The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Harold K.
_Mark Twain and Male Friendship: The Twichell, Howells, and Rogers
Friendships_. By Peter Messent. Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 250.
Cloth. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-19-539116-9.
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Saint Louis University
Copyright (c) 2010 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
As a friend once told me, there are friends, and then there are friends.
Americans tend to have a diluted sense of the term "friend," a phenomenon
that is regularly illustrated in everyday usage, as for instance when
teenagers compete to see who can accumulate the most "friends" on Facebook.
But my years in Japan, where the Japanese equivalent (_tomodachi_) has an
esteemed ring to it, provided me with a deeper and richer sense of the term,
and I've used the word much more stringently ever since.
Over the years, I've been drawn to philosophical reflections on the idea, as
in Ralph Waldo Emerson's masterful essay called "Friendship": "To my friend
I write a letter, and from him I receive a letter. That seems to you a
little. It suffices me. It is a spiritual gift worthy of him to give, and of
me to receive. It profanes nobody. In these warm lines the heart will trust
itself, as it will not to the tongue, and pour out the prophecy of a godlier
existence than all the annals of heroism have yet made good." The upshot
is that almost all people, including even the icy iconoclast Emerson, need
friends, and so did Mark Twain.
As Emerson's fine lines suggest, letter writing was a primary expression of
such friendship back in the nineteenth century. More valuably, Emerson notes
the warmth and intimacy, and even the mildly homo-erotic give and take of
friendly correspondence--phenomena that are duly noted and interrogated in
Peter Messent's excellent new study under review here. As Messent suggests,
Mark Twain's cultivation of deep relations with these three stellar
personalities was plausibly the central activity of Mark Twain's adult life
(besides writing those great works). What Emerson never mentions very much
is the "framework of privilege and cultural power" that our friendships
document, and as Messent also considers (p. 11). Messent's study is also
very good at considering the extent to which the "nature of cultural change
in this period of rapid modernization" left its mark upon the male
friendships at the center the Twain's mature life as author, crony, and
parishioner (p. 12).
Personally, I have come to expect outstanding research and analysis from
Prof. Messent, and this new volume does not disappoint. Messent draws deeply
from his impressive and nearly inexhaustible knowledge of the primary and
secondary materials on Mark Twain: letters, journals, and other documents,
along with the biographies, critical studies, and so forth. The notes are
startling in their depth, and both valuable and intriguing in what they
reveal about Messent's own complex intellectual journey through all of these
theoretical alleyways. Hardly anyone knows this material better, it seems to
me. Furthermore, Messent is always quite knowledgeable about current theory
and cultural studies materials covering the era, and among his many works
this volume seems to demonstrate that knowledge most acutely. A crucial
example of this is the fine way that he introduces the reader to various
studies of male friendship in general, and specifically within the culture
of the late nineteen!
th century both in American and (to a lesser extent) Britain and the
The long and meaty introductory chapter is the sort of work that we have by
now come to expect in monographs of this type: a chapter filled with both
thick historical description about male bonding; interesting accounts of the
perceived changes in these relations; as well as a review of the usual
suspects who have recently provided first-rate analysis and theorizing along
such lines. Here, the names include scholars like Anthony Rotundo, Dana
Nelson, Sarah Cole, Caleb Crain, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, as well as due
notice to more specialized Twain scholars working on similar topics, such as
Peter Stonely. It is a useful and very fine introduction and it would be a
perfect chapter to provide to graduate students interested in these topics.
Among other things, it provides some of Messent's major observations about
the men covered later in the book, especially the way that the friendships
were socially constructed and representative of rapidly changing concepts of
nd masculinity during these years, roughly 1868-1910.
The book then proceeds to give long consideration to each of the three main
male friends of Mark Twain's adult life: Joseph Twichell, William Dean
Howells, and Henry Rogers, in that order. Messent gives two chapters to each
of the men: first a general overview of that man's complex friendship with
Mark Twain, followed by a more focused and thematic treatment; roughly put,
Twichell and Christian manhood, character, and religion; Howells and
realism, publishing, and the craft of writing, and Rogers and business,
wealth, and late-night carousing. There seems to be an unspoken logic to
this narrative sequence, and in fact Messent's chronological ordering builds
upon a common theme of Mark Twain's moral progress as normally construed:
his growing skepticism, pragmatism, and ultimately, agnosticism and
darkness. Messent also showcases the ways that each of these three
friendships fostered and symbolized certain core aspects of Mark Twain.
These were all, it becomes clear, highly !
symbiotic friendships; each member of the three pairs derived pleasure and
benefit from Twain, as much as Twain did from them. And each friendship
illustrated quite distinct aspects of Twain's personality--and of the
personalities of the other three famous men.
In this regard, perhaps the material on Henry Rogers is most fresh and
original. Rogers has until very recently been by far the most overlooked
member of this exclusive group of Twain's "best friends," and here we get
one of the finest efforts to sketch his own bawdy and mischievous character,
and how his interactions with the great author brought out this side of the
staid, rather frightening business mogul. I will always recall now the image
of Twain napping on the sofa in Rogers's sleek high-rise business office, as
the magnate busily worked nearby. As with the other two relations, it is
unclear who gained the most in terms of their friendship, since Messent
makes sure we see how much Rogers benefited from the rousing good times and
humor-laden carousing that Twain brought out in the stern tycoon. The titan
Rogers evidently found great fun and joy in this friendship, despite his
notoriety as a "relentless, ravenous creature" (p. 154). Messent's volume
adds even more to th!
is growing area of recent interest, an area highlighted by the recent
publication of Michael Shelden's biography of the final years, _Mark Twain;
Man in White_ (2010), which presents the fullest account of the Twain-Rogers
More generally, each chapter provides excellent coverage of both well-known
aspects of the friendships as well as a variety of the quirky specifics. If
you wish to read a solid and relatively brief biographical and critical
introduction to Twain's life as connected with any of these three men, I can
hardly think of a better place to start, along with perhaps Leland Krauth's
fine book of several years ago, _Mark Twain & Company_. The chapters are
filled with original gems of interpretation. For example, Messent gives us
an ingenious reading of the notorious Lizzie Wills anecdote, in which Twain
and Twichell work together to force the supposedly pregnant Wills (Twain's
housekeeper) to marry a man who is evidently enjoying carnal pleasures with
her.The volume is also filled with other wonderful storytelling about the
men involved: sailing with Rogers, working closely with the mentor Howells
on specific texts, walking in the woods with Twichell.
One of the most promising sections of the volume, and indeed one of the most
fit for further reflection, is Messent's extended treatment of realism, and
the ways in which the Twain-Howells friendship both inspired the movement as
well as muddied the waters regarding its meaning and purpose. Messent's own
coverage of realism underscores the haziness of the movement: indeed,
Howells and Twain became increasingly skeptical about their own abilities
"to define the 'reality' they saw around them or to depict the recent
history of their country" (p. 106). He also notes a shift in Howells's own
novelistic production, beginning with _A Traveler from Altruria_ (1894),
that further muddies the waters. Messent is nearly a polymath on all things
regarding the history and theories of realism, as this chapter makes
abundantly clear. It is another chapter I would wish my graduate students to
tackle. The upshot of all of this being, perhaps we need to head back to the
drawing board in defin!
ing realism: a problem that Howells and Twain sensed profoundly, as they
entered the latter years of their productivity. Messent's work on realism
made me wrestle even more with this notoriously difficult set of concepts.
In similar ways, Messent wishes to challenge some of the moral or religious
readings of Twain's work, mostly published in the past decade or so. Messent
questions the "distinctions between religion and ethics"; and I think here,
in the account of Twichell's influence, we can note a useful balance to
these other recent critical writings, many of which foreground Twichell's
long-standing moral effect on Twain's thinking. Similarly, Messent's
engagement with recent theories of Victorian mourning and grief, presented
in the book's final chapter (or coda), also interrogates recent work on
Twain's emotional traumas. Here Messent brings to bear his considerable
skills as a cultural historian focusing on Victorian rites of bereavement
(although he unfortunately fails to engage any clinical data on the topic).
In both cases, further consideration and fruitful conversation among
colleagues continues to yield more nuanced and complex readings of Twain's
beliefs, values, and even metaphysics (or lack thereof), even as leading
critics remain rather divided. Coupled especially with a fuller account of
his joyful carousing with the likes of Rogers, these data all interrogate
the common view of Twain's so-called "dark years" near the end, which here
seem much sunnier and happier (as they do, by the way, in Shelden's volume).
More generally, Messent's work provides well-written and thoroughly engaging
cultural biographies of the three most important male friendships of Mark
Twain--and how those friendships marked each of the four men under
consideration. It is clear that clothes do _not_ make the man: but maybe
I will end with the conundrum of my reviewing a book by a man whom I might
even daringly call a "friend," despite the ocean that separates us about 99%
of the time. Does that moniker disqualify any of my praise? Does it
undermine my scholarly reserve? Well, I hope not. Though it may depend, of
course, on what we even mean by the term "friend."
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Saint Louis University