Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Mark Twain's Correspondence with Two Press Associations: On Humor, Providence, the Light Bulb and Other Relationships

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Mark Twain's Correspondence with Two Press Associations: On Humor, Providence, the Light Bulb and Other Relationships

Article excerpt

Ample truth and a generous suggestion, both still neglected, inform Louis Budd's 1981 statement, "It would take a book to cover Mark Twain's personal contacts with journalists, the influence of newspapers on his writings, and the key role of the press in building his great fame" ("Color" 25). (1) When, eventually, the comprehensive book on Mark Twain and journalism appears, it should take into account one heretofore overlooked measure of the enduring bond between Samuel L. Clemens and American journalists: his significant correspondence with two press organizations, the National Editorial Association (forerunner to what is now the National Newspaper Association) and his native-state Missouri Press Association. Covering the period from 1888 to 1902, throughout which he enjoyed a mounting popularity as literary lion and national folk hero, these letters attest to Mark Twain's warm regard for the press. Beyond this confirmation, they also embellish his reputation as a charmingly adroit epistler and reveal much about his attitudes, interests, and daily life. Of major importance are his statements in the first letter about humor in general and American humor in particular, comprising what may be Clemens's single most expansive commentary on this central dimension of his work. Noteworthy, too, is the collective record of his fascination with the electric light; his professed exhaustion with speechmaking; his frustrations over travels, illnesses, and acts of God; and his abiding affection for an idealized Missouri.

The seven letters presented here--six by Clemens and one to him--are arranged chronologically as follows: to William Kennedy (NEA), 1888; to Walter Williams (MPA), 10 April 1889; to John Garth (MPA), 1 May 1890; from Edwin Stephens (MPA), 20 May 1890; to Edwin Stephens (MPA), 8 June 1890; to Walter Williams (NEA), 4 March 1894; to John Sosey (MPA), 6 August 1902. These letters constitute the entire recovered correspondence between the author and the two press associations although others are clearly missing and, if they survive, await discovery. All the letters except one are here made generally available for the first time; and that single exception, Clemens's 1894 letter to Williams, now receives its first accurate identification. Of the other letters, those to Kennedy, Stephens, and Sosey have been published only in obscure, antiquated, largely in-house association histories; the letter to Garth, only in an auction catalogue description; and those to Williams (1889) and from Stephens, not at all. Until notified of my discoveries, the Mark Twain Project had no record of any but the letter from Stephens and those to Garth and Williams (1894), the last incorrectly identified. (2)

While the presentation of these letters is in itself worthwhile, that task presumably would one day be accomplished by the Mark Twain Project. Even then, though, it would remain for someone to establish their journalistic common denominator and to examine them in that light and from other relevant perspectives. My larger purpose, therefore, is to relate and explicate the press association letters, first providing, as context, a brief review of Mark Twain's complex involvement with the fourth estate.

"News is history in its first and best form," wrote Samuel Clemens in his autobiography (1: 326). As avid a consumer as a producer of news, he told Charles Dudley Warner, "I cannot get along without my morning paper"; indeed, another associate pronounced him "addicted" to newspapers and bad cigars (Budd, Our 97, 99). Indisputably, Mark Twain lived with and in the press. From his inauspicious start as backwater printer and reporter, to his grand finale as celebrity subject and honored guest contributor, Clemens and the news media continually--most often agreeably--kept company. Variously a printer, reporter, feature writer, traveling correspondent, freelancer, editor, publisher, and owner, he compiled a vast journalistic record that encompassed associations with American papers and magazines from coast to coast. …

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