Mark Twain’s Fan Mail
By Maria Popova
One spring day in 1909, a little boy found his mother’s magazine clipping — the portrait of a man bearing “the aureole of sunny hair” — and asked her this was God. She chuckled with equal parts amazement and amusement, and got to writing the man in question a letter to recount the delightful incident — not only because of its inherent charm, but because her son had intuited a shared cultural sentiment: The man pictured was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain — one of the most revered men in all the land.
Over the course of his prolific career, Twain received countless letters from his adoring readers and, occasionally, his critics. Two hundred of them, written according to the style of he era’s wonderfully quaint epistolary etiquette, are collected in Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers (public library) — a magnificent, remarkably researched book by Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen, featuring adulation, criticism, and a range of audacious requests Clemens received between 1861 and his death in 1910 from correspondents spanning school children, businessmen, farmers, political activists, con artists, teachers, and housewives. Most stirring of all, however, is the fan mail Twain received — a timeless testament to the soul-stirring power of earnest gratitude. A small sampling:
On April 18, 1894, Twain heard from a young lawyer named Henry E. Barrett:
Dear Sir: —
It seems that this world would not be satisfying unless one person were allowed to express gratitude and thanks to another. It has struck me as wrong that I should go on and not say to you what I feel.
From my boyhood, when I was kept from play by my interest in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn,” till now, your books and stories have given me more genuine pleasure than those of any other author. I think so often of the many pleasant hours you have given me and have made up to me the lack some times of pleasant companions. Mr. Clemens, please accept this in the spirit that it is sent for the intention is good.
My wishes are that you may for many years continue to cheer the sorrowful and make burden bearing easier.
Henry E. Barrett.
On October 17, 1906, a dying man wrote Twain:
Dear Mark Twain:
Writing this letter is one of the pleasantest duties I have to perform before leaving for “Hell or Hadleyburg” — which the doctor tells me must be soon now.
In fact I’m living beyond my time, — because he said Oct 15 was my last day “on live” — The only reason I didn’t die on that date was that I wanted to read your latest story in Harpers. Some people see Naples and die, — I prefer to read Mark Twain & die. I’ve never seen Naples, — and dont expect to. I’ve read almost everything youve written, — and when I finish your whole output I’ll give up seeing Naples and die happily without that privilege.
I want to thank you for all the pleasure your books have given me during many years of confinement to my room. Life would frequently have been dull indeed had it not been for the companionship of Huck Finn, Col. Sellers, et al.
When I get to Hell the greatest torture that I will have will be the possible knowledge that you shall have written something else I shall not be permitted to read.
On October 19 of the same year, an Irishman named Chris Healey sent Twain this heart-warming and deeply personal story, one of many he received:
Dear Mr Clements,
As an Irish admirer of yours who has travelled 4000 miles mainly to see you, may I request the privilege of calling on you to pay my respects.
Indeed I might claim this as a right. Here is the proof: Twenty four years ago a little Irish boy lay dying in a Liverpool hospital. The nurse spoke to him very kindly — a bad sign –& asked if there was anything he would like, which was even worse. In hospitals politeness is saved only for those who will soon be beyond the need of it. He wearily asked for a book to read, & they gave him “Babylon” by Grant Allen. There was a quaint American interest in the book which made the boy discover America for the first time. Before that it had been only a place on a map. Then he became interested, threw the first book away, & demanded one about America –& they gave him Huckleberry Finn. He read it, & laughed, & laughed, & laughed, until he fell into the first sound sleep he had had for a fortnight. When he awoke twenty six years later — it was only hours, but it seemed years since he had read the book — he hollered for it again, & got it, & had some breakfast, the first for a week, The nurse was rude to him but he didn’t mind — he had Huckleberry under his pillow. This is why he didn’t pay much attention to the doctor’s remark that it was a miraculous recovery, & Nature still had a fat purseful of miracles left. The boy only grinned, & knew better: it was Mark Twain.
On December 13 of the same year, a young women who had grown up cherishing Twain’s writing, wrote him:
Dear Mark Twain:
Ever since I read, in my childhood, my first story from your pen, it has been the great desire of my life to meet Mark Twain.
Now, I am a woman of five and thirty, and the years are flying, and the goal of my desire seems to recede as I approach. Yet, strange to say — strange, because nearly all childish desires change in the lapse of years — the desire is still as strong within me as ever it was.
Once I saw you. I was only a child — but I marked that day with a white stone. You were driving, and it was all I could do to keep myself from running after your carriage and crying, “Please, Mr. Mark Twain, stay long enough to speak to a little girl who thinks you are the greatest man on earth.”
I am sure I should not have so much self control now. But youth is so hopeful of opportunities. — You must be overwhelmed with such communications as this — and yet. The longing is still great within me to run after your carriage and cry “Stop long enough to speak to a little girl who still thinks you the greatest man on earth.”
On rare occasions, Twain replied to his readers in a few well-measured words, as he did Ryland:
Dear Miss Ryland:
I am thankful to say that such letters as yours do come — as you have divined — with a happy frequency. They refresh my life, they give it value; like yours, they are always welcome, and I am always grateful for them. Sincerely
Twain received a plethora of requests for photos and autographs, most of which he found gratuitous and didn’t respond to . But on December 29, 1906, a poor and barely literate Englishwoman sent him an irresistibly sincere personal story, coupled with a modest request:
Mr S. L. Clemens,
I wonder if you would care to hear how much my husband & self appreciate your books. We have been married 4 years & I have bought him one of your works each birthday & at Christmas. He is never tired of reading them & they keep him at home many a time when he would be out at night He reads them aloud to me & I enjoy the reading as much as himself. The reason I am writing is to beg a favour of you. Would you be kind enough to give me your phota so that I can give my husband a surprise on his next birthday? We have one hung up that I cut from a paper but I should dearly prize a real phota I dont seem able to come across one here & we arent so well off else I might if I was rich. My husband earns £ 1/-per week as a booking clerk on the railway. We have a little boy six months & his father says when he is older he will tell him about poor little Huck & Tom Sawyer. Perhaps you will be too great a man to answer this & grant my request as we are only humble cottagers. I trust Ive done no harm writing. I have just been reading some extracts in our paper copied from your articles in the “North American Review” I am sorry you lost your daughter Susy you seem to have had a lot of trouble in your life but you always come up smiling. This seems a long letter but I will have to pay 2 ½ to post so I will get my money’s worth. The only thing is I am sorry you arent an Englishman & more especially a Lancashire man, perhaps you will put this in the fire I hope I have a phota from you
I beg to remain
Clemens wrote back a little over two weeks later:
I will comply with pleasure, dear Mrs Edith. My secretary will choose a photo which will go handily in the mail & I will autograph it. Indeed I shouldn’t regret it if I were an Englishman –& particularly a Lancashire man.
S L . Clemens
[enclosure, written on a photograph of Clemens on a rocking chair:]
To Mrs. Edith Draper
with the best wishes of
On Clemens’s seventy-second birthday, he received the following sweet note from a fourteen-year-old girl named Florence Benson:
My dear Mr. Clemens: I have seen in the New York Tribune this morning that to-day is your birthday — and it is mine too! I am writing to wish you many happy returns of the day and to tell you that I think Tom Sawyer is the nicest boy I have ever known.
(written in my best handwriting)
Twain, true to his beat, wrote back:
Dear Florence: Thank you for your nice note.
[Private.] I have always concealed it before, but now I am compelled to confess that I am Tom Sawyer!
Sincerely Your friend
S L . Clemens
On September 19, 1908, Twain received this moving personal confession from a Brooklyn minister named Frederick A. Wright:
Mr. S. L. Clemens,
I have wanted for a long time to time to thank you for the pleasure which your books have given me, but I have hesitated for fear that even thanks ought not to intrude on the privacy of a public character. But now I am making the venture. Having known Huck Finn twenty two years, and Tom and Sid and Mary and Aunt Polly still longer, I feel as if these friends might give me an introduction, especially so since the thing that I have enjoyed most in your books is the glimpse of yourself between the lines. So I have known you, though you have not known me. I only say how long I have enjoyed this, for if I should say how much I have enjoyed it, you might think me extravagant or insincere. My wife, (who remembers meeting you with her sister and cousins, when she was a little girl at the house of her uncle, Mr. Cable in New Orleans) says that I read Mark Twain the way old ladies read the Bible (I am a clergy man) — a chapter before going to bed.
Those boys and girls of your novels seem to me the most remarkable thing in American literature, and for me they have proved altogether the most enjoyable thing in American literature. I do not believe that any other literature has any representations of child life which are so universal and yet so concrete. I have a boy of my own now, and I am just having the fun of introducing them to him — these children that never grew up, “whose mortal years immortal youth became — ”
By the spring of 1910, newspapers were regularly reporting on Twain’s deteriorating health. On April 19, Twain received the following desperately heart-warming letter of support:
Dear Mark Twain: —
Together with all other reading men and women, I deeply sympathise with you in your illness, and also together with them I rejoice at the favorable reports from your bed-side which we receive from day to day.
You have given me more delights than any other author I ever read, and if everyone whom you have charmed as you have charmed me, were to write you now and tell you about it, the post-office at Redding would be blockaded for months to come. — I believe you are better loved than any other living man, and if the heart-felt wishes of each and all of us for your speedy recovery can avail you anything, I am sure you cannot remain long sick. Dear Mark, we simply cannot spare you, you must get well.
Again expressing my very best wishes,
I am Very Truly Your Friend
Geo. B. Byron
Three days later, Twain passed away. This was the last note from an adoring stranger he ever read.
Dear Mark Twain, the best such treasure since Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children, is an absolute treat in its entirety. Complement it with Twain’s irreverent advice to little girls and his thoughtful reflections on slavery and compassion.
Published March 25, 2013