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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 25 Sep 2008 12:44:41 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by
Martin Zehr.



_Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain's Closest
Friend_. By Steve Courtney. University of Georgia Press, 2008. Pp. xix
+ 331. Hardcover. $32.95. ISBN 13 978-0-8203-3056-3.

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Martin Zehr
Kansas City, Missouri

Copyright (c) 2008 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published
or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Steve Courtney describes himself as "a reporter, and not a scholar,"
but, for my money, this is somewhat akin to describing Mark Twain as a
"mere humorist."  Courtney has enlisted his reportorial skills in the
service of producing an unquestionably scholarly, and readable, work on
what must certainly be his great passion, Joe Twichell. Courtney has
previously done historians the great service of bringing forth, with
Peter Messent, _The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell_
(2006), a contribution to the history of the Civil War that has a value
independent of Twichell's association with Twain. Likewise, the current
book presents an in-depth portrait of the life of a serious figure in
the maelstrom of religious thought and action in nineteenth-century
America. Readers of the Mark Twain Forum likely know Steve Courtney as
one who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk, quite literally,
leading the interested every Fall on a traipse along the same paths the
two tramps, Twain and Twichell, followed in their regular Hartford
walks during the 1870s and 1880s. Courtney is a former reporter for the
_Hartford Courant_ and a native of Hartford, underscoring the
conclusion that he was a natural choice to write this book.

Two prior works in which Joe Twichell's history is explored are Leah
Strong's _Joseph Hopkins Twichell: Mark Twain's Friend and Pastor_
(1966) and Kenneth Andrews's _Nook Farm: Mark Twain's Hartford Circle_
(1950). Strong's book, a serious scholarly effort, comes up short when
compared with Courtney's new book, largely for the reason that she did
not have access to the extensive correspondence upon which the newer
work relies, particularly Twichell's wartime letters and late-life
notes, e.g., writing that allows us to view the sharp late-life
differences in philosophy and religion between Twichell, the stubborn
optimist, and his skeptical, doubting friend Mark Twain. Andrews's book
was not written with the intention of providing a biography of
Twichell, but has as its focus the lively, stimulating atmosphere of
prosperous Hartford of the post-war era, complete with glamorous
citizenry like the Stowes, Beechers, Charles Dudley Warner, General
Hawley and, of course, Harmony and Joe Twichell and their brood.

Courtney's assessment of Twichell has little in common with the
bumbling, one-dimensional "Harris" Twain employs as his foil in a
near-vain attempt to enliven one of his lesser works, _A Tramp Abroad_.
While the reader's initial interest in Twichell may be a direct product
of his association with Mark Twain, Sam Clemens doesn't even make an
appearance in Courtney's book until page 123, and that is just as it
should be. Instead, the reader enters a world that, in many ways, is a
stark contrast to the Missouri hometown of Clemens. Joseph Twichell's
small home town in Connecticut was, relatively speaking, well-settled
at the time of his birth. In spite of the early death of his mother,
Twichell seems to have had a comfortable childhood under the guidance
of a loving, religious father in the home of "Abolitionist Connecticut
Yankees."  While Joe learned the work of a tanner, he did so in an
atmosphere which included high expectations for classical as well as
ecclesiastical education. He attended college preparatory courses long
after the age at which Clemens's lessons with Miss Horr were completed.
Courtney provides a detailed history of the young Twichell's spiritual
life, developing as it did during a period of religious fervor and
tumult in the New England of the 1840s and 50s, with very real
conflicts between liberal Unitarians and the more "rigid and
intolerant" Congregationalists of the era. These conflicts inspired
both fear and budding rebellion in Joe. Courtney provides profiles of
key figures in the religious doctrinal conflicts of the era, especially
the eloquent and rebellious Dr. Horace Bushnell in Hartford and the
flamboyant and scandal-tainted Henry Ward Beecher, a man of great
interest to both Clemens and Twichell in their Hartford days. The
doctrinal wars surrounding Twichell are brought to life by Courtney's
writing and research in a manner that reminds us, a century-and-a-half
later, that these inter-sect disputes were of vital importance to
citizens and that they were inextricably intertwined with explosive
political issues of the day such as slavery and women's suffrage.

Courtney documents the story of an incident which had a lasting,
indelible impact on Joe Twichell, the murder of the young fireman named
William Miles in a confrontation with a group of Yale students which
included Joe. Information surrounding the event is scarce. However, it
is nevertheless evident that this event, occurring in the context of a
regional religious revival, was a probable motivating factor in
Twichell's decisions, first, to become a seminarian following
graduation, then, at the outbreak of the war, to volunteer as a
chaplain to a regiment of firemen. The guilt, apparently never openly
acknowledged by Twichell, is reminiscent of the open, perhaps
overwrought guilt expressed, during that same year, 1858, by Sam
Clemens, in reaction to his younger brother Henry’s death following the
explosion of the steamer _Pennsylvania_.

The Civil War activities of Twichell are sufficiently rich to justify a
separate volume. This period, as Courtney makes clear, is the crucible
which is the basis for Twichell's real conversion, from a studious
seminarian to a hands-on, pragmatic, accepting preacher. Assigned to
the Second Excelsior Brigade led by the controversial Dan Sickles, Joe
Twichell grew up quickly under fire, able to jettison, when required,
his pre-war prejudices regarding Catholics and atheists alike, while
rendering very concrete, as well as spiritual support, to the
foot-soldiers he ministered to. Twichell's direct experience with
African-Americans in the Confederacy comes alive, and the descriptions
of Twichell's service as a surgical assistant in field hospitals on
successive battlefields conveys the suffering and misery of the dead
and dying in a degree comparable to that of Walt Whitman, who performed
the same services as a volunteer during the war in Washington, D.C.
tent hospitals. Like Whitman, Twichell served as an assistant in
gruesome amputation procedures, including the incident at Gettysburg
when Sickles, after an unauthorized and disastrous advance, had his own
leg amputated on the battlefield. The incident also illustrates
Twichell's ability to form long-term friendships with individuals whose
association he might avoid under other circumstances.

Clemens's entry into this biography occurs after the war, at a time
when the young but respected Reverend Twichell was beginning his career
as pastor of the new Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, the
one referred to by Clemens as the "Church of the Holy Speculators."
Like Clemens, Twichell was blessed with the support of his new wife,
Harmony, and their family, which eventually grew to include nine
children. At this juncture, the familiar story of the Twain-Twichell
relationship begins to unfold, but Courtney is careful to maintain a
focus on his chosen subject and his personal and spiritual struggles
during this "Gilded Age" in their mutual Hartford society. Twichell,
likely as a result of both his war experiences and the witnessing of
the religious conflict of his Connecticut youth, was an optimistic
preacher, more in tune with the growth and expansion of the post-war
era than the hellfire and brimstone preachers from his childhood. He
was, in his realm, as curious as Clemens, acknowledging his periodic
spiritual doubting and exploring the atheism of John Stuart Mills's
_Autobiography_. Courtney also provides plenty of evidence of
Twichell's humorous side, as, for example, the observation that
Reverend Joe enjoyed being the first to hear and read Clemens's bawdy
tale of sex and flatulence, _1601: Conversation as it Was by the Social
Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors_.

Twichell was not one to suppress his indignation at social injustice
and he often transformed his sympathies into action. Most notable was
his heavy involvement and support of the Chinese Educational Mission in
Hartford and his lifelong commitment to the cause of the Chinese
immigrants and his friend, Yung Wing. Twichell's eagerness to support
the Chinese, in the face of their persecution in the American West and
the Chinese Exclusion Act, was manifest in his trip with Yung Wing to
Peru in an attempt to end the reliance on "coolie" labor in the mining
industry. Courtney relates this episode in more detail than is likely
to be seen in any previous source.

Twichell and Clemens shared walks, trips to Europe and Bermuda, and a
never-ending curiosity in the worlds in which they lived, although they
tended to view their fellow residents with very different critical
eyes. Twichell would occasionally attempt to counsel his friend toward
moderation in his statements when they disagreed, for example, when
Clemens denounced the activity of foreign missionaries in China or
America's suppression of the Philippine independence movement following
the Spanish-American war.

Courtney notes that Twichell "maintained throughout his life a sort of
childlikeness," an observation immediately bringing to mind Livy's
appellation of "youth" for Sam Clemens. Twichell's openness likely
served as the basis for Clemens's statement, "I have always tried out
doubtful things on Twichell from the beginning."  Clemens could confess
to his companion that "Joe,... I don't believe in your religion at
all," but Joe's stubborn optimistic reaction seemed to consist of a
continuing hope for Clemens's faith. Despite Clemens's growing
determinism in later life, what Twichell would brand the "doctrine of
Total Human Depravity," Clemens would call theirs "a companionship
which to me stands first after Livy's."

Like Clemens, Twichell experienced a succession of losses in late life
which included his own cognitive abilities, and his relationship with
Clemens, who preceded him in death by eight years. He seems to have
weathered this storm as a result of his strongly embedded optimism and
the continuing availability of strong family support, including his
son-in-law, the composer Charles Ives.

That Twichell is not well-remembered today, except as a footnote in
Mark Twain's own story, as the peripatetic comic sidekick foil, is
incomprehensible to the reader of Courtney's _Joseph Hopkins Twichell_.
If Twichell is initially of interest to the Twain scholar as a
tributary of the great river, i.e., as a major influence and long-time
confidant and friend, the reader will soon come to regard the story of
Joe Twichell as one to be read in its own right. As a product and
participant in several aspects of nineteenth-century American history,
known only in secondhand accounts by Mark Twain, Joe Twichell emerges
in Courtney's book as the true Connecticut Yankee. Steve Courtney has,
incredibly, accomplished the herculean task of bringing Twichell out of
the shadows of Twain, rendering a well-researched, fact-based portrait
of this individual whose life experience and character effectively
destroy the serio-comic descriptions of Harris in _A Tramp Abroad_.
Long live Joseph Hopkins Twichell.