Saturday, April 6, 2019

An Interview with Mark Twain

Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)
From The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works

Mark Twain in his writing studio at Quarry Farm, Elmira, NY, c. 1903. Photograph by Thomas E. Marr. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. In 1889 Rudyard Kipling traveled to the farm, only to discover that Twain was spending the day back in town at the home of his wife’s brother — just a short walk from the hotel where Kipling was staying.

Mark Twain and his family made Quarry Farm their vacation home for over three decades; it was owned by his wife’s sister Susan Langdon Crane and her husband Theodore. In 1874 the Cranes surprised him by building a small, fully enclosed octagonal gazebo about one hundred yards from the main house. In this studio he wrote many of his most famous works. In 1952 the building was moved to the Elmira College campus, where it can be seen today.
In June 1907 Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain, traveled to England to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. One of the other honorees was Rudyard Kipling, and while the two internationally famous authors were watching the ceremonies, an admirer passed up a folded note on the outside of which was printed, “Not True.” Inside was the opening of one of Kipling’s most famous poems:
East is East, and West is West,
and never the Twain shall meet.
The event at Oxford wasn’t the first meeting between the authors from “East” and “West.” In 1889 twenty-three-year-old Rudyard Kipling, who had published six story collections during the previous year, left India for a tour of America and Europe. While in New York he hoped to locate and “shake hands with” Mark Twain, the “man I had learned to love and admire fourteen thousand miles away.” His recollection of that encounter — including a somewhat farcical and exaggerated account of how he hunted down his idol — was published in newspapers from Allahabad to Manhattan, and we present it below as our Story of the Week selection.

Clemens, of course, had never heard of the young man: “He was a stranger to me and to all the world.” A year after the interview, George Warner, a neighbor and the brother of Charles Dudley Warner, dropped by and asked if Clemens had ever read Kipling. When he denied even knowing the name, Warner responded he “would hear of him very soon” and left behind a copy of Plain Tales from the Hills, one of Kipling’s six early story collections. It fell to Clemens’s daughter Susy to remind her father he had in fact met the book’s author the previous year; she had kept Kipling’s calling card with its address in India because she was enchanted by the idea that anyone could hail from such an exotic locale. Clemens then read Plain Tales and wrote to a friend, “whereas Kipling’s stories are plenty good enough on a first reading they very greatly improve on a second.” In his autobiography Mark Twain recalled his initial encounter with Kipling: “I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before — though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would.”

Although their paths crossed infrequently over the next two decades, the two authors greatly — and publicly — admired each other from afar. “I love to think of the great and godlike Clemens,” Kipling wrote to the publisher Frank Doubleday in October 1903. “He is the biggest man you have on your side of the water by a damn sight, and don’t you forget it.” For his part, Mark Twain was known to declaim Kipling’s verse both at public events and in private settings. “I am not fond of all poetry,” his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine recalls him explaining, “but there’s something in Kipling that appeals to me.”

When they both had become international celebrities — by the end of the century they were probably the two most famous writers in the English-speaking world — readers would sometimes argue over who was the better writer. One such debate made headlines in 1899 when the students at Stillwater College (Oklahoma A&M) declared Kipling “the greatest living writer in English.” Among the responses was a letter from Dr. Henry Walker, an Oklahoma City resident, who argued for Mark Twain’s superiority. Walker sent his literary hero a copy and promptly received a response, which was widely reprinted in the country’s newspapers:
Dear Doctor Walker: I thank you ever so much for the impulse which moved you to write the article — and for the article, also, which is mighty good reading. And I am glad you praised Kipling — he deserves it; he deserves all the praise that is lavished on him, and more. It is marvelous — the work which that boy has done; the more you read the “Jungle Books” the more wonderful they grow. But Kipling does not appreciate them as he ought; he read “Tom Sawyer” a couple of times when he was coming up out of his illness and he said he would rather be author of that book than any that has been published during his lifetime. Now, I could have chosen better, I should have chosen “Jungle Books.” But I prize his compliment just the same, of course. . . .

Note: The Robert to which Mark Twain refers during his conversation with Kipling is Robert Elsmere, an 1888 novel by Mrs. Humphrey Ward.

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You are a contemptible lot, over yonder. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.