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Monday, June 7, 2010

What gives, Mark Twain?

It's no secret that Mark Twain had it in for Jane Austen.  Just look at the glowing things he had to say about her:
To me his prose is unreadable -- like Jane Austin's [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane's. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.
- Letter to W. D. Howells, 18 January 1909

Jane Austen's books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it.
- Following the Equator
I haven't any right to criticise books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
- Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898
 So what gives, Mark Twain?  Why the Austen hate?

Or is it hate?  Consider for example the last quote: "I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."
Every time?  I don't know about you, but generally there is no "every time" when I dislike something.  There's "once" and not even a full one of those...
But Twain is the sort of caustic, curmudgeonly type who maybe would read something over and over just to gather more fodder.  I decided this required some investigating (I like you, Mr Twain, but you will not besmirch the name of my Jane!) and I found this fantastic article from the Virginia Quarterly, which discussed an unpublished (in his lifetime) article Twain had written about Jane, where he describes reading Jane as being like "a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven":
Whenever I take up "Pride and Prejudice" or "Sense and Sensibility," I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, I feel as he would probably feel, would almost certainly feel. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be—and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. Be- cause he considered himself better than they? Not at all. They would not be to his taste—that is all.

But he goes on to say
Yet he would be secretly ashamed of himself, secretly angry with himself that this was so. Why? Because barkeepers are like everybody else—it humiliates them to find that there are fine things, great things, admirable things, which others can perceive and they can't.

So he clearly knew there was something to Austen, and he perhaps couldn't let himself either admit it or try to understand it.  The author of the article notes that Twain and Austen -- though so different in circumstance, upbringing and style -- actually had quite a bit in common in their ideas:
Indeed, Twain and Austen share a discomfort with unbridled sentimentality....When upset, Marianne [Dashwood] "court[s] misery" and wallows in her grief, "seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it" and indulging in "melancholy remembrances." "I must feel—I must be wretched," Marianne gushes in her "effusion of sorrow" and "nourishment of grief," perhaps foreshadowing Twain's Emmeline Grangerford, the young poet of Huckleberry Finn who "could write about anything you choose to give her to write about, just so it was sadful." Like Twain, Austen mocked heroines too busy heaving their bosoms to act rationally. "One fatal swoon has cost me my Life," exclaims one hyperventilating heroine of a burlesque Austen wrote as a teenager, "Beware of swoons, Dear Laura . . . Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint."
....Jane Austen would have enjoyed Mark Twain's pair of stories called "The Good Little Boy" and "The Bad Little Boy." Overturning moralistic Sunday school stories, Twain's superhumanly, ridiculously good little boy meets with a miserable death, while his bad little boy winds up rich and with a seat in the legislature. Austen had commented in a letter, "Pictures of perfection . . .make me sick and wicked." Overturning conduct books advising girls to be pious, submissive, and ladylike, Austen wrote sketches as a teenager in which heroines get drunk, steal, lie, commit murder, and raise armies, enjoying themselves....
...Both took on clergymen, aristocrats, and "superiors" of all sorts, skewering them in just a few ironic words....
How unfortunate that Jane Austen (1775—1817) died two decades before the birth of Mark Twain (1835—1910). What might she have said (ironically, no doubt) of him? What if the two had met on one of Twain's trips to Europe? Ushered into her presence in rural Hampshire, would Twain have felt like a barkeeper entering the kingdom of heaven?
Interesting, no?  Read the full fascinating article here and decide for yourself whether we should forgive Mr Twain or dig him up and beat him over the head with his own shinbone...


  1. I think that it's kinda like how my husband likes to sit next to me while I'm watching trashy reality TV like The Real Housewives. The entire time, he'll talk about how stupid and pathetic they are, but he will not walk away. And, if I watch without him! No, I can't do that. I think that Mr. Twain had a way of poking fun at what he loved, and if he were alive today, he'd be sitting with my husband and I watching the Real Housewives and making a gigantic fuss if I were to switch channels!

  2. I love all the Austen love you have! What a lot of work organizing Jane in June!

    There's an award for you at Kate's Library.

  3. Interesting. Funny how even back then authors bashed each other. Can you imagine if both authors wrote in the same period. It would be the "Harry Potter vs Twilight" of the age.

  4. ROFL I love the shinbone comment--hubby wondered what I was LOLing about at my computer.

  5. I got quite a chuckle out of this post. That crusty old Twain, lol. Shari

  6. Yes, very interesting, Misty. And , no, leave Mark Twain where he is. He's had his comeuppance: has his work got the huge popularity Jane's novels are having still nowadays?
    I agree with you that it'd have been great to know how she would have (ironically) answered him!

  7. you know the saying? men are from mars...

  8. I ended up liking this so much I included it as part of The Friday Five at Kate's Library!

  9. I caught that "every time" thing too. It really must have driven him crazy that he just couldn't see it!


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