Mark Twain and Charles Dickens were arguably the greatest writers of the 19th century in America and Britain, respectively, and were certainly the most popular. Their careers follow a sort of parallel route as both used their stories to highlight the plight of the downtrodden, and both used the skewer of humor to deflate puffed-up authority figures. A question came up in a writer’s panel I once attended pondering whether they ever met. It turns out I’ve done a little bit of research into that very question.
I’m fascinated in instances of famous historical personages meeting, and the stories behind them. The famous photo of Nixon posing with Elvis in the Oval Office always comes to mind, although there are many other famous meet-ups in history.
Twain was a great admirer of Dickens and his work, and read him over and over his entire life (even, it has been intimated, “borrowed” some of Dickens’ characters). But it turns out that no, Mark Twain never met Charles Dickens.
However, Samuel Clemens did attend one of Dickens’ public readings at Steinway Hall in New York City on New Year’s Eve, 1867. Dickens was 55 years of age and on his second lecture tour of America. At the height of his popularity, Dickens’ tour earned him £19,000 over four months of travel, mostly between New York and Boston. Clemens was only 32 years old and had just returned from a trip to Europe and the Holy Land that he had somehow convinced the San Francisco Alta California newspaper to bankroll in exchange for periodic letters back. (His experiences on this trip would be published two years later as Innocents Abroad, his best-selling book during his lifetime.)
That Twain admired Dickens is clear. In his review of the lecture in the Alta California, he writes:
“But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty, bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work. This was Dickens — Dickens. There was no question about that, and yet it was not right easy to realize it.”
However, his review also left little doubt that he was not impressed with Dickens’ public speaking style, and was rather disappointed about it: “He is a bad reader, in one sense — because he does not enunciate his words sharply and distinctly — he does not cut the syllables cleanly, and therefore many and many of them fell dead before they reached our part of the house… I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens’ reading — I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed.” Perhaps Twain’s appreciation was hindered by his seat in the middle of the theatre, or perhaps he was distracted by his companion. He was, after all, on his first date with Olivia Langdon, the woman who would become his wife a couple of years later.
Mark Twain also takes part in several other mind-boggling meetings: Rudyard Kipling, Helen Keller, Winston Churchill. One final story, which may be apocryphal, but is too good to pass up: At a dinner party hosted by Robert Underwood Johnson, a New York writer and editor, Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla, and the environmentalist John Muir were all in attendance. According to one account, Tesla attempted to convince John Muir that his power plants would reduce fossil fuel use. Muir was having none of that and observed that by diverting water upstream from Niagara Falls for the power station, he was already causing environmental damage. One hopes that Mark Twain made a clever comment at this point to lighten the mood, but if he did, it has been lost to history.
Query from the author: This blog post has been one of the most popular I’ve posted, and I wonder why people are coming to it. Just curiosity? Or is there some other force compelling people to search the Dickens and Twain relationship? Leave a note in the comments. Thanks!