Joseph Hopkins Twichell -- The Life and Times of Mark Twain's Closest Friend by Steve Courtney, University of Georgia Press '08, 764 pages, ISBN #0-8203-3056.6. Index, bibliography, source notes, grouping of b&w images.
If the most revealing biographies of Mark Twain had to be restricted to one shelf, Steve Courtney's new biography of Twain's best friend ought to be among them. Not that the life of Rev. Joseph Hopkins Twichell had the historical impact of Mark Twain -- it didn't. But for four decades, Twichell was Twain's closest male confidant. And from the 1904 death of his beloved Livy until Twain's death six years later, no living being was closer to him.
What makes Samuel Clemens's trusting relationship with his Hartford (CT) pastor so significant in understanding this most American of writers is that Twain's was a particularly mercurial temperament, with lots of unbridled joy and crushing sadness. Then too, over the years "The minister had become more conservative as he grew older, as his friend Clemens was becoming more radical," which lends a crackling dynamism to their correspondence.
Thanks to reams of correspondence which Courtney was able to access, the inner Twain shines through in ways it fails to in much of his fiction. Ken Burns's magnificent rendering of Twain's life for television several years ago revealed just how low Twain's spirits had sunk in the years during which he lost Livy and two daughters, an insight borne out by Clemens's private letters.
Since Twichell had married Sam and Olivia Clemens in 1870, it was only fitting that he'd officiate at Livy's funeral 34 years later. Two weeks after her funeral, Twichell inquired after the welfare of his best friend, asking how the future now looked to him. Clemens replied, "As non-existent. That is, there is nothing. That there is no God and no universe; that there is only empty space...."
All of which is not to say that Twichell was of value only as a sounding board for his friend. Ths Yale graduate from rural Plantsville, CT indeed was one of the most accomplished and revered clergymen of his era, including among his coterie of friends the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, then perhaps the most famous preacher in America. Twichell was a bit of a roustabout in his Yale days, and Courtney's rendering of a boisterous incident that claimed the life of a New Haven fireman is movingly told.
It might strike some as strange that Twain, who once described himself as having a 'weak faith,' would hook up so intimately with a prominent minister. But what the former Mississippi steamboat skipper found attractive in Twichell was what came to be known as his "muscular Christianity," not only denoting the pastor's robust physicality but his conviction that his church's mission was to roll up its collective sleeves and help the underserved, not merely to pontificate about their plight. Strapping and well over six feet tall, during the Civil War Twichell could be counted on to shoulder the packs of exhausted fellow shoulders.
After a Civil War chaplaincy, Twichell accepted his first pastorate in 1865 at Hartford's brand new Asylum Hill Congregational Church. He was 27 years old and would serve for 47 years. It was a day of reserved pews, and today a plaque on a 4th row pew at Asylum Hill marks the row the Clemens family occupied for many years. In the late 1800s, Hartford was the richest city, per capita, in America. Its members included many of the ruling capitalists of the day, leading Twain to nickname Asylum Hill the "church of the holy speculators." The church continues to exist, and with nearly 2,000 members, is one of the largest Congregational churches in America.
Another Twain/Twichell connection that has lasted to the present day is an 8-mile meander from Mark Twain's heralded home in Hartford, through picturesque countryside, up Avon Mountain to the Heublein Tower, from which can be seen stunning vistas of agricultural valleys to the West. This was but one hike the two men enjoyed. These days, author Courtney has accepted the task of organizing the annual trek, this year to be on Saturday, Sept. 27.