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The following review appeared 21 April 2003 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2003 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Mary Leah Christmas
The title of this book, "Hatching Ruin" or, Mark Twain's Road to Bankruptcy, is, technically, misleading. Mark Twain never filed for personal bankruptcy. A better title for this book might be Inventing Charles Webster, for that is what Mark Twain does on almost every page. Though said to be about Mark Twain's business dealings with James W. Paige and Charles L. Webster, "Hatching Ruin" devotes relatively few lines of type to Paige and most of the column inches to Webster and the circumstances leading to the financial collapse of Charles L. Webster & Company. Gold also seeks to show how Mark Twain's business disappointments shaped the writing of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
With the material Gold presents being taken out of its biographical context, the Webster mess casts a disproportionate shadow. Gold asserts, "Samuel L. Clemens believed in the transformative potential of technology and was disillusioned and embittered when his hopes were not fulfilled" (1) and also that Clemens "pursued, with vigor or frenzy, depending on your view of such things, what turned out for him to be the chimera of great wealth" (7). This may be true, but the Paige/Webster fiasco was only the latest (albeit deep) seismic blip. Mark Twain A to Z says of Roughing It, and of Clemens's days in the mining camps, that as early as the 1860s Mark Twain was writing of "the young narrator's growing disillusionment in his own quest for easy wealth" (MTAZ-317).
Provocative in "Hatching Ruin" are Gold's references to Inventing Mark Twain by Andrew Hoffman.
Andrew Hoffman, in a recent attempt at a comprehensive biography, deals extensively with Webster, the first biographer to do so. He is, I think, entirely wrong in his conclusions, which are, for the most part, undocumented and refuted by the surviving evidence.... The lack of biographical attention is curious. There is ample documentation. Clemens had a great deal to say about both men, mostly privately... (11).
However, Gold undercuts his own claim of "ample documentation" on a previous page: "A certain confusion about figures arises, in large part, from the fragmentary financial records that we have of the Webster Publishing Company" (8). Further in the book Gold mentions there are missing pieces of correspondence. No wonder there can still be differences of opinion in the presence of facts. For instance, Hoffman's Inventing Mark Twain asserts Samuel Clemens "seldom pulled money out of the publishing firm" (IMT-339). "Hatching Ruin" says Clemens "used the company always as a sort of private bank. During the flush years, 1885-1887, with receipts from Huckleberry Finn and the Grant Memoirs coming in, he could get away with it" (150).
Hoffman's Inventing Mark Twain was published in 1997, the same year Charles H. Gold's article, "What Happened to Charley Webster?" appeared in the just-issued Fall 1994 Mark Twain Journal. That article is the basis for Chapter 8 of the present book. An August 1997 discussion of Gold's Mark Twain Journal article can be found in the TwainWeb archives.
"Hatching Ruin" displays the mighty battle of egos between Webster and Clemens. Of particular significance is the matter of Charles L. Webster being knighted by Pope Leo XIII, whose memoirs were published by Webster & Company. One reads, "He wore the elaborate uniform once in a while, surely a mildly eccentric thing to do in a town of three thousand [Fredonia, NY]..." (152, and similarly 131 and IMT-368). Gold likens this aspect of Webster to Hank Morgan's showmanship, though this was "just the sort of thing Clemens loved best for himself, as witness his white suits and his pride in wearing the scarlet Oxford gown later" (144).
The book contains three photos at the front: Mark Twain, Charles L. Webster, and the Paige compositor as a proxy for its inventor. One wishes there were a photo of Webster in his vestments, or a photo of the mysterious Paige, but these must not exist. However, known photos of other key figures in "Hatching Ruin" could have been included. Another nice feature would have been an Appendix containing, as best as can be reconstructed, a list of Charles L. Webster & Company's publications.
The publisher's choice of dustjacket design for "Hatching Ruin" can also be questioned. If one views the dustjacket as a continuous piece of art, Mark Twain on the right is squaring off against the Paige compositor on the left--the literary "Battlebot" confronting his technological nemesis. The implication is that these two are fighting to the death within the book's cover, but they are not. In lieu of the Paige compositor on the dustjacket, more appropriate would have been a photo of Charles L. Webster.
The technical difficulties include combinations of what should be separate footnotes into a single footnote at the end of a paragraph, leaving the reader to attempt to discern, from their order, which part of the citation belongs to what. The footnote-compiling may have been done as a space-savings, but one would much prefer individual endnotes to these communal footnotes.
A source of further frustration is the difficulty of differentiating new material from old. Gold tells us:
The source for most of this study has been the largely unpublished family correspondence in the Mark Twain Papers... I also examined, but quoted only very sparingly from, the as-yet unpublished portions of Twain's autobiographical dictations and notebooks and journals. I also consulted the Webster Papers at Vassar College, the Webster Collection of the D. R. Barker Library of Fredonia, New York, and the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library (xi).
An analyis of the footnotes gives some insights and raises some questions. Of the 267 footnotes, only one of them specifies a previously unpublished letter; one footnote cites the D. R. Barker Library; eight cite the Moffett Collection at the Mark Twain Project, two cite the Webster Papers at Vassar; and one cites the Samuel C. Webster Collection at the Mark Twain Project. No footnotes were found citing the Berg Collection. Other footnotes cite such books as Mark Twain, Businessman, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, and the Mark Twain-Howells Letters. Two (?) issues of The Twainian are cited. Page 14 cites "Twainian 6 (November/December 1947)" and page 134 cites "Twainian 6 (November/December 1976)." Whether this is an error in citation is not readily apparent. Letters from the Mark Twain Project are not flagged as to whether they are previously unpublished, despite a boilerplate permission acknowledgment to the Mark Twain Project on the book's copyright page.
There are problems in the author's voicing of the material as well. The author goes along in a detached way, but startles the reader every so often by slipping into the first-person. Then, to keep the reader awake, there are trick sentences. For instance, Gold writes of Albert Bigelow Paine, "He had information available to no one else and is often trustworthy and always indispensable; however, he also had a vested interest in preserving an image of Clemens, an image not always completely consistent with the facts" (xi).
Another glitch is that two different dates of death are given for Charles L. Webster. Page 134 says it was April 26, 1891, and page 152 says it was April 22, 1891. Then there is this sentence, which this reviewer had to read several times to grasp: "In 1906, when Susy Clemens died her sad death, alone and delirious in the Hartford House while her parents were in England, Clemens blamed Charley for her death" (155).
Susy Clemens died in 1896, and Webster in 1891, but it was her father in 1906 doing the axe-grinding. It should also be noted that Susy Clemens had at least four people with her at the time of her illness and death, including her aunt, Susan Crane, and the Reverend Joseph Twichell.
Gold bends over backwards, almost to a fault, to reassure us about Mark Twain's mental state throughout this period. Here is a compilation from a span of only seven pages:
"Clemens was strong and sane.... He was not ever in the grip of forces he couldn't resist or understand...." (5), "human, sane, plagued by...bad luck..." (6), "...nothing irrational about what Clemens did during the 1880s... None of what he did was the result of pathology...." (8), "I maintain that Samuel L. Clemens of Hartford was a sane man, for the most part a rational decision-maker" (ibid), "His belief in the Paige typesetter, for example, is often cited as evidence of delusion..." (ibid), "I do not for a moment think that mental illness played a part..." (9), "I think Clemens was...as sane as any of us, that he did what he did for reasons that seemed to him good and sufficient..." (10), "I think a lot of what he did in the 1880s and after was, in the vernacular but not the diagnostic, sense, nuts. That makes him human, not crazy" (10), "He wasn't crazy; he didn't need a recovery program; he wasn't addicted to anything" (11).
"Nuts" as Mark Twain may have been--"in the vernacular," of course--right in the midst of all this Gold refers to Clemens's "obsessive clinging" (9).
Then there is the issue of Webster's name.
I've already noted the small but revealing tendency of Clemens to address his letters to "Dear Charley," while his nephew by marriage signed himself "Charlie." (I have used "Charley" throughout to be consistent with Clemens's usage.)....Clemens's failure over several years to get Charley's name right underscores his seeing Webster as his "man in New York" rather than as his partner, something Charley didn't like, ever (89).
Gold's insistence on referring to Webster as "Charley" weakens his attempt to portray Webster as a serious, though perhaps flawed, businessperson. Having specifically made an issue of the proper spelling, Gold comes across as taking Clemens's side in the matter.
It is the author's contention that either Paige or Webster or Mark Twain, depending on what page one is reading, was the model for "Hank Morgan" in Connecticut Yankee. However, in re-visting the Battle of the Sand-Belt in Connecticut Yankee, this reviewer could think only of Nikola Tesla, who appears neither in the original edition of Mark Twain A to Z nor in "Hatching Ruin". The following passage is from Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. 3, which Gold cites often, so one wonders how he could have overlooked such a significant entry:
Nov. 1, 1888. I have just seen the drawings and description of an electrical machine lately patented by a Mr. Teska (Tesla), & sold to the Westinghouse Company, which will revolutionize the whole electric business of the world. It is the most valuable patent since the telephone. The drawings & description show that this is the very machine, in every detail which Paige invented nearly 4 years ago. I furnished $1,000 for the experiments, & was to have half of the invention (N&J3-341).
The brilliant electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla was indeed on Mark Twain's mind as he was completing the Connecticut Yankee manuscript. Several years later, Mark Twain visited Tesla in his lab. It is worth noting that page 341 of N&J3 consists of, in this order: fulminations over the Webster & Company difficulties; the aforementioned passage about Tesla; and some notes to himself about "Clarence" in Connecticut Yankee, the character who re-routes the detinator wires to Merlin's Cave and constructs its perimeter of electric fencing.
Chapter 9 of "Hatching Ruin" provides an overview of Connecticut Yankee. Gold further presents his case for the connection between Webster and the Yankee. "Charley was sort of a knight himself, and Clemens, who resented Charley's papal honor, probably felt some pleasure at satirizing knighthood" (140). Gold does not seem to hear the ominous rumblings.
We can read between the lines to know how Mark Twain chose to resolve the matter, and it was not with a Webster-based Hank Morgan. When the smoke clears after the Battle of the Sand-Belt, instead of an armored knight it is "Sir Charley" in his papal attire standing with his still-smoking hands gripping the upper wire of the electric fence, and the future Dr. Clemens gazing in a satisfied manner at the scene.
Despite its many problems, "Hatching Ruin" provides a good starting-point for continued discussion. One would like to see Gold and Hoffman co-chairing a session at an International State of Mark Twain Studies Conference. However, a satisfactory resolution to the matter of Charles L. Webster & Company may take years, if ever.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mary Leah Christmas is a freelance writer/editor with a
background in book publishing. This is her ninth review for the Mark Twain Forum.