Innocents At Home

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MAXIM GORKY : The day of justice and deliverance for the oppressed of all the world is at hand. MARK TWAIN : My sympathies are with the Russian revolution. We are going to offer Gorky the literary hospitality of the country. REPORTER (to Gorky): Who was that lady I saw you with last night?

At two o’clock on the afternoon of March 27, 1906, Mark Twain, then living at 21 Fifth Avenue in New York City, received a visit from a Russian, one Nicholas Tchaykoffsky, who said that he had come to America to gather funds for the overthrow of the Czar and the founding of a Russian republic. The famous Russian novelist and revolutionary Maxim Gorky would arrive in early April to spur the movement, but meanwhile, Tchaykoffsky wondered, would Twain lend his support? Would he address a meeting of people sympathetic to the revolution, on the twenty-ninth of March? Twain assured his caller that he detested the Czar, admired the rebels’ cause, and although he had a previous engagement on the twenty-ninth of March, would do what he could to assist. Then, quickly, he drafted a letter for Mr. Tchaykoffsky to read to his gathering.

“Dear Mr. Tchaykoffsky,” it began, and, after a short apology for Twain’s not being able to attend, continued:

My sympathies are with the Russian revolution, of course. It goes without saying. I hope it will succeed, and now that I have talked with you I take heart to believe it will. Government by falsified promises, by lies, by treachery, and by the butcher-knife, for the aggrandizement of a single family of drones and its idle and vicious kin, has been borne quite long enough in Russia, I should think, and it is to be hoped that the roused nation, now rising in its strength, will presently put an end to it and set up a republic in its place. Some of us, even the white-headed, may live to see the blessed day when tsars and grand-dukes will be as scarce there as I trust they are in heaven.

Most sincerely yours, Mark Twain

When, two nights later, the letter was read to a crowd of three thousand at the Grand Central Palace, it received an ovation. The crowd was encouraged. Mark Twain was on their side, and Gorky, they knew, was coming.

Mark Twain, white-haired and seventy now, considered himself an iconoclast and revolutionary. Recently, in 1905, he had strongly opposed President Roosevelt’s settlement of the Russo-Japanese War, on the grounds that, had the war gone on, the Russian autocracy would have fallen and a republic been born. The settlement had preserved the Czar. The Czar was, in Twain’s opinion, an imbecile unworthy of preservation, and Roosevelt, “far and away the worst president we have ever had.” Freely, though in general privately, Twain also attacked American Christianity —”a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy”—and, to Tchaykoffsky, spoke so savagely about America’s utter indifference to liberty that the old Russian left his interview much depressed. In his dealings with the public, of which he was as contemptuous as he was fond, Twain was gentler. He limited himself to the minor shock of, say, a risqué motto—“ Do your duty today and repent tomorrow”—or, at some afternoon affair, kissing a flock of Vassar girls. He had recently taken to wearing nothing but white—“his efflorescence in white serge,” William Dean Howells called it. It was a revolutionary color for a revolutionary to choose, and, with his white heap of hair, white mustache, white suit and shoes, Twain was a dazzling and immaculate rebel.

Tchaykoffsky had arrived in America little more than a week before his interview with Twain. He was staying at 3 Fifth Avenue, in what had been a mansion but was now a co-operative rooming house known as Club A. As a mansion it had housed a duchess; as a rooming house it contained an assortment of writers, Socialists, and transient Russians. One of the roomers was a young lady named Catherine Teller, who lived on the top floor with her grandmother.

Miss Teller was a bright young playwright, brisk, lovely, and leftish. When she heard Tchaykoffsky say that he would like to meet Mark Twain, she told him that although she herself had never met Twain, she would be glad to walk up to his house—just two blocks away—and ask for an appointment. To her surprise, when she did so she was invited to bring Tchaykoffsky back that afternoon at two. At two, Miss Teller and her grizzled friend arrived. She introduced the Russian and was about to leave when suddenly Twain asked her name again. When she added that she had written a play about Joan of Arc, he immediately asked her if she would call on him the next day. She called. The two saw each other almost daily for the next three months.

Gorky was scheduled to arrive in New York on April io. A day or two before, Twain strolled down the avenue to Club A and told Tchaykoffsky that he proposed to give a literary dinner in honor of Gorky and his wife, who, according to reports, was travelling with him. It should be, Twain suggested, a grand occasion to which an excellent literary few would come to pay their respects to, and perhaps impress, the Russian novelist. It would also help the cause, of course, if Gorky were to become associated with established American names.