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Jesse Tangen-Mills: Mark Twain and Rubén Darío: The Prince and the Pauper

November 1, 2011

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North America’s most famous comic author proves to Latin America’s most influential poet that sometimes a person never really dies.

By **Jesse Tangen-Mills**

Mark-Twain-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Dawn Hopkins.

When Mark Twain died in 1910 at the age of 74, it wasn’t the first time. By then he had already been said to have died twice: once due to illness, another time at sea. As he himself said, “the rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated.”

Given his literary superstardom, the tabloids clung to anything mildly topical about him. After all this was Twain: widely translated, graciously received by Queen Victoria, Czar Alexander II, Sigmund Freud, friends with Ulysses Grant, Andrew Carnegie. In the middle of his career Twain could count some of the country’s greatest figures as friends and admirers; by the end of it, he was more famous than some of them were. Critic Gerald Martin compares Mark Twain to Gabriel García Márquez: a provincial everyman who reached the heights of fame, one book at a time, to become a political spokesperson. Although reports vary as to how the rumors began, it is clear how they ended: Twain, dead.

His first death in 1897 is now attributed to a cousin living in London, James Clemens, who was indeed gravely ill. Twain at the time was also living there, and thus the mix-up. Reporters sent the this-just-in news item on wires around the world, and editors hopped on it.

Among those editors was Agustin de Vedia of La Nación in Argentina, the most prestigious newspaper in Spanish at the time, which is why Rubén Darío—Nicaraguan poet célèbre in both Latin America and Spain—wanted to write for them. He had recently served as the Colombian ambassador to Argentina, a job he’d been given by the admiring poet and president Rafael Nuñez. This was a cushy position considering that the two countries at the time had hardly any relations whatsoever, and after losing it, he was desperate. Darío was by no means a frugal man, having once remarked that he enjoyed luxuries, good wine, and women. It was in part these tastes that had made Darío something of a legend among Buenos Aires’ bohemians.

Darío, a natural socialite, skilled at impressing aristocrats—even as a young child he could stir them with verse—knew how to get what he wanted from them. Soon after losing his diplomat’s salary in 1895, he spoke with Agustín de Vedia, chief editor of La Nación, about writing something of substance for the paper. Vedia assigned him the obituaries, and only on a case-to-case basis—what we might call today freelancing. Given his background as a man of letters, his subjects were mostly artists and writers. Darío described his position as “croquet-mort,” or celebrity burrier.

Naturally, a spate of good health and well-being among public figures in 1897 had Darío near economic ruin, although he never let his wife know. In fact, he wrote to her that on his salary she and their child could get by just fine in Buenos Aires. But Darío’s self-assessment was optimistic, if not intentionally misleading. When he went out with the equally poor bohemians, he had to ask for his drinks on loan. Thinking back on those cool nights in Buenos Aires years later, he writes, “We found ourselves without a penny. Although the Swiss café owner kept a tab for us, the situation was dire.”

…Darío hones in on what many of his readers in Spanish would have missed: Twain’s ability to capture the plethora of voices in the North American experience.

Then came a stroke of good luck for Darío. The newspaper contacted him: Mark Twain, that famous yanki author was on his death-bed. Vedia expected an extensive obituary by early the next morning. Darío was ecstatic, not because he particularly liked Mark Twain, or disliked him as it were, but because the lengthy obituary would earn him a great publishing credit and provide him with some much needed pay. Darío was sure that “the next day Twain’s death would make us money.” He sat down to summarize the humorist’s colorful life with all the lyrical flair for which he was known. When he finished, he celebrated as any good bohemian would do: he went to “offer libations” with his friends. This lasted well into morning, and with the first hints of wispy winter sunlight at their backs, Darío and his friends stumbled out to a newsstand to read Darío’s masterpiece together.

Of course, the joke was on them. The obituary never ran because Vedia had already heard that Twain’s death was, as Twain himself said, just a rumor. “Twain’s recovery to us was a low blow, of the very gringo kind of humor, the worse type,” Darío wrote. But more importantly, now he would owe that Swiss barkeeper even more money.

Yet, somehow, with a bit of luck, Darío gets the article published a few days later as profile. The obit re-edited as a profile begins:

“A few days ago it came across the cables that Samuel Clemens, that is, Mark Twain, was dying. Now that he was gone, you could be sure that he, just like ‘poor Bill’ his brother, was buried. It turns out that Mark Twain has not died. For the first time in his life he’s fallen ill for the joy of it.”

The “celebrity grave-digger” goes on to compare Twain to the famous minstrel show Christy’s that Darío saw while passing through New York. Though this analogy is unflattering by modern standards (Christy’s Minstrels performed in blackface), we might think of it as something like Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony, a democracy of voices fighting for air time on the page. In doing so Darío hones in on what many of his readers in Spanish would have missed: Twain’s ability to capture the plethora of voices in the North American experience. He juxtaposes this “Yankee humor” with the “espirit” of the French and “Witz” of the Germans.

For Darío, Twain was “the world’s first comedian, brother to both Niagara Falls and the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Before humor had been universalized to a great degree in the twentieth century, Twain managed to create comedy that everybody seemed to get, even in translation. Seen from this broader angle, Twain becomes the inheritor of Voltaire and Rabelais, that is, an international satirist. Darío might have had those French writers’ very bitterest of jokes in mind when he applauded Twain’s lack of “vague melancholy that can become tragic” in his comedy. Though, this was before Twain had written his most cynical works.

When Twain died in 1910, Darío was somewhat saddened: “And there was hardly time today to speak of the gringo glory that has disappeared: Mark Twain.” By then Darío, an alcoholic advanced in age, was ill himself and at the zenith of his literary renown. When he visited Mexico that year, the dictator Porfirio Díaz refused to let him in (that is before Díaz was toppled by the Mexican Revolution and Darío was invited back). Darío was going everywhere while going absolutely nowhere. He finally hit rock bottom in Cuba and tried throwing himself from the newly constructed Hotel Sevilla in La Havana. Though he survived this suicide attempt, he later died of liver cirrhosis in 1916 shortly after his 49th birthday.

A national day of mourning was held in Nicaragua. An ivory cross, given to Darío by Mexican poet Amado Nervo, topped the casket. Dr. Debayle removed his brain for further study, but when no one was looking, he made off with it. Eventually the police found the doctor and arrested him, returning his brain to his widow, Rosario Murillo. At her behest the brain was donated to the La Universidad de León in Nicaragua. Within a year, an article penned by one Juan Jose Martinez appeared, Reflections on the brain of Rubén Darío and his personality. In the end, Darío died nearly penniless. Despite some of Twain’s poor investing, his estate was valued at $200,000 after his death.

________________________________________________________________________

Jesse Tangen-Mills is is a writer living in Bogotá.

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