MARK TWAIN AS A READER
(Mr. Howells sends us the following letter. -- EDITOR.)
MY DEAR MR. HOWELLS, -- No one has especially noticed, so far as I know, the remarkable skill of Mr. Clemens in reading aloud the works of Robert Browning, and perhaps you would like to have me tell you what I know about it, for the reason that it is interesting not only as throwing light upon Mr. Clemens, but as illustrating effectively what loud reading ought to aim at and do.
When Mr. Clemens was living in his Farmington Avenue home, and Mrs. Clemens, at the request of a friend or two, invited some ladies who were old friends of them both to come to their house one morning a week through the winter to hear some reading by Mr. Clemens from the works of Robert Browing, the object of these readings being to make those books comprehensible and not to display the qualities of the reader. In fact, I think the intelligence of these sympathetic hearers was to Mr. Clemens a test of the accuracy of his own interpretations. The readings had already been given during one winter, and another year with almost the same members of the club was under way when Mrs. Clemens graciously invited me to come. I think I had asked for this invitation in a round about way and was much delighted when it came. I had not been a reader of Browning, and was a commonplace doubter of his comprehensibility, even to the point of wondering whether Browning himself knew or cared very much what he meant. When I took my seat first in the library in which they lived, I looked about the carved black oak panelling of the walls imported from an English house and the books and little pictures which broke their dark surface, and perceived that the place was in itself a sort of revelation of poetic meanings. The fine, smooth outlines of the head of our hostess came out with wonderful clearness against the dark background, and seemed fitting and in perfect keeping with the flowers and filtered sunshine of the little conservatory. This was no surprise. But when I had settled into my place and began to take observations, I was astonished to find what an exquisite clearness and refinement radiated from Mr. Clemens. His features were clear-cut and delicate and had the cast of high breeding. His head had the fine, luminous effect of a cameo, and intellectual discernment and critical power were its most striking mental characteristics. I had known Mark Twain for years, and had appreciated him, or thought I did, but now I saw him in a wholly new light; no longer as a humorist who plays with his subject as a cat does with a mouse, but as a man of the highest literary quality responsive to the imaginative suggestions of a poet. I had wondered what he would do with his drawl, but for the most part it simply disappeared. He was reading continuously The Ring and the Book. The preliminaries of the opening cantos had been worked through in a previous reading. Soon he was in the flowing tide of the subject and all else was forgotten in its strong thoughts and brilliant sentences. The reading was not oratorical and aimed at no effects of cadence. Free from self-consciousness, attempting only to let those sentences speak for themselves as the author meant to have them, mastering in the easiest way the parenthetic style so habitual with Browning, sentence within sentence conveying the thought, Mr. Clemens interpreted the master or let him interpret himself with no intrusion of his own personality. Other men have tried to read Browning in a dramatic way with swelling voice and tragic emphasis, and their ornamentation served merely to confuse the meaning. In the method of Mr. Clemens the thought was the thread he followed and which he was usually able to keep clear and free from entanglements.
It was his custom, I believe, to read over beforehand what he intended to give us from the author. He needed only to know what was coming. There was no difficulty in following him for the most part. In Sordello only we saw him confused and perplexed, and after two readings the book was abandoned. But in Strafford the grand character of that man and the nation-wide canvas of the drama were brought out conspicuously and to our intense delight. Never was reading so much a revelation as with Mr. Clemens. It seemed as high an art as that of the actor. To be able with the voice so to interpret a thinker, one ordinarily not easy of comprehension, shows inspirability of a high order. Other readers have seemed to me since then superficial in comparison with him.
As his hearers in this club were all women, it may be that the abilities that came out in him as a reader were not generally understood outside of that small circle, and that hence you may welcome these few words from one of them. M. B. C.