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Mark Coburn <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 11 Feb 2006 16:42:52 -0700
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Many thanks to Hal Bush for an excellent review of the new Twichell letter
collection. That was a detailed, intelligent wide-ranging job, Hal.

One of Hal's paragraphs drew a laugh out of me.  He wrote:

While Twain was out west writing harmless comical sketches about the
"Petrified Man," or about "How to Cure a Cold," Twichell was watching the
Battle of Fredericksburg unfold from a nearby hilltop, or standing in a
hospital tent during the Battle of Gettysburg and holding down Dan Sickles
as the surgeon amputated the quirky general's right leg.

Dan is VERY near the top of my list of "Improbable Americans"--meaning
people we absolutely could not swallow if we encountered them in works of
fiction.   To call him  "quirky" is a tad like calling Brigham Young (who
heads my list of Improbable Americans) "a strong believer in marriage," or
like calling Michael Jordan "agile."

Clemens knew Gen. Sickles slightly, presumably through Twichell.  So that
gives me an excuse--I never need much--to urge anyone who hasn't done so
to  read W.A. Swanberg's beautifully written biography, Sickles the
Incredible.  (There's a newer bio, but from the excerpts I've read it's
much less fun.)

Just a few highpoints (please blame any minor errors on my aged memory):
--Dan Sickles  may have been the first American freed of a murder charge on
the insanity defense.

--The man he shot (in Lafayette Square? certainly some very public D.C.
place)  was Dan's wife's lover, a very prominent Washington politician and
the son of the man who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner."

--Dan was a Congressman, a Tammany Democrat, during this indelicate

--After his leg was amputated, Dan donated it to a major museum.  He
sometimes went to visit it, occasionally taking friends along.

--When serving as minister in Madrid during Grant's administration, Sickles
had a far-from-secret  affair with a sometime Spanish queen.  The Parisians
called him "the Yankee King of Spain."

--Returned to Congress in his later years (old Dan switched parties more
than once), he deserves as much credit as  anyone for making Gettysburg  a
national park.

But my favorite Sickles tidbit is for those who love serious music.  It's
also a good reminder of what an incredible span lives of Twain's epoch
could cover:

--As a difficult youth (to put it most mildly) the future general was
placed by his parents  in the household of an aged Italian gentleman for
much-needed polishing.  That gentleman was  Lorenzo da Ponte.  In much
younger years, he had been intimate with Mozart, and had written the
libretti for Mozart's great Italian operas--Don Giovanni, The Marriage of
Figaro, Cosi fan tutte.

--At the other end of his busy life, Daniel Sickles and Twichell remained
very close--they used to attend veterans' reunions together.  So it can
surely be  assumed that Sickles met Joseph Twichell's son-in-law....a young
fellow with musical hopes and itches named Charles Ives.

Oh, yes, and for a final musical tidbit, Charles Ives's bride was
named--are you ready?--"Harmony."  As was her mother, Joe Twichell's wife.

Do please treat yourself sometime to a reading of  Sickles the Incredible.

Mark Coburn