venerdì 12 novembre 2010


Unfortunately Robert Louis Stevenson’s papers as well as the Mark Twain’s were scattered widely around the world, and found their way into numerous libraries, archives and private collections. Many of their papers were also been destroyed by relatives or friends. Thus, finding evidences becomes more and more difficult. Let us start considering the remaining letters they exchanged each other. In the Mark Twain papers, in the Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley, there are two items remaining from Mark Twain to Robert Louis Stevenson
The first is an autograph note signed by Twain and his wife Livy, dated 1902 and sold the same year in the Chicago Book Auction. It is not clear why is mentioned in the correspondence with Stevenson, already died. The text says “Let us save the to-morrows for work. Truly yours. Mark Twain”. The second item has been written between 1888.04.15 and 1888.04.17 from Hartford Connecticut as an answer to a Stevenson letter
Three letters remain from Stevenson to Clemens, the first dated April 13th, 1888, the second April 16th, 1893 and the last one August 12th 1893. Plus a quotation of Twain in a letter from RLS to John A. Symonds, dated February 1885.
The most impressive letter is dated April 13th, 1888

“My dear Mark Twain, I should have written a great while ago to the author of Huckleberry Finn—a book which I have read four times, and am quite ready to begin again tomorrow. I think you will like to hear this: I got Huckleberry when I was pretty ill … read it straight through, began at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. Just at this juncture, down comes a Distinguished Painter [Sargent] to do my portrait; he was very refined and privately French; and when I insisted that Huckleberry was to be read aloud at the sittings, he wilted, sir. But I told him he had to face it, and he did, and I believe it did him good. I think he supposed I should have had Baudelaire read aloud to me.”

Twain is so impressed by Stevenson that invites him in his Hartford House but he’s also available to visit him in New York:

“To see you and thank you for writing kidnapped and Treasure Island...Those two great books”.

It is interesting to remark that in the Stevenson letter (April 16th, 1893) to Twain Stevenson says:

“My health has vastly improved since that very pleasant afternoon we spent together in Washington Square among the nurse-maids like a couple of characters out of a story by Henry James”.

According to Stevenson it seems that the two novelists met just one afternoon in Washington Square. Unfortunately the original is lost, this letter is just a copy made by Fred J. Hall, head of the Twain publishing house. Nothing prevents that have been made substantive changes to the text as it was for a number of documents belonging to Twain.
Nobody knows if there were more letters existing but the few remaining testified a correspondence between the two novelists. They are letters dated 1888 and 1893, during the Stevenson stay in the South Seas. But what happened in the middle? The problem is that the most of their correspondence has gone. But why? The best answer comes from the Sidney Colvin’s Prefatory Note to “Letters and Miscellanies of Robert Louis Stevenson” :

“Some of the outpourings of the early time are too sacred and intimate for publicity; many of the letters of his mature years are dry business letters of no general interest; many others are mere scraps tossed in jest to his familiars and full of the catch-words and code-words current in their talk, but of little meaning to outsiders. Above all, many have to be omitted because they deal with the intimate affairs of private persons”.

The intimate affairs of private persons. Consider this letter sent by Robert Louis Stevenson .

“Samuel Clemens, Esq.,
Dear Mark Twain,
There are, or there seem to be, certain storms ahead in my affairs to which I wish to refer with elaborate discretion. It is possible however that you may hear before many days from a gentleman signing himself Charles Baxter and hailing from Edinburgh. He is my friend and agent at home; and he if does address you I ask as a particular favor to give his proposals far more consideration than they will deserve. The truth is that (like yourself) I think I begin to be weary of publishers. I am accordingly trying to reorganize the whole term of my business; and if this fail, Mr Baxter has my instruction to apply to no one else than Mark Twain. I do not know whether you ever consent to handle such works as mine. I don’t sit up to be General Grant or the author of Huckleberry Finn. But if my agent does apply to you I shall be a simple man over-board and appeal to you in charity for a line and a swimming belt.”

The letter is dated 16 April 1893, the year when many public appearances earn Mark Twain the sobriquet “Belle of New York” and when the New York Stock Exchange crashes. For Twain is a very animated period of his life. From January to June he lives in Florence with his family but from 22 march to late May he goes alone to America and back on business. At the end of June (June 28) he settles family in Berlin which means that probably he received this letter in Us or later back to Europe. Financially speaking is not a good moment for him. The Webster & Co, his own publishing house, is going to the bankruptcy, finally declared on April 18th, 1894.
For Stevenson too 1893 is a very hard year. Non only the last year of his life but also the year of the his wife Fanny’s spectacular breakdown that confined her to the bed for months. So why Stevenson asked to be published by Twain, given the situation of both, and what was the answer? Unfortunately nothing remains and nothing has been written on. The remaining correspondence cannot help in retracing the most important lines of their friendship.
Let us go back to Washington Square’s meeting. When exactly did the two novelists meet?
The best place to find informations are the Mark Twain’s notebooks. Whatever the novelist the importance of notebooks in a biographical reconstruction is fundamental. If the novelist is someone called Mark Twain, so accustomed in travelling all around the world the importance is even bigger. According to Charles Neider “Clemens’s notebooks were not literary, bookish. (…) He will set downthoughts, reflections, ideas for stories. Is notebooks are markedly proper.”
Mark Twain himself used to say “One often finds notes in his book which no longer convey a meaning-they were texts, but you, but you forget what you were going to say under them” . According to Rasmussen from 1855 to 1910 and with only occasional breaks, Mark Twain kept a notebook or journal to write down details he thought he might later wish to recall. The resulting 49 journals reveal as much about Sam Clemens as they do Mark Twain; that is they contain great stores of material Twain used in his writing, but they also tell us about Twain’s social life, his feelings for his family, and his business dealings. The entries were usually made by Twain himself except in those cases where he engaged a secretary to take dictation from him. Given the diversity of Twain’s interests, the diversity of the notebook entries is not surprising. There are many cryptic notations. According to Charles Neider the Mark Twain notebooks “rarely contain off-color matter. It is as if expects his mother or his wife or his daughters or the good queen herself to peek into them.(…)

(8)Colvin, Sidney (ed.) (1911). The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson A New Edition. Rearranged in Four Volumes with 150 New Letters. London/New York: Methuen/Scribner’s. 4 vols.
(9)The original is lost. At the Mark Twain papers, Berkeley, there is only a copy of a copy made by Fred J. Hall, manager of Charles L. Webster &Co. The Hall copy was owned by his daughter, Mrs Elizabeth Mack. The letter was entirely published by “The Twainian”, September-October, 1950, number 5.
(10) Mark Twain by Charles Neider, Horizon Press New York, 1967, p.160
(11) Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, ed. Frederick Anderson, Lin Salamo, and
(12)Bernard L. Stein, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1975, p.259.
(13)Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings, Facts On File, 1995.
(14)The notebooks were first compiled and published in abridged form by Albert Bigelow Paine in 1935 as Mark Twain’s Notebook. The complete Notebook & Journals is in the process of being issued by the University of California Press; three of the four volumes have been published, with the first appearing in 1975.
(15)Mark Twain by Charles Neider, Horizon Press New York, 1967, p.160

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