Flashbacks November 2007

Mark Twain in The Atlantic

The fruitful relationship between Mark Twain and The Atlantic Monthly began in December 1869, when William Dean Howells, then an assistant editor at The Atlantic, wrote a highly favorable review of Twain's first book, Innocents Abroad, which had been published that year by a small commercial publishing house that sold copies by peddling the book from door to door. (Howells later also reviewed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and A Tramp Abroad for The Atlantic.) Twain was so pleased with the review that he stopped by The Atlantic's offices to meet Howells in person. The two became good friends, and as Twain's reputation grew, Howells began soliciting submissions from him.

His pursuit of a story by Twain was unsuccessful until 1874 when Howells, who was by then The Atlantic's editor in chief, obtained permission from the magazine's publisher to offer Twain twenty dollars per page—twice as much as most Atlantic contributors were then paid. That year, the first piece by Twain appeared in the magazine, followed by many more over the next decade, including Old Times on the Mississippi, which appeared in seven installments in 1875 and was later released as a book under the title Life on the Mississippi. Although other publications offered higher pay, Twain submitted regularly to The Atlantic partly out of loyalty to Howells and partly because he appreciated the magazine's thoughtful readership. In a 1874 letter to Howells he wrote, "The Atlantic audience is the only audience that I sit down before with perfect serenity (for the simple reason that it don't require a 'humorist' to paint himself stripèd and stand on his head every fifteen minutes)."

Below is a sampling of some of Twain's writing that has been published in The Atlantic Monthly.

"A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It" (November 1874)
Twain was born and raised in Missouri, a slave-holding state. An early influence on him was a slave named Uncle Daniel who told ghost stories to gatherings of local children. Twain's first contribution to The Atlantic, featuring a monologue delivered by a former slave, reflects those early experiences.

"Well, bymeby my ole mistis say she's broke, an' she got to sell all de niggers on de place. An' when I heah dat dey gwyne to sell us all off at action in Richmon', oh de good gracious! I know what dat mean!"

Aunt Rachel had gradually risen, while she warmed to her subject, and now she towered above us, black against the stars.

"Dey put chains on us an' put us on a stan' as high as dis po'ch,—twenty foot high,—an' all de people stood aroun', crowds an' crowds. An' dey'd come up dah an' look at us all roun', an' squeeze our arm, an' make us git up an' walk, an' den say, 'Dis one don't 'mount to much.' An' dey sole my ole man, an' took him away, an' dey begin to sell my chil'en an' take dem away, an' I begin to cry.

"The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" (June 1876)
In early 1876 Twain wrote a story about an encounter between himself and his (anthropomorphized) conscience, to deliver at one of the regular meetings of The Monday Evening Club, an association of writers and intellectuals in Hartford, where he then lived. Some viewed this story as a turning point in Twain's work—representing the introduction of moral issues into his writing, which previously had been intended mainly to entertain. Howells published the story in The Atlantic that spring.

The door opened, and a shriveled, shabby dwarf entered. He was not more than two feet high. He seemed to be about forty years old. Every feature and every inch of him was a trifle out of shape; and so, while one could not put his finger upon any particular part and say, "This is a conspicuous deformity," the spectator perceived that this little person was a deformity as a whole—a vague, general, evenly-blended, nicely-adjusted deformity.... And yet, this vile bit of human rubbish seemed to bear a sort of remote and ill-defined resemblance to me!

"Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion" (October 1877-January 1878)
In May, 1877, Twain went on a ten-day vacation to Bermuda with a close friend from Hartford, Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twichell. He kept a journal during the trip which he later expanded into an account that appeared in The Atlantic in four installments.

The early twilight of a Sunday evening, in Hamilton, Bermuda, is an alluring time. There is just enough of whispering, breeze, fragrance of flowers, and sense of repose to raise one's thoughts heavenward; and just enough amateur piano music to keep him reminded of the other place....

We never met a man, or woman, or child anywhere in this sunny island who seemed to be unprosperous, or discontented, or sorry about anything. This sort of monotony became very tiresome presently, and even something worse. The spectacle of an entire nation groveling in contentment is an infuriating thing.

"A Telephonic Conversation" (June 1880)
Twain's family was one of the first in Hartford to install a telephone (which had been invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876) in their home. In 1880, Twain, bemused by this new device that permitted eavesdroppers to hear only one side of a conversation, wrote an amusing description of overhearing his wife talk on the telephone.

Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world,—a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don't hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise, or sorrow, or dismay. You can't make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says.
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