The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Larry Howe.
_Mark Twain Press Critic: Two previously unpublished essays by Mark Twain,
"Interviewing the Interviewer" and "The American Press_." Commentary by
Thomas Leonard. The Friends of the Bancroft Library. Berkeley: University
of California, 2003. Pp. 38. Paper. Number 47 in the series of Keepsakes
issued by the Friends of the Bancroft Library. ISBN 1-893663-16-7. $35.00.
Friends of the Bancroft Library Keepsakes may be ordered from the Bancroft
Library's website at:
Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Copyright (c) 2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
Renewed interest in Mark Twain's journalistic career has yielded several
recent collections of his newspaper writing: _Mark Twain at the Buffalo
Express_; _Mark Twain in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1874-1891_; and the
republication of _Mark Twain's San Francisco_. This attention to Twain's
lesser known writings continues in the latest Keepsake issued by the
Friends of the Bancroft Library. The short pamphlet brings to the attention
of the Twain community two previously unpublished essays on journalistic
topics from different moments in Twain's career.
"Interviewing the Interviewer" (1870) portrays Twain as a humble reporter
interviewing Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York _Sun_. At this time,
Twain himself was not simply a reporter but also part-owner of the Buffalo
_Express_, his stake a gift of his soon-to-be father-in-law, Jervis
Langdon. So the narrating persona that he adopts for this piece underplays
the extent to which he both resented and admired Dana's power in the
business in which he'd cut his own literary teeth and now hoped to rise as
an entrepreneur in his own right.
The Dana that he describes is a notoriously brash hustler willing to print
anything about anyone of note for sensational advantage:
"Interesting murders, with all the toothsome particulars; libels upon such
men and women as have deserved the attention by being prominently
blameless; aggravated cases of incest, with improving and elevating
details; prize fights, elucidated with felicitously descriptive
technicalities; elaborate histories of executions, assassinations and
seductions; zealous defences of Reddy the Blacksmith and other persecuted
patrons of the _Sun_ who chance to stumble into misfortune" (13).
Dana grants Twain's request for an interview in part because of vanity; he
notes that since other journalists have failed to pay him the respect that
he feels he deserves, he will reward the one lowly newspaperman who has
come to seek his wisdom. Dana begins by pontificating about the principles
that he's followed in making the _Sun_ a success:
"Never let your paper go to press without a sensation. If you have none,
make one. Seize upon the prominent events of the day and clamor about them
with a maniacal fury that shall compel attention. Vilify everything that is
unpopular. ... Laud that which is popular--unless you fell sure that you
can make it unpopular by attacking it. Libel every man that can be ruined
by it. Libel every prominent man who dare not soil his hands with touching
you in return But glorify all moneyed scum and give columns of worship
unto the monuments they erect in honor of themselves, for moneyed men will
not put up with abuse from small newspapers" (14).
With bombastic ruthlessness like this, Dana might have served Orson Welles
as a suitable model for Charles Foster Kane if William Randolph Hearst
hadn't been more readily available.
But Dana's bloviating is simply a prologue to a humorous performance of his
questionable precepts. The interview is punctuated by one of Dana's
reporters barging in to run a story idea past the editor:
"Mr. D., there is a report that Gen. Grant was drunk yesterday."
"Is there any truth in it?"
"Then publish it by all means--say it _is_ true--make a sensation of
it--invent affidavits" (15).
Thus, Dana demonstrates his journalistic practice with an example of libel
that would have been close to Twain's concern. Grant was an honorable man
in Twain's eyes and his bid to publish Grant's memoirs in 1885 was as much
a business decision as an attempt to support the legacy of a man whom Twain
saw as wrongfully maligned.
When the topic turns to obituary writing, to which Twain himself alluded in
a hoax he'd written for the _Golden Era_ (1865) about his own prosecution
for fraud, the interview is again interrupted, this time with a report that
Mark Twain has died. As Dana dispenses instructions about how to write the
obit, Twain interjects that he is, in fact, not dead, but interviewing Mr.
Dana at the moment. This turn presages Twain's rather famous _bon mot_ from
nearly forty years later in which he pronounced reports of his death as
"premature." The editor insists that nothing can be done about Twain's
inconvenient persistence in life:
"The obituary must be published. We are not responsible for your
eccentricities; you _could_ have been dead if you had chosen--nobody
hindered you. The obituary is fair game, for whatever is Rumor to another
paper is Fact to the _Sun_" (17).
But he will at least interview Twain (hence the title of the piece) in
order to spice up the obituary: "Please to give me the details of any
aggravated or unnatural crimes you have committed" (17). And with this,
Twain's report comes to an abrupt end.
The companion essay, "The American Press" (1888), is a response to Matthew
Arnold's criticism of American journalism for lacking "reverence,"
precisely the quality that earns Twain's praise. In a speech one year
earlier, Twain had taken on Arnold for criticizing General Grant's grammar
in the memoir published by Twain's own Charles L. Webster Publishing Co. In
this piece, which Twain had printed on a prototype of the Paige Typesetter,
he responds to remarks in Arnold's essay "Civilization in the United
States" (April 1888). Although he never published this response, Twain did
on more than one occasion react to Arnold's Victorian criticisms of
America's lack of gentility. The argument in this piece will certainly
sound familiar to anyone familiar with _A Connecticut Yankee_. Moreover,
the tone of the prose suggests that Twain was rehearsing the attitude that
he struck in the Pudd'nhead Wilson calendar maxims that served as epigraphs
in the eponymous novel and in _Following the Equator_:
"Well, the charge is, that our press has but little of that old-world
quality, reverence. Let us be candidly grateful that this is so. With its
limited reverence it at least reveres the things which this nation reveres,
as a rule, and that is sufficient: what other people revere is fairly and
properly matter of light importance to us. Our press does not reverence
kings, it does not reverence so-called nobilities, it does not reverence
established ecclesiastical slaveries, it does not reverence laws which rob
a younger son to fatten an elder one, it does not reverence any fraud or
sham or infamy, howsoever old or rotten or holy, which sets one citizen
above his neighbor by accident of birth; it does not reverence any law or
custom, howsoever old or decayed or sacred, which shuts against the best
man in the land the best place in the land and the divine right to prove
property and go up and occupy it" (28).
No doubt, Twain could be as severe a critic of American customs and
institutions as the next man, probably even more so at this stage of his
life when he had moved onto a different level of the literary business.
Indeed, as his fragment "License of the Press," included in the appendix of
_Mark Twain Press Critic_ exhibits, he could take the press itself to task.
But when an outsider like Arnold dares to offer criticism, Twain's American
chauvinism comes shining through.
The small volume is beautifully designed and produced with an introduction
and explanatory postscripts to each of the two pieces by Thomas Leonard,
University Librarian and Professor of Journalism. These texts are
complemented by the appendix, which Twain himself said always dresses up a
volume, three photographs of Twain (one by Matthew Brady from 1871), and
four photographed manuscript pages of the featured writings. This is the
kind of production that demonstrates the virtue and value of the Mark Twain
Project. Their careful editorial work on Twain's papers makes these kinds
of treasures widely available. The two pieces in this volume are
particularly noteworthy because not only do these heretofore unpublished
writings generate thought and pleasure for readers, but they also put
contemporary debates about journalism and media into historical perspective.
We have the Friends of the Bancroft Library to thank for these particular
specimens of Twain's evolving thought on the role of the press in society.
It bears noting that the opportunity and responsibility to support this
important work is available to anyone who would like to contribute to the
Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library.
Additional information on joining Friends of the Bancroft Library is