The Legacy of Harper’s Magazine, William Dean Howells
and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer
What are you doing during lunch tomorrow? If it involves sitting at your desk eating a sandwich consider joining us in Bryant Park. Oxford University Press has teamed up with the Bryant Park Reading Room to host a FREE discussion of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer led by John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author, most recently, of You Can’t be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. In the blog post after the break MacArthur introduces us to the relationship between Harper’s and Mark Twain.
So be sure to come to the Bryant Park Reading Room (northern edge of the park), Tuesday, July 21st from 12:30 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. The rain venue (don’t worry we are doing our best no-rain dances) is The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Building, 20 West 44th Street. Sign up in advance and receive a FREE copy of the Oxford World’s Classic, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (offer is limited while supply lasts).
The histories of Mark Twain, William Dean Howells and Harper’s Magazine are so intimately linked, so important to the fabric of the magazine, that I talk about Twain and Howells around the office as if they were still alive. The other day I told a staff meeting that as long as I was running Harper’s, it would remain a literary magazine that also publishes journalism — not the other way around — because of Howells’s and Twain’s ever-present legacy.
Howells met Twain in 1869, three years after Twain had published his first long narrative in Harper’s, “43 Days in an Open Boat.” As the future literary editor of Harper’s recalled, “At the time of our first meeting…Clemens (as I must call him instead of Mark Twain, which seemed always somehow to mask him from my personal sense) was wearing a sealskin coat, with the fur out, in the satisfaction of a caprice, or the love of strong effect which he was apt to indulge through life.” It’s no coincidence that for our special 150th anniversary issue in 2000, we constructed a cover photo of Twain in his dandy suit facing Tom Wolfe in his dandy suit.
Clemens and Howells became good friends and in 1875 the genius from Hannibal asked Howells to read the manuscript of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. “I am glad to remember that I thoroughly liked The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Howells wrote, “and said so with every possible amplification. Very likely, I also made my suggestions for its improvement; I could not have been a real critic without that; and I have no doubt they were gratefully accepted and, I hope, never acted upon.” Howells was underrating his influence on Twain, who penned over 80 pieces for Harper’s. As a critic and a fine novelist in his own right, Howells was correct — Tom Sawyer is a great American novel. Indeed, not everyone agrees that it’s any less of an achievement than the more widely acclaimed (at least in serious literary circles) Huckleberry Finn. I’m looking forward to talking about the book next week and finding out the answer to a number of questions: for example, precisely how old is Tom Sawyer? I assume the Twain scholars in the audience will enlighten me on this and other matters.