Mark Twain was known for his sense of humor. But when he got mad, he got very, very mad. He often used his wit to sting his enemies. Like all the best humorists, his wit could turn vicious. Sometimes he got so angry he dispensed with wit and let the fury fly.
So many things raised Twain's ire that curators of a new exhibit at Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford had a difficult task: whittling the list of Twain's "tantrums and righteous rages" down to 10.
"It was really hard. We had so many instances to choose from," said Twain house curator Tracy Brindle. "There were things that were just irritations, but he also got angry about social injustice."
The show gathers books, photos, artifacts and writing to illustrate Twain's pet resentments. It also includes a 1967 clip of Hal Holbrook performing "Mark Twain Tonight" and talking about what annoyed him.
Twain got his undies in a bunch about bad investments, newfangled inventions, his daughters' reputation, his lapsed friendships, medical quackery, banned books and sneaky employees, as well as the really big issues of racism, imperialism and religion.
In 1889, Twain wrote in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," "The blunting effects of slavery upon the slaveholder's moral perceptions are known and conceded the world over and a privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under another name."
Twain's acceptance of slavery as a youth, in the slaveholding state of Missouri, changed over time to a revulsion for racial intolerance, made stronger by his marriage to Olivia Langdon, whose family were abolitionists. The exhibit includes letters written by escaped slave Frederick Douglass to Livy's father, who had a hand in Douglass' escape from slavery.
Later in life, the big issue obsessing Twain was anti-imperialism, a point mentioned in that Holbrook video: "There's not an acre of ground on the globe that's in the possession of its rightful owner," Twain said.
Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which discussed bigotry head-on and used racially derogatory language to make its point, has endured threats of banning for many decades. One of the first, by the Concord, Mass., library, stuck in Twain's craw. The library called the book "trashy" and "immoral." Twain was livid, but he made a joke: "They have expelled Huck from their library. ... That will sell 25,000 copies for us, sure."
The most financially unfortunate episode of Twain's life — his hefty investment in the Paige Compositor, which was cast aside by newspapers in favor of the linotype — was another source of agita, as was his aversion to the telephone. That exasperation may have involved his failure to invest in the phone, an opportunity offered to him by Alexander Graham Bell. "He didn't think it would take off," Brindle said. "Not a wise decision."
He later had a phone installed in his home — with a direct line to The Hartford Courant — but never stopped hating the contraption. "I want something to keep voices further away, not bring them nearer," he quipped. At a doctor friends' house, he took out a cane to whip the telephone.
That doctor remained a friend for life, triumphing over Twain's hatred for physicians, another focus of antagonism. His daughter Clara, of course, remained dear, too, despite an episode in Germany involving a roomful of soldiers that galled and humiliated Twain.
Another person close to him, however, was unapologetically cut dead.
Writer Bret Harte visited Twain in Hartford, apparently drank too much and offended Twain. "We will never know what was said, but according to Twain, his domestic space was insulted," Brindle said. "Twain grew up poor and was very proud of his home. He felt personally attacked." Twain's dislike transferred to Harte's writing. "He has no heart, except his name, and I consider he has produced nothing that is genuine. He is artificial," Twain said in a 1895 interview.
Twain battled with religion his whole life. He attended Asylum Hill Congregational Church and was best friends with Rev. Joseph Twitchell, but his faith was shaken by premature deaths in his family: his daughter Susy and his 18-month-old son. By the time he wrote "The Mysterious Stranger" around the turn of the century, he was over the idea of God. "Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction!" he wrote.
In his twilight years, Twain's pet peeve was Isabel Lyon, Livy's secretary until Livy died in 1904 and then an aide to Twain. "Some scholars believe she was very obsessive of Twain and possibly tried to seduce him. Clara and Jean got along with her for a while, but that soured when they saw Isabel wearing their mother's jewelry," Brindle said.
After Lyon married Twain's business manager, Ralph Ashcroft, Twain decided he hated both of them. A bitter 429-page manuscript — published in the third volume of his autobiography — was, even for Twain, unusually raw and angry. But he could still joke about them. While reading Charles Darwin's "The Voyage of the Beagle," which mentioned a particular kind of microbe, Twain jotted in the margins: "A curious fungus. The Ashcrofts are of this breed."
"TWAIN'S TEMPER: TOP TEN TANTRUMS & RIGHTEOUS RAGES" will be at Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave. in Hartford through Jan. 21. marktwainhouse.org.