Mark Twain and Male Friendship:The Twichell, Howells, and Rogers Friendships



Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 250. $49.95.

As a friend once told me, there are friends, and then there are friends. Americans tend to have a diluted sense of the term “friend,” a phenomenon that is regularly illustrated in everyday usage, as for instance when teenagers compete to see who can accumulate the most “friends” on Facebook. But my years in Japan, where the Japanese equivalent (tomodachi) has an esteemed ring to it, provided me a deeper and richer sense of the term, and I’ve used the word much more stringently ever since.

Over the years, I’ve been drawn to philosophical reflections on the idea, as in Emerson's masterful essay called “Friendship”: “To my friend I write a letter, and from him I receive a letter. That seems to you a little. It suffices me. It is a spiritual gift worthy of him to give, and of me to receive. It profanes nobody. In these warm lines the heart will trust itself, as it will not to the tongue, and pour out the prophecy of a godlier existence than all the annals of heroism have yet made good.” The upshot is that almost all people, including even the icy iconoclast Emerson, need friends, and so did Mark Twain.

As Emerson's fine lines suggest, letter writing was a primary expression of such friendship back in the nineteenth century. More valuably, Emerson notes the warmth and intimacy, and even the mildly homo-erotic give and take of friendly correspondence—phenomena which are duly noted and interrogated in Peter Messent's excellent new study under review here. As Messent suggests, Mark Twain's cultivation of deep relations with these three stellar personalities was plausibly the central activity of Mark Twain's adult life (besides writing those great works). What Emerson never mentions very much is the “framework of privilege and cultural power” that our friendships document, and as Messent also considers (11). Messent's study is also very good at considering the extent to which the “nature of cultural change in this period of rapid modernization” left its mark upon the male friendships at the center the Twain's mature life as author, crony, and parishioner (12).

Personally I have come to expect outstanding research and analysis from Prof. Messent, and this new volume does not disappoint. Messent draws deeply from his impressive and nearly inexhaustible knowledge of the primary and secondary materials on Mark Twain: letters, journals, and other documents, along with the biographies, critical studies, and so forth. The notes are startling in their depth, and both valuable and intriguing in what they reveal about Prof. Messent's own complex intellectual journey through all of these theoretical alleyways. Hardly anyone knows this material better, it seems to me. Furthermore, Messent is always quite knowledgeable about current theory and cultural studies materials covering the era, and among his many works this volume seems to demonstrate that knowledge most acutely. A crucial example of this is the fine way that he introduces the reader to various studies of male friendship in general, and specifically within the culture of the late nineteenth century both in American and (to a lesser extent) Britain and the continent.

The long and meaty introductory chapter is the sort of work that we have by now come to expect in monographs of this type: a chapter filled with both thick historical description about male bonding; interesting accounts of the perceived changes in these relations; as well as a review of the usual suspects who have recently provided first-rate analysis and theorizing along such lines. Here, the names include scholars like Anthony Rotundo, Dana Nelson, Sarah Cole, Caleb Crain, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, as well as due notice to more specialized Twain scholars working on similar topics, such as Peter Stonely. It is a useful and very fine introduction and it would be a perfect chapter to provide to graduate students interested in these topics. Among other things, it provides some of Messent's major observations about the men covered later in the book, especially the way that the friendships were socially constructed and representative of rapidly changing concepts of friendship and masculinity during these years, roughly 1868-1910.

The book then proceeds to give long consideration to each of the three main male friends of Mark Twain's adult life: Joseph Twichell, William Dean Howells, and then Henry Rogers, in that order. Messent gives two chapters to each of the figures: first a general overview of that figure's complex friendship with Mark Twain, followed by a more focused and thematic treatment: roughly put, Twichell and Christian manhood, character, and religion; Howells and realism, publishing, and the craft of writing, and Rogers and business, wealth, and late-night carousing. There seems to be an unspoken logic to this narrative sequence, and in fact Messent's chronological ordering builds upon a common theme of Mark Twain's moral progress as normally construed: his growing skepticism, pragmatism, and ultimately, agnosticism and darkness. Messent also showcases the ways that each of these three friendships fostered and symbolized certain core aspects of Mark Twain. These were all, it becomes clear, highly symbiotic friendships; each member of the three pairs derived pleasure and benefit from Twain, as much as Twain did from them. And each friendship illustrated quite distinct aspects of Twain's personality—and of the personalities of the other three famous men.

In this regard, perhaps the material on Henry Rogers is most fresh and original. Rogers has until very recently been by far the most overlooked member of this exclusive group of Twain's “best friends,” and here we get one of the finest efforts to sketch his own bawdy and mischievous character, and how his interactions with the great author brought out this side of the staid, rather frightening business mogul. I will always recall now the image of Twain napping on the sofa in Rogers's sleek high-rise business office, as the magnate busily worked nearby. As with the other two relations, it is unclear who gained the most in terms of their friendship, since Messent makes sure we see how much Rogers benefited from the rousing good times and humor-laden carousing that Twain brought out in the stern tycoon. The titan Rogers evidently found great fun and joy in this friendship, despite his notoriety as a “relentless, ravenous creature” (154). Messent's volume adds even more to this growing area of recent interest, an area highlighted by the recent publication of Michael Shelden's biography of the final years, Mark Twain; Man in White (2010), which presents the fullest account of the Twain-Rogers tandem.

More generally, each chapter provides excellent coverage of both well-known aspects of the friendships as well as a variety of the quirky specifics. If you wish to read a solid and relatively brief biographical and critical introduction to Twain's life as connected with any of these three men, I can hardly think of a better place to start, along with perhaps Leland Krauth's fine book of several years ago, Mark Twain & Company. The chapters are filled with original gems of interpretation. For example, Messent gives us an ingenious reading of the notorious Lizzie Wills anecdote, in which Twain and Twichell work together to force the supposedly pregnant Wills (Twain's housekeeper) to marry a man who is evidently enjoying carnal pleasures with her. The volume is also filled with other wonderful storytelling about the men involved: sailing with Rogers, working closely with the mentor Howells on specific texts, walking in the woods with Twichell.

One of the most promising sections of the volume, and indeed one of the most fit for further reflection, is Messent's extended treatment of realism, and the ways in which the Twain-Howells friendship both inspired the movement as well as muddied the waters regarding its meaning and purpose. Messent's own coverage of realism underscores the haziness of the movement: indeed, Howells and Twain became increasingly skeptical about their own abilities to define the ‘reality’ they saw around them or to depict the recent history of their country” (106). He also notes a shift in Howells's own novelistic production, beginning with A Traveler from Altruria (1894), that further muddies the waters. Messent is nearly a polymath on all things regarding the history and theories of realism, as this chapter makes abundantly clear. It is another chapter I would wish my graduate students to tackle. The upshot of all of this being, perhaps we need to head back to the drawing board in defining realism: a problem that Howells and Twain sensed profoundly, as they entered the latter years of their productivity. Messent's work on realism made me wrestle even more with this notoriously difficult set of concepts.

In similar ways, Messent wishes to challenge some of the moral or religious readings of Twain's work, mostly published in the past decade or so. Messent questions the “distinctions between religion and ethics”; and I think here, in the account of Twichell's influence, we can note a useful balance to these other recent critical writings, many of which foreground Twichell's long-standing moral effect on Twain's thinking. Similarly, Messent's engagement with recent theories of Victorian mourning and grief, presented in the book's final chapter (or coda), also interrogates recent work on Twain's emotional traumas. Here Messent brings to bear his considerable skills as a cultural historian focusing on Victorian rites of bereavement (although he unfortunately fails to engage any clinical data on the topic).

In both cases, further consideration and fruitful conversation among colleagues continues to yield more nuanced and complex readings of Twain's beliefs, values, and even metaphysics (or lack thereof), even as leading critics remain rather divided. Couple especially with a fuller account of his joyful carousing with the likes of Rogers, these data all interrogate the common view of Twain's so-called “dark years” near the end, which here seem much sunnier and happier (as they do, by the way, in Shelden's volume). More generally, Messent's work provides well-written and thoroughly engaging cultural biographies of the three most important male friendships of Mark Twain—and how those friendships marked each of the four men under consideration. It is clear that clothes do not make the man: but maybe friends do.

I will end with the conundrum of my reviewing a book by a man whom I might even daringly call a “friend,” despite the ocean that separates us about 99% of the time. Does that moniker disqualify any of my praise? Does it undermine my scholarly reserve? Well, I hope not. Though it may depend, of course, on what we even mean by the term “friend.”