Mark Twain and Male Friendship: The Twichell, Howells, and
Rogers Friendships. Peter Messent. Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 250.
Cloth. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-19-539116-9.
Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 1 March 2010 on the Mark
Copyright © 2010 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without
Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Saint Louis University
As a friend once told me, there are friends, and then there are
friends. Americans tend to have a diluted sense of the term "friend,"
a phenomenon that is regularly illustrated in everyday usage, as for instance
when teenagers compete to see who can accumulate the most "friends"
on Facebook. But my years in Japan, where the Japanese equivalent (tomodachi)
has an esteemed ring to it, provided me with a deeper and richer sense of
the term, and I've used the word much more stringently ever since.
Over the years, I've been drawn to philosophical reflections on the idea,
as in Ralph Waldo Emerson's masterful essay called "Friendship":
To my friend I write a letter, and from him I receive a letter. That seems
to you a little. It suffices me. It is a spiritual gift worthy of him to
give, and of me to receive. It profanes nobody. In these warm lines the
heart will trust itself, as it will not to the tongue, and pour out the
prophecy of a godlier existence than all the annals of heroism have yet
The upshot is that almost all people, including even the icy
iconoclast Emerson, need friends, and so did Mark Twain.
As Emerson's fine lines suggest, letter writing was a primary expression of
such friendship back in the nineteenth century. More valuably, Emerson notes
the warmth and intimacy, and even the mildly homo-erotic give and take of friendly
correspondence -- phenomena that are duly noted and interrogated in Peter Messent's
excellent new study under review here. As Messent suggests, Mark Twain's cultivation
of deep relations with these three stellar personalities was plausibly the central
activity of Mark Twain's adult life (besides writing those great works). What
Emerson never mentions very much is the "framework of privilege and cultural
power" that our friendships document, and as Messent also considers (p.
11). Messent's study is also very good at considering the extent to which the
"nature of cultural change in this period of rapid modernization"
left its mark upon the male friendships at the center the Twain's mature life
as author, crony, and parishioner (p. 12).
Personally, I have come to expect outstanding research and analysis from Prof.
Messent, and this new volume does not disappoint. Messent draws deeply from
his impressive and nearly inexhaustible knowledge of the primary and secondary
materials on Mark Twain: letters, journals, and other documents, along with
the biographies, critical studies, and so forth. The notes are startling in
their depth, and both valuable and intriguing in what they reveal about Messent's
own complex intellectual journey through all of these theoretical alleyways.
Hardly anyone knows this material better, it seems to me. Furthermore, Messent
is always quite knowledgeable about current theory and cultural studies materials
covering the era, and among his many works this volume seems to demonstrate
that knowledge most acutely. A crucial example of this is the fine way that
he introduces the reader to various studies of male friendship in general, and
specifically within the culture of the late nineteenth century both in American
and (to a lesser extent) Britain and the continent.
The long and meaty introductory chapter is the sort of work that we have by
now come to expect in monographs of this type: a chapter filled with both thick
historical description about male bonding; interesting accounts of the perceived
changes in these relations; as well as a review of the usual suspects who have
recently provided first-rate analysis and theorizing along such lines. Here,
the names include scholars like Anthony Rotundo, Dana Nelson, Sarah Cole, Caleb
Crain, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, as well as due notice to more specialized
Twain scholars working on similar topics, such as Peter Stonely. It is a useful
and very fine introduction and it would be a perfect chapter to provide to graduate
students interested in these topics. Among other things, it provides some of
Messent's major observations about the men covered later in the book, especially
the way that the friendships were socially constructed and representative of
rapidly changing concepts of friendship and masculinity during these years,
The book then proceeds to give long consideration to each of the three main
male friends of Mark Twain's adult life: Joseph Twichell, William Dean Howells,
and Henry Rogers, in that order. Messent gives two chapters to each of the men:
first a general overview of that man's complex friendship with Mark Twain, followed
by a more focused and thematic treatment; roughly put, Twichell and Christian
manhood, character, and religion; Howells and realism, publishing, and the craft
of writing, and Rogers and business, wealth, and late-night carousing. There
seems to be an unspoken logic to this narrative sequence, and in fact Messent's
chronological ordering builds upon a common theme of Mark Twain's moral progress
as normally construed: his growing skepticism, pragmatism, and ultimately, agnosticism
and darkness. Messent also showcases the ways that each of these three friendships
fostered and symbolized certain core aspects of Mark Twain. These were all,
it becomes clear, highly symbiotic friendships; each member of the three pairs
derived pleasure and benefit from Twain, as much as Twain did from them. And
each friendship illustrated quite distinct aspects of Twain's personality --
and of the personalities of the other three famous men.
In this regard, perhaps the material on Henry Rogers is most fresh and original.
Rogers has until very recently been by far the most overlooked member of this
exclusive group of Twain's "best friends," and here we get one of
the finest efforts to sketch his own bawdy and mischievous character, and how
his interactions with the great author brought out this side of the staid, rather
frightening business mogul. I will always recall now the image of Twain napping
on the sofa in Rogers's sleek high-rise business office, as the magnate busily
worked nearby. As with the other two relations, it is unclear who gained the
most in terms of their friendship, since Messent makes sure we see how much
Rogers benefited from the rousing good times and humor-laden carousing that
Twain brought out in the stern tycoon. The titan Rogers evidently found great
fun and joy in this friendship, despite his notoriety as a "relentless,
ravenous creature" (p. 154). Messent's volume adds even more to this growing
area of recent interest, an area highlighted by the recent publication of Michael
Shelden's biography of the final years, Mark Twain; Man in White (2010),
which presents the fullest account of the Twain-Rogers tandem.
More generally, each chapter provides excellent coverage of both well-known
aspects of the friendships as well as a variety of the quirky specifics. If
you wish to read a solid and relatively brief biographical and critical introduction
to Twain's life as connected with any of these three men, I can hardly think
of a better place to start, along with perhaps Leland Krauth's fine book of
several years ago, Mark Twain & Company. The chapters are filled
with original gems of interpretation. For example, Messent gives us an ingenious
reading of the notorious Lizzie Wills anecdote, in which Twain and Twichell
work together to force the supposedly pregnant Wills (Twain's housekeeper) to
marry a man who is evidently enjoying carnal pleasures with her. The volume
is also filled with other wonderful storytelling about the men involved: sailing
with Rogers, working closely with the mentor Howells on specific texts, walking
in the woods with Twichell.
One of the most promising sections of the volume, and indeed one of the most
fit for further reflection, is Messent's extended treatment of realism, and
the ways in which the Twain-Howells friendship both inspired the movement as
well as muddied the waters regarding its meaning and purpose. Messent's own
coverage of realism underscores the haziness of the movement: indeed, Howells
and Twain became increasingly skeptical about their own abilities "to define
the 'reality' they saw around them or to depict the recent history of their
country" (p. 106). He also notes a shift in Howells's own novelistic production,
beginning with A Traveler from Altruria (1894), that further muddies
the waters. Messent is nearly a polymath on all things regarding the history
and theories of realism, as this chapter makes abundantly clear. It is another
chapter I would wish my graduate students to tackle. The upshot of all of this
being, perhaps we need to head back to the drawing board in defining realism:
a problem that Howells and Twain sensed profoundly, as they entered the latter
years of their productivity. Messent's work on realism made me wrestle even
more with this notoriously difficult set of concepts.
In similar ways, Messent wishes to challenge some of the moral or religious
readings of Twain's work, mostly published in the past decade or so. Messent
questions the "distinctions between religion and ethics"; and I think
here, in the account of Twichell's influence, we can note a useful balance to
these other recent critical writings, many of which foreground Twichell's long-standing
moral effect on Twain's thinking. Similarly, Messent's engagement with recent
theories of Victorian mourning and grief, presented in the book's final chapter
(or coda), also interrogates recent work on Twain's emotional traumas. Here
Messent brings to bear his considerable skills as a cultural historian focusing
on Victorian rites of bereavement (although he unfortunately fails to engage
any clinical data on the topic).
In both cases, further consideration and fruitful conversation among colleagues
continues to yield more nuanced and complex readings of Twain's beliefs, values,
and even metaphysics (or lack thereof), even as leading critics remain rather
divided. Coupled especially with a fuller account of his joyful carousing with
the likes of Rogers, these data all interrogate the common view of Twain's so-called
"dark years" near the end, which here seem much sunnier and happier
(as they do, by the way, in Shelden's volume). More generally, Messent's work
provides well-written and thoroughly engaging cultural biographies of the three
most important male friendships of Mark Twain--and how those friendships marked
each of the four men under consideration. It is clear that clothes do not
make the man: but maybe friends do.
I will end with the conundrum of my reviewing a book by a man whom I might even
daringly call a "friend," despite the ocean that separates us about
99% of the time. Does that moniker disqualify any of my praise? Does it undermine
my scholarly reserve? Well, I hope not. Though it may depend, of course, on
what we even mean by the term "friend."
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Saint Louis University