A Tragic Spring For Joe Twichell

Saturday, April 21, marked the 108th anniversary of Mark Twain’s passing.

For Twain, whose final decade was wracked by overwhelming bereavement, the promise of death’s release was something welcome. By the end of his life, Twain’s sentiments toward life and death were akin to Satan’s musings in Letters From the Earth (1909):

Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain; a dream that was a nightmare-confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long-drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs–the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man’s best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free.

In memorializing him in the next day’s Hartford Courant, Twain’s close friend and pastor, Joseph Twichell, observed that the humorist who had brought so much laughter into the world “had lived to be a lonely, weary-hearted man, and the thought of his departure hence was not unwelcome to him.”

Unfortunately, the month of April 1910 would prove to be most unwelcome for Twichell as well. As he prepared to give a prayer at Twain’s funeral service in New York, Twichell received word that the health of his beloved wife Harmony had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. He managed to return to Hartford by train in time to speak with Harmony before she died shortly after midnight.

As a devout Christian pastor and a battlefield chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War who had ministered to wounded and dying troops, Twichell was no stranger to death’s sharp sting. Still, according to Steve Courtney’s excellent biography, the eight years following the simultaneous loss of his friend and his wife were particularly difficult for Twichell (who would himself die in 1918).

According to Courtney, a grieving Twichell lamented to his son David, “I’ll just have to live from day to day. How many times have I told people that, and that in their sorrows God would give them comfort and strength for each day as it came.”

As trying as those remaining years were for Twichell as he sought daily comfort and strength in bearing his loss, I hope he found the same solace he had offered previously to Twain, who noted that Twichell had “something divine” in him that provided a consoling “touch that heals, not lacerates.”

Perhaps he found it in his wide, supportive circle of family and friends and in the Gospel he preached for decades from the pulpit of Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Perhaps Twichell, who shared Twain’s affinity for Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, found succor in these mystical ruminations.

At the very least, perhaps what he privately told Twain after Olivia Clemens’ death in 1904 also provided shelter from the storm for Twichell in the end:

“I, indeed, believe, that behind the riddle there is a Hidden and Awful Wisdom; that for me tempest-tost on these wide weltering seas there is an anchorage, that for the mortal spirit there is a practicable victory over the world with all its baffling mysteries.”

Ah Shucks, Satan!: Mark Twain’s Style, Quantified

Mark Twain was an immensely popular author. Based on this apparent truth, it has been convenient to regard him as populist as well. Contemporaneous critics dismissed him as “merely a humorist,” a characterization which he clearly internalized. Even those who praise his literary style often, like his friend William Dean Howells, invoke the slightly backhanded adjective natural. “Mr. Clemens is the first writer to use in extended writings the fashion we all use in thinking,” Howells said in 1901, “and to set down the thing that comes into his mind without fear or favor of the thing that went before or the thing that may be about to follow.” The clear implication is that his friend is not a careful craftsman like himself, but a unselfconscious prodigy. The theatrically self-effacing Twain frequently acknowledged that his books were not the product of “great genius,” though his manuscripts demonstrate the patience and self-awareness he committed to revision.

The enduring perception of Twain as an effortless funnyman, careless of technique, is newly troubled by Ben Blatt’s recent quantitative study of literary craft, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve. Blatt compiles a set of general rules about effective writing, drawn from handbooks and testimonials, and tests them against the collected works of dozens of popular and critically-acclaimed novelists, both contemporary and historical. By the standards which Blatt uses, Twain is more “crafty” than his reputation would suggest. For instance, when it comes to “-ly” adverbs, which Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and Chuck Palahniuk all disparage, only Hemingway uses them more sparingly. When it comes to dependence on “thought verbs,” which violate the writer’s credo of “show, don’t tell,” Twain rates favorably as well, ranking #6 among the 50 novelists studied.

One of the more entertaining curiosities to emerge from Blatt’s works is the table of “favorite words” alluded to in his title. From his data, Blatt is able to discern which words each author uses disproportionately compare with the rest. Twain’s favorite words, by this measure, are hearted, shucks, and satan, a trio sure to provoke plenty of armchair psychoanalysis.