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When Kipling Met Twain

4 min

Kipling was young and unknown, Twain was one of the most famous American writers.

Once upon a time, you could just go to someone's house and ask to meet them.

We should bring this back.

Today, an uninvited visit to the house of a stranger is frowned upon, but if one is willing to persevere through the initial ill-perception (and assuming one is otherwise socially well-adjusted and has something meaningful to say), I suspect it might just work.

It's a risky move. It could turn out very badly, but if it works... Perhaps it could change one's life.

These thoughts are inspired by a recent encounter I had with the Mark Twain Anthology.

I was intrigued and amused by the story of Rudyard Kipling knocking on the door of America's most famous writer.

In what follows here, you will find no particularly didactic lesson or "takeaway," so you can scram now if that's all you're after.

But I found this anecdote refreshing and inspiring, a disruption of my own private, inward, and complacent attitude toward the social navigation of the world.

In an era where, technically, we're free to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at all times, we are also, paradoxically, less comfortable doing it.

In 1889, Kipling was young and unknown. He published six books in the year prior, but nobody cared yet. At this time, his name counted for nothing.

Mark Twain, on the other hand, was one of America’s most eminent writers.

By 1900, they would arguably be the two most famous writers in the Anglophone world.

When Twain opened the door, Kipling introduced himself and said he just wanted to shake hands. Kipling recalls Twain’s response, “a strong, square hand shaking mine, and the slowest, calmest, 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.”

Before Kipling knew it, they were smoking cigars and discussing copyright laws.

Apparently, Twain believed strongly that copyright over books should be like ownership of real estate: A permanent, tradeable claim to an asset. He mocked anxieties about piracy and the idea of time limits on copyrights, suggesting that it all shakes out fairly in the end.

Tottletown, Cal., was a new town, with a population of three thousand—banks, fire-brigade, brick buildings, and all the modern improvements. It lived, it flourished, and it disappeared. Today no man can put his foot on any remnant of Tottletown, Cal. It’s dead. London continues to exist. Bill Smith, author of a book read for the next year or so, is real-estate in Tottletown. William Shakespeare, whose works are extensively read, is real estate in London. Let Bill Smith, equally with Mr. Shakespeare now deceased, have as complete a control over his copyright as he would over his real-estate. Let him gamble it away, drink it away, or—give it to the church. Let his heirs and assigns treat it in the same manner.

Kipling found Twain's concept of copyright strange and “heretical," yet he had no choice but to assent (“When the old lion roars, the young whelps growl.”)

Rudyard Kipling later in life

They talked about autobiography. Twain:

It is not in human nature to write the truth about itself. None the less the reader gets a general impression from an autobiography whether the man is a fraud or a good man… And the impression that the reader gets is a correct one.

Back in those days, famous people suffered from something we might today call IRL spam.

Twain said that, when he was in Hartford for 9 months of the year, he got no work done because he was constantly receiving visitors. Traveling salesmen would come to the house multiple times a day.

Some guys at the newspaper where Twain formerly worked told Kipling some stories about Twain qua reporter.

He was a reporter delightfully incapable of reporting according to the needs of the day. He preferred, so they said, to coil himself into a heap and meditate until the last minute. Then he would produce copy bearing no sort of relationship to his legitimate work—copy that made the editor swear horribly, and the readers of The Call ask for more.

In his autobioraphy, Mark Twain reminisced about meeting Kipling for the first time:

“I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before—though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would.”

Kipling admired Twain no less when he wrote in 1903:

“He is the biggest man you have on your side of the water by a damn sight, and don’t you forget it.”

Perhaps I will start visiting famous writers at their homes without advanced notice.

I will just knock on the door and propose that we have tea.

I wonder how that would go.

Perhaps it is so uncommon that they would just say "OK, I guess."

This post draws heavily from The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works.


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