Over the past couple of weeks the green shoots of Spring have begun to appear outside. Snowdrops, Daffodils and Croci have coloured the dull earth, whilst on trees and shrubs tiny little buds are beginning to appear promising the great explosion of life that is now just a few weeks away.
In my world there are similar signs of renewal as I am starting to work on two projects in conjunction with the Charles Dickens Museum in London, as well as tentatively putting dates in place for my formerly-annual tour of A Christmas Carol. The events for the museum. whilst being online and not performed to a live audience, do at least give me the opportunity to spread my performing wings which are currently rather tightly packed away and in need of excercise!
The first project is based on A Child’s Journey with Dickens, the little story of Charles Dickens’s chance encounter with an eleven year old girl whilst he rode on a train from Portland, Maine, to Boston. The memoir was written by Kate Douglas Wiggin who in adulthood recounted her experience to a branch of the Dickens Fellowship in New York. It is a piece that I have performed on many occasions but this year I had the idea of developing the script to utilise another actor to playing the role of Kate and to perform it as near to the anniversary of the actual event as possible.
As part of Charles’ birthday celebrations in February I was asked to judge a Dickens reading competition and one of the winners was Jennifer Emerson who is based in Massachusetts and a talented actor and storyteller in her own right. I knew that Jennifer would be the perfect person to take on the role of Kate.
In preparing our script I needed to introduce a lot of background material (the little memoir being only short) and I decided to use Dickens’s own letters from his 1867-68 American reading tour as well as some other background material to flesh out the story. One little gem that I was keen to introduce into the script is Mark Twain’s newspaper review of one of Dickens’s first readings in New York City, and it has to be said it wasn’t a particularly positive article: ‘Dickens is a bad reader…..’ ‘Mr. Dickens’ reading is rather monotonous’, ‘his rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads it himself.’ and more. I was anxious to find someone who could record Twain’s voice for the performance so that my woeful attempts at his accent wouldn’t be exposed, and emailed Ohio based actor Mark Dawidziak asking for his assistance. Mark performs and lectures about Twain and is highly regarded as an expert in his field and I was delighted when he responded to my request for assistance in the positive. Not only did Mark agree to provide the voiceover but also furnished me with plenty of information about Twain’s possible motivation for his vicious review. He sent me the text of a paper that he had written entitled ‘Mark Twain and Charles Dickens: Separated at Birth?’ which was fascinating and which I thought you may like to read. So, with Mark’s permission, I am happy to republish that paper in the form of a ‘Guest Blog’:
Charles Dickens and Mark Twain: Separated at Birth?
By Mark Dawidziak
Public speakers often are advised to open with a joke. There is wisdom here, I believe, and keeping that time-honored guidance in mind, let me share with you a joke of my own devising that I once played on a group of my Twain friends. It was like this: We were sitting around, talking about our mutual affection for Twain, when I broke out with the following, “Let me give you a list of reasons why my favorite writer is my favorite writer.” And off I went, offering up item after item, my friends humoring me at first, then wondering why I was belaboring them with the obvious. They were, of course, abundantly familiar with every detail I was piling on – as it applied to Mark Twain. And there was no doubt in their minds that I was describing Mark Twain. I could see them wondering how long this was going to go on. When I felt that their patience had about worn out and that the strain had reached the breaking point, I trotted out the snapper: “Now that we’re through with Charles Dickens, let me tell you a thing or two about Mark Twain.”
The surprise on their faces was delightful. All right, I cheated a little. I failed to mention in the setup that I had two favorite writers. But a little fudging aside, the joke had made its point. These Twainiacs, as Twain scholars like to call themselves, had no idea that the two writers had so much in common. And, indeed, it has been my experience that Dickensians have little sense of the sheer number of remarkable personal and professional parallels between Twain and Dickens.
Remember in the 1960s when we started seeing those lists of strange-but-true connections between the assassinated presidents, Lincoln and Kennedy? Well, a similar Dickens-Twain list makes the Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences seem pale and paltry in comparison. I wish to say I was the first to noticed these amazing similarities, but I think they were first noticed by a wonderful scholar named Edward Wagenknecht, who wrote brilliantly on not only Twain and Dickens, but Poe, as well.
The first substantial entry on the subject was made by Twain scholar Howard G. Baetzhold in his 1970 book, Mark Twain & John Bull: The British Connection. But Baetzhold, as insightful as he was, didn’t realize how deep the similarities ran. Since 1970, the points of comparison have been mentioned only in passing by Twain scholars and not at all by Dickens biographers.
Are the similarities really so striking? Well, in truth, some of the parallels are not as amazing as they might seem at first blush. For instance, it’s undeniably true that each was fascinated with look-alikes and twins, using them for characters and plot twists in key books: Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby; Twain in Pudd’nhead Wilson. And each wrote a historical novel with look-alikes at the center: Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities; Twain in The Prince and the Pauper. Intriguing? To be sure, but it also can be said that Shakespeare was fascinated by lookalikes and twins.
And speaking of Shakespeare, both Twain and Dickens were fascinated by the debate over Shakespeare’s identity. Ah-ha! Another amazing coincidence? Maybe, but then again, it would have been more remarkable if writers of their stature hadn’t been interested in the Shakespeare discussion. The point is, it’s only natural that there would be some similarities between two male writers plying their trade in the same century.
The similarities between Twain and Dickens, though, go beyond those we might deem logical and obvious. So I’m going to try to avoid this becoming the literary equivalent of a parlor trick. And I don’t want this to get tedious, but, starting with childhood, let’s run through just some of the dozens upon dozens of items that link these two literary giants.
Each had a father named John who by any definition of the term was a bad businessman. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Mark Twain, Justin Kaplan describes John Marshall Clemens in terms that certainly could apply to John Dickens: “He was a chronic business failure. . . and his wife and his children were accustomed to being poor.” John Clemens or John Dickens?
Each had little formal education, learning by experience and working as a journalist covering legislative bodies before making it as an author.
Each was jilted by a sweetheart, later making the woman who dumped him the model for a character. For Dickens, this was Maria Beadnell. For Twain, this was Laura Wright (although, as Baetzhold points out in his book, the psychological and emotional scar left on Dickens was far more profound).
Each started out primarily known to his nation as a humorist, trying increasingly more serious work that grew darker and darker.
Each first was widely known to the public by a pen name: Charles Dickens as Boz; Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain.
Each’s first book was a collection of sketches, followed by a phenomenally successful second book that established him as literary superstar: for Dickens, it was, of course, Sketches by Boz followed by The Pickwick Papers; for Twain, it was The Jumping Frog followed by The Innocents Abroad.
From these runaway successes, each became his country’s dominant family author during the 19th century, but also was popular across the Atlantic (Twain in England, Dickens in America).
Each created two boy heroes whose names were the titles of beloved books: Twain with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; Dickens with Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
Each drew strongly on autobiography for major novels about their childhood experiences: Dickens in David Copperfield; Twain in Tom Sawyer.
Each, in addition to being a best-selling author, was a wildly popular platform performer (each managed by George Dolby at different times). This one bears a little special attention. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that a great writer is almost psychologically incapable of also being a great performer. The exceptions are so rare, in fact, they span centuries: Homer, Moliere, and, yes, Dickens and Twain. Professional actress Elizabeth Yates once was so carried away by Dickens’ acting, she yelled at him, “O Mr. Dickens what a pity it is you can do anything else.” Compare that compliment with the verdict handed down by no less than Henry Irving, “You made a mistake by not adopting the stage as a profession. You would have made even a greater actor than writer.” He said this, of course, to Mark Twain.
Each had a brother who repeatedly failed at one calling after another, causing no end of annoyance and constantly asking for loans. For Twain, this was Orion (pronounced by the family Or-ree-on). For Dickens it was, well, take your pick, but probably best to settle on Frederick.
Each had a musical older sister idealized as characters in books. For Twain, this was his sister Pamela (pronounced Pah-meel-yuh), the direct model for Tom’s kindly cousin, Mary, in Tom Sawyer. For Dickens, this was his sister Fanny, the model for Florence Dombey in Dombey and Son, and at least partly the inspiration for Kate Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby and Scrooge’s sister, Fan, in A Christmas Carol.
Each had a child who died in infancy and, during his lifetime, one who died in early adulthood.
Each had a strong-willed daughter who outlived him and left behind memoirs of life with a great author. Each of these daughters had artistic aspirations and married someone in the arts. Dickens’ daughter, Kate, became a painter of children’s portraits and married artist Charles Edward Perugini. Twain’s daughter, Clara, tried a singing career and married pianist-conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch. Each drew on a relative to create an ever-optimistic, high-talking windbag character destined to become one of his most popular creations, and, yes, Twain’s Col. Sellers (The Gilded Age) could be a first cousin of Dickens’ Mr. Micawber (David Copperfield).
Each wrote novels with lampoons of politicians, wild political plots and an American land scheme (Twain in The Gilded Age, Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit).
Each was subject to fits of depression, towering rages and giddy exuberance.
Each was somewhat nervous in disposition, unable to sit still for long stretches and frequently pacing while others talked (see Paine, page 574). Each loved to take long walks.
Each was fascinated by Carlye’s history of the French Revolution, naming it was one of his favorite books.
Each dressed to catch attention in public: Twain in white suits, Dickens in gaudy vests.
Each was narrow-shouldered, of slight of build and on the short side. Twain was 5-foot, 8½ inches tall. Dickens was 5-foot, 5 inches.
Each was cheered in the other’s country, then wrote a book that momentarily raised ire in the other’s homeland: for Dickens, it was American Notes, for Twain, it was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But each made a triumphant return to the other’s country near the end of his life: Dickens for his 1867-68 reading tour of America (he died in 1870); Twain to receive his Oxford degree in 1907 (he died in 1910).
Each lobbied against the lax copyrights laws that cost him millions in lost revenue on the other side of the Atlantic (Twain furious with pirated editions of his work in England; Dickens speaking out against his works being stolen in America).
Each feuded with almost every publisher.
Each was a cigar smoker.
Each wrote travel books, as well as novels, short stories, essays and humorous sketches.
Each believed the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for keeping Italy and other countries in poverty and ignorance. Strains of anti-Catholicism runs through each’s writings, but each had close Catholic friends.
Each wrote condescendingly and critically of the American Indian.
Each was helped in his writing by a devoted sister-in-law. For Dickens, this was Georgina Hogarth; for Twain, it was Susan Crane.
Each wrote in a secluded study during the summer months: Twain in the octagonal study built for him by Susan Crane at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York; Dickens in the Swiss chalet at Gad’s Hill Place.
Each unsuccessfully tried to write plays, seeing his books turned into hit shows by others.
Each had a brief and unhappy turn as a newspaper editor: Dickens (one month) with the Daily News; Twain (for a year and a half) at the Buffalo Express.
Each had a close friend who also was a major novelist: for Dickens, it was Wilkie Collins; for Twain, it was William Dean Howells.
Each was drawn as a young man to a profession he always would romanticize. For Dickens, this was acting. For Twain, it was piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi River. Each tried to pursue this profession, Dickens arranging for an audition at a London theater.
Each was considered a hero by George Bernard Shaw.
Each had book adapted into a 1930s film by producer David O. Selznick: David Copperfield (1935) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938).
There are dozens of other similarities, and, of course there are many significant differences.
Twain was happily married. Dickens wasn’t.
Dickens had 10 children, eight of whom survived him. Twain had four, only one of whom survived him.
Dickens burned out and died at 58. Twain made it to 74 (a fine run for 1910).
But the similarities are too numerous and too striking to be brushed aside. As Baetzhold writes: “Both writers had gusto, robustness, and closeness of observation; and, with humor, sentimentality, and social criticism as stocks in trade, both went on to create novels that brought the vernacular idiom and the use of the first-person boy narrator to new levels of artistry.”
We are, therefore, inevitably led to the question, what did Twain and Dickens think of each other? Half of that equation is easy. Dickens never thought of Twain at all. Twain was on his way up when Dickens literally was on his way out. The Innocents Abroad was published in July 1869. Dickens died in June 1870.
Although Twain once said that the humor of The Pickwick Papers was lost on him, he counted A Tale of Two Cities among his favorite books, and regularly reread it. We also know he read and borrowed elements from Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Cooperfield, Little Dorrit, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Indeed, Twain left behind many scattered comments on Dickens, some sympathetic to his predecessor’s efforts to escape the label of humorist and write serious fiction.
Twain also was conscious enough of Dickens to be mindful not to copy him. He certainly appropriated a device or two from Dickens’ fiction, but Twain knew that both English and American literature was awash with authors trying to write like Dickens. One of his biggest gripes with the writing of Bret Harte was that it became an anemic and obvious imitation of Dickens. So there is no doubt that Twain was aware of just how tall Dickens stood on literary ground. How could he not have been?
They were literary ships passing in the 19th century. They never met. But had Dickens lived just two more years, they undoubtedly would have met when Twain visited England for a lecture tour in 1872. And Dickens’ son and namesake, Charles Jr., stayed with Twain and his family at their Hartford home while on an 1887 reading tour.
But, yes, for one brief instant, Dickens and Twain were in the same building at the same time. And it was a monumental evening – for Twain.
Twain went to hear Dickens’ 1867 reading at New York’s Steinway Hall on New Year’s Eve. Olivia Langdon had made the trip to New York City from Elmira with her family. Samuel Clemens was introduced to her by Charles Langdon, his friend from the 1867 Quaker City tour of Europe and the Holy Land, which became the basis for The Innocents Abroad. Twain met Livy and her parents at the St. Nicholas Hotel on December 27. Four days later, he accompanied the family to Steinway Hall. “The circumstances of the evening Sam Clemens spent with his future wife were appropriate,” Twain biographer Justin Kaplan wrote in Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. “This was the valedictory reading tour of a towering literary personality, a hero of the mass audience which would soon elevate the newcomer, Mark Twain, also a great public reader as well as an actor manqué, to an analogous height.”
Twain left behind two accounts of the December 31st reading by Dickens. The first was for San Francisco’s Alta California newspaper, and it took issue with the “extravagant praises” bestowed on Dickens by such New York newspapers as the Herald and Tribune. Twain said that Dickens’ voice seemed husky, and he criticized the monotony of his reading. He called the performance “glittering frostwork with no heart.”
“Promptly at 8 p.m.,” Twain wrote for the Alta, “a tall, ‘spry’ (if I may say it), thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his buttonhole, gray beard and mustache, bald head with side hair and beard brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came!” He strode to his famous reading desk “in the most English way and exhibiting the most English general style and appearance. . . heedless of everything. . . as if he had seen a girl he knew turn the next corner.”
Indeed, the early tone of the review seems quite reverent: “But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake.”
From here, though, the tone changes, as Twain professes himself disappointed in the readings from David Copperfield. “He professed to be disturbed, too, by the reader’s seeming inability to enliven his pathetic passages with genuine emotion,” Baetzhold wrote, “a fault which made the ‘beautiful pathos of his language’ seem mere ‘glittering frostwork.’ More specifically, he found Dickens ‘a little Englishy in his speech”; the rendition of Peggoty’s search for ‘Em’ly’ was ‘bad’; and the episodes featuring ‘Dora the child-wife,’ and the storm at Yarmouth in which Steerforth drowned, ‘not as good as they might have been.’ He did like ‘Mrs. Micawber’s inspired suggestions as to the negotiations of her husband’s bills,’ but concluded that whole performance was far inferior to to what Dickens’ repuation had led him to expect.”
This was his reaction in early 1868. Almost forty years later, he gave a very different account of the evening. This was how Twain described it in an October 1907 dictation for his autobiography:
“I heard him once during that season; it was in Steinway Hall, in December, and it made the fortune of my life – not in dollars, I am not thinking of dollars; it made the real fortune of my life in that it made the happiness of my life; on that day I called at the St. Nicholas Hotel to see my Quaker City Excursion shipmate, Charley Langdon, and was introduced to a sweet and timid and lovely young girl, his sister. The family went to the Dickens reading and I accompanied them. It was forty years ago; from that day to this the sister has never been out of my mind or heart.
“Mr. Dickens read scenes from his printed books. From my distance he was a small and slender figure, rather fancifully dressed, and striking and picturesque in appearance. He wore a black velvet coat with a large and glaring red flower in the buttonhole. He stood under a red upholstered shed behind whose slant was a row of strong lights – just such an arrangement as artists use to concentrate a strong light upon a great picture. Dickens’s audience sat in a pleasant twilight, while he performed in the powerful light cast upon him from the concealed lamps. He read with great force and animation, in the lively passages, and read with stirring effect. It will be understood that he did not merely read but also acted. His reading of the storm scene in which Steerforth lost his life was so vivid and so full of energetic action that his house was carried off its feet, so to speak.”
Great force and animation? Stirring? Vivid? Energetic? They are the words found in a rave review. Why two accounts so at odds with each other?
It is my guess, and only a guess, that the second description is the true one – the one of his heart. The first account was that of a young writer looking at the old literary lion he soon would replace in the hearts of the mass audience. He was about to write his first major book
and about to embark on his first major lecture tour. There is, in the 1868 review, the sense of the young writer measuring himself against a giant. How do you measure up more easily? Knock him down to size a bit.
“A number of factors were at work here,” Baetzhold writes perceptively. “Anxiety to impress his Western readers doubtless contributed to the jibes at the New York critics. Those critics, by the way, had also mentioned the huskiness of Dickens’ voice, the result of a current cold, but they had invariably noted that the distraction quickly disappeared as the performance proceeded.” Baetzhold also argues that Twain’s “role of brash humorist” also contributed to the “flippancy” of the review, as well as “the traditional condescension of the American” toward the English and their “Englishy” ways. Twain would prove equally flippant in describing European customs and culture in The Innocents Abroad.
This seems logical. It also seems logical that, by 1907, Twain was completely secure in his place as an American author embraced by England. He no longer had anything to prove as a writer or a platform performer. He could stand shoulder to shoulder to Dickens in every respect. “More important, Clemens no longer felt the necessity either to impress his readers with an appeal to American and Western superiority or to ‘be funny,’ ” wrote Baetzhold. “Hence, the 1907 account may well represent a truer picture of his reaction to the performance than does the contemporary one.”
It also seems more accurate in details. Dickens is described as tall in the 1868 review, which takes more than a stretch of the imagination. He becomes “small and slender” in the 1907 dictation. In this one difference between the two accounts, we may have the long and the short of it, if you will – Twain recalling the evening more clearly almost forty years later than just several days later. Perhaps, too, Twain’s perception was altered by some awareness of just how much he had in common with Dickens.
Two other things they have common. Each has been portrayed on stage by tonight’s speaker, who has noticed that the people who study these two writers have something in common. They are unfailingly generous, encouraging, welcoming and, yes, fun, in keeping with the great spirit of these two writers. Or as Prof. Joseph McCullough once said to me at a Twain gathering, “You’ve got to figure we have more fun than the Kafka society.” We do.
Over the next couple of weeks I will write more about our show which is scheduled for the evening of Sunday March 28th and describe the journey Jennifer and I have taken to bring the meeting of Kate and Charles to life.
Mark Dawidziak’s website: www.markdawidziak.com
The Charles Dickens Museum: www.dickensmuseum.com