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Legacy 18.2 (2001) 193-204



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"He is Amusing but Not Inherently a Gentleman":
The Vexed Relations of Kate Field and Samuel Clemens

Gary Scharnhorst

University of New Mexico


Though she has virtually disappeared from the history of American journalism, Kate Field (1838-1896) was a forerunner of such famous turn-of-the-century women reporters as Nellie Bly and Dorothy Dix. According to her obituary in the New York Tribune, she was "one of the best-known women in America" at the height of her career ("Kate Field Dead"). A member of the expatriate community in Florence in the late 1850 s, she befriended the Brownings, the Trollopes, and Walter Savage Landor while still in her early twenties. One of the first women to contribute to the Atlantic Monthly, 1 a prolific travel writer and theatre reviewer for the New York Tribune, she was also, I believe, the model for the character of Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. 2 She first won fame for her dispatches about Charles Dickens's final visit to the United States, or, as Clemens later reminisced, she "made a wide, spasmodic notoriety in 1867 by some letters which she sent from Boston—by telegraph—to the Tribune about Dickens's readings there in the beginning of his triumphant American tour." At the time "the idea of telegraphing a newspaper letter was new and astonishing," he explained, "and the wonder of it was in every one's mouth. Kate Field became a celebrity at once" (Twain, Mark Twain's Autobiography 1 : 157 ). She soon revised these dispatches into a book, Pen Photographs of Charles Dickens's Readings (1868 ), that passed through two editions and that remains an extremely valuable reference resource about the style and manner of Dickens's stage performances. She later published two popular travel books, Hap-Hazard (1873 ) and Ten Days in Spain (1875 ). Many of her pieces collected in the former volume are written in a breezy style reminiscent of Clemens's The Innocents Abroad (1869 ). For example, she opened a travel letter from Ems, Germany, originally contributed to the Paris American Register in June 1872 , as follows:

I am requested to say something about Americans abroad. Well, I am sorry to make the confession, but either there are a great many fools in America, or all the fools in America visit Europe. I have not yet arrived at a definite conclusion on the subject, for truth is said to lie in a well, and a great deal of rope is required to get at it; but judging from the fact that I never met such peculiar specimens at home as I meet or hear of abroad, I am inclined to believe that a large proportions of our idiots seek an asylum on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps this is the retort courteous we make to Europe for sending us her adventurers, thieves, and burglars. (172 ) [End Page 193]

In the late 1870 s, moreover, Field worked as a publicist for Alexander Graham Bell, once even singing Irish folk songs over the telephone to Queen Victoria, and she was instrumental in the founding of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford and the John Brown Memorial in the Adirondacks. Between 1890 and 1895 she edited and published her own weekly paper, Kate Field's Washington, to which Charlotte Perkins Gilman contributed thirty of her earliest essays, stories, and poems (Scharnhorst 5 , 6 , 8 , and passim).

Nevertheless, Field struggled for a livelihood throughout her career. Two years after she covered Dickens's tour for the Tribune, she turned to the more lucrative lecture platform. In effect, she began to trade on her celebrity. As she asked Whitelaw Reid, the managing editor of the Tribune, in June 1869 , "Do you expect Hood, Charles Lamb and George Alfred Townsend [to write] for $15 per column?" (Letter to Whitlaw Reid). She explained to the actor Noah Miller Ludlow the next month,

I've gone into the Lyceum because it pays better than anything...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0643
Print ISSN
0748-4321
Pages
pp. 193-204
Launched on MUSE
2001-10-01
Open Access
No
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