Mark Twain’s best friend – “first after Livy” – was a minister. Samuel Clemens’s deep cynicism about religious hypocrisy, and his late-period writings in which he faced the universe with near-ostentatious despair, would seem to make such a friendship unlikely.
But the Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twichell of Hartford was indeed Clemens’s intimate friend for most of the author’s life. He provided comradeship, humor, and consolation even when the two men were locked in argument. The two families were close – Mark was “Uncle Mark” to the nine Twichell children and Joe was “Uncle Joe” to the three Clemens girls. At the end of one particularly argumentative letter, Clemens wrote: “Joe, the whole tribe shout love to you and yours.”
Twichell was born in Southington, Connecticut, a small manufacturing town south of Hartford, in 1838. His father was a pious Congregationalist tanner; by the time Joseph Twichell went to Yale the father had a prominent role in a carriage hardware firm. Graduating in the Class of 1859, Twichell went on to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City on the very eve of the Civil War, when torchlight political parades lit up the night and secession arguments flared.
When the war began, he signed up to be chaplain of a regiment formed by Daniel Sickles, a former Democratic congressman well-known for having shot his wife’s lover to death in front of the White House. He was acquitted on a plea of temporary insanity. Dubious of this reprobate at first – later one of Lincoln’s “political generals” – Twichell came to admire him as a hero. Twichell ministered to his regiment through the battles of Fair Oaks, Malvern Hill, Bristoe Station, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, and then, under Grant, the rigors of the brutal Overland Campaign that ultimately won the war. By the end of it Twichell’s service was up, and he finished up his studies at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. His friendship with the Rev. Horace Bushnell of Hartford, a liberal Congregationalist of national reputation, got him a position as pastor of the city’s brand-new Asylum Hill Congregational Church in 1865. In the same year he married Harmony Cushman, the cousin of a Yale classmate.
Two years later, at a church social gathering, the minister met a visitor to the city, come to work with his publisher on a book about Mediterranean travels to be called The Innocents Abroad. The publisher was an Asylum Hill parishioner. Traditionally, Clemens and Twichell met just after the author had made a sly comment on the church’s upper-class congregation; he called it “The Church of the Holy Speculators.” “I had heard of him, but imagined him to be a dapper person,” Twichell recalled, surprised by Clemens’s easygoing dress and mop of russet hair. On Clemens’s part, as he later said of Twichell: “You are acquainted with him as soon as you take him by the hand.”
The visiting author sat by Joe’s and Harmony’s fireside, told them of his courtship of Olivia Langdon, borrowed some books, stood up to depart, and remained standing an hour and a half in further conversation with the minister. “Set a white stone,” Mark wrote to Livy, “for I have made a friend.” Two years later, Twichell married the couple in Elmira, co-officiating with the Rev. Thomas K. Beecher. The conversation started in the Twichell parlor would continue for more than 40 years.
Twichell’s love of good talk and sense of humor, his vigorous record in the war, and yes, his religion, clicked with Clemens at this very important time. The friendship’s birth in a period of beginnings – the start of a valued marriage, the start of a long period of life and work in Hartford and Elmira, and the start of a legendary literary career – cemented the friendship for life. All through the Hartford years the two men and their families exchanged visits; they walked prodigious distances together, even making an unsuccessful attempt to walk to Boston. In 1877 they traveled to Bermuda, resulting in “Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion.” The following year they walked and rowed in Germany and Switzerland, resulting in significant portions of A Tramp Abroad, in which Twichell, altered a bit through literary license, became the tall and bespectacled “Harris.” Their correspondence just afterward was all mutual admiration: “How earnestly I thank you for the never to be forgotten pleasures of the past few weeks,” wrote Twichell; Clemens had funded his travel. “How we have enjoyed ourselves. I was never more satisfied with any vacation. I love you all with a new affection.” Clemens wrote to Twichell of A Tramp Abroad once it was finished: “Just imagine it, for a moment: I was collecting material in Europe during 14 months for a book, & now that the thing is printed, I find that you, who were with me only a month & a half of the 14, are in…440 of the 531 pages the book contains! Hang it, if you had staid at home it would have taken me 14 years to get the material.”
The friendship itself became a famous one, and Clemens enjoyed the joke: “I keep a clergyman to remonstrate against my drinking — It gives zest and increase of appetite.”
But the playful comradeship was supported by serious affection, and support from the minister during the nearly unbearable losses of Clemens’s late life. The death of daughter Susy in 1896 was one of these. “Dear Joe,” he wrote, “Do I want you to write to me? Indeed I do. I do not want other people to write, but I do want you to do it. The others break my heart, but you will not. You have a something divine in you that is not in other men. You have the touch that heals, not lacerates. And you know the secret places of our hearts.”
Peter Messent, in Mark Twain and Male Friendship, has delineated three stages in Mark Twain’s religious life during the friendship. In the early courtship period when he met Twichell he was sincerely trying to be a Christian, and Twichell was delighted to give him instruction. (Twain biographer Justin Kaplan, more cynically, believes Clemens “knew that he had to reach the altar by way of the amen corner.”)
As life in Hartford settled into a routine, he delighted in attendance at Twichell’s church because of the friendship with the minister. (If Twichell was away from the pulpit, Mark and Livy attended a different church with better music.) He also reveled in the social activities at Asylum Hill – he famously emceed a spelling bee there.
But as family tragedy arrived in later life, and as his celebrity status made him a person people would listen to on political and social issues, he became furious at the kind of religion that sent missionaries overseas to convert others, and the clear complicity of Christian churches in imperialist depredations in South Africa, China, the Belgian Congo, and elsewhere. Not to mention the imperialist depredations of his own nation in the Philippines.
Toward the end of his life he wrote to Twichell, a fervent advocate of missionary work, a letter he never sent: “Joe, where is the fairness in the missionary’s trade? His prey is the children: He cannot convert adults. He beguiles the little children to forsake their parents’ religion & break their hearts. Would you be willing to have a Mohammedan missionary do that with your children or grandchildren?”
In the final years after he lost Livy came the darker writings, the kind that culminated in No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger and Letters from the Earth. During this period, as he postulated a grim, deterministic universe devised by a sadistic deity, Twichell would occasionally rap his knuckles: “Really,” he wrote to his friend after one diatribe, “you are getting quite orthodox on the doctrine of Total Human Depravity.” Another time he wrote: “Climb out of your hole, Mark; get up where you can see a distance; drop your cussing and shout Glory.” Clemens shot back with a maxim: “When a man is a pessimist before 48 he knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.”
When Clemens died in his Redding, Connecticut home in the spring of 1910, it was Twichell who announced the news to Hartford in the pages of its newspaper: “The word which came last evening, that the struggle at Redding, which we all had been watching with bated breath, was over, was not unexpected; yet was not without the effect of a shock, as such word never is….With all his brilliant prosperities he had lived to be a lonely, weary-hearted man, and the thought of his departure hence was not unwelcome to him.” Twichell outlived his friend by eight years.
In happier times, in Hartford, Clemens had reveled in praise of his friend. He delivered a running joke in Hartford platform speeches: that people tended to buy up land near Twichell’s church because they knew that when he preached, property values would go up. At one birthday party for Twichell he said he had been unaware, before hearing the previous speakers, “that Mr. Twichell was largely accountable for the progress the world has made during the past 50 years. Until he had spoken he had never realized that the telegraph and the telephone and all those things were due to the influence of this one man—the handsomest man that ever lived.”
Andrews‚ Kenneth R. Nook Farm: Mark Twain’s Hartford Circle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press‚ 1950. [Andrews, seeing a need, included the first published mini-biography of Twichell in this work.]
Banks, Russell. “How a Clergyman from Hartford Freed Huckleberry Finn.” New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1995
Bush, Harold K., “ ‘A Moralist in Disguise’: Mark Twain and American Religion.” In Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, ed., A Historical Guide to Mark Twain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Bush, Harold K., Courtney, Steve, and Messent, Peter, eds. The Letters of Mark Twain and Joseph Hopkins Twichell. Augusta: University of Georgia Press, [This comprehensive volume, initiated by the late, much-missed Hal Bush, is enriched by extensive introductory and explanatory material by Messent.]
Courtney, Steve. Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain’s Closest Friend. Augusta: University of Georgia Press, 2008.
Eutsey, Dwayne, “Never Be in a Hurry to Believe”: How Joe Twichell’s Visits to Elmira and Cornell May Have Saved Huck Finn’s Soul.” 2018 Mark Twain Lecture Series, hosted by the Chemung County Historical Society and the Center for Mark Twain Studies, 23 August, 2018. https://archive.org/details/DwayneEutsey. Sound recording, retrieved 26 July 2022. [This is only one of Eutsey’s numerous contributions to the study of Twain and liberal religion, with a particular emphasis on Twichell and Thomas K. Beecher, available on the CMTS website.]
Messent, Peter. Mark Twain and Male Friendship: The Twichell, Howells and Rogers Friendships. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009
— “Mark Twain, Joseph Twichell and Religion.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, December 2003.
Messent, Peter, and Courtney, Steve. The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: A Chaplain’s Tale. Augusta: University of Georgia Press, 2006
Strong, Leah. Joseph Hopkins Twichell, Mark Twain’s Friend and Pastor. Augusta: University of Georgia Press, 1966.
Steve Courtney is the author of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain’s Closest Friend (Georgia, 2008) and co-editor (with Peter Messent and Hal Bush) of The Letters of Mark Twain and Joseph Hopkins Twichell (Georgia, 2017). He was a writer and editor at the Hartford Courant for many years before joining The Mark Twain House & Museum, where he has worked in the publicity and curatorial areas.
Steve Courtney has given a number of lectures for the Center for Mark Twain Studies through the years. You can listen to them here:
- Steve Courtney, “The Loveliest Home That Ever Was’: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford” (October 2, 2013 – Quarry Farm Barn)
- Steve Courtney, “‘This Damned Fool’s Example’: The Rifts Between Mark Twain and Joe Twichell” (May 13, 2009 – Quarry Farm Barn)
- Steve Courtney, “How Mark Twain’s Good Friend and Confidant Handled Three Tough Years in the Army of the Potomac” (May 17, 2006 – Quarry Farm Barn)