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The following review appeared 25 September 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2008 Mark Twain Forum
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Steve Courtney describes himself as "a reporter, and not a scholar," but, for my money, this is somewhat akin to describing Mark Twain as a "mere humorist." Courtney has enlisted his reportorial skills in the service of producing an unquestionably scholarly, and readable, work on what must certainly be his great passion, Joe Twichell. Courtney has previously done historians the great service of bringing forth, with Peter Messent, The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell (2006), a contribution to the history of the Civil War that has a value independent of Twichell's association with Twain. Likewise, the current book presents an in-depth portrait of the life of a serious figure in the maelstrom of religious thought and action in nineteenth-century America. Readers of the Mark Twain Forum likely know Steve Courtney as one who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk, quite literally, leading the interested every Fall on a traipse along the same paths the two tramps, Twain and Twichell, followed in their regular Hartford walks during the 1870s and 1880s. Courtney is a former reporter for the Hartford Courant and a native of Hartford, underscoring the conclusion that he was a natural choice to write this book.
Two prior works in which Joe Twichell's history is explored are Leah Strong's Joseph Hopkins Twichell: Mark Twain's Friend and Pastor (1966) and Kenneth Andrews's Nook Farm: Mark Twain's Hartford Circle (1950). Strong's book, a serious scholarly effort, comes up short when compared with Courtney's new book, largely for the reason that she did not have access to the extensive correspondence upon which the newer work relies, particularly Twichell's wartime letters and late-life notes, e.g., writing that allows us to view the sharp late-life differences in philosophy and religion between Twichell, the stubborn optimist, and his skeptical, doubting friend Mark Twain. Andrews's book was not written with the intention of providing a biography of Twichell, but has as its focus the lively, stimulating atmosphere of prosperous Hartford of the post-war era, complete with glamorous citizenry like the Stowes, Beechers, Charles Dudley Warner, General Hawley and, of course, Harmony and Joe Twichell and their brood.
Courtney's assessment of Twichell has little in common with the bumbling, one-dimensional "Harris" Twain employs as his foil in a near-vain attempt to enliven one of his lesser works, A Tramp Abroad. While the reader's initial interest in Twichell may be a direct product of his association with Mark Twain, Sam Clemens doesn't even make an appearance in Courtney's book until page 123, and that is just as it should be. Instead, the reader enters a world that, in many ways, is a stark contrast to the Missouri hometown of Clemens. Joseph Twichell's small home town in Connecticut was, relatively speaking, well-settled at the time of his birth. In spite of the early death of his mother, Twichell seems to have had a comfortable childhood under the guidance of a loving, religious father in the home of "Abolitionist Connecticut Yankees." While Joe learned the work of a tanner, he did so in an atmosphere which included high expectations for classical as well as ecclesiastical education. He attended college preparatory courses long after the age at which Clemens's lessons with Miss Horr were completed. Courtney provides a detailed history of the young Twichell's spiritual life, developing as it did during a period of religious fervor and tumult in the New England of the 1840s and 50s, with very real conflicts between liberal Unitarians and the more "rigid and intolerant" Congregationalists of the era. These conflicts inspired both fear and budding rebellion in Joe. Courtney provides profiles of key figures in the religious doctrinal conflicts of the era, especially the eloquent and rebellious Dr. Horace Bushnell in Hartford and the flamboyant and scandal-tainted Henry Ward Beecher, a man of great interest to both Clemens and Twichell in their Hartford days. The doctrinal wars surrounding Twichell are brought to life by Courtney's writing and research in a manner that reminds us, a century-and-a-half later, that these inter-sect disputes were of vital importance to citizens and that they were inextricably intertwined with explosive political issues of the day such as slavery and women's suffrage.
Courtney documents the story of an incident which had a lasting, indelible impact on Joe Twichell, the murder of the young fireman named William Miles in a confrontation with a group of Yale students which included Joe. Information surrounding the event is scarce. However, it is nevertheless evident that this event, occurring in the context of a regional religious revival, was a probable motivating factor in Twichell's decisions, first, to become a seminarian following graduation, then, at the outbreak of the war, to volunteer as a chaplain to a regiment of firemen. The guilt, apparently never openly acknowledged by Twichell, is reminiscent of the open, perhaps overwrought guilt expressed, during that same year, 1858, by Sam Clemens, in reaction to his younger brother Henry's death following the explosion of the steamer Pennsylvania.
The Civil War activities of Twichell are sufficiently rich to justify a separate volume. This period, as Courtney makes clear, is the crucible which is the basis for Twichell's real conversion, from a studious seminarian to a hands-on, pragmatic, accepting preacher. Assigned to the Second Excelsior Brigade led by the controversial Dan Sickles, Joe Twichell grew up quickly under fire, able to jettison, when required, his pre-war prejudices regarding Catholics and atheists alike, while rendering very concrete, as well as spiritual support, to the foot-soldiers he ministered to. Twichell's direct experience with African-Americans in the Confederacy comes alive, and the descriptions of Twichell's service as a surgical assistant in field hospitals on successive battlefields conveys the suffering and misery of the dead and dying in a degree comparable to that of Walt Whitman, who performed the same services as a volunteer during the war in Washington, D.C. tent hospitals. Like Whitman, Twichell served as an assistant in gruesome amputation procedures, including the incident at Gettysburg when Sickles, after an unauthorized and disastrous advance, had his own leg amputated on the battlefield. The incident also illustrates Twichell's ability to form long-term friendships with individuals whose association he might avoid under other circumstances.
Clemens's entry into this biography occurs after the war, at a time when the young but respected Reverend Twichell was beginning his career as pastor of the new Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, the one referred to by Clemens as the "Church of the Holy Speculators." Like Clemens, Twichell was blessed with the support of his new wife, Harmony, and their family, which eventually grew to include nine children. At this juncture, the familiar story of the Twain-Twichell relationship begins to unfold, but Courtney is careful to maintain a focus on his chosen subject and his personal and spiritual struggles during this "Gilded Age" in their mutual Hartford society. Twichell, likely as a result of both his war experiences and the witnessing of the religious conflict of his Connecticut youth, was an optimistic preacher, more in tune with the growth and expansion of the post-war era than the hellfire and brimstone preachers from his childhood. He was, in his realm, as curious as Clemens, acknowledging his periodic spiritual doubting and exploring the atheism of John Stuart Mills's Autobiography. Courtney also provides plenty of evidence of Twichell's humorous side, as, for example, the observation that Reverend Joe enjoyed being the first to hear and read Clemens's bawdy tale of sex and flatulence, 1601: Conversation as it Was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors.
Twichell was not one to suppress his indignation at social injustice and he often transformed his sympathies into action. Most notable was his heavy involvement and support of the Chinese Educational Mission in Hartford and his lifelong commitment to the cause of the Chinese immigrants and his friend, Yung Wing. Twichell's eagerness to support the Chinese, in the face of their persecution in the American West and the Chinese Exclusion Act, was manifest in his trip with Yung Wing to Peru in an attempt to end the reliance on "coolie" labor in the mining industry. Courtney relates this episode in more detail than is likely to be seen in any previous source.
Twichell and Clemens shared walks, trips to Europe and Bermuda, and a never-ending curiosity in the worlds in which they lived, although they tended to view their fellow residents with very different critical eyes. Twichell would occasionally attempt to counsel his friend toward moderation in his statements when they disagreed, for example, when Clemens denounced the activity of foreign missionaries in China or America's suppression of the Philippine independence movement following the Spanish-American war.
Courtney notes that Twichell "maintained throughout his life a sort of childlikeness," an observation immediately bringing to mind Livy's appellation of "youth" for Sam Clemens. Twichell's openness likely served as the basis for Clemens's statement, "I have always tried out doubtful things on Twichell from the beginning." Clemens could confess to his companion that "Joe,... I don't believe in your religion at all," but Joe's stubborn optimistic reaction seemed to consist of a continuing hope for Clemens's faith. Despite Clemens's growing determinism in later life, what Twichell would brand the "doctrine of Total Human Depravity," Clemens would call theirs "a companionship which to me stands first after Livy's."
Like Clemens, Twichell experienced a succession of losses in late life which included his own cognitive abilities, and his relationship with Clemens, who preceded him in death by eight years. He seems to have weathered this storm as a result of his strongly embedded optimism and the continuing availability of strong family support, including his son-in-law, the composer Charles Ives.
That Twichell is not well-remembered today, except as a footnote
in Mark Twain's own story, as the peripatetic comic sidekick foil, is incomprehensible
to the reader of Courtney's Joseph Hopkins Twichell. If Twichell is
initially of interest to the Twain scholar as a tributary of the great river,
i.e., as a major influence and long-time confidant and friend, the reader
will soon come to regard the story of Joe Twichell as one to be read in its
own right. As a product and participant in several aspects of nineteenth-century
American history, known only in secondhand accounts by Mark Twain, Joe Twichell
emerges in Courtney's book as the true Connecticut Yankee. Steve Courtney
has, incredibly, accomplished the herculean task of bringing Twichell out
of the shadows of Twain, rendering a well-researched, fact-based portrait
of this individual whose life experience and character effectively destroy
the serio-comic descriptions of Harris in A Tramp Abroad. Long live
Joseph Hopkins Twichell.