TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Mary Leah Christmas <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mary Leah Christmas <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 21 Apr 2003 21:12:32 -0400
text/plain (243 lines)

     _"Hatching Ruin" or, Mark Twain's Road to Bankruptcy_.  By
     Charles H. Gold.  University of Missouri Press, 2003.  Pp. 184.
     Cloth.  $29.95.  ISBN 0-8262-1450-9.

     Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted
     prices from the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site
     generate commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please
     visit <>.

          Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
          Mary Leah Christmas

     Copyright (c) 2003 Mark Twain Forum.  This review may not be
     published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The title of this book, _"Hatching Ruin" or, Mark Twain's Road to
Bankruptcy_, is, technically, misleading.  Mark Twain never filed for
personal bankruptcy.  A better title for this book might be _Inventing
Charles Webster_, for that is what Mark Twain does on almost every page.
Though said to be about Mark Twain's business dealings with James W. Paige
and Charles L. Webster, _"Hatching Ruin"_ devotes relatively few lines of
type to Paige and most of the column inches to Webster and the
circumstances leading to the financial collapse of Charles L. Webster &
Company.  Gold also seeks to show how Mark Twain's business disappointments
shaped the writing of _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_.

With the material Gold presents being taken out of its biographical
context, the Webster mess casts a disproportionate shadow.  Gold asserts,
"Samuel L. Clemens believed in the transformative potential of technology
and was disillusioned and embittered when his hopes were not fulfilled" (1)
and also that Clemens "pursued, with vigor or frenzy, depending on your
view of such things, what turned out for him to be the chimera of great
wealth" (7).  This may be true, but the Paige/Webster fiasco was only the
latest (albeit deep) seismic blip.  _Mark Twain A to Z_ says of _Roughing
It_, and of Clemens's days in the mining camps, that as early as the 1860s
Mark Twain was writing of "the young narrator's growing disillusionment in
his own quest for easy wealth" (MTAZ-317).

Provocative in _"Hatching Ruin"_ are Gold's references to _Inventing Mark
Twain_ by Andrew Hoffman.

     Andrew Hoffman, in a recent attempt at a comprehensive biography,
     deals extensively with Webster, the first biographer to do so.  He is,
     I think, entirely wrong in his conclusions, which are, for the most
     part, undocumented and refuted by the surviving evidence....  The
     lack of biographical attention is curious.  There is ample
     documentation.  Clemens had a great deal to say about both
     men, mostly privately... (11).

However, Gold undercuts his own claim of "ample documentation" on a
previous page:  "A certain confusion about figures arises, in large part,
from the fragmentary financial records that we have of the Webster
Publishing Company" (8).  Further in the book Gold mentions there are
missing pieces of correspondence.  No wonder there can still be differences
of opinion in the presence of facts.  For instance, Hoffman's _Inventing
Mark Twain_ asserts Samuel Clemens "seldom pulled money out of the
publishing firm" (IMT-339).  _"Hatching Ruin"_ says Clemens "used the
company always as a sort of private bank.  During the flush years,
1885-1887, with receipts from _Huckleberry Finn_ and the Grant _Memoirs_
coming in, he could get away with it" (150).

Hoffman's _Inventing Mark Twain_ was published in 1997, the same year
Charles H. Gold's article, "What Happened to Charley Webster?" appeared in
the just-issued Fall 1994 _Mark Twain Journal_.  That article is the basis
for Chapter 8 of the present book.  An August 1997 discussion of Gold's
_Mark Twain Journal_ article can be found in the TwainWeb archives.

_"Hatching Ruin"_ displays the mighty battle of egos between Webster and
Clemens.  Of particular significance is the matter of Charles L. Webster
being knighted by Pope Leo XIII, whose memoirs were published by Webster &
Company.  One reads, "He wore the elaborate uniform once in a while, surely
a mildly eccentric thing to do in a town of three thousand [Fredonia,
NY]..." (152, and similarly 131 and IMT-368).  Gold likens this aspect of
Webster to Hank Morgan's showmanship, though this was "just the sort of
thing Clemens loved best for himself, as witness his white suits and his
pride in wearing the scarlet Oxford gown later" (144).

The book contains three photos at the front:  Mark Twain, Charles L.
Webster, and the Paige compositor as a proxy for its inventor.  One wishes
there were a photo of Webster in his vestments, or a photo of the
mysterious Paige, but these must not exist.  However, known photos of other
key figures in _"Hatching Ruin"_ could have been included.  Another nice
feature would have been an Appendix containing, as best as can be
reconstructed, a list of Charles L. Webster & Company's publications.

The publisher's choice of dustjacket design for _"Hatching Ruin"_ can also
be questioned.  If one views the dustjacket as a continuous piece of art,
Mark Twain on the right is squaring off against the Paige compositor on the
left--the literary "Battlebot" confronting his technological nemesis.  The
implication is that these two are fighting to the death within the book's
cover, but they are not.  In lieu of the Paige compositor on the
dustjacket, more appropriate would have been a photo of Charles L. Webster.

The technical difficulties include combinations of what should be separate
footnotes into a single footnote at the end of a paragraph, leaving the
reader to attempt to discern, from their order, which part of the citation
belongs to what.  The footnote-compiling may have been done as a
space-savings, but one would much prefer individual endnotes to these
communal footnotes.

A source of further frustration is the difficulty of differentiating new
material from old.  Gold tells us:

     The source for most of this study has been the largely unpublished
     family correspondence in the Mark Twain Papers...  I also examined,
     but quoted only very sparingly from, the as-yet unpublished portions
     of Twain's autobiographical dictations and notebooks and journals.
     I also consulted the Webster Papers at Vassar College, the Webster
     Collection of the D. R. Barker Library of Fredonia, New York, and the
     Berg Collection of the New York Public Library (xi).

An analyis of the footnotes gives some insights and raises some questions.
Of the 267 footnotes, only one of them specifies a previously unpublished
letter; one footnote cites the D. R. Barker Library; eight cite the Moffett
Collection at the Mark Twain Project, two cite the Webster Papers at
Vassar; and one cites the Samuel C. Webster Collection at the Mark Twain
Project.  No footnotes were found citing the Berg Collection.  Other
footnotes cite such books as _Mark Twain, Businessman_, _Mr. Clemens and
Mark Twain_, and the _Mark Twain-Howells Letters_.  Two (?) issues of _The
Twainian_ are cited.  Page 14 cites "Twainian 6 (November/December 1947)"
and page 134 cites "Twainian 6 (November/December 1976)."  Whether this is
an error in citation is not readily apparent.  Letters from the Mark Twain
Project are not flagged as to whether they are previously unpublished,
despite a boilerplate permission acknowledgment to the Mark Twain Project
on the book's copyright page.

There are the problems in the author's voicing of the material as well.
The author goes along in a detached way, but startles the reader every so
often by slipping into the first-person.  Then, to keep the reader awake,
there are trick sentences.  For instance, Gold writes of Albert Bigelow

     He had information available to no one else and is often trustworthy
     and always indispensable; however, he also had a vested interest in
     preserving an image of Clemens, an image not always completely
     consistent with the facts (xi).

Another glitch is that two different dates of death are given for Charles
L. Webster.  Page 134 says it was April 26, 1891, and page 152 says it was
April 22, 1891.  Then there is this sentence, which this reviewer had to
read several times to grasp:  "In 1906, when Susy Clemens died her sad
death, alone and delirious in the Hartford House while her parents were in
England, Clemens blamed Charley for her death" (155).

Susy Clemens died in 1896, and Webster in 1891, but it was her father in
1906 doing the axe-grinding.  It should also be noted that Susy Clemens had
at least four people with her at the time of her illness and death,
including her aunt, Susan Crane, and the Reverend Joseph Twichell.

Gold bends over backwards, almost to a fault, to reassure us about Mark
Twain's mental state throughout this period.  Here is a compilation from a
span of only seven pages:

     "Clemens was strong and sane....  He was not ever in the grip of
     forces he couldn't resist or understand...." (5), "human, sane,
     plagued by...bad luck..." (6), "...nothing irrational about what
     Clemens did during the 1880s...  None of what he did was the
     result of pathology...." (8), "I maintain that Samuel L. Clemens of
     Hartford was a sane man, for the most part a rational decision-
     maker" (ibid), "His belief in the Paige typesetter, for example, is
     often cited as evidence of delusion..." (ibid), "I do not for a
     moment think that mental illness played a part..." (9), "I think
     Clemens sane as any of us, that he did what he did
     for reasons that seemed to him good and sufficient..." (10), "I
     think a lot of what he did in the 1880s and after was, in the
     vernacular but not the diagnostic, sense, nuts.  That makes him
     human, not crazy" (10), "He wasn't crazy; he didn't need a
     recovery program; he wasn't addicted to anything" (11).

"Nuts" as Mark Twain may have been--"in the vernacular," of course--right
in the midst of all this Gold refers to Clemens's "obsessive clinging" (9).

Then there is the issue of Webster's name.

     I've already noted the small but revealing tendency of Clemens
     to address his letters to "Dear Charley," while his nephew by
     marriage signed himself "Charlie." (I have used "Charley"
     throughout to be consistent with Clemens's usage.)....
     Clemens's failure over several years to get Charley's name
     right underscores his seeing Webster as his "man in New
     York" rather than as his partner, something Charley didn't
     like, ever (89).

Gold's insistence on referring to Webster as "Charley" weakens his attempt
to portray Webster as a serious, though perhaps flawed, businessperson.
Having specifically made an issue of the proper spelling, Gold comes across
as taking Clemens's side in the matter.

It is the author's contention that either Paige or Webster or Mark Twain,
depending on what page one is reading, was the model for "Hank Morgan" in
_Connecticut Yankee_.  However, in re-visting the Battle of the Sand-Belt
in _Connecticut Yankee_, this reviewer could think only of Nikola Tesla,
who appears neither in the original edition of _Mark Twain A to Z_ nor in
_"Hatching Ruin"_.  The following passage is from _Mark Twain's Notebooks &
Journals, Vol. 3_, which Gold cites often, so one wonders how he could have
overlooked such a significant entry:

     Nov. 1, 1888.  I have just seen the drawings and description of an
     electrical machine lately patented by a Mr. Teska (Tesla), & sold to
     the Westinghouse Company, which will revolutionize the whole
     electric business of the world.  It is the most valuable patent since
     the telephone.  The drawings & description show that this is the
     _very_ machine, in every detail which Paige invented nearly 4 years
     ago.  I furnished $1,000 for the experiments, & was to have half of
     the invention (N&J3-341).

The brilliant electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla was indeed on
Mark Twain's mind as he was completing the _Connecticut Yankee_ manuscript.
Several years later, Mark Twain visited Tesla in his lab.  It is worth
noting that Page 341 of N&J3 consists of, in this order:  fulminations over
the Webster & Company difficulties; the aforementioned passage about Tesla;
and some notes to himself about "Clarence" in _Connecticut Yankee_, the
character who re-routes the detinator wires to Merlin's Cave and constructs
its perimeter of electric fencing.

Chapter 9 of _"Hatching Ruin"_ provides an overview of _Connecticut
Yankee_.  Gold further presents his case for the connection between Webster
and the Yankee.  "Charley was sort of a knight himself, and Clemens, who
resented Charley's papal honor, probably felt some pleasure at satirizing
knighthood" (140).  Gold does not seem to hear the ominous rumblings.

We can read between the lines to know how Mark Twain chose to resolve the
matter, and it was not with a Webster-based Hank Morgan.  When the smoke
clears after the Battle of the Sand-Belt, instead of an armored knight it
is "Sir Charley" in his papal attire standing with his still-smoking hands
gripping the upper wire of the electric fence, and the future Dr. Clemens
gazing in a satisfied manner at the scene.

Despite its many problems, _"Hatching Ruin"_ provides a good starting-point
for continued discussion.  One would like to see Gold and Hoffman
co-chairing a session at an International State of Mark Twain Studies
Conference.  However, a satisfactory resolution to the matter of Charles L.
Webster & Company may take years, if ever.

* * * * * * * *

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mary Leah Christmas is a freelance writer/editor with a
background in book publishing.  This is her ninth review for the Mark Twain