Samuel Clemens, the writer known as Mark Twain, died one hundred years ago this coming Wednesday, April 21. He had famously predicted that he had arrived with Halley's comet in 1835 and would depart with it in 1910 -- but when his time came, it was more like a long-delayed departure with a lover.
"With all his brilliant prosperities he had become a lonely, weary-hearted man, and the thought of his departure hence was not unwelcome to him," his ministerial friend Joe Twichell reported when the sad news came from Redding, Conn. Clemens himself had written: "Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world."
Death had been a brutal lover. In 1896 it took Clemens' 24-year-old daughter Susy. He called this "her great reward," to die before she "had crossed the tropic frontier of dreams and entered the Sahara of fact." When death took his wife, Livy, in 1904, he burst out: "Why am I required to linger here?" At the very close of his life death took another daughter, Jean. That time, he told his biographer: "I always envy the dead."
How do you "celebrate" the centennial of this weary-hearted elopement?
First you've got to get your terms straight, and at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Conn., where I work, there was a brief period when we used the term "passing" to describe what happened on that spring afternoon in 1910.
Clemens was a writer who believed that "the difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." Was it a death or a passing?
"Passing" to me had resonances of kidney stones. We polled the staff for advice on what the right word might be. We relied particularly on the corps of Mark Twain House guides, possibly the most eloquent and knowledgeable group of people on Earth when it comes to the life and works of Samuel Clemens.
The emails flooded back. "Death, definitely." "He wouldn't have tolerated a euphemism on this occasion, never said reports of his passing were exaggerated... Pass on passing." " I don't like when people say passing. It always sounds like they are trying to avoid facing the fact that someone has died."
Executive Director Jeff Nichols wrapped up the verdict: "'Death' reigns supreme."
So death it would be. The death that Samuel L. Clemens longed for. The term settled, how to "celebrate" it?
One guide, Pat Weibust, provided a thoughtful suggestion: "My daughter asked me why we're celebrating his death, which is a good question, but in pondering, it occurred to me that a celebration of someone's life is often the focus at a funeral ...But a little voice also whispered in my ear that the many attributes I love about MT are his irreverence, wry humor and pithy strokes and I hope that these can figure into this whole scenario."
So on April 21 at The Mark Twain House & Museum, we are marking the writer's departure with the combination of carny hucksterism, entertainment and education for which we are becoming noted here in Hartford, which Clemens, who lived here for two decades, called "the honestest city in the world."
We're holding a séance with Todd Robbins, a noted New York magician who has deconstructed and can reproduce all the table-knocking trickery of Gilded Age mediums. (Clemens both excoriated and participated in séances.) We have the Food Network's Ace of Cakes people bringing in a tremendous Mark Twain House cake. (We have it on good authority that he liked cake - in fact, our research library has the receipts.)
In the other great places associated with Mark Twain there are other events: A "wake" in Redding, the site of his final home, with eulogies and jazz. A burial - of a time capsule, that is - in Hannibal, Mo., where the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum is located. And mourners in period costume will ride in black-draped horse-drawn carriages to a graveside service reenactment in Elmira, N.Y., organized by the Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery of Elmira. ("You may wish to join in the spirit of historic reenactment by wearing black or very dark attire and carrying a black umbrella.")
Mark Twain coin and stamp proposals wend through Congress, and Mark Twain Tweets fly though the ether as fast as Clemens' Captain Stormfield, who rode a comet to Heaven at warp speed. Go ahead, call it a circus.
"It was a really bully circus," Huck says in the book that started off modern American literature. "It was the splendidest sight that ever was when they came all riding in, two and two, and gentleman and lady, side by side, the men just in their drawers and undershirts, and no shoes and stirrups and resting their hands on their thighs easy and comfortable - there must 'a' been twenty of them - and every lady with a lovely complexion, and perfectly beautiful, and looking just like a gang of real sure-enough queens, and dressed in cloths that cost millions of dollars, and just littered with diamonds."
A century later, as we shed a tear for a weary-hearted man's elopement with death, we're lucky to be able to point to passages like that, and thousands more, that will keep Mark Twain -- this consummate performer, this sharp observer and precise recorder of the American scene -- under the Big Top for centuries more.
Steve Courtney is Publications Editor at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Conn., and author of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain's Closest Friend (University of Georgia Press, 2008), winner of the 2009 Connecticut Book Award for Biography/Memoir.
Information on Centennial events described can be found at The Mark Twain House & Museum website; The Mark Twain Library, Redding, Conn. website; The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum website; and at The Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery of Elmira website.
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