Twins of Genius
Bill Long 2/9/06
A Literary Tour: Mark Twain and George Washington Cable
I ran across a reference to this most fascinating book promotional tour taken by these two giants of late 19th century American fiction when I was reading Perry's Grant and Twain (Random House, 2004), 134-137. As with Moses and the burning bush, I had to turn aside and look at this great sight (cf. Ex. 3:3). Though this and the next essay can't be construed as "current events" or even "reviews," they tell the story of something that is the progenitor of a staple now for authors on the make-- the literary or book tour.
A web site on this tour, which ought to receive an award for its clarity and scope, is here. This wasn't Twain's first book promotional tour; in 1870 he did the same to promote his enormously popular Innocents Abroad. And Twain wasn't the first to use this method. He points to Charles Dickens' 1867-68 tour to America as the point where the latter brought to America the idea of the "reading tour," which he had pioneered in England several years earlier. Indeed, when Dickens came to America in November 1867, he was following up on a visit in January 1842 when he, a month shy of his 30th birthday and already a literary giant on both sides of the Atlantic, alighted in Boston. What was significant about Dickens' first trip (before the concept of reading tour originated) was that, in addition to "seeing" this new country, he wanted to argue for the importance of international copyright of literary works. Since at the time there was no such creature, copies of Dickens' hugely successful works were pirated and distributed in America without the author's receiving a shilling for his efforts. In fact, one of the reasons that Twain and Cable went to Canada for a week during their 1884-85 book tour was to try to submerge the illegally-distributed copies of their works in Canada with the "real thing."
The idea for the Twain-Cable tour was Twain's. He had a habit of digging himself into quite deep financial problems, and he needed desperately to extricate himself from some now. His writing had not gone well in the late 1870s and early 1880s, but the creative flow returned to him again in the summer of 1883 when he finished the last half of Huckleberry Finn in his gazebo at his parents-in-law's place, Quarry Farm, in Elmira, NY. I can't resist quoting from Twain's words to William Dean Howells, one of America's great authors of the time, in describing his renewed literary creativity:
"I haven't piled up MS so in years as I have done since we came here three weeks ago. Why it's like old times to step straight into the study, damp from the breakfast table, & sail right in & sail right on, the whole day long, without thought of running short of stuff or words."
"I wrote 4000 words today & I touch 3000 & upwards pretty often, and & don't fall below 2600 on any work day. And when I get fagged out, I lie abed a couple of days & read & smoke, and then go at it again for 6 or 7 days...I expect to complete it in a month or six weeks or two months more. And I shall like it whether anybody else does or not," (quoted in Perry, 111).
And then, in a spirit of confidence that only a prolific author can understand, Twain wrote to his mother, "I am piling up manuscript in a really astonishing way. I believe I shall complete, in two months, a book which I have been folling over for 7 years. This summer it is no more trouble to me to write than it is to lie."
Publication of Huckleberry Finn wouldn't actually happen until mid-February 1885, but Twain wanted to take no chances. He knew that this work was his "big one," but he knew also that if it was to be widely received and read, he had to take it to the people. Instead of just making the book a "trade" book, where it would sell in the booksellers of the largest cities, he hired an army of canvassers who would solicit advance orders for the book. He was waiting for 40,000 copies to be subscribed before he would publish the book.
So, with this in the background, Twain arranged in June 1884 for Major J. B. Pond to be the tour agent (making tour arrangements), contacted Cable, who had become quite popular through his fiction, especially The Grandissimes, and got him to agree to tour with him. It isn't crystal clear to me, however, why Twain felt he needed or wanted another person with whom on the tour. Did he have lingering fears about his ability to connect with audiences? It had been 15 years since he attempted it; maybe he wanted to have "cover" with another significant author. Indeed, Cable's writings against the way that Southern Blacks were being treated in the post-War era attracted him a large following in the North (and obloquy in the South). But, in any case, the goal was never to tour the South anyway; the furthest South they would go would be into KY or MO.
In any case, from November 5, 1884 to February 28, 1885 they toured 80 cities and spoke together in well-crafted programs of about two hours duration. Perry says that they had to memorize their material (unlike the reality for the contemporary author), but this wouldn't be so hard. Indeed, after you have done something about a dozen times, memorization is simple.
I see I am out of space, so I will have to continue here with information about the tour.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long