Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CLXII

Browning, Meredith, and Meisterschaft

The Browning readings must have begun about this time. Just what kindled Mark Twain’s interest in the poetry of Robert Browning is not remembered, but very likely his earlier associations with the poet had something to do with it. Whatever the beginning, we find him, during the winter of 1886 and 1887, studiously, even violently, interested in Browning’s verses, entertaining a sort of club or class who gathered to hear his rich, sympathetic, and luminous reading of the Payleyings —“With Bernard de Mandeville,” “Daniel Bartoli,” or “Christopher Smart.” Members of the Saturday Morning Club were among his listeners and others-friends of the family. They were rather remarkable gatherings, and no one of that group but always vividly remembered the marvelously clear insight which Mark Twain’s vocal personality gave to those somewhat obscure measures. They did not all of them realize that before reading a poem he studied it line by line, even word by word; dug out its last syllable of meaning, so far as lay within human possibility, and indicated with pencil every shade of emphasis which would help to reveal the poet’s purpose. No student of Browning ever more devoutly persisted in trying to compass a master’s intent — in such poems as “Sordello,” for instance — than Mark Twain. Just what permanent benefit he received from this particular passion it is difficult to know. Once, at a class-meeting, after finishing “Easter Day,” he made a remark which the class requested him to “write down.” It is recorded on the fly-leaf of Dramatis Personae as follows:

One’s glimpses & confusions, as one reads Browning, remind me of looking through a telescope (the small sort which you must move with your hand, not clock-work). You toil across dark spaces which are (to your lens) empty; but every now & then a splendor of stars & suns bursts upon you and fills the whole field with flame. Feb. 23, 1887.

In another note he speaks of the “vague dim flash of splendid hamming-birds through a fog.” Whatever mental treasures he may or may not have laid up from Browning there was assuredly a deep gratification in the discovery of those splendors of “stars and suns” and the flashing “humming-birds,” as there must also have been in pointing out those wonders to the little circle of devout listeners. It all seemed so worth while.

It was at a time when George Meredith was a reigning literary favorite. There was a Meredith cult as distinct as that of Browning. Possibly it exists to-day, but, if so, it is less militant. Mrs. Clemens and her associates were caught in the Meredith movement and read Diana of the Crossways and the Egoist with reverential appreciation.

The Meredith epidemic did not touch Mark Twain. He read but few novels at most, and, skilful as was the artistry of the English favorite, he found his characters artificialities — ingeniously contrived puppets rather than human beings, and, on the whole, overrated by their creator. Diana of the Crossways was read aloud, and, listening now and then, he was likely to say:

“It doesn’t seem to me that Diana lives up to her reputation. The author keeps telling us how smart she is, how brilliant, but I never seem to hear her say anything smart or brilliant. Read me some of Diana’s smart utterances.”

He was relentless enough in his criticism of a literature he did not care for, and he never learned to care for Meredith.

He read his favorite books over and over with an everchanging point of view. He re-read Carlyle’s French Revolution during the summer at the farm, and to Howells he wrote:

How stunning are the changes which age makes in man while he sleeps! When I finished Carlyle’s French Revolution in 1871 I was a Girondin; every time I have read it since I have read it differently — being influenced & changed, little by little, by life & environment (& Taine & St. Simon); & now I lay the book down once more, & recognize that I am a Sansculotte! — And not a pale, characterless Sansculotte, but a Marat. Carlyle teaches no such gospel, so the change is in me — in my vision of the evidences.

People pretend that the Bible means the same to them at 50 that it did at all former milestones in their journey. I wonder how they can lie so. It comes of practice, no doubt. They would not say that of Dickens’s or Scott’s books. Nothing remains the same. When a man goes back to look at the house of his childhood it has always shrunk; there is no instance of such house being as big as the picture in memory & imagination call for. Shrunk how? Why, to its correct dimensions; the house hasn’t altered; this is the first time it has been in focus.

Well, that’s loss. To have house & Bible shrink so, under the disillusioning corrected angle, is loss — for a moment. But there are compensations. You tilt the tube skyward & bring planets & comets & corona flames a hundred & fifty thousand miles high into the field. Which I see you have done, & found Tolstoi. I haven’t got him in focus yet, but I’ve got Browning.

In time the Browning passion would wane and pass, and the club was succeeded by, or perhaps it blended with, a German class which met at regular intervals at the Clemens home to study “der, die, and das” and the “gehabt habens” out of Meisterschaft and such other text-books as Professor Schleutter could provide. They had monthly conversation days, when they discussed in German all sorts of things, real and imaginary. Once Dr. Root, a prominent member, and Clemens had a long wrangle over painting a house, in which they impersonated two German neighbors.

Clemens finally wrote for the class a three-act play” Meisterschaft”— a literary achievement for which he was especially qualified, with its picturesque mixture of German and English and its unfailing humor. It seems unlike anything ever attempted before or since. No one but Mark Twain could have written it. It was given twice by the class with enormous success, and in modified form it was published in the Century Magazine (January, 1888). It is included to-day in his “Complete Works,” but one must have a fair knowledge of German to capture the full delight of it.120

120 [On the original manuscript Mark Twain wrote: “There is some tolerably rancid German here and there in this piece. It is attributable to the proof-reader.” Perhaps the proof-reader resented this and cut it out, for it does not appear as published.]

Mark Twain probably exaggerated his sentiments a good deal when in the Carlyle letter he claimed to be the most rabid of Sansculottes. It is unlikely that he was ever very bare-kneed and crimson in his anarchy. He believed always that cruelty should be swiftly punished, whether in king or commoner, and that tyrants should be destroyed. He was for the people as against kings, and for the union of labor as opposed to the union of capital, though he wrote of such matters judicially — not radically. The Knights of Labor organization, then very powerful, seemed to Clemens the salvation of oppressed humanity. He wrote a vehement and convincing paper on the subject, which he sent to Howells, to whom it appealed very strongly, for Howells was socialistic, in a sense, and Clemens made his appeal in the best and largest sense, dramatizing his conception in a picture that was to include, in one grand league, labor of whatever form, and, in the end, all mankind in a final millennium. Howells wrote that he had read the essay “with thrills amounting to yells of satisfaction,” and declared it to be the best thing yet said on the subject. The essay closed:

He [the unionized workman] is here and he will remain. He is the greatest birth of the greatest age the nations of the world have known. You cannot sneer at him — that time has gone by. He has before him the most righteous work that was ever given into the hand of man to do; and he will do it. Yes, he is here; and the question is not — as it has been heretofore during a thousand ages — What shall we do with him? For the first time in history we are relieved of the necessity of managing his affairs for him. He is not a broken dam this time — he is the Flood!

It must have been about this time that Clemens developed an intense, even if a less permanent, interest in another matter which was to benefit the species. He was one day walking up Fifth Avenue when he noticed the sign

PROFESSOR LOISETTE SCHOOL OF MEMORY The Instantaneous Art of Never Forgetting

Clemens went inside. When he came out he had all of Professor Loisette’s literature on “predicating correlation,” and for the next several days was steeping himself in an infusion of meaningless words and figures and sentences and forms, which he must learn backward and forward and diagonally, so that he could repeat them awake and asleep in order to predicate his correlation to a point where remembering the ordinary facts of life, such as names, addresses, and telephone numbers, would be a mere diversion.

It was another case of learning the multitudinous details of the Mississippi River in order to do the apparently simple thing of steering a boat from New Orleans to St. Louis, and it is fair to say that, for the time he gave it, he achieved a like success. He was so enthusiastic over this new remedy for human distress that within a very brief time he was sending out a printed letter recommending Loisette to the public at large. Here is an extract:

. . . I had no SYSTEM— and some sort of rational order of procedure is, of course, necessary to success in any study. Well, Loisette furnished me a system. I cannot undertake to say it is the best, or the worst, because I don’t know what the other systems are. Loisette, among other cruelties, requires you to memorize a great long string of words that, haven’t any apparent connection or meaning — there are perhaps 500 of these words, arranged in maniacal lines of 6 to 8 or 9 words in each line — 71 lines in all. Of course your first impulse is to resign, but at the end of three or four hours you find to your surprise that you’ve GOT them and can deliver them backward or forward without mistake or hesitation. Now, don’t you see what a world of confidence that must necessarily breed? — confidence in a memory which before you wouldn’t even venture to trust with the Latin motto of the U. S. lest it mislay it and the country suffer.

Loisette doesn’t make memories, he furnishes confidence in memories that already exist. Isn’t that valuable? Indeed it is to me. Whenever hereafter I shall choose to pack away a thing properly in that refrigerator I sha’n’t be bothered with the aforetime doubts; I shall know I’m going to find it sound and sweet when I go for it again.

Loisette naturally made the most of this advertising and flooded the public with Mark Twain testimonials. But presently Clemens decided that after all the system was not sufficiently simple to benefit the race at large. He recalled his printed letters and prevailed upon Loisette to suppress his circulars. Later he decided that the whole system was a humbug.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00