Partners No More
MARK TWAIN AND BRET HARTE
Here's how it started, this famous and doomed friendship: It was mid-morning, early in the summer of 1864 in San Francisco. If it was a typical morning, the pale sun was parting the fog that curled past the third floor of the San Francisco Call building on Commercial Street, where the offices of the United States Mint were located. Two men, both in their mid-twenties, slightly built and short, sat in friendly conversation. The younger man (though only by a year) was the host, for it was his office--that of the assistant to the district supervisor of the Mint. His guest was the recently hired beat reporter for the newspaper downstairs.
Writing, not watching over the government's money, was what interested Bret Harte. At twenty-seven, he was seen by the thriving literary set in San Francisco as a comer, even as a genius if taken at his own word, according to which he read Shakespeare at the age of six, Dickens at seven, and Montaigne at eight, though he stopped short of claiming to have read the latter in the original French.
Harte was not a native Californian--few Americans were. He had come west from Albany with his widowed mother in 1854 and worked as a tutor and at other odd jobs, many more interesting in his creative retelling than they were in actual fact. (His brief, uneventful stint with the Wells, Fargo Express Companyin 1857 soon became a perilous tour of duty riding shotgun on a stagecoach; the man who preceded him was wounded by bandits and his successor was killed, he said.) He wandered through northern California, eventually finding work in Humboldt County, near the border with Oregon, as a newspaper reporter. One true story from this period reflects well on Harte as a man of generous spirit and some courage. He wrote a blistering attack on a mob massacre of about sixty Indians--one of the more notorious incidents of early California history--and barely got out of town with his own life when the lynchers came looking for him.
Returning to San Francisco in 1860, Harte won the favor of Jessie Benton Frémont, wife of the famous explorer, who hosted a literary salon in her house overlooking the bay. It was through Mrs. Frémont that Harte won his position with the Mint, more a sinecure than a real job, though he performed his simple duties capably enough. Widely published within the next few years in local newspapers and magazines, he took his first step toward national recognition by appearing in the October 1863 issue of the country's leading magazine, the Atlantic Monthly. In May 1864 his friend Charles Webb initiated a new literary journal, the Californian, with Harte as one of its main contributors and as occasional editor. Within two years Harte would publish a vast number of pieces in the Californian--thirty-five poems and seventy-eight prose pieces, including parodies of James Fenimore Cooper ("Muck-a-Muck"), Dickens, Dumas, and Charlotte Brontë.
Newly married, to a pretty but severe young woman named Anna Griswold, and securely if undemandingly employed, Harte was beginning to gather the material for some of the stories that in a few years would make him famous: "The Luck of Roaring Camp," about a baby born to a dying prostitute in a rough gold-mining town who makes rowdies and killers into softhearted daddies; "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," in which therighteous townsfolk send a gambler, a prostitute, and other undesirables out to die in a snowstorm; and "Tennessee's Partner," about two miners whose friendship survives even death.
An elegant if not foppish dresser, Bret Harte favored tailored suits and white broadcloth shirts set off by a diamond stickpin and a bright red necktie. Though his face was marked with smallpox scars, he was a handsome man, with curly black hair, finely chiseled features, and a luxuriant black mustache. He wasn't famous for his conversation; when he did talk, he affected a witty, sardonic pose not unlike that of his notoriously cynical friend Ambrose Bierce.
Harte's guest on that summer morning in 1864 provided a vivid study in contrasts with his elegant host. He was rumpled and bombastic, with bushy reddish eyebrows and mustache, wildly luxuriant brown hair, and an intensity of eye so like that of an eagle, Harte later wrote, that "a second lid would not have surprised me." His "general manner [was] one of supreme indifference to surroundings and circumstances." The guest's name was Sam Clemens, and he had grown up on the shores of the Mississippi River, hoping to become that most romantic and picturesque of mortals, as he later said--a steamboat pilot. He achieved his aim just in time to see it sunk by the Civil War, which closed off all river traffic and made the nation dependent on the railroad instead.
Mildly patriotic for the South, Clemens saw early and brief service as a Confederate militia volunteer. An inconsequential but bloody skirmish persuaded him that "war must be the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity," and that he was "not rightly equipped for this awful business ... ." He went with some similarly disillusioned comrades to inform his captain that "the war was a disappointment to us and we were going to disband." In fact, he deserted.
Many years later, Twain would end his most famous novel with Huckleberry Finn's rueful observation that Tom Sawyer'sAunt Sally was planning to "adopt me and sivilize me," a horrible prospect. Huck says, "'I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ...," that is, the West, where a man could be free to do as he pleased. Sam Clemens, leaving behind not civilization but war, lit out in 1861 for the territory of Nevada, where his older brother, Orion, had been hired as secretary to the territorial governor. He found his calling there as a reporter for the newspaper in Virginia City, gathering material, sharpening his eye for vernacular humor, and adopting his pen name, Mark Twain. He also made a bad enemy, the husband of a woman he had smilingly insulted in print and who proposed to shoot him.
He left town in a hurry for San Francisco, taking with him a whole skin and a bag full of stories that he planned to start selling. Here was one, he told Harte a few days after their first encounter, that he thought had potential. It was about a jumping frog named Dan'l Webster, whose master, Jim Smiley, had trained him so well--educated him--that Dan'l could out-jump any other frog in the world. A smooth-talking stranger boasts that if he had a frog, he could make it a winner. He'd be willing to bet forty dollars. Smiley volunteers to catch a fresh frog from the nearby swamp. While he is gone the stranger pours quail shot down Dan'l's gullet. When the race begins, "the new frog hopped off lively, but Dan'l gave a heave and hysted up his shoulders--so--like a Frenchman, but it warn't no use--he couldn't budge; he was planted as solid as a church, and he couldn't no more stir than if he was anchored out." The stranger disappears with the forty dollars, and Smiley is left with a shot-filled frog and eternal renown.
Years later, Harte would remember the moment when he first heard "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which defined Mark Twain's genius and set him on his path to literary greatness. The story is still "known and laughed over wherever the English language is spoken; but it will never be as funny to any one in print as it was to me, toldfor the first time by the unknown Twain himself on that morning in the San Francisco Mint."
It was one of those golden moments in literary history, remembered by both men in slightly different ways. Though neither of them would stay much longer in California--it had already lost, for them, much of its earlier charm, having been turned over to economic buccaneers and civic uplifters--their paths would cross often in succeeding years.
For a while, the relationship was cordial. Harte hired the "genial humorist," as he called Mark Twain, to write weekly articles for the Californian and praised him generously, even as his own influence grew. Early in 1868 he became the first editor of a new magazine based in San Francisco and called the Overland Monthly. Under his astute guidance, the magazine became prosperous and influential, featuring his own stories as well as those of Bierce, Twain, and lesser writers. All of them, including Twain, were fortunate to have Harte as their guide and mentor. "Waves of influence" rippled out from Harte at this time, a literary historian wrote later: "indeed the literary West may be said to have founded itself upon the imagination of Bret Harte."
Harte, for his part, saw immediately that Mark Twain was "inimitable" and was one of the first to praise his genius both as writer and platform speaker. In a review of Twain's public lecture on his adventures in Hawaii, he said the young Midwesterner took his audience "by storm," in no small part because he displayed such "shrewdness and a certain hearty abhorrence of shams." Twain "can write seriously and well when he chooses, which is perhaps the best test of true humor," Harte noted; minor faults of "crudeness" and "coarseness" could not obscure the clear signs that Mark Twain was "a new star rising in this western horizon."
Harte not only published and lauded Twain's early stories, he taught the less experienced writer much about style, control, and voice while editing his magazine submissions. He "trimmed and trained and schooled me patiently," Twain said in 1870, "until he changed me from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesquenesses to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favor in the eyes of some of the very decentest people in the land."
But even at the height of his fame, in the early 1870s, some readers saw Harte's stories as too sentimental, too cloying. Though his own experience had taught him that the West was often vicious, Harte laid the foundation for several generations of platitudes and clichés, obscuring the truths that readers might have found too unpleasant for comfort. He was, in essence, a writer of romance. Mark Twain's reputation, by contrast, would come to be based upon puncturing sentimental hypocrisy; he thought of himself as a realist, not a romantic, and he soon regretted his identification with Harte as a local colorist celebrating the virtues of the Old West.
Moreover, Twain was by nature competitive. Like Ernest Hemingway, a Twain admirer who later spoke of himself as eager to "get into the ring" with "Mr. Proust" and "Mr. Tolstoi," he wanted above all to "shine ... to make money, to rival and outrival those whom the public most admired." As early as 1866, Twain clearly thought of himself and Harte as competitors : "Though I am generally placed at the head of my breed of scribblers in this part of the country, the place properly belongs to Bret Harte, I think, though he denies it, along with the rest." By 1871, though, he is vowing to "top" Bret Harte or "bust."
In 1871, we should remember, the upward trajectory of Mark Twain's astounding career was barely perceptible, his critical reputation hovering somewhere between those of Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor today. He had published his first collection of stories, which included Jim Smiley's "CelebratedFrog," in 1867, and The Innocents Abroad, an intermittently funny Ugly American collection about traveling in Europe and the Holy Land, in 1869; but The Adventures of Tom Sawyer would not appear until 1876 and his long-delayed masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, came out in 1884. In 1871, he had done nothing to justify his later beatification as "the Lincoln of our literature" by his friend William Dean Howells, and had not even conceived of the story that would lead Hemingway to call him the father of modern American literature ("It all begins with Huckleberry Finn" ).
Today, of course, Twain is an American icon, lovingly reincarnated by Hal Holbrook as a mischievous old gent with a cigar, a hanky, and a white linen suit. The public Twain was amusingly cantankerous but essentially wise, patient, and tolerant of human foibles, in his manner if not in his words. His life is regarded as an extraordinary American success story, and his afterlife, in terms of public esteem and unflagging sales of his works, not to mention movies made from them, is a continuing triumph. He remains one of the few American authors to inspire real affection among readers and nonreaders alike.
But the late nineteenth century was full of stories about schizophrenic characters whose frightening doubles belied their public appearances. Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, Dostoyevsky's underground man, Wells's invisible man are only the best known of many. Sam Clemens's most effective fictional character would be that of Mark Twain, as many of his biographers have noted--Justin Kaplan would even call his popular life of the author Mr: Clemens and Mark Twain. Twain himself (as most of his commentators now refer to him) was fully aware of the disparity between his public image and his private; particularly in his later years he was, in Hamlin Hill's apt words, "a man whose sense of rage at the world in which he lived grew and grew to mammoth proportions ... ."A primary target of Twain's rage, perhaps because he was reachable--unlike the world itself--would be Bret Harte.
Bret Harte's early fame was about to fade even as Twain enviously vowed to overtake him or "bust," though he seemed to be poised for triumph. In 1871 Harte was offered a contract by the Atlantic Monthly for ten thousand dollars--enough money to live well on for two years. The Atlantic Monthly had fallen on hard times, and its energetic new editor, William Dean Howells, thought Harte's popularity would serve to rejuvenate the magazine's sagging circulation numbers. For Harte, who wanted to be a larger frog in a larger pond than was possible in San Francisco, the offer was a career-maker. All he had to do was submit a dozen usable pieces of writing within a year, and the best magazine in the country would print them.
Harte and his family, which now included two boys, seven and five years old, left San Francisco by train in February 1871 for New York. It was a leisurely and pleasant passage, marked by stops in Denver, Chicago, Syracuse, and other cities, where he was interviewed and feted as the celebrated author of the Gold Camp stories and, more recently, "Plain Language from Truthful James." The best part of this long narrative poem, published in the Overland Monthly in September 1870, was "The Heathen Chinee." Intended by Harte as a satire of anti-Chinese phobia in the West, it was misread by most of his audience as a humorous expose of "the yellow peril," and it became a huge popular success. Harte had no illusions about the poem's quality, saying he had composed it in a rush to fill out the issue, and was unhappy with the misperception of his satire. But he was at the peak of his popularity and not inclined to climb down from it. He was, Mark Twain said in March 1871, "the most celebrated man in America today ... the man whose name is on every single tongue from one end of the continent to theother"--and "Plain Language from Truthful James" was what "did it for him." One can almost hear the envy in Twain's voice as he records that Harte "crossed the continent through such a prodigious blaze of national interest and excitement that one might have supposed he was the Viceroy of India." Howells later said Harte's trip was "like the progress of a prince" in the way it prompted "universal attention and interest" in the press.
His reception in Boston was everything that Harte could have wished for. Howells met him at the train station and took him to his home for a week. He dined with the luminaries of the literary set at the Parker House, men whose dignity and reputations were symbolized by their weighty triple names: James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana. Harte had some reason to believe that he had been accepted as a member of this Olympian group. His pedigree, despite his years in the ruffianly West, was good on his mother's side, as she was descended from Revolutionary War heroes and old Knickerbockers. His literary fame, if not his actual accomplishments, led him to think himself the equal of anyone. And, indeed, he was cordially received, at first, by everyone he met--Emerson, with whom Harte spent a day walking around Walden Pond, thought him "an easy, kindly, well-behaved man."
Bernard DeVoto, whose work on Twain remains important, thought Harte had succeeded in winning over the literary establishment, mostly by obsequious flattery, in a way that Twain did not, and that this accounted for some of Twain's distrust of Harte. In DeVoto's words, doors that were "incapable of opening to Mark Twain" did so for Harte, a "schoolteacher and the son of schoolteachers," whose "sympathy, embedded in sweet tales, greatly comforted the nice people." But Gary Scharnhorst, the foremost authority on Harte, plausibly argues that Harte was regarded by Howells as merely an attractive personalityand as a popular writer who could help revive the Atlantic Monthly, not as a writer of genius like Mark Twain. Harte "always remained an outsider" for Howells and for his charmed circle, Scharnhorst says, "a 'salaried contributor' and a 'delightful guest'" but no more.
In any event, Harte had more serious problems than social acceptance. He had been paid handsomely to do a job, and he failed miserably at it. Sadly, for a man who had worked effectively enough at the Mint, Harte had remarkably little sense of how to manage his own money; and for an editor who had lived on deadlines, he lacked self-discipline about his own writing. He frittered away most of the Atlantic Monthly advance in short order, and met his stipulated output for Howells only by churning out wretched hackwork for him. His contract with the Atlantic Monthly was not renewed and his submissions to Howells and other editors were, after grudging acceptance, meeting increased resistance.
Still famous enough to be in demand as a speaker, Harte supported himself for several years by making public appearances, reading from his own works, though often with little effort to speak clearly or emphatically; in St. Louis the local paper wrote him up as a boring dandy who, "in full dress costume with spotless linen and diamond studs," spoke with such "gentle and elegant languor" that half the audience couldn't hear him. That was when he showed up--he had a reputation for canceling engagements with little or no explanation. The content of his talks was also frequently disappointing; Harte's lecture on American humor, which should have been a natural for him, "wasn't worth listening to," according to one critic, no more than "a careless piece of hack-work, gotten up simply to be advertised on the bills."
Famous too early, Harte was living on the diminishing capital of his earlier reputation. He continued to be careless with his own money and borrowed freely from friends in anticipation offuture advances on his writing. Even when he came into some money, he rarely paid it back. He became notorious as a deadbeat. One friend, putting the matter as generously as possible, said Harte was "utterly destitute of what is sometimes called 'the money sense'" and consequently "was continually involved in troubles that he might have escaped with a little more financial shrewdness." His enemies accused him of worse. On December 15, 1872, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article by W. A. Kendall, a poet who had contributed to the Californian and the Overland Monthly when Harte was editor of those magazines, claiming that Harte was a "loose and not infrequent borrower of sums" of money, "and then a cool ignorer of the gracious loaners." He had also been known for skimming from money supposed to be sent to contributors. For what purpose are "the whips of justice braided," Kendall cried, other than to punish such "nefarious pilferers"? Harte complained about the attack to Twain--"I don't mind his slander; that I can refute--but how am I to make this dog know he is a dog and not a man?"
Mark Twain listened to Harte's complaints--Kendall's charges were never proved--and tried to help him out, both with advice and with money. He could afford to be generous. Not only was his own writing career beginning to flourish, but he had married money in 1870: Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist from upstate New York, brought an annual income of some six thousand dollars as a dowry. In 1874, he built a house in Hartford on five acres of land that cost him more than one hundred thousand dollars, plus another twenty-one thousand for furniture, a staggering investment worth several million of today's dollars. The third floor of the mansion included Twain's combination study and billiard room.
Like many who become wealthy after growing up in humble or moderate circumstances, Twain was touchy about his new status as propertied gentleman. Harte was a frequent guest inthe Hartford mansion. He teased Twain and Livy about their bourgeois tastes and their conspicuous consumption, not once but several times. Twain, who would make his reputation satirizing middle-class taste and morals, could not abide a joke at his own expense. Thirty years later he was still fuming over Harte's "smartly and wittily sarcastic" remarks about his house and his treasured wife.
But Twain cannot have been too aggrieved at the time about Harte's perceived bad manners, for in 1876 he agreed to work with Harte on a play called Ah Sin, about a Chinese laundryman and gambler. Neither Harte nor Twain had any gift for writing drama (though Twain was an extraordinary performer on stage), but the nineteenth-century American stage was what television and movies are today in terms of popular entertainment. There was big money for those who could satisfy popular taste for sentimental, melodramatic, and farcical fluff, and good writers like Twain and Harte were more than willing to reach for the golden ring, the money and the popularity that successful stage versions of their work might bring them.
Harte's immense success with "Plain Language from Truthful James" had already led him to attempt a comic melodrama, drawing from the same well of material, Chinese immigrants, which he called Two Men of Sandy Bar. The play premiered on Broadway in August 1876, to "some of the most hostile opening-night reviews in the history of American theater," in Scharnhorst's words. The kindest word it earned was "nondescript"; others included "worthless," "outrage," "garbage," "disgust [ing]," and "piti[ful]." It was, said the critic for the New York Herald, "an absolute outrage upon the critical reputation of the country." Harte was clearly milking his reputation--"we have never known so celebrated a writer to produce such a worthless work."
Mark Twain, however, liked Harte's play, especially the minor character of Hop Sing as played by the gifted comedianJames Parsloe. Harte responded to Twain's praise by suggesting, late in 1876, that the two of them work together on a new play built around Parsloe's Hop Sing performance. Parsloe as the star would participate with the authors in a three-way split of the proceeds. The method of the collaboration, not to mention Harte's earlier problems with putting together a play, suggests the problems to come. "Harte came down to Hartford and we talked [it] over," Twain later wrote, "and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect." Harte was drinking a good deal at the time--two bottles of whiskey in one December evening--and his usually dapper, if not dandified, attire had degenerated; his "ancient gray suit" was so shabby, Twain said, "that the bottoms of his trousers were frazzled to a fringe" and "his shoes were similarly out of repair and were sodden with snow-slush and mud."
Not surprisingly, the script that emerged from these desultory efforts in February 1877 satisfied neither man, and they couldn't agree on what was needed to fix it. More seriously, Harte was continuing to drink and complaining about being broke. He blamed Twain, as he would write later, for recommending to him a publisher, Elisha Bliss, who had mishandled his novel, Gabriel Conroy, and cost him thousands of dollars. Twain's problems with his own writing at the time, particularly difficulties in getting his interrupted manuscript of Huckleberry Finn back on track, made him more irritable than usual. ( "A Murder, a Mystery, a Marriage," a recently discovered story written by Twain at this time, provides vivid proof of how advanced his misanthropy was already becoming.) Both men, then, were touchy and frustrated with each other, with their own work, and with their combined effort to write a play.
Twain's solution to Harte's problems and Harte's response are equally surprising. Marilyn Duckett, in her comprehensive book about their relationship, dates the estrangement of the twomen from Harte's letter of March 1, 1877, to Twain. It's a response to a Twain letter (which has not survived) to Harte, in which Twain apparently declined to lend Harte any more money, but offered to hire him to begin work on yet another play with him, and to pay him twenty-five dollars a week.
Twain no doubt viewed this as a generous offer, but Harte was outraged. Duckett suggests that a short story he wrote two years later about a "gentle, trustful man" who is betrayed explains Harte's feelings at this time: Take such a man and "abuse him, show him the folly of his gentleness and kindness, prove to him that it is weakness, drive him into a corner, and you have a savage." Harte's response to Twain's offer of a salary is, if not savage, stern enough: Twain was "speculating on my poverty." Moreover, Harte said, because of Twain's role in the losses he had suffered at the hands of Elisha Bliss, he no longer felt any need to repay the $750 that he had borrowed from him. He concluded that he would manage to "struggle along" by himself--"and not write any more plays with you."
Twain responded to Harte's letter with predictable fury, tossing it aside, he claimed, after reading only "two pages of this ineffable idiotcy." The following week Harte passed Parsloe in the street and asked him how the rehearsals for Ah Sin were progressing. Parsloe snubbed the co-author, saying that if there was anything he needed to know, he'd tell him. Harte's face turned red with anger, Parsloe then wrote to Twain, complaining about his "annoyance with Harte." On May 7, Harte was present at the Washington premiere of Ah Sin, and was encouraged by the reception; Twain was absent, owing, he said, to bronchitis. On May 16, Harte sent a telegram to Twain, asking for his share of the box office receipts, "if any." There were no receipts. This would be the last direct communication between the two men.
Parsloe and Twain continued to tinker with the play, freezing Harte out entirely. By the time Ah Sin opened on Broadwayon July 31 it was mostly Mark Twain's work, for good or ill. The reviewers' reactions were generally less harsh than they had been for Harte's first play, although one thought that "few plays of the American stamp can be mentioned whose literary execution is so bad, whose construction is so ramshackly, and whose texture is so barren of true wit." It survived long enough to go on a road trip until early November, but Twain confessed to Howells that the whole thing was "a most abject & incurable failure." It closed in Pittsburgh, "not with a bang but a whimper," as Scharnhorst says, as did the friendship of its co-authors.
By 1878 Harte was "floating on the raft made of the shipwreck of his former reputation," as a Boston newspaper put it. He had sunk to writing advertisements for soap--including a parody of Longellow's poem "Excelsior." But he still had influential friends, some of whom a year earlier had nearly persuaded the new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, to send Harte to the diplomatic mission in China. When Twain learned of this possibility, he wrote to William Dean Howells, who was related through his wife's family to the new president, urging him to tell Hayes that Harte would disgrace the nation if he were dispatched abroad. "Wherever he goes his wake is tumultuous with swindled grocers, & with defrauded innocents who have loaned him money ... . He can lie faster than he can drivel pathos ... . He is always steeped in whisky & brandy ... . No man who has ever known him respects him ... . You know that I have befriended this creature for seven years. I am even capable of doing it still--while he stays at home. But I don't want to see him sent to foreign parts to carry on his depredations." Twain's letter reached the president, either from Howells or from his wife. Hayes soon let Howells know that there was "no danger" of Harte's appointment to the China post.
Harte's other friends kept up the pressure on Hayes. OnApril 5, 1878, Hayes wrote to Howells in the context of offering Harte a posting to Germany. He wanted to know if the "sinister things" that Twain said about Harte were true. Howells, perhaps feeling some compunction about his part in wrecking Harte's earlier appointment, told Hayes that while Harte was admittedly notorious for borrowing and drinking, he "never borrowed of me, nor drank more than I (in my presence)." Harte was in bad shape, Howells said, but "I hear he is really making an effort to reform."
As a result of--or perhaps despite--this less-than-ringing endorsement, Harte won an appointment as "commercial agent" in Krefeld, Germany, a small city near Dusseldorf. Such appointments were common rewards for well-connected writers in those days before academic sinecures--Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Howells himself had received them. Harte's post would pay him three thousand dollars a year--barely half of what Livy Twain received in dividends. It was not enough for Harte to bring his wife and children (now numbering four) with him to Germany, but his relations with his wife were sufficiently strained that this drawback does not seem to have troubled him greatly. He left for his new post on June 28, 1878; he would not see his wife for more than twenty years, and he would never return to the United States.
On June 27, one day before Harte sailed, Mark Twain wrote a letter to Howells protesting the appointment, of which he had just learned. Twain was himself then in Germany, in Heidelberg, having left the country in some embarrassment a few months earlier, after making a fool of himself at a dinner in Boston in December 1877, celebrating the seventieth birthday of the great and venerable poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Most of the great American men of letters of the century were there when Twain delivered his misguided burlesque of Holmes as a tub of lard, of Lowell as a prizefighter, and of Emerson as a card shark. No one laughed, or even smiled, as Twain struggled tothe end of his address, with Howells tugging at his coattails, whispering to him to sit down and shut up--he had spread something like a "black frost" around the room, Twain ruefully admitted later. But it was no joking matter, and hardly an exaggeration to say that he had literally fled the country to escape his humiliation.
Having removed himself from the arena, Twain protested to Howells but to no avail. He repeated his earlier charges, with added brio: Harte was "a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward ... brim full of treachery, and he conceals his Jewish identity as carefully as if he considered it a disgrace ... to send this nasty creature to puke upon the American name in a foreign land is too much ... . Tell me what German town he is to filthify with his presence; then I will write the authorities there that he is a persistent borrower who never pays." Twain wanted Howells to use his influence with Hayes to have the appointment rescinded. He even wrote a letter to Hayes himself to protest the appointment.
It was too late, of course, for Twain to have any effect on the appointment. Howells, a man of considerable good sense and great talent, would later become known as "the dean of American letters." Like a good dean, he knew how to handle his squabbling faculty. He liked Harte, having found him "quite unspoiled by his great popularity" and a "thoroughly charming good-hearted fellow," though not without his faults. But he admired Twain, and wanted above all to keep the friendship of his great but irascible friend. He asked Hayes to return his letter recommending Harte, lest Twain find out about it.
Mark Twain recovered from his Whittier embarrassment and returned home two years later. He marched on from one triumph to the next, both literary and economic. In 1882 alone his expenditures came to more than $100,000--among other necessities, he acquired a direct Western Union line to his house in Hartford. His wife's large inheritance, his own bestsellingbooks, and his speculations in the stock market all combined to make him the wealthiest working writer in the country by the time he was fifty.
Bret Harte turned fifty in 1886, a year later than Twain. He had just lost his latest government appointment as consul in Glasgow, owing, he said, to a change in administrations. In fact, as Twain might have anticipated, he had been fired from his post--not for bad debts or drunkenness, but for inattention to duty, a pattern that he had established with his first posting in Germany. His subordinate in Scotland told a visiting State Department officer truthfully that "Harte is never here. He lives in London and devotes himself to literature."
The literature to which Harte was supposedly devoting himself was self-described hackwork, none of it up to the level of his California period. But it found an audience in English and American magazines, earning Harte enough to live on and, occasionally, to send some money to Anna and their four children. He persistently discouraged any of his family from visiting him in Europe, pleading poverty. For many years he lived, in what may be called ambiguous circumstances, with a Belgian diplomat in England, Arthur Van de Velde, and his wife, Hydeline de Seigneaux, a relationship filled with Jamesian reverberations and one that caused Twain, after Van de Velde's death and Harte's continued presence in his widow's house, to charge that Harte had been the widow's "kept" man.
Mark Twain became ever more famous in his later years, even as Harte faded from the minds of American readers, but Twain never forgot his old enemy. He was particularly annoyed that Harte had twice given the toast, "To Literature," at Royal Academy Dinners and that he had been invited to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge--all this many years before Twain would receive, in 1907, his own cherished honorary degree at Oxford.
Consequently, Twain kept up a running commentarythrough Harte's last years on his work and his character, revealing much about his own in the process. Twain's reference cited earlier to Harte trying to conceal his "Jewishness" is instructive. Harte's grandfather, who had left his wife when their son, Bret's father, was a year old, was a Jewish banker in New York; Harte did not conceal his Jewish ancestry from his immediate family, but in 1889 he resorted to fibbing to Havelock Ellis that "his father and his immediate ancestors were as distinctly English in origin" as his mother was Dutch. Harte never considered himself Jewish, and considering the widespread anti-Semitism of his time, as reflected by Twain's own comment, it is easy to see why he would not have advertised his grandfather's religion.
Twain also suggested that Harte was homosexual: he was "distinctly pretty, in spite of the fact that his face was badly pitted with smallpox"; his "dainty self-complacencies" were reflected in his walk, which was "of the mincing sort." A European scholar, Axel Nissen, follows this line of argument in his recent study Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper, though Gary Scharnhorst correctly, in my estimation, regards the book as "thesis ridden, its analysis marred by its search for evidence of homoeroticism in Harte's life and writings." True or not, at that time the charge alone would have been harmful to Harte's reputation.
As for his work, Twain wrote to Howells that whatever Harte wrote that was good was stolen: "I don't believe Harte ever had an idea that he came by honestly. He is the most abandoned thief that defiles the earth." Whatever of his work wasn't stolen was bad: Harte's characters typically talk "like a Bowery gutter-snipe on one page and like a courtier of Louis XV's on the very next one." On Harte's appeals to the sentimental, Twain says, "The struggle after the pathetic is more pathetic than the pathos itself; if he were to write about an Orphan Princess who lost a Peanut he would feel obliged to try to make somebody snuffle over it." Harte was not even a good literarycraftsman, but "the worst literary shoe-maker I know. He is as blind as a bat. He never sees anything correctly, except Californian scenery. He is as slovenly as Thackeray, and as dull as Charles Lamb."
Harte's painful and stoically endured death from throat cancer in 1902 did not mollify Twain. "Oh, yes," he responded to a reporter who asked him for a comment on Harte and their friendship: "Say I knew the son of a bitch." He softened slightly a few years later, describing, in a touching and evocative passage, how he had been rereading "The Luck of Roaring Camp." He thought back on Bret Harte's subsequent triumphant "progress across the applauding continent, young & dapper & brown-haired," and how he was now dead, laid to rest, "white-headed & half-forgotten, in an alien land." Twain had a vision in his mind's eye of having seen Harte born, he said. And then "I saw him flit across the intervening day, as it were, & when night closed down again I saw him buried."
But Mark Twain was not yet through with Bret Harte. In 1906, four years before he died, Twain dictated his reminiscences on a variety of topics to a secretary; they were edited by Bernard DeVoto in 1940 and published under the title Mark Twain in Eruption. Although Harte was already nearly forgotten by 1906 and Twain was regarded as the grand old man of American letters, it may be that Twain was still concerned that the public persisted in linking them together; a 1923 American literature textbook suggests as much in its reference to Twain as a practitioner of a type of "gigantic exaggeration and calm-faced mendacity," following in the tradition of Bret Harte and "coached" by William Dean Howells.
Certainly Twain's comments seem like an effort to fix the final seal on the tomb of his rival's reputation. Harte was, Twain said, like the character in The Man Without a Country, albeit "in a mild and colorless way," because he lived abroad for so long. "No, not man--man is too strong a term; he was an invertebratewithout a country. He hadn't any more passion for his country than an oyster has for its bed; in fact not so much and I apologize to the oyster."
It is true that Twain's final words on Harte need to be taken within the context of their time in his life. Within the past fifteen years, he had seen his fortune wiped out by imprudent investments, particularly one in a typesetting machine. A publishing venture that he had floated in order to help Ulysses S. Grant write his memoirs put him so deeply in debt, even though Grant's book was a success, that he had to spend years on the lecture circuit raising money to pay back his creditors. This he did, to the last dime, rather than take the easy but dishonorable way out by declaring bankruptcy. All this time Harte continued to rack up unpaid debts, reports of which Twain saw frequently in the newspapers. And even while Harte lived as a kept man in England and France, ignoring his wife and four children for years, Twain suffered repeated crushing losses in his family: His favorite daughter died of meningitis; another developed epilepsy ; and his beloved wife, Livy, declined into invalidism before she finally died in 1904.
Quite independent of his disgust with Bret Harte, Twain was also deeply disillusioned with his country--the "United States of Lyncherdom"--and its course of empire, regarding the Spanish-American War of 1898 as a criminal enterprise. In his last years, Twain lost whatever respect he had once had for "the damned human race" to his growing conviction that "our Heavenly Father invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey." The most attractive being he could conjure up in his fiction was Satan, in The Mysterious Stranger, now a charmingly malevolent young man who creates and crushes human beings with equal indifference.
Bret Harte and his failings are small potatoes next to the flaws of the country, human nature, and less-than-divine providence. One wonders why the poor man remained so much onTwain's mind. Insofar as there ever was a contest between the two writers, the winner had long been obvious. Harte's miningcamp stories can still be read with pleasure, and he is important enough in American literary history to have prompted two full-length studies in 2000 of his life and work. But Twain's literary critique of Harte's work was, while exaggerated, not wildly off target. Harte's talent was as slender as his will to succeed, and his character was deeply flawed.
Whatever his flaws, Harte never retracted his judgment of Twain's genius, which would have been foolish. More significantly, he never responded in kind to Twain's attacks on his character. It might be argued that Harte was too morally corrupt to care if his character was attacked. More charitably, we may choose to believe that he thought, as he told his daughter in later years, that Mark Twain was a sick man.
But it would be nice, even if sentimental, to think that Harte declined to respond in kind to Twain's attacks because they had once been friends--and because he was still the romantic idealist who wrote "Tennessee's Partner," and who continued to believe what he had said when their friendship first began to fray in 1877: "To be a man's 'partner,'" Harte told Twain, signified "something more than a common pecuniary or business interest; it was to be his friend through good or ill report, in adversity or fortune."
LITERARY FEUDS. Copyright © 2002 by Anthony Arthur. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.