The Mark Twain-Walt Whitman Controversy

Ed Folsom and Jerome Loving in the Virginia Quarterly Review:

The publication of significant previously unpublished work by one of America’s best-known authors is always a major literary event, but when it is an unpublished piece by Mark Twain about another of America’s legendary writers, Walt Whitman, it is cause for a double celebration. This is especially the case with these two writers whose lives overlapped (Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, nineteen years after Whitman’s birth, and he died in 1910, eighteen years after Whitman), but had so little to say about each other. This seems odd to us since we now think of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Mark Twain’s many novels as sharing in the very creation of an idiomatic, realistic, gritty new national literature, and so we imagine them as literary compatriots. But it was only during his last years that Whitman even occasionally referred to the novelist, after Samuel Clemens donated money to several fund-raising projects to help out the aged and infirm poet.

Asked in 1889 about Mark Twain as a writer, Whitman said, “I think he mainly misses fire: I think his life misses fire: he might have been something: he comes near to being something: but he never arrives.” While he said that he admired certain aspects of Twain’s work, Whitman probably discounted him as a mere humorist, one of those “writers of the left hand,” who hid not only behind their pseudonyms but also the literary frame that separated them from their vernacular storytellers.