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The Day Mark Twain Wore Black

TWAIN VISITS NH IN 1908 (continued)

Twain didn't harbor much more love for his first vision of Portsmouth either. He hated the train ride on the smoke-belching Boston and Maine railroad where passengers were offered water from a battered tin cup in a bucket. The railroad cars, he suspected, were left over from the Civil War era. Instead of the venerable "Old Town by the Sea" that Aldrich had written of so lovingly, Twain saw a run-down sweltering whistle-stop on his own personal tour of the world.

"A memorial museum of George Washington relics could not excite any considerable interest if it were located in that decayed town and the devotee had to get to it over the Boston and Maine," Twain grumbled into his diary after his 1908 visit.

Mark Twain writing in bed with the devil's help

Apologists may dismiss Twain's nasty remarks to crankiness and an often unhappy old age, but his slashing wit always revealed a bone of truth. In 1908, just two years before his own demise, Twain was certainly sour, still suffering from the loss of his wife and a daughter. He had squandered a literary fortune on a failed business investment and preferred to spend his time in bed, reading and writing. Twain's surviving daughter Clara Clemens drolly told a New York Times reporter that her celebrated father dressed all in white because it reminded him of being in bed and that his hair was white because it had changed to match the color of his pillow.

Twain had little good to say about Aldrich the writer. "Aldrich was never widely know," Twain wrote, his books never attained to a wide circulation; his prose was diffuse, self-conscious, and barren of distinction in the matter of style. Aldrich’s reputation, Twain said, was based a half dozen small poems "which are not surpassed in our language for exquisite grace and beauty and finish." It was Twain’s enduring admiration for Aldrich the man that required him to leave his comfortable Connecticut bed and make the final pilgrimage, enduring outdated trains, heat and his nemesis Lillian.

On second thought, Twain decided, Aldrich might actually have enjoyed this stiff, pandering memorial ceremony as a target of his own satire. He wrote in his journal: "Nobody could lash it and blight it and blister it and scarify it as he could."

No, Twain noted, changing his mind again, Aldrich could never have made fun of his own memorial ceremony because Aldrich had been, above all, in love with himself. Aldrich believed that the sun rose to shine on his poetry, Twain said, and it was reluctant to set in the evening for fear of losing sight of his brilliant pages.

Aldrich was one of the most vain men he had ever known, Twain concluded in his explosive journal. In fact, he concluded, that by

because, above all, Aldrich was vain. He liked anything about himself. He might almost have thought, Twain wrote, that the sun rose for the sole purpose of shedding light on his writing, a belief his wife Lillian seemed to share. Bundled together, man and wife, Twain concluded, Mr. And Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich came perilously close to being as vain as Mark Twain himself. To say any more on that topic, Twain concluded, might be considered "extravagant".

Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. SOURCES FOR THIS ESSAY: "Crowding Memories" by Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1920), "Mark Twain in Eruption" (1922) and articles from 1908 Portsmouth newspapers. Photos of Twain and Aldrich from "Crowding Memories" 

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