Wednesday, April 26, 2017
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Mark Twain’s Polish Acquaintances

Vienna in 1897 was the vibrant capital city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that comprised more than a dozen nationalities, including Poles. The Empire had taken southern Poland in the 18th century partitions and called it the province of Galicia. Its residents became Austrian citizens and Vienna draw a share of opportunistic Poles. By the end of the 19th century, one in five Viennese was Polish.

Enter the world famous American author, sixty-one year old Samuel L. Clemens, also known as Mark Twain. He, his wife and two daughters arrived in Vienna in September 1897 for a long stay. The reason - Elder daughter Clara wanted to become a pianist and study under the world's foremost piano teacher, Theodor Leschetizky. That was the Professor's Germanized name. The actual spelling was Teodor Leszetycki, for he was a Pole, born in Łańcut. Among those he had taught was the great Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

Once in Vienna, Sam Clemens took a liking to the Professor, whom he affectionately called Leschy. The Clemens family was drawn into his circle, were often his guests at concerts, attended recitals at his villa, and were introduced to the leading personalities of the classical music world. The two families went sleighing together in winter and spent time at Leschy's lake home in summer. Though daughter Clara abandoned her piano lessons after less than a year, the families remained close. And Clara became smitten with another of Leschy's pupils, the Russian Ossip Gabrilowitsch, whom she would later marry.

Another Pole with whom the Clemenses became acquainted was Count Karol Lanckoroński, an art patron and collector and one of the richest men in Austria. They also were friends with Polish Count Mieczysław de Laszowski, an Austrian diplomat, and his Scottish born wife Emily. The Countess was a novelist who dedicated one of her books to Mark Twain in cryptic verse, leading some to suggest she was romantically attracted to, or even had an affair with, the American author. That is very unlikely.

In March 1898, Samuel Clemens was introduced to a brilliant young man who would become known as the Polish Edison. He had invented a device that intrigued Clemens. This inventor was Jan Szczepanik, a twenty-five year old Pole resident in Vienna, and his invention was the raster, a machine that used photography to improve the weaving process. Clemens was always fascinated by new inventions and especially interested if he smelled a profit. He met with Szczepanik and his business manager and reached agreement to buy the American rights to the raster for $1.5 million, though he later backed out of the deal on the advice of his financial advisor.

Nevertheless, Szczepanik and Clemens became firm friends. They enjoyed drinking beer together and talking for hours, and often went bicycling. Clemens wrote that Szczepanik was a man of personal charm who had "black hair, very striking face, mobile and alert, splendid eyes... an interesting young creature...well born, educated, dresses nicely."

Twain wrote two short articles about the inventor that were published in 1898. The first, "The Austrian Edison Keeping School Again," is fiction loosely based on fact that describes Szczepanik's supposed obligation to teach school every other month in his home village in Moravia. Why Twain puts Szczepanik's home in Czech Moravia rather than Polish Galicia where it actually was is a mystery, but perhaps the author was simply misinformed. He does, however, properly use the Polish phrase do widzenia (goodbye) in the story.

The second article is pure fiction with Szczepanik as one of the characters, "From the London Times of 1904," a piece of moralizing against absurd injustice, that features another of Szczepanik's inventions, the telectroscope, an early type of television. [More about this next month]

Another story Twain wrote was "Stirring Times in Austria," a true account of a tumultuous session of the Austrian Parliament that he witnessed. The President of Parliament, Dawid Abrahamowicz, was a Pole of Armenian background who played a central role in the drama, which involved making Czech the official language of the Czech provinces. After Abrahamowicz was forcibly removed from his desk by unruly members, police were summoned, the Emperor dissolved Parliament and dismissed Prime Minister Kazimierz Badeni, another Pole.

In another Twain story from this time, "No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger," he gives the strange name of 44 to the character of Young Satan. Twain scholars have speculated for years about the meaning of 44. One, Louis Budd, believes Twain borrowed it from the name of a character in a story by the Polish author Adam Mickiewicz, surmising that Twain was introduced to Mickiewicz's writings by one of his Polish acquaintances.

Count Agenor Goluchowski was another high-ranking Pole in the Empire, the foreign minister. Clemens met Goluchowski socially and through him was granted a meeting with Emperor Franz Josef before the author left Austria in May 1899.

Mark Twain traveled throughout the world, but never made it to traditionally Polish lands. The closest he got was Slovakia, just to the south. But as a result of his stay in Vienna, he was at least able to become acquainted with several Poles whose company he enjoyed, who fired his imagination, and who left a favorable impression upon him.

Read Mark Twain: An Illustriated Biography


Martin S. Nowak, a contributor to this site and a columnist for the Polish American Journal, has just had his first book published. It is entitled THE WHITE HOUSE IN MOURNING: DEATHS AND FUNERALS OF PRESIDENTS IN OFFICE. It is for sale by publisher McFarland and Co. at or through your favorite bookseller. The 247 page book covers the deaths and mourning rituals for each of the eight U.S. preisdents who died in office, including that of William McKinley, who was shot by the Polish American Leon Czolgosz, and the effect the deaths had on the country and the world. It includes little known facts and incidents that occurred in conjunction with the events, and also includes rarely published photos and illustrations from various sources including the author's own collection. It is ideal for anyone with an interest in American history, especially of the U.S. presidency.

Here is the book on Amazon: The White House in Mourning: Deaths and Funerals of Presidents in Office


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