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Mark Dawidziak <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 28 May 2007 11:54:37 -0400
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Dear Camy,

    Hello, Mark Dawidziak here, armed with more detail than you probably
wish. As a member of both the Mark Twain Circle and the Dickens
Fellowship, I've long been fascinated by the many parallels between the
two authors. These points of comparison are the subject of a paper that
I've delivered (from slightly different perspectives) at both an annual
Fellowship gathering and at the last State of Mark Twain Studies
gathering in Elmira.

    Much of what follows is lifted from that paper, but, hey, I'm
stealing from myself. It should answer your question.

    Yes, for one night, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were in the same
building at the same time. Twain went to hear Dickens' 1867 reading at
New York's Steinway Hall on New Year's Eve. Olivia Langdon had made the
trip to New York City from Elmira with her family. Samuel Clemens was
introduced to her by Charles Langdon, his friend from the 1867 Quaker
City tour of Europe and the Holy Land./ /Twain met Livy and her parents
at the St. Nicholas Hotel on December 27. Four days later, he
accompanied the family to Steinway Hall. "The circumstances of the
evening Sam Clemens spent with his future wife were appropriate," Twain
biographer Justin Kaplan wrote in /Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. /"This
was the valedictory reading tour of a towering literary personality, a
hero of the mass audience which would soon elevate the newcomer, Mark
Twain, also a great public reader as well as an actor manqué, to an
analogous height."

    "It is a curious coincidence," wrote Twain biographer Edward
Wagenknecht, "that the two most successful writers of the nineteenth
century -- the one beginning his career just as the other was ending it
-- should, on that occasion, have been sheltered under the same roof."
    Dickens was suffering from a cold at the time, and exhaustion. He
was driving himself hard, and his doctor soon forced him to give up the
strain of the public reading tours. It is widely believed that overwork
(including the reading tours) contributed mightily to Dickens death in
1870. Certainly, he looked much older than his 58 years at the time of
his death.

    Twain left behind two accounts of the December 31^st reading by
Dickens. The first was for San Francisco's /Alta California /newspaper,
and it took issue with the "extravagant praises" bestowed on Dickens by
such New York newspapers as the /Herald /and /Tribune. /Twain said that
Dickens' voice seemed husky, and he criticized the monotony of his
reading. He called the performance "glittering frostwork, with no heart."

"Promptly at 8 p.m.," Twain wrote for the /Alta, /"a tall, 'spry' (if I
may say it), thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense,
especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in
his buttonhole, gray beard and mustache, bald head with side hair and
beard brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were
sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came!" He strode
to his famous reading desk "in the most English way and exhibiting the
most English general style and appearance. . . heedless of everything. .
. as if he had seen a girl he knew turn the next corner."

    Indeed, the early tone of the review seems quite reverent: "But that
queer old head took on a sort of beauty bye and bye, and a fascinating
interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex
but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and
put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions,
elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them
through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from
the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never
make a mistake."

From here, though, the tone changes, as Twain professes himself
disappointed in the readings from /David Copperfield. /"He professed to
be disturbed, too, by the reader's seeming inability to enliven his
pathetic passages with genuine emotion," Howard Baetzhold wrote, "a
fault which made the 'beautiful pathos of his language' seem mere
'glittering frostwork.' More specifically, he found Dickens 'a little
Englishy in his speech"; the rendition of Peggoty's search for 'Em'ly'
was 'bad'; and the episodes featuring 'Dora the child-wife,' and the
storm at Yarmouth in which Steerforth drowned, 'not as good as they
might have been.' He did like 'Mrs. Micawber's inspired suggestions as
to the negotiations of her husband's bills,' but concluded that the
whole performance was far interior to what Dickens' reputation had led
him to expect."

     This was his reaction in early 1868. Almost forty years later, he
gave a very different account of the evening. This was how Twain
described it in an October 1907 dictation for his autobiography:

"I heard him once during that season; it was in Steinway Hall, in
December, and it made the fortune of my life -- not in dollars, I am not
thinking of dollars; it made the real fortune of my life in that it made
the happiness of my life; on that day I called at the St. Nicholas Hotel
to see my Quaker City Excursion shipmate, Charley Langdon, and was
introduced to a sweet and timid and lovely young girl, his sister. The
family went to the Dickens reading and I accompanied them. It was forty
years ago; from that day to this the sister has never been out of my
mind or heart.

     "Mr. Dickens read scenes from his printed books. From my distance
he was a small and slender figure, rather fancifully dressed, and
striking and picturesque in appearance. He wore a black velvet coat with
a large and glaring red flower in the buttonhole. He stood under a red
upholstered shed behind whose slant was a row of strong lights -- just
such an arrangement as artists use to concentrate a strong light upon a
great picture. Dickens's audience sat in a pleasant twilight, while he
performed in the powerful light cast upon him from the concealed lamps.
He read with great force and animation, in the lively passages, and read
with stirring effect. It will be understood that he did not merely read
but also acted. His reading of the storm scene in which Steerforth lost
his life was so vivid and so full of energetic action that his house was
carried off its feet, so to speak."

Great force and animation? Stirring? Vivid? Energetic? They are the
words found in a rave review. Why two accounts so at odds with each other?

It is my guess, and only a guess, that the second description is the
true one -- the one of his heart. The first account was that of a young
writer looking at the old literary lion he soon would replace in the
hearts of the mass audience. He was about to write his first major book
and about to embark on his first major lecture tour. There is, in the
1868 review, the sense of the young writer measuring himself against a
giant. How do you measure up more easily? Knock him down to size a bit.

"A number of factors were at work here," Baetzhold writes perceptively.
"Anxiety to impress his Western readers doubtless contributed to the
jibes at the New York critics. Those critics, by the way, had also
mentioned the huskiness of Dickens' voice, the result of a current cold,
but they had invariably noted that the distraction quickly disappeared
as the performance proceeded." Baetzhold also argues that Twain's "role
of brash humorist" also contributed to the "flippancy" of the review, as
well as "the traditional condescension of the American" toward the
English and their "Englishy" ways. Twain would prove equally flippant in
describing European customs and culture in /The Innocents Abroad./

This seems logical. It also seems logical that, by 1907, Twain was
completely secure in his place as an American author embraced by
England. He no longer had anything to prove as a writer or a platform

"The only man of letters after Dickens whose ultimate place in the
hearts and minds of the vast public was commensurate with the
Englisman's was attentive enough to note and remember details of
platform technique," wrote Delancey Ferguson, who, like Wagenknecht, was
a pre-1945 Twain biographer to note some parallels with Dickens.

He could stand shoulder to shoulder to Dickens in every respect. "More
important, Clemens no longer felt the necessity either to impress his
readers with an appeal to American and Western superiority or to 'be
funny,' " wrote Baetzhold. "Hence, the 1907 account may well represent a
truer picture of his reaction to the performance than does the
contemporary one."

Howard, by the way, devoted 14 pages to Twain and Dickens in his
landmark 1970 book, /Mark Twain & John Bull: The British Connection. /

    The second account also seems more accurate in details. Dickens is
described as tall in the 1868 review, which takes more than a stretch of
the imagination. He becomes "small and slender" in the 1907 dictation.
In this one difference between the two accounts, we may have the long
and the short of it, if you will -- Twain recalling the evening more
clearly almost forty years later than just several days later. Perhaps,
too, Twain's perception was altered by some awareness of just how much
he had in common with Dickens.

    And they did have a great deal in common. The preceding is drawn
from the last part of the paper "Mark Twain and Charles Dickens:
Separated At Birth?" The first part details the dozens upon dozens of
personal professional parallels.

Hope some of this helps.