Did Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde ever share a bottle or a joke? That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for the last hour. Wilde’s literary ascent in the 1880s and ’90s overlapped with Twain’s many decades of fame; each writer lectured and travelled on both sides of the Atlantic; they were among the most quotable (and thus sought out) men of their time. They must have met, right? But the evidence at hand (Google, plus the indexes of two biographies) suggests otherwise.
No matter. If they didn’t share hot toddies and elderberry wine (as Wilde did with Whitman, in Whitman’s Camden row house), they share space in the sixteenth edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (edited by Justin Kaplan, one of Twain’s biographers). Twain gets nearly three full pages; Wilde gets two. Reading through the Twain list a moment ago, I began to worry that my favorite line—“Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand”—wouldn’t appear. But then it rose up, all the more powerful in context:
Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. – The Mysterious Stranger
It’s a great line, even if it isn’t quite true. (Compare Shelley calling poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and Auden tut-tutting this reply: “‘The unacknowledged legislators of the world’ describes the secret police, not the poets.”) Awful things (and people) continue to survive laughter’s assault, but the dictum has proved useful to my teaching. A few weeks ago, in my Comic Fiction class, we read Lorrie Moore’s “Real Estate,” a story interrupted by nearly a thousand consecutive “Ha!”s. (The point-of-view character is reflecting on her husband’s many affairs. “There had been a parade of flings—in the end, they’d made her laugh: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” Like that, for two more pages.) This is corrosive, assaultive laughter: laughter fired by a rusty AK-47. How could a marriage survive it? Or, switching realms (from the personal to the political), how could Howard Dean survive the Dean Scream? How could Anthony Weiner survive Carlos Danger?
(The Dean and Weiner tumbles may call into question the sturdiness of Wilde’s epigram from Dorian Gray: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Rob Ford is presently testing this line’s strength.)
Wondering if any other 19th c. writers might be quoted in Bartlett’s more frequently than Twain and Wilde, I first thought of Dickens. What I found: Dickens ties Twain and beats Wilde. But Wilde gets the final ha. “One must have a heart of stone,” he told his friend Ada Leverson, “to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
On today’s date, in 1835, Twain comet-blasted his way into the world. Wilde left the world on this same date in 1900. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he said. “One or the other of us has to go.”
Update: From the ever-helpful and resourceful Ann Marie Slevin: “My Twain bio (Ron Powers) says the two ‘spotted and greeted each other’ in the dining room of a hotel in Bad Nauheim, Germany, in the summer of 1892. Sam’s daughter remembered Wilde sporting a carnation as big as a baby sunflower in his lapel, and colored shoes on his feet. But no report of sharing a bottle or a joke. . . .”