Mark Twain was a hardworking and prolific writer, but how did he spend his time when the "bread-and-butter element" was put aside and he was free to relax and amuse himself?
He was a lover of music and song, of cats and cigars, of charades and games; he was an enthusiastic inventor, an obsessive billiards player, a charismatic raconteur, a mischievous correspondent, and perhaps the most sought-after luncheon and dinner guest in America.
These many and varied leisure pursuits—and how Mark Twain's "play" influenced his "work"—are the subject of "Mark Twain at Play."
The exhibition brings together manuscripts, documents, notebooks, albums, vintage photographs, and other artifacts from The Bancroft Library's Mark Twain Papers. It was the inaugural exhibition (October 2008-April 2009) in the new exhibit space within the retrofitted and renovated Bancroft Library.
(a note from the lead curator published originally in Bancroftiana,
Samuel Langhorne Clemens—the real man who became "Mark Twain"—began his working life in 1847 at the age of 11, when his widowed mother apprenticed him to a printer in Hannibal, Missouri. Over the next six decades he progressed from that printshop to a stint as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot, then through the rough and tumble of life as a miner and journalist in the Nevada Territory, and on to an immensely successful career as a lecturer and writer. By 1885, when Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
was published, "Mark Twain" was synonymous with American humor; by the turn of the century he was an international icon, whose words could prick the national conscience and prod the world toward a broader humanism. But he was not "all work and no play": one thread that weaves its way through this long, varied, and productive life is an unquenchable and irresistible playfulness that manifests itself in his literary work and also in his private pursuits.
He was a lover of music and song, of cats and cigars, of charades and amateur theatricals. He was a doting father always ready to spin a tale for his three daughters, an enthusiastic inventor, a fanatical billiards player, a club man and raconteur, a strong swimmer, an occasional hiker, a game but failed cyclist and equestrian. He enjoyed yachting and ocean travel and was a connoisseur of the ways of lazing away a summer day in a lawn or deck chair. In his later years, he often passed many daylight hours in his ornately carved bed, surrounded by books and writing materials and a cloud of cigar smoke.
His playfulness is apparent in his literary work—in his renderings of the games and adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and the ingenious contrivances of the Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan. It surfaces in his accounts of his travels at home and abroad, and in his love of the unexpected, often mischievous, turn of phrase. It bubbled out, for instance, in a delirious appreciation of the banjo, whose music, he rhapsodized, could "suffuse your system like strychnine whisky" and "ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose." Or in his deadpan description of an October day in his novelette A Double-Barrelled Detective Story,
which reads in part, "the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary œsophagus slept upon motionless wing."
Perhaps his most entertaining written fancies turn up in his private correspondence, in letters to family and friends, like his teasing 1871 letter to his mother, written on the front and back of ten scraps of torn stationery recycled from other letters. He also regularly vented his irritation at importunate or insensitive correspondents by penning outrageous, but unmailed, responses—his satisfaction in the practice is apparent in every line.
He had an amazing capacity for enjoying social occasions great and small. At home, he would startle his dinner guests by jumping up and perambulating the dinner table while talking excitedly. In London he might be found enjoying the company of artists and writers at the Savage Club, where the evening's fun was punctuated at intervals by piercing communal war-whoops. In New York he might be found among theatrical friends at the Players Club or talking, smoking, drinking punch, and eating oysters into the wee hours with the artists of the Tile Club. He was the "Belle of New York," the darling of the "ladies who lunch," and was swarmed by adoring crowds of undergraduates at various university luncheons.
His gentle and genteel wife, Olivia, called him "Youth"—often in loving reproof for some social misdemeanor— and indeed the young Missouri boy— a tad wayward and lazy and prankish—often peeked out in the man and winked at the world.
The Mark Twain Papers & Project
The Bancroft Library