by James P. Hughes
In a field of endeavor, the paths of acclaimed people have crossed in unlikely places and under improbable circumstances, even as one is riding the cusp of fame and the other is yet largely unknown. Such was the case of a notable first meeting between revered authors Mark Twain (1835-1910) and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).
It was the middle of a summer night in 1889 when, after a tedious journey, a bespectacled 23-year-old Kipling with “great-coat and valise” stepped down from a train in Elmira, New York. While on a visit to America, the aspiring writer hoped to encounter and interview his idol, the great Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens). Pursuing conflicting information, an uncertain trek finally led him to the small upstate city. Weary from the journey, and due to the lateness of the hour, Kipling checked into a local hotel. A serious search would have to wait for morning.
Born in India of British origin, Kipling had barely begun his literary career, one that would ultimately produce extensive stories, poetry, and essays. With a love of prose, his penning of memorable works like The Jungle Book, Kim, and Captains Courageous was still years away. The expressive young writer desired only to “shake hands with and meet the man I had learned to love and admire from fourteen thousand miles away.”
The creative Twain, well established as a writer and humorist, was lauded throughout America and beyond. With a wealth of works still to come, collections of his short stories and essays had been published, along with numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction. Since Twain’s marriage to Elmira native Olivia (“Livy”) Langdon in 1870, the couple and family had summered at the remote Quarry Farm high on East Hill overlooking the city. Much of Twain’s finest work had been accomplished there in his private octagonal study, a tranquil environment far from the necessary business and bustle he faced at the family residence in Hartford, Connecticut.
Morning arrived and Kipling learned that the author was near. In fact, “Twain or someone very like him” had been seen the previous day heading up East Hill. A buggy was hired, and Kipling negotiated the precipitous 2-mile climb to the farm, “a very pretty house…clothed with ivy…and fronted by a veranda full of chairs and hammocks.” All for naught, he was told on arrival. Mr. Clemens could be found at the Langdon homestead in downtown Elmira, mere blocks from Kipling’s hotel. “Then he was within shouting distance…the trip had not been in vain.”
Where in the World Was Mark Twain?
The Langdon homestead in Elmira, site of the meeting between Twain and Kipling, was razed in 1939. The house at Quarry Farm still sits high on East Hill and is owned by Elmira College. The Mark Twain Study, where the author wrote much of his best work, was moved from Quarry Farm to the campus of Elmira College in 1952 and is open to visitors.
Soon, with some trepidation, Kipling was ringing the doorbell of the Langdon home. In the pause before an answer came, it occurred to him that “Mark Twain might possibly have other engagements than the entertainment of an escaped lunatic from India.” He later expressed his memories of the moment:
Things happened somewhat in this order. A big, darkened drawing room; a huge chair; a man with eyes, a mane of grizzled hair, a brown mustache, a strong square hand shaking mine, and the slowest, levellest voice in all the world saying:
“Well, you think you owe me something, and you’ve come to tell me so. That’s what I call squaring a debt handsomely.”
Kipling was captivated by the presence of Twain, but soon made comfortable by this man he so admired. Twain curled up in an armchair and the two enjoyed cigars as they spoke. “I was smoking reverently, as befits one in the presence of his superior,” Kipling wrote.
Over the course of a two-hour conversation, they chatted at length about many matters – copyrights, books and authors, conscience, and truth in literature.
Regarding a personal favorite, Kipling questioned Twain about a possible future for Tom Sawyer. Would he be heard from as a grown man? Twain stood up, filled his pipe, and paced back and forth:
I haven’t decided…I have a notion of writing the sequel to Tom Sawyer in two ways. In one I would make him rise to great honor and go to Congress, and in the other I should hang him. Then the friends and enemies of the book could take their choice …with a joggle he could turn out a rip or an angel.
Politely, Kipling suggested that such a “joggle” could adversely affect a beloved character that “now isn’t just your property, he belongs to us.” He remembered that Twain “with a large, wholesome laugh, began a dissertation on the rights of man to do what he liked with his own creations.”
Twain continued to talk, describing his fascination with reading facts and statistics – anything from the raising of radishes to the world of mathematics fascinated him. He wryly added: “Get your facts first and then you can distort ‘em as much as you please.” Topic after topic was discussed. Kipling listened intently, adding his own thoughts. “I surprised him as much as he surprised me,” Twain remembered.
As Rudyard Kipling said goodbye and left the residence, Mark Twain firmly shook his hand, “the great man assuring me with gentle kindness that I had not interrupted him in the least.” Two years later, in his American Notes, Kipling recalled the memorable day: “I have seen Mark Twain this golden morning, have shaken his hand, and smoked a cigar – no, two cigars – with him, and talked with him for more than two hours!”
Much later, Mark Twain wrote of Kipling’s visit in his autobiography, expressing respect and admiration for the now established author.
He was a stranger to me and all the world and remained so for twelve months, then he became suddenly known and universally known. From that day to this he has held this unique distinction; that of being the only living person, not head of nation, whose voice is heard around the world the moment he drops a remark…
The young man from India had stirred Mark Twain, as well as Clemens family members who had met him briefly. In typical Twain fashion, he described the bright, perceptive Kipling with whom he had shared cigars and conversation, likening his discourse to “footprints, so strong and definite was the impression left behind.”
Between us we cover all knowledge; he knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.
By the time the 19th century had faded into the 20th, the two acclaimed writers, who had first met by such happenstance, were considered among the most famous in the English-speaking world. In time, each fondly recounted their initial meeting in writing. Although their paths crossed only on rare occasions through the succeeding years, a mutual admiration endured.