Mark Twain liked to imagine moments of speaking from beyond the grave. Perhaps the most well-known example is in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as Huck, Joe, and Tom—but mostly Tom—enjoy the melancholic, sweet, and ridiculous gratification of hearing their own funeral sermon from the gallery of the community church.
Twain imagined his own postmortem moments, too. Below he interrupted an 1880 letter to Joseph Twitchell to address those he thought would be peeking through his mail:
Well, we are all getting along here first-rate; Livy gains strength daily, & sits up a deal; the baby is five weeks old and — but no more of this; somebody may be reading this letter 80 years hence. And so, my friend (you pitying snob, I mean, who are holding this yellow paper in your hand in 1960,) save yourself the trouble of looking further; I know how pathetically trivial our small concerns would seem to you, & I will not let your eye profane them. No, I keep my news; you keep your compassion. Suffice it you to know, scoffer & ribald, that the little child is old & blind, now, & once more toothless; &the rest of us are shadows, these many, many years. Yes, & your time cometh!
Our interest in Twain has only grown since 1960, that seemingly far off day when he envisioned us looking over his shoulder. After the first volume of the Autobiography was published in 2010, many folks repeated what Twain famously said about being able to speak more freely from beyond the grave.
I’d like to add another example of speaking-from-beyond: Twain, I believe, retained many of his readers’ letters because he imagined a future when scholars like the one he chastised in 1880 would be interested in how they plagued and delighted him. Twain annotated “fan mail,” both the envelopes and the letter themselves, and these marginal “notes to himself” became notes to us: future readers of what he realized would not be regarded as trivial correspondence, merely because it was addressed to him.
We can snoop through many such letters in R. Kent Rasmussen’s Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers. But Rasmussen only occasionally reproduces items in facsimile—I’d like to share a few more examples.
One of my personal favorites is by J.J. Winthrop, who sent a postcard taking Twain to task for co-authoring The Gilded Age with Charles Dudley Warner. Winthrop believed Twain had yoked himself to an inferior writer. He struggles to find an adequate insult:
Who has ever heard of whose name has been made illustrious by coupling it with yours, & to what purpose To ruin your brilliant reputation There are in the book 3 good articles—for these I give you credit. There are 997 wretched infernal stupid idiotic ones for which I give the poor lunatic credit. The rest of the book was manufactured by a carpenter—or a Chinee or worse—
Viewing this item in the Mark Twain Project archives in U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, we find that Twain destroyed the postcard by tearing it into thirds, but also preserved it in its enveloped, annotated with his own comment to help a future cataloguer: “Offensive postal card about Gilded Age.”
Did Twain tear the postcard in a fury or in cool disdain? In either case, we have here the kinetic evidence of some form of disgust, carefully preserved to illustrate Twain’s response to the presumptuous Mr. Winthrop. Twain could have simply shoved such letter into a stove, as he often threatened to do with his own letters and manuscripts, but the monumental size of the Mark Twain Project archive suggests that this was a mostly empty threat. Twain’s good instincts are on display as he anticipates that future readers will join him in finding Winthrop’s insults offensive.
Twain’s notes relay several messages to imagined archivists, summarizing the contents of an item of correspondence or substituting a real name for his correspondent’s nom-de-plume. But most revealing are his efforts to record his own emotive response to the message in question: “Respectfully declined,” or “This is the worst piece of cheek of all.” Via these notes, he ensures the anonymous future scholar will be guided—even centuries hence—by his own gut-check reactions.
Further proof that he expected curious strangers to comb through his mail is the fact that he and his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, frequently initialed their remarks, so that we can distinguish between them. How thoughtful! Consider this charming example of how the husband-wife team sifted through readers’ mail:
Twain, in his recognizable handwriting, wrote “Two Children / Foolish letter”; the helpful initials of O.L.C add “answered in such a way that it will not be answered.” Of course, members of the household would recognize each other’s handwriting, as would any other personal secretary. This clarification is for us.
Twain vainly predicted that contemporaneous readers’ responses to his works would be of interest to future generations, who would view them as valuable illustrations of his relationship with his audience. But is it vanity if he was right?
Albert Bigelow Paine, who often watched Twain answer fan mail while still in bed, observed that “his mail was always large; but often it did not look interesting.” Readers’ letters may have been at turns boring and insulting. Twain recorded, “Unanswered letter / Preserve this sentimental rubbish” as if to both decline the begging request for a reply and leave for us examples of just the kind of writing he found to be tedious rot.
But they were also inspiring. Twain admited to Paine that one motivation for sifting through readers’ was the comfort they bring: “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”
Below is one such example: “Received on a low-spirited day and preserved it for the comfort it brought.”
Ultimately, Twain shows us that readers’ demands both threaten to flood into his life and also buoy him up in the process. His reactions help inform our understanding of his desired reader-relationship as his reactions illustrate the moments that ambivalence breaks into satisfaction.
Courtney Bates is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at the University of Findlay. She is currently working on a book project on Twain’s correspondence with his readers.