The Apocryphal Twain: Tom Wolfe Memorial Edition


Mark Twain is frequently treated as a precursor to the New Journalists who rose to prominence in midcentury America, writers like Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, who died yesterday. Like many of them, Twain began his career as a conventional reporter (insofar as there was any such convention in the 1860s) and developed a habit of inserting himself into his stories, so much so that his carefully constructed persona – cynical, self-assured, and, at times, comically inept – became as integral to his accounts as the places, persons, and events he was assigned to cover.

Wolfe, who coined the term New Journalism and is generally treated as one of the genre’s foremost innovators, began wearing white three-piece suits when he joined the New York Herald Tribune in 1962, a practice he would continue for the rest of his life. He claimed it was not an intentional homage to Twain, that they simply shared a fondness for a particular brand of southern elegance, but Wolfe clearly recognized that he was inviting comparisons with Twain, and this did not bother him.

Wolfe was hardly alone amongst the New Journalists in making frequent and loaded references to Twain’s life and work. They all shared Twain’s tendency to blur the line between journalistic liberty and outright fabulism. But Wolfe, perhaps because he spent so many years living in Twain’s aesthetic shadow, was particularly prone to inventing anecdotes about his idol.

At a lecture sponsored by the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford in 2003, he repeatedly refers to Twain’s “holy trinity” of “God, money, and the spirit of money, which is known as stocks.” Wolfe was perhaps merely misremembering the deeply satirical lines from Twain’s “Revised Catechism” – “Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stock – father, son, and the ghost of the same – three persons in one: these are the true and only God, might and supreme” – which he proclaims should be spoken in honor of the prophet, Boss Tweed, and a series of Gilded Age capitalist saints, including Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Wolfe can perhaps be forgiven for treating Twain’s celebration of “the holy spirit of golden money” (something else Twain never said) as sincere, given that it supports his larger theme of admiration for Twain’s ambitiousness and his commitment to what Wolfe calls “the Aristophanic oath”: “First, entertain.” To entertain, Wolfe defines as “to make a person pass the time pleasantly with no physical effort whatsoever.” He implores the audience to look up this definition in Webster’s Dictionary. (I have consulted over a dozen editions and found no such phrase.)

Wolfe goes on to quote Twain as having said, “There is nothing that assures your spiritual standing more securely than the sanctified odor of cash.” While one can certainly imagine circumstances in which Twain might have expressed such a sentiment, the admirable phrase – “the sanctified odor of cash” – not only appears nowhere in Twain’s sizable corpus, but, so far as I can tell, has never appeared anywhere in print. It is a small tragedy that by misattributing these words to Twain, Wolfe was prevented from publishing them himself.

Wolfe returns repeatedly to the theme of Twain’s self-conscious celebrity, another obvious resonance with New Journalism. He resuscitated this anecdote for the New York Times seven years later:

England gawked. Europe gawked. The whole globe gawked, even India. It has been recorded that Twain once returned from India and said to a friend, eyes wide, mandibles agape, soul in a state of utterly sincere self-awe: “In India, they know only three things about America…Wall Street…the Statue of Liberty…and Mark Twain!”

Where this “has been recorded” eludes me. Richard Zacks recently dedicated nearly a hundred pages to Twain’s tour of India in Chasing The Last Laugh (2016). Numerous other scholars, notably Seema Sharma and Keshav Mutalik, have written at length on the subject without unearthing this charming and, in Zacks case, highly relevant anecdote. What Zacks says, to the contrary, is that “India didn’t discover Twain; Twain discovered India.” The author performed to several sold-out crowds of primarily British colonists and sold a small stock of books on the back of his tour, but was moderately disappointed to find that “the various Indian-language papers would largely ignore him” and “almost no one would recognize him in the streets.”

The largely invented account Wolfe forwarded of his idol is revealing. Wolfe is so seduced by Twain’s place as “the most famous American writer of all time,” he is induced to further exaggerate that fame. What Wolfe likes most about Twain is his sales. In his 2003 talk, Wolfe compliments Twain on Huckleberry Finn, not for its pathbreaking novelistic techniques or its progressive politics, but because the author recognizes, decades before marketing teams would, that sequels sell!

In essays like “Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast” (1989) and “The Three Stooges” (2000), Wolfe decried what he perceived as an abandonment of populist realism by his most critically-acclaimed contemporaries, including John Irving, Philip Roth, and John Updike. In the latter essay, he expressly mocked the poor sales of these literati.

Wolfe’s appropriation of the white suit – representative of Twain’s precocious talent for personal branding – reveals the nature of Wolfe’s appreciation for Twain. He is not envious of Twain’s incisive social commentary, his innovative wit, or his proto-metafictionist techniques, though Wolfe does emulate these traits, but rather, in awe that “Twain had actually lived, in the flesh, as that heroic figure every American writer…dreams of being: Big Spender from the East.”

The renowned excoriations of the opulence and ostentation in Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) apparently do not apply equally to Twain (or Wolfe). In every commentary he makes about Twain, he refers to the author’s gaudy Hartford home, “a Victorian palace whose many turrets were over the top, even for the Gilded Age.” Wolfe, who struggles to accurately recount the plot of Twain’s most-famous and influential novel, has perfect recall for numerous details about the woodworking, the furnishings, and the servants in the Clemens massive mansion. He gleefully imagines what it would be like to have “this heavenly vision of worldly success be the first thing he saw every day when he awoke.”

One is reminded of a line from The American Claimant (1892):

“I’m opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position…I would leave the funeral of my dearest enemy to go and assume its burdens and responsibilities.”

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