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Mark Twain Loved Aldrich but Hated Portsmouth


Samuel Langhorne Clemens is back. This week the creator of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn is sharing the bestseller list with the likes of Glen Beck, George Bush, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, TV comedian Jon Stewart, and a girl with a dragon tattoo. Not bad for a guy who has been dead exactly 100 years. (Continued below)



Mark Twain planned it this way. The author dictated his autobiography before his death in 1910, then decreed that it could not be published for a century. The delay allowed Twain to be perfectly candid in his sometimes harsh opinion of people, politics, religion and other topics. The first of three volumes of the official Autobiography of Mark Twain, according to its author is “a complete and purposed jumble.” 

twain_autobiographyFrom a local perspective, the first volume is pretty tame. Twain mentioned Portsmouth indirectly when he condemned the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth as “the most conspicuous disaster in political history.” This 734-page volume refers to Thomas Bailey Aldrich 35 times (many of these are in scholarly footnotes). Aldrich, who spent a portion of his childhood on Court Street in Portsmouth, was a lifetime pal of Twain, and the comments in the uncensored autobiography, at first glance, appear to be friendly.  

Future volumes may hold darker revelations, but around here, we’ve already seen what’s coming. Despite Twain’s ban on publishing his personal opinions, a 1922 volume entitled Mark Twain in Eruption includes some of the author’s harshest comments –aimed right at the Port City and at the wife of his friend Aldrich.  

Hated her, loved him  

Twain loved his friend Thomas Bailey Aldrich, author of Story of a Bad Boy and The Old Town by the Sea – both about Portsmouth. Twain said he was brilliant, sarcastic, ironical and merciless in private, but sophisticated and genteel on the outside. But Twain hated Aldrich’s wife Lilian whom he described as a “strange and vanity-devoured, detestable woman!” In 1908 the elderly cranky Twain came to Portsmouth to dedicate the Aldrich Memorial on Court Street. New Hampshire’s first historic house museum was Lilian’s literary shrine to her departed husband. Twain disliked the city almost as much as he despised Lilian.  

It was hatred at first sight when Twain met Lilian early in his career. The tawny-haired young man in the sealskin coat and cap, she thought, was stinking drunk. His unfamiliar Southern accent was slurred, and Lilian Aldrich wasn't about to have some scruffy rum-dum off the Boston streets stay for dinner. Her husband was the respected author Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and even if he was inclined to be hospitable to common gutter trash, she was not. So she booted him out.

"How could you have brought a man like that to your home?" she screamed at her husband.  

"Why dear, did you not know who he was?" responded Aldrich. When he told her there was a sudden silence. According to her own autobiography Crowding Memories (1922), Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich began screaming. She had thrown out the most famous man in America.  

"Mark Twain!" she sobbed hysterically. "Mark Twain!"

As members of the Boston and New York literati, the Aldriches had entertained everyone from writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (whom Lilian also could not stand) to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Despite the incident, Twain and Aldrich remained lifelong friends. Twain described him as endlessly witty. "When he speaks," Twain once remarked of Aldrich, "the diamonds flash... He was always brilliant, he will always be brilliant, he will be brilliant in hell -- you will see."

After Aldrich’s death in 1907, his wife spearheaded a plan to turn her husband's boyhood house on Court Street into the Aldrich Memorial. Today it is part of Strawbery Banke Museum. Among those who spoke at the dedication, held at the Portsmouth Music Hall in July 1908, was Mark Twain himself.  


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