Kevin's terrific assessment of Mark Twain's temper includes the
reference to Twain realizing that his daughters were afraid of him.
That's from an 1886 letter to William Dean Howells: "Yesterday a
thunderstroke fell on me. I found that all their lives my children have
been afraid of me! have stood all their days in uneasy dread of my sharp
tongue and uncertain temper."
What seems certain is that Twain had an uncertain temper. He's in
good company. Like many writers, he was high-strung, incredibly
sensitive to criticism, almost manic-depressive in his approach to
matters great and small. This is not terribly different from
descriptions of such 19th century authors as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles
Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.
That Twain gave in to anger quickly and easily seems clear. But, as
with most aspects of Twain, the extent and constancy of his temper is
unclear. You look at that letter to Howells, for instance, and it's just
the kind of melodramatic overstatement he loved to make. Is this the
notoriously self-accusatory Twain wallowing in yet another crime blown
all out proportion? It's hard to say, but you balance this letter
against the many glowing accounts of his family life, and you can almost
see Twain building a mountain of guilt from a moment of genuine
That's the delight and deviltry of dealing with Twain. He never
makes it easy for you -- the author-cat "raking dust" on every aspect of
his life and personality. I'm more than ready to believe that there were
many times his daughters actually stood in fear of his temper. I'm
hardly ready to accept that this was "all their days." This sounds
suspiciously to me like the Mark Twain always searching for another
monstrous crime to claim for himself. This Mark Twain "confesses" to
murdering Langdon, "confesses" to killing Susy, "confesses" to stealing
Captain Isaiah Sellers' pen name.
There is evidence that Twain let fly with angry outbursts throughout
his adult life. Towards the end of her life, Livy chides him for the
endless rants against the human race. How tiresome it must have got for
everyone around him. And yet, Livy and Joe Twichell maintained a view of
him that was more positive of the view he held of himself. For his part,
Twain maintained long and deep friendships with a wide circle of
friends, all of whom acknowledged his temper, and yet also saw the warm,
deeply human fellow quick to embrace remorse, regret and guilt. If he
could be exasperating (and I'm sure he could), he also could be
wonderful company for long stretches of time. We have too much evidence
on the other side to ignore this, as well. Clara, Susy and Jean each
acknowledged his temper in different writings. Each also left behind
glowing accounts of an adored father. I get the idea that Twain had what
we would today call anger management issues, but I'm hardly ready to put
him in the "Daddy Dearest" category.
I suspect that Twain was a bit of an emotional terrorist, holding
loved ones hostage when he wished to indulge in temperamental outbursts.
This is, at best, anecdotal, but I've had friends and relatives like
this, and their outbursts were a source of both family bemusement (think
of those shirts hitting the Hartford lawn) and frustration (think of
Livy worrying about Twain sliding into megalomania). We laugh about
some of the outbursts. We shake our heads about others. I'm riding on
pure speculation here, but I often wonder if Twain didn't inspire these
responses among friends and family members.
And then, as I hadn't ridden the speculation train long enough,
there's the question of how necessary anger and temper were to Twain's
writing. Anger and temper run all through his works, some of it
righteous, some of it petty (consider the autobiographical dictations
venting on long-held grudges). Indeed, anger fuels a great deal of
Twain's writing (the pen warmed up in hell). And he often acknowledges
his ongoing battle with temper. There's that marvelous advice about
writing angry letters, but learning not to send them. Twain says he
learned to let the anger run its course. It's discharge by the mere act
of writing the overwarm letter, but then cooling down, he pigeonholes
them and does not send the angry letter, after all.
Temper is a constant battle for Twain, and the resulting tension
probably resulted in some might fine art. As to the true shape of this
turbulent psychological river, well, it's difficult to overstate the
case for Twain's temper, because he overstates it so dramatically himself.