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The Day Mark Twain Wore Black

TWAIN VISITS NH IN 1908 (continued)

"They seemed to think this was a funeral I was coming to, when in point of fact it is a resurrection and an occasion of joy," Twain told those gathered. "Aldrich's life was cheerful and happy. I knew him 40 years. He was one of the brightest men it has ever been my pleasure to know."

Twain in Black / SeacoastNH.comIn an anecdote that is pure Twain, he told his version of their first meeting.

"He looked pained," Twain said borrowing a joke from Aldrich's own writing, "He looked as if somebody had died -- and it wasn't the right person."

When the two great authors met, Aldrich told Twain he was sad for him, since Twain had once been the most popular writer in the country. Now sadly, Aldrich told Twain, his popularity was all gone. Surprised by the remark, Twain asked how that was possible, so Aldrich led him to a local bookstore. Aldrich asked the bookseller if he had any books by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and the bookseller replied "no." Then Aldrich asked if he had any volumes by a Mr. Mark Twain. The bookseller said the store was full of them.

"You see," Aldrich said, turning sadly to Mark Twain, "your popularity is all gone. I'm popular now. He's sold out ALL of my books!"

Twain loved sharp wit, his own in particular, but Aldrich's too, especially when it was used to slash at pompous conventions, Victorian rigidity or political deceit. One of the sharpest public tongues in America, Twain bowed to Aldrich's hidden dark side.

Twain later wrote: "When it came to making fun of a folly, a silliness, a windy pretense, a wild absurdity, Aldrich the brilliant, Aldrich the sarcastic, Aldrich the ironical, Aldrich the merciless, was a master."

Thomas Bailey Aldrich, above all, he wrote later, would have hated the pretensions of his own memorial ceremony. Twain certainly did, sweating in the stifling opera house in his black suit waiting for the "riff-raff" ahead of him to drone on. Later he toured the Aldrich Memorial, a shrine to a not-very-famous writer that Twain thought would appeal to one in ten thousand Portsmouth visitors. It was a shrine, more correctly, Twain thought, to Aldirch's impossible wife Lillian. Twain watched her smiling joyfully in their carriage. Lillian Was in her element, squeezed between the top-hatted state Governor Curtis Guild and NH Adjutant General Cilley, a man aptly named – Twain thought -- and festooned in ridiculous epaulets, ropes and clusters.

We know exactly what Twain was thinking that day in Portsmouth because he wrote his impressions down. Twain left his scathing notes after his death, but insisted that his private scribblings be suppressed for another 75 years to protect his victims from his acid tongue. Twain's eager biographers, however, could not wait that long. The first of what would be many volumes of Twain biographies appeared in 1922, just a dozen years after his death. The book was called "Mark Twain in Eruption," and it must have seemed that to Lillian Aldrich, whose own chatty book about her husband's literary circle, "Crowding Memories", had arrived on the shelves in 1920.

Inside the Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial in Portsmouth, NH, Click for more pictures /

In his private writing Twain described Mrs. Aldrich as: "A strange and vanity-devoured, detestable woman! I do not believe I could ever learn to like her except on a raft at sea with no other provisions in sight."

Mr. Clemens, it seems, had also not forgotten their first encounter. According to Lillian Aldich's memoirs, the Aldrich's and Twains had a number of joyous encounters -- in Boston, in New York and while travelling in Europe. The more Twain's fame grew, the more she seemed to appreciate him, although not his "moody" wife. Twain recalled things differently.

"I conceived an aversion for her the first time I ever saw her," Twain wrote in his secret journal, "which was thirty-nine years ago, and that aversion has remained with me ever since. She is one of those people who are effusively affectionate, and whose demonstrations disorder your stomach. You never believe in them; you always regard them as fictions, artificialities, with a selfish motive back of them. Aldrich was delightful company, but we never saw a great deal of him because we couldn't have him by himself."


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