Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens
River Boat Pilot, Printer, Traveler, Miner, Inventor, Journalist, Public Speaker, Editor, and Author
Born November 30, 1835, Florida, Missouri
Died April 21, 1910, Redding, Connecticut

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was born 176 years ago today, on November 30, 1835. His long and full life encompassed one complete orbit of Halley's Comet around the sun, seventy-four years in all. Twain's literary star began to rise at about the time Halley's Comet reached its aphelion. A year prior to his death, he made the following prediction:
I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: "Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together."
It was not the first of his predictions or premonitions, nor his first association with the stars. A month before his brother Henry's death, Twain saw the event in a dream. He was haunted ever afterward and became interested in the paranormal. He was even an early member of the Society for Psychical Research (according to Wikipedia). As I write this, the figure of Orion is hanging sideways in the late autumn sky: Mark Twain's lone surviving brother shared that name and taught him the trade of the printer and journalist. Today a humble asteroid bears the name "2362 Mark Twain."

Anything that might be said about Mark Twain has probably already been said in one way or another. I can offer a few words about his career as an author of weird or fantastic fiction. His story, "A Dying Man's Confession," was reprinted in the pages of Weird Tales (Oct. 1930) almost two decades after his death. His previous works in the field included a story of time travel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), and one of Satan on earth, The Mysterious Stranger (1916). Finally, in his old age, Twain befriended a girl named Dorothy Quick (1896-1962). After Twain's death, her own writing career in full swing, Dorothy authored fifteen short stories and twenty-five poems for Weird Tales, making her one of the most successful of contributors to "The Unique Magazine."

Perhaps on the day that Mark Twain died and a thousand miles to the west, another future writer was being held up in the arms of his father, "under the cottonwoods of a cold and leafless spring to see the hurtling emissary of the void." That writer-to-be was Loren Eiseley (1907-1977), and his father's words to him as Halley's Comet made its track across the sky were among Eiseley's "earliest and most cherished memories":
If you live to be an old man you will see it again. It will come back in seventy-five years. Remember, I will be gone, but you will see it. All that time it will be traveling in the dark, but somewhere, far out there, it will turn back. It is running glittering through millions of miles. Remember, all you have to do is to be careful and wait. You will be seventy-eight or seventy-nine years old. I think you will live to see it--for me.
Eiseley's father of course did not live to see the return of the comet. Sadly, neither did his son. But Loren Eiseley went on to a celebrated career as an anthropologist, teacher, and philosopher, and as a fine literary stylist. Ray Bradbury was an admirer of his work, and as it turned out, Eiseley even tried his hand at science fiction. I would not be surprised to learn that he had once been a reader of weird tales.

If I calculate correctly, Halley's Comet is now about halfway between perihelion and aphelion, huddled in its blanket of ice in the deep cold of interplanetary space. What writer, born at about the time of the comet's last approach to Earth in 1985-1986, will make his or her name as Mark Twain and Loren Eiseley did before it returns?

Mark Twain's Story in Weird Tales
"A Dying Man's Confession" (Oct. 1930)

Further Reading
If you want to read about Mark Twain, the place to start might be his autobiography, published last year, a century after his death.

Mark Twain and Dorothy Quick, two contributors to Weird Tales, though neither could have known it when this photograph was taken in July 1907 aboard the U.S.S. Minnetonka.
Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

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