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B E N M. V O R P A H L University of California, Los Angeles “ Very Much Like A Fire-Cracker:” Owen Wister on Mark Twain In October, 1935, Harper’s Magazine, the same journal that printed Owen Wister’s first Western sketches in 1892, carried an essay by the seventy-five year old novelist characterizing Mark Twain as “among all our writers . . . not only the most interesting . . . but also the best beloved.”1 There was nothing unusual about the designation— especially in 1935,, when such widely different ad­ mirers of Mark Twain as Samuel Gompers and Nicholas Murray Butler were getting ready to celebrate the one hundreth anniver­ sary of Sam Clemens’ birth. Three motion pictures were made about subjects related to the famous Missouri novelist, President Roosevelt memorialized him in a speech from the White House, a special U. S. postage stamp was planned in his honor, and, in England, appropriate ceremonies were held at Oxford University. By characterizing Mark Twain as he did, Wister merely echoed the burden of what everybody was saying. Yet the Harper’s essay was interesting and in some degree unique because of the peculiar relationship between Mark Twain and Wister which it at once defined and completed. On the surface it looked like simply an­ other of many memorial essays, polished, erudite and somewhat bookish. But closer examination shows that it was different. Wister’s essay grew out of and expressed a series of interesting confusions which defined qualities of Mark Twain’s art and Wister’s mind more clearly than would have been possible for the factual account the essay was supposed to be. When Wister wrote the essay, he was nearing the end of a long and varied career. Born in 1860 to a talented Philadelphia family, he was in many ways the exact antithesis of Mark Twain. The Mis­ sourian was proud of having started with nothing, growing up on xOwen Wister, “In Homage to Mark Twain," Harper's Magazine, CLXXI (October, 1935), 547-56. Unless otherwise noted, all other quotations of Wister are from this essay. 84 Western American Literature the frontier and acquiring his education not from books and lec­ tures but through experience. Wister, on the other hand, had been prepared at fashionable boarding schools for Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude in music and later returned to take a law degree. He never forgot that his grandmother was Fanny Kemble, the famous Shakespearean actress, his grandfather, Pierce Butler, descendant of a signer of the U. S. Constitution. His own accomplishments, furthermore, were considerable. By the time he was twenty-four, Wister had written operas, played the piano before Franz Lizst in Vienna, and collaborated with Theodore Roosevelt in writing and producing Hasty Pudding theatricals at Harvard. At twenty-five, he went to Wyoming and began to write the Western stories which made him famous— but he also wrote criticism— of both music and literature— plays, more operas, biographies and his­ tories. By the time he wrote the Harper’s essay on Mark Twain, he had received membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, La Societe des Gens Lettres, and the Royal Society of Liter­ ature and been awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Medal for achieve­ ment in letters and an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. When he died in 1938, he left journals and corres­ pondence recording a remarkable range of associations from Wil­ liam Dean Howells to Ernest Hemingway.2 If the “Homage to Mark Twain” Wister offered in his 1935 article was temperate, it was clearly because Wister felt his own extensive achievement made it possible for him to judge others— even Mark Twain— from a con­ siderable height. Wister began his article by quoting the speech from Much Ado About Nothing in which Beatrice tells Don Pedro that “there was a star danced, and under that I was born”— a reference at once to Mark Twain’s birth and death under Haley’s Comet and his his­ torical function as a national American humorist, born, as Don Pedro says of Beatrice “in a merry hour.” The latter notion inter­ ested Wister more than the former, for he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 83-98
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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