laid up at a Mr. Coleman's house (i.e., Twain's),
"For nearly three weeks he almost lived on champagne, ordered expressly for him. Doubtless that was all right, too--at least Cable seemed to think so. During his illness there had been considerable telegraphing, and after his recovery Cable did have the grace to ask if there were not some telegraph bills for him to pay. Well, Clemens, of course, had paid for the dispatches as they arrived, but he had kept a list, which he showed Cable. The total was some $10. Cable gravely sat down to audit his friend's account. Presently he came to one telegram which was unimportant, but which Clemens had received and paid for. "That should not have been received," said Cable, and promptly crossed it off the list, leaving his friend so much out of pocket. It was only a trifle, but characteristic, especially when you think of the champagne and nursing."
Other unflattering stories of Cable follow--how he didn't want to give a reading at a Hartford philanthropic event because he would't be paid for it, how he was parsimonious to downright cheap on their tour, how his strict Sabbatarianism caused hardship alike for friend and family.
When Cable learned of these stories, he was aghast, and wrote to the editor of the Boston Herald that its stories were "slanderous and libelous." They were stories about private life, unattributed and, on their face, "full of improbabilities." When Cable then wrote to Twain, he said he thought Twain's words against him were intended "as a friend's fair criticism among friends." Rather than being angry at Twain, however, Cable said: "I esteem you more highly since our writer's experience than I ever did before & should deeply regret if scandal mongers were to make an estrangement between us." Perhaps Cable didn't believe that the source of the Herald stories was Twain himself. In any case, he wanted to maintain the friendship, aware perhaps that Twain's star was rising and his own had possibly peaked.
Twain, for his part, pooh-poohed Cable's concerns about his characterization in the press. "My dear boy, don't give yourself any discomfort about the slander of a professional newspaper liar--we cannot escape such things.." He closed by urging Cable to put the matter out of his mind. Rather easy for Twain to say.
This final essay depicts Twain in a light that is consistent with scholarly portraits of his life. He certainly was a gifted writer, but was afflicted with a sort of bitterness, irascibility, peevishness, resentment, and small-mindedness that one would not have expected from the lips of a humorist. But perhaps Woody Allen was correct after all when he said that no one's first choice is to be a humorist...
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long