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Mark Twain Loved Aldrich but Hated Portsmouth

 

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and not the author that required him to leave his comfortable Connecticut bed and make the final pilgrimage, enduring outdated trains, the brutal heat, and his nemesis Lilian.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 Amazon.com. He is editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this column appears exclusively online.

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News about Portsmouth from Fosters.com

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 
 
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