Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCLXXXVII

Mark Twain’s Reading

Perhaps here one may speak of Mark Twain’s reading in general. On the table by him, and on his bed, and in the billiard-room shelves he kept the books he read most. They were not many — not more than a dozen — but they were manifestly of familiar and frequent usage. All, or nearly all, had annotations — spontaneously uttered marginal notes, title prefatories, or concluding comments. They were the books he had read again and again, and it was seldom that he had not had something to say with each fresh reading.

There were the three big volumes by Saint-Simon —‘The Memoirs’— which he once told me he had read no less than twenty times. On the fly-leaf of the first volume he wrote

This, & Casanova & Pepys, set in parallel columns, could afford a good coup d’oeil of French & English high life of that epoch.

All through those finely printed volumes are his commentaries, sometimes no more than a word, sometimes a filled, closely written margin. He found little to admire in the human nature of Saint-Simon’s period — little to approve in Saint-Simon himself beyond his unrestrained frankness, which he admired without stint, and in one paragraph where the details of that early period are set down with startling fidelity he wrote: “Oh, incomparable Saint-Simon!”

Saint-Simon is always frank, and Mark Twain was equally so. Where the former tells one of the unspeakable compulsions of Louis XIV., the latter has commented:

We have to grant that God made this royal hog; we may also be permitted to believe that it was a crime to do so.

And on another page:

In her memories of this period the Duchesse de St. Clair makes this striking remark: “Sometimes one could tell a gentleman, but it was only by his manner of using his fork.”

His comments on the orthodox religion of Saint-Simon’s period are not marked by gentleness. Of the author’s reference to the Edict of Nantes, which he says depopulated half of the realm, ruined its commerce, and “authorized torments and punishments by which so many innocent people of both sexes were killed by thousands,” Clemens writes:

So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: “Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor’s religion is.” Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code.

In the place where Saint-Simon describes the death of Monseigneur, son of the king, and the court hypocrites are wailing their extravagantly pretended sorrow, Clemens wrote:

It is all so true, all so human. God made these animals. He must have noticed this scene; I wish I knew how it struck Him.

There were not many notes in the Suetonius, nor in the Carlyle Revolution, though these were among the volumes he read oftenest. Perhaps they expressed for him too completely and too richly their subject-matter to require anything at his hand. Here and there are marked passages and occasional cross-references to related history and circumstance.

There was not much room for comment on the narrow margins of the old copy of Pepys, which he had read steadily since the early seventies; but here and there a few crisp words, and the underscoring and marked passages are plentiful enough to convey his devotion to that quaint record which, perhaps next to Suetonius, was the book he read and quoted most.

Francis Parkman’s Canadian Histories he had read periodically, especially the story of the Old Regime and of the Jesuits in North America. As late as January, 1908, he wrote on the title-page of the Old Regime:

Very interesting. It tells how people religiously and otherwise insane came over from France and colonized Canada.

He was not always complimentary to those who undertook to Christianize the Indians; but he did not fail to write his admiration of their courage — their very willingness to endure privation and even the fiendish savage tortures for the sake of their faith. “What manner of men are these?” he wrote, apropos of the account of Bressani, who had undergone the most devilish inflictions which savage ingenuity could devise, and yet returned maimed and disfigured the following spring to “dare again the knives and fiery brand of the Iroquois.” Clemens was likely to be on the side of the Indians, but hardly in their barbarism. In one place he wrote:

That men should be willing to leave their happy homes and endure what the missionaries endured in order to teach these Indians the road to hell would be rational, understandable, but why they should want to teach them a way to heaven is a thing which the mind somehow cannot grasp.

Other histories, mainly English and French, showed how he had read them — read and digested every word and line. There were two volumes of Lecky, much worn; Andrew D. White’s ‘Science and Theology’— a chief interest for at least one summer — and among the collection a well-worn copy of ‘Modern English Literature — Its Blemishes and Defects’, by Henry H. Breen. On the title-page of this book Clemens had written:

HARTFORD, 1876. Use with care, for it is a scarce book. England had to be ransacked in order to get it — or the bookseller speaketh falsely.

He once wrote a paper for the Saturday Morning Club, using for his text examples of slipshod English which Breen had noted.

Clemens had a passion for biography, and especially for autobiography, diaries, letters, and such intimate human history. Greville’s ‘Journal of the Reigns of George IV. and William IV.’ he had read much and annotated freely. Greville, while he admired Byron’s talents, abhorred the poet’s personality, and in one place condemns him as a vicious person and a debauchee. He adds:

Then he despises pretenders and charlatans of all sorts, while he is himself a pretender, as all men are who assume a character which does not belong to them and affect to be something which they are all the time conscious they are not in reality.

Clemens wrote on the margin:

But, dear sir, you are forgetting that what a man sees in the human race is merely himself in the deep and honest privacy of his own heart. Byron despised the race because he despised himself. I feel as Byron did, and for the same reason. Do you admire the race (& consequently yourself)?

A little further along — where Greville laments that Byron can take no profit to himself from the sinful characters he depicts so faithfully, Clemens commented:

If Byron — if any man — draws 50 characters, they are all himself — 50 shades, 50 moods, of his own character. And when the man draws them well why do they stir my admiration? Because they are me — I recognize myself.

A volume of Plutarch was among the biographies that showed usage, and the Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself. Two Years Before the Mast he loved, and never tired of. The more recent Memoirs of Andrew D. White and Moncure D. Conway both, I remember, gave him enjoyment, as did the Letters of Lowell. A volume of the Letters of Madame de Sevigne had some annotated margins which were not complimentary to the translator, or for that matter to Sevigne herself, whom he once designates as a “nauseating” person, many of whose letters had been uselessly translated, as well as poorly arranged for reading. But he would read any volume of letters or personal memoirs; none were too poor that had the throb of life in them, however slight.

Of such sort were the books that Mark Twain had loved best, and such were a few of his words concerning them. Some of them belong to his earlier reading, and among these is Darwin’s ‘Descent of Man’, a book whose influence was always present, though I believe he did not read it any more in later years. In the days I knew him he read steadily not much besides Suetonius and Pepys and Carlyle. These and his simple astronomies and geologies and the Morte Arthure and the poems of Kipling were seldom far from his hand.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05