Thursday, September 29

Sub-Creative Genius

When Rudyard Kipling interviewed Mark Twain on this day in 1889, Kipling was still making his reputation while Twain was at the height of his fame. Kipling’s entertaining account of the meeting for a group of reporters began with a flourish of braggadocio, “You are a contemptible lot, over yonder. Some of you are Commissioners, and some Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the Victoria Cross, and a few are privileged to walk about the Mall arm in arm with the Viceroy; but 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! Understand clearly that I do not despise you; indeed, I don't. I am only very sorry for you, from the Viceroy downward. To soothe your envy and to prove that I still regard you as my equals, I will tell you all about it.”

Kipling described all the trials and tribulations of tracking down Twain at his gothic mansion there in central New York—the hassles, the run-arounds, the delays, and the off-putting diversions that almost deterred him from his task. , “They said in Buffalo that he was in Hartford, and again they said, perchance he is gone upon a journey to Europe—which information so upset me that I embarked upon the wrong train, and was incontinently turned out by the conductor three-quarters of a mile from the station, amid the wilderness of railway tracks. Have you ever, encumbered with great-coat and valise, tried to dodge diversely-minded locomotives when the sun was shining in your eyes? But I forgot that you have not seen Mark Twain, you people of no account!”

But at last the men met and Kipling was awestruck, “The thing that struck me first was that he was an elderly man; yet, after a minute's thought, I perceived that it was otherwise, and in five minutes, the eyes looking at me, I saw that the grey hair was an accident of the most trivial. He was quite young. I was shaking his hand. I was smoking his cigar, and I was hearing him talk—this man I had learned to love and admire fourteen thousand miles away. Reading his books, I had striven to get an idea of his personality, and all my preconceived notions were wrong and beneath the reality. Blessed is the man who finds no disillusion when he is brought face to face with a revered writer. That was a moment to be remembered; the landing of a twelve-pound salmon was nothing to it. I had hooked Mark Twain, and he was treating me as though under certain circumstances I might be an equal.”

The two men talked of publishing and writing and gardening. They discussed the novels of Scott, the stories of Hart, and the verse of Burns. Then Kipling got to the heart of the matter, “Growing bold, and feeling that I had a few hundred thousand folk at my back, I demanded whether Tom Sawyer married Judge Thatcher's daughter and whether we were ever going to hear of Tom Sawyer as a man.” Twain replied that he hadn’t decided yet. And then the two men dreamed and conspired and imagined what might be, what ought not be, and what should be until the waning hours of the night.

The portrait that finally emerged from the interview, was not so much of one man or the other, but of the way an artistic mind, engaged and inspired by another, may spin worlds of thought and imagination. It was, as Kipling asserted, “A holy moment when the subcreative genius of the Almighty is suddenly made manifest.”

That's a fine way of reminding us that iron sharpens iron.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Grant- I have a question to ask of you. I was wondering if you had ever considered making any of the courses you teach available for long distance learning? I am just now helping to pioneer a pilot history program at my church- Christ Church Kirkland. And I have for so long admired your teaching and the ability you have to embellish them with inspirational stories. Please let me know your thoughts.

gileskirk said...


Well, all my history lectures (four years worth, in about 45 lectures a year, covering the history of the world from Genesis 1 to the present) are available (along with outlines, tests, and reading assignments) on CD or DVD. They're at Is that something like what you had in mind?

Nick Jesch said...

Two of my most favourite authors--never thought of the fact they were contemporaries, and may have actually met. I can almost imagine a young Rudyard, slightly intimidated yet determined, approaching (after considerable scheming) the austere and esteemed Samuel. Makes me wonder how I would fare were I able to arrange an encounter with Bill Buckley, another whose writings I have enjoyed immensely (and we have a very strong common interest in sailing for "starters"). It may take a while for my tang to git untungled...though I am certain he'd try to set me at ease quickly. Something I gather Mr. Twain was not exactly eager to do when he met with Mr. Kipling. Quite the interesting encounter.