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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 2: 1907 - 1910|
CCLXXVII. Mark Twain's Reading
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Perhaps here one may speak of Mark Twain's reading in general. On the
table by him, and on his bed, and in the billiard-room shelves he kept
the books he read most. They were not many--not more than a dozen--but
they were manifestly of familiar and frequent usage. All, or nearly all,
had annotations--spontaneously uttered marginal notes, title prefatories,
or concluding comments. They were the books he had read again and again,
and it was seldom that he had not had something to say with each fresh
There were the three big volumes by Saint-Simon--'The Memoirs'--which he
once told me he had read no less than twenty times. On the fly-leaf of
the first volume he wrote
This, & Casanova & Pepys, set in parallel columns, could afford a good
coup d'oeil of French & English high life of that epoch.
All through those finely printed volumes are his commentaries, sometimes
no more than a word, sometimes a filled, closely written margin. He
found little to admire in the human nature of Saint-Simon's period--
little to approve in Saint-Simon himself beyond his unrestrained
frankness, which he admired without stint, and in one paragraph where the
details of that early period are set down with startling fidelity he
wrote: "Oh, incomparable Saint-Simon!"
Saint-Simon is always frank, and Mark Twain was equally so. Where the
former tells one of the unspeakable compulsions of Louis XIV., the latter
We have to grant that God made this royal hog; we may also be permitted
to believe that it was a crime to do so.
And on another page:
In her memories of this period the Duchesse de St. Clair makes this
striking remark: "Sometimes one could tell a gentleman, but it was only
by his manner of using his fork."
His comments on the orthodox religion of Saint-Simon's period are not
marked by gentleness. Of the author's reference to the Edict of Nantes,
which he says depopulated half of the realm, ruined its commerce, and
"authorized torments and punishments by which so many innocent people of
both sexes were killed by thousands," Clemens writes:
So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the
Gospel: "Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor's religion is."
Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed
for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to
add that new law to its code.
In the place where Saint-Simon describes the death of Monseigneur, son of
the king, and the court hypocrites are wailing their extravagantly
pretended sorrow, Clemens wrote:
It is all so true, all so human. God made these animals. He must have
noticed this scene; I wish I knew how it struck Him.
There were not many notes in the Suetonius, nor in the Carlyle
Revolution, though these were among the volumes he read oftenest.
Perhaps they expressed for him too completely and too richly their
subject-matter to require anything at his hand. Here and there are
marked passages and occasional cross-references to related history and
There was not much room for comment on the narrow margins of the old copy
of Pepys, which he had read steadily since the early seventies; but here
and there a few crisp words, and the underscoring and marked passages are
plentiful enough to convey his devotion to that quaint record which,
perhaps next to Suetonius, was the book he read and quoted most.
Francis Parkman's Canadian Histories he had read periodically, especially
the story of the Old Regime and of the Jesuits in North America. As late
as January, 1908, he wrote on the title-page of the Old Regime:
Very interesting. It tells how people religiously and otherwise insane
came over from France and colonized Canada.
He was not always complimentary to those who undertook to Christianize
the Indians; but he did not fail to write his admiration of their
courage--their very willingness to endure privation and even the fiendish
savage tortures for the sake of their faith. "What manner of men are
these?" he wrote, apropos of the account of Bressani, who had undergone
the most devilish inflictions which savage ingenuity could devise, and
yet returned maimed and disfigured the following spring to "dare again
the knives and fiery brand of the Iroquois." Clemens was likely to be on
the side of the Indians, but hardly in their barbarism. In one place he
That men should be willing to leave their happy homes and endure
what the missionaries endured in order to teach these Indians the
road to hell would be rational, understandable, but why they should
want to teach them a way to heaven is a thing which the mind somehow
Other histories, mainly English and French, showed how he had read them--
read and digested every word and line. There were two volumes of Lecky,
much worn; Andrew D. White's 'Science and Theology'--a chief interest for
at least one summer--and among the collection a well-worn copy of 'Modern
English Literature--Its Blemishes and Defects', by Henry H. Breen. On
the title-page of this book Clemens had written:
HARTFORD, 1876. Use with care, for it is a scarce book. England
had to be ransacked in order to get it--or the bookseller speaketh
He once wrote a paper for the Saturday Morning Club, using for his text
examples of slipshod English which Breen had noted.
Clemens had a passion for biography, and especially for autobiography,
diaries, letters, and such intimate human history. Greville's 'Journal
of the Reigns of George IV. and William IV.' he had read much and
annotated freely. Greville, while he admired Byron's talents, abhorred
the poet's personality, and in one place condemns him as a vicious person
and a debauchee. He adds:
Then he despises pretenders and charlatans of all sorts, while he is
himself a pretender, as all men are who assume a character which does not
belong to them and affect to be something which they are all the time
conscious they are not in reality.
Clemens wrote on the margin:
But, dear sir, you are forgetting that what a man sees in the human
race is merely himself in the deep and honest privacy of his own
heart. Byron despised the race because he despised himself. I feel
as Byron did, and for the same reason. Do you admire the race (&
A little further along--where Greville laments that Byron can take no
profit to himself from the sinful characters he depicts so faithfully,
If Byron--if any man--draws 50 characters, they are all himself--50
shades, 50 moods, of his own character. And when the man draws them
well why do they stir my admiration? Because they are me--I
A volume of Plutarch was among the biographies that showed usage, and the
Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself. Two Years Before the Mast he
loved, and never tired of. The more recent Memoirs of Andrew D. White
and Moncure D. Conway both, I remember, gave him enjoyment, as did the
Letters of Lowell. A volume of the Letters of Madame de Sevigne had some
annotated margins which were not complimentary to the translator, or for
that matter to Sevigne herself, whom he once designates as a "nauseating"
person, many of whose letters had been uselessly translated, as well as
poorly arranged for reading. But he would read any volume of letters or
personal memoirs; none were too poor that had the throb of life in them,
Of such sort were the books that Mark Twain had loved best, and such were
a few of his words concerning them. Some of them belong to his earlier
reading, and among these is Darwin's 'Descent of Man', a book whose
influence was always present, though I believe he did not read it any
more in later years. In the days I knew him he read steadily not much
besides Suetonius and Pepys and Carlyle. These and his simple
astronomies and geologies and the Morte Arthure and the poems of Kipling
were seldom far from his hand.