Mark Twain Loved Aldrich but Hated Portsmouth
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


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 The author dictated his autobiography before his death in 1910, then decreed that it could not be published for a century.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.  



Twain roasts Aldrich  

A thousand people turned out on a hot day for the star-studded event, thick with eulogies from writers and politicians whose names are unfamiliar today. Then Mayor Hackett introduced the one man in town who needed no introduction. At 73, still sharp and sarcastic, Twain had been toasted by kings and presidents. 


Thomas Bailey Aldrich"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 his Portsmouth audience. "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."

"He looked pained," Twain said of the first time he met Aldrich. "He looked as if somebody had died -- and it wasn't the right person."  

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 called 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 wrote in his journal, to Aldirch's impossible wife Lilian who appeared to revel in the festive memorial ceremony.  

Twain in eruption  

We know exactly what Twain was thinking that day in Portsmouth because he wrote his impressions down. In his private writing, published against his wishes12 years after his death, 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 Lilian Aldich's memoirs, the Aldrich and Twain families 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."  



Decayed town by the sea  

Twain didn't harbor much more love for his first vision of Portsmouth. 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 found a run-down sweltering whistle-stop seaport.   

twain_and_house"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.  

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 huge fortune on a series of failed business investments, lectured around the world to pay off his debts, 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 known,” 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 on a half dozen small poems “which are not surpassed in our language for exquisite grace and beauty and finish.” It was Twain’s love for Aldrich the man and not the author that required him to leave his comfortable Connecticut bed and make the final pilgrimage, enduring outdated trains, the brutal heat, and his nemesis Lilian.  

Twain thought Aldrich might actually have enjoyed this stiff, pandering memorial ceremony in Portsmouth, but only as a target of his own biting satire. He wrote in his journal: “Nobody could lash it and blight it and blister it and scarify it as he [Aldrich] could.”  

Then Twain changed his mind. Aldrich was too vain to make fun of his own memorial ceremony, Twain noted in his journal. Aldrich was too much in love with himself. Aldrich was so vain, Twain wrote, that he thought the sun rose for the sole purpose of shedding light on his writing. Aldrich was the second most vain man in the world, Twain concluded, second only to himself.  


SOURCES FOR THIS ESSAYCrowding Memories by Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1920), Mark Twain in Eruption (1922) and articles on microfilm from 1908 Portsmouth newspapers.  

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson books about history are available at local bookstores and on He is editor and owner of the popular history Web site where this column appears exclusively online.