P. Salwen article: "Mark Twain & Walt Whitman"

Mark Twain & Walt Whitman

A Talk Delivered April 4, 1992
to the Mark Twain Association of New York

By Peter Salwen

Last month, as you probably know, marked the hundredth anniversary of Walt Whitman's death. Whitman, of course, was the great poet of New York, and many cultural institutions and groups are now honoring him with a two-month-long celebration that continues through the end of May.

If you venture about five miles down Broadway from here, to the corner of Bleecker Street, you'll find yourself in front of a curious literary landmark. There's nothing to show it -- the ground floor today contains a Korean greengrocer and the rest of it seems to be used as some sort of warehouse -- but in this building a link was formed between the two literary giants of nineteenth-century America, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, a noisy bohemian group led by Whitman and the publisher Henry Clapp used to crowd into Pfaff's beer cellar under theBroadway pavement. Clapp was the publisher of the Saturday Press, an urbane, venturesome weekly that went belly-up in 1868. But not before publishing a couple of dozen poems by Whitman, and a short story by Mark Twain called "Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog."

It is common to speak of these two great writers together. Some critics have likened Twain's sprawling Autobiography to Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Hamlin Hill suggested that both writers had as their aim, "to put a man, himself, in the nineteenth century, in America, on record."

Maxwell Geismar claimed that "Clemens was often, in fact, a prose Whitman; or Whitman a poetical Clemens. These two writers often say the same things in almost identical language, just as the dark endings of their entwined visions of democracy were curiously similar."

Indeed, there are tantalizing parallels between them. Both Twain and Whitman were journeyman printers in their youth. In the days after the Civil War, both could be found in rooming houses in Washington. Whitman was then a clerk in the Attorney General's office, while Twain was private secretary to Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada, who in return for a few office chores gave him six dollars a day and all the leisure he needed to write.

Both were great democrats, in the deep, fundamental sense: that is, they believed in the power and the genius of ordinary citizens. Both had ambitions, which only Twain really achieved, of speaking to a mass audience. Yet, both were accepted in England, the other English- speaking country, before they were fully appreciated at home.

They both wrote a fresh, vivacious, journalistic speech that keeps its freshness even today. They shared a huge optimism about America, at least at first, but both also had a very clear sense of the "dark side" of the American enterprise.

In days of the Tweed Ring and the flagrantly corrupt Grant Administration, Whitman wrote in the New York magazine Galaxy in December 1867, "Society, in these States, is canker'd, crude, superstitious, and rotten . . . . Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present . . . here in the United States. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater."

Mark Twain's view wasn't much different, though his tone was lighter: "The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter," he said, "they are an entire banquet."

For both Twain and Whitman, a dominant feature of their temperaments was a boundless interest in the world around them, a total immersion in everything human, and a sense that nothing human was alien to them. In Song of Myself Whitman boasted "I contain multitudes," and in Leaves of Grass he wrote, "Whoever degrades another degrades me, and whatever is done or said returns at last to me." Twain said, "In myself I find in big or little proportion every quality and every defect that is findable in the mass of the race."

Yet despite these parallels, or perhaps because of them, Twain in effect never knew or mentioned Walt Whitman, and vice versa. In fact, Twain in many ways was the antithesis of Whitman. As Justin Kaplan points out, both knew the open road, but the foppish reporter Walter Whitman became the poet Walt, while Sam Clemens became Samuel L. Clemens, and found himself as a writer by joining the social order instead of freeing himself of it.

And with one exception, which I'll get to in a moment, Twain hardly ever mentioned Whitman. The publishing house Twain ran in the 1880s published Whitman's autobiography, and when Twain published a series of cheap 25-cent editions, the first on the list was Whitman's Selected Poems. Twain contributed funds to help buy a horse and buggy for Whitman in 1885 and to pay for his cottage in Camden in 1888, saying, supposedly, "What we want to do is to make that splendid old soul comfortable."

In 1878, Whitman said he had always regarded Twain as "friendly, but not warm: not exactly against me: not for me either." In private conversation Whitman, very astutely, complained of a certain superciliousness he detected in humorists like Bret Harte and Mark Twain and others "who fairly enough touch off the rude Western life, but always as though with the insinuation, 'see how far we are removed from all that we good gentlemen with our dress suits and parlor accompaniments!'" And in 1885, the year Huckleberry Finn came out, he said of Twain, "I think he mainly misses fire: I think his life misses fire: he might have been something: he comes near to being something: but he never arrives."

In May 1889, Twain was asked to write a letter in honor of Whitman's 70th birthday. And it is fascinating, but not surprising, to see how this one time Twain ever had anything to say in public about Whitman, he didn't pay any attention at all to Whitman's poems, and in fact Twain, who could be a terrible prude after all, probably would have been very uncomfortable with Whitman's sensual, earthy imagery.

Instead, Twain chose to celebrate the nineteenth century itself, the Century of Progress. I want to finish by quoting part of that, partly for its historical interest, but more importantly because of the light it casts on Mark Twain.

We know that Twain, at the end of his life, was a bitter and disillusioned man. But in this letter we see him in his vigorous prime -- fifty-three years old. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn had been published to tremendous success; A Connecticut Yankee and The Prince and the Pauper were still to come. The Clemens family -- all five of them -- were alive and healthy, and Twain himself was in mid-career and full of "Whitman- esque" optimism and joy of living.

"Wait thirty years and then look out over the earth," he told Whitman, in his letter. "You shall see marvel upon marvels, added to those whose nativity you have witnessed; and conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result -- Man at almost his full stature at last! -- and still growing, visibly growing, while you look."

Other Mark Twain Resources on the Internet:

The Quotable Mark Twain (some of his best sayings)
Mark Twain in Cyberspace (the best Web sites -- an annotated list)
"Mark Twain, 'Belle of New York'" (article on Twain's New York years)
Mark Twain's New York (annual birthday walking tour)
| Is Huck Finn a Racist Book?

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