William Montgomery Clemens.

Mark Twain; his life and work. A biographical sketch online

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San Francisco

Copyright, 1891,


All Rights Reserved.











8. His LATER WORKS 129







From the days of "Yankee Doodle"
and the Frogs of Windham," two gems
of early American humor written in the
Revolutionary period, until near the close
of the war of the Rebellion, the recog
nized American humorist, the wit who
could cause a laugh to go Tippling, bub
bling around the world, was a creation
unknown to American literature. How
ever, out of respect and admiration for
their genius, their wit and humor, we
must not fail in giving proper credit to
Francis Hopkinson, Samuel Peters, John

8 Mark Twain

Trumbull, George F. Hopkins, William
T. Thompson, Seba Smith, Joseph C.
Neal, Orpheus C. Kerr, George H.
Derby and a host of others, for bringing
out in the American prints, those native
characteristics, thedrollness of the yankee
and the wit of the early days, but not
until after the Rebellion did America
produce a humorist of world- wide reputa
tion. When civil strife was ended, and
the American began a new career, almost a
new existence, there came to the surface
a new school of native humor. The
names of Mark Twain, Artemus Ward,
Josh Billings and one or two others, be
came household words. Their funny
sayings caused the Englishman to smile
between his bites of beef. Their droll
humor forced our German cousin to shake
his sides with laughter. Their witty
bon mots occasioned prolonged mirth from
our friends in France. Not until then
did we become known as a nation of
humorists, and from that day the fame
of our wits has extended throughout the
entire world. To-day a ripple of mirth

His Life and Work.

starting on the banks of Mud Flat Creek,
will end in a hurricane of laughter on the
Thames or the Seine.

There was something so purely Amer
ican in the humor of Mark Twain, that
his work soon made for him a place in na
tive literature. As a representative of
American life and character his name
extended even beyond the confines of the
continent of Europe, into all lands and
among all peoples. In Paris one cannot
purchase a Bible at the book stall, but
one may find " Roughing It" at every cor
ner. In Rome, "The Innocents Abroad"
is one of the staples in the book marts.
In Hongkong you will find Mark Twain.
Everywhere they read him.

The career of Mark Twain is a ro
mance. His life is a curious medley of
pathos and poverty, with an occasional
laugh to help along over the rough places.
He w"as a wild, reckless boy, a poor
printer, not even a good journalist, an
adventurer, a wanderer. He was a sort
of human kaleidoscope . He then became
a wit, a scholar, a public speaker, a man of

xo Mark Twain

family and a millionaire. All this is but
typical of America, of American life and
American character.

Mark Twain is more than a mere Punch

and Judy show. With his droll humor

there comes information. He gives the

reader a full dinner, not merely dessert.

He tells you more about the Mississippi

river than an old steamboatman. He

gives you a world of information about

Germany and Switzerland. He is better

than a guide book for the Holy Land.

What that greater genius Charles Dickens

has done for fiction, Mark Twain does for

humor. He is an ideal reporter. He

minutely tells us all about a thing, tells

us what he sees and hears, describes a

man, a mule or a monarchy in excellent

form, and makes one laugh at the same


Some years ago I was prompted to
write the genial Mr. Clemens for an
introduction or preface to a little volume
of mine, long since buried by the sands
of time. His reply was this:

His Ltfe and Work* ix

Hartford, Conn.. Nov. 18.

* My Dear Friend : Your

letter received. God bless your heart. I
would like ever so much to comply with your
request, but I am thrashing away at my new
book, and am afraid that I should not find time
to write my own epitaph, in case I was suddenly
called for.

" Wishing you and your book well, believe me,
"Yours truly,


Not long ago the gifted humorist sent
me a printed slip of his career, taken
from "Men of the Time." Upon the
margin of this, he wrote the following:


"I haven t any humor
ous biography the facts don t admit of it. I
had this sketch from "Men of the Time" printed
on slips to enable me to study my history at my


By nature, a serious, thoughtful man,
he is deeply in earnest at times, yet sel
dom has he ventured to deal with the
pathetic in his writings. Occasionally
he pens a careful, serious communication,
like the following, for instance, which he
addressed to a young friend of mine;

12 Mark Twain

Hartford, Jan. 16, 1881.

How can I advise another
man wisely, out of such a capital as a life filled
with mistakes? Advise him how to avoid the
like? No for opportunities to make the same
mistakes do not happen to any two men. Your
own experiences may possibly teach you, but
another man s can t. I do not know anything
for a person to do but just peg along, doing the
things that offer, and regretting them the next
day. It is my way and everybody s.
Truly yours,


In this modest volume I do not attempt
to analyze the humor of Mark Twain.
As Howells says: " Analyses of humor
are apt to leave one rather serious, and to
result in an entire volatilization of the
humor." There is romance, and adven
ture, and thrilling interest surrounding
the life of the prince of humorists, and I
have endeavored to gather together some
of these interesting facts. His satire and
wit speak for themselves.


His Life and Work.


There is more or less obscurity sur
rounding the ancestry and birth of Mark
Twain. His ancestors were of Dutch and
English extraction. The Clemens family
extended back to Nicholas Clemens, who
lived in Holland, early in the last century.
Upon the maternal side, the Langhornes
were of English birth.

In the days of the Revolution there
came to America three sturdy pioneers-
bearing the Clemens name. One of these
settled in Virginia, another in Pennsyl
vania. The former prospered in the
southern colony and the name became
well known in the South, more especially

Mark Twain

in the political history of that section
early in the present century. Jeremiah
Clemens was a United States senator from
Alabama, and a congressman, a judge,
and other dignitaries bore the name.

John Marshall Clemens, the father of
Mark Twain, was one of a fine Virginia
family, a man of brain and force of char
acter. He migrated to Kentucky and
soon thereafter to Adair county, in Ten
nessee. He was married there in Fen tress
county to Miss Langhorne, a warm
hearted, domestic woman, with great
emotional depths. The family fled from
those vast landed possessions in Ten
nessee, so graphically described in "The
Gilded Age," and crossed the river into
Missouri in 1829, locating in the town of
Florida, in Monroe count)^. A few months
after their arrival, Samuel Langhorne
Clemens first saw the light of day on the
30th of November, 1835. Three years
later the family removed to Hannibal, a
river town in Marion county.

In 1840 the elder Clemens filled the
ancient and honorable office of Justice of

His Life and Work. 15

the Peace. He wa^ a stern, unbending
man of sterling, common sense, and was,
indeed, the autocrat of the little dingy
room on Bird street, where he held his
court and preserved order in the village.
The court room fairly indicated the rustic
simplicity of the people, and the frugal
manner in which Judge Clemens lived
and transacted business. The furniture
consisted of a dry goods box, which
served the double purpose of a desk for
the judge and a table for the lawyers,
three or four rude stools and a puncheon
bench for the jury. Here on court days
when the judge climbed upon his three
legged stool, rapped upon the box with
his knuckles, and demanded silence in
the court, it was fully expected that
silence would reign supreme. As a
general thing the rough characters who
lounged about to see the wheels of
justice" move, bowed submissively to the
mandates of the judge. An overbearing,
turbulent and quarrelsome man, named
Allen B. McDonald, was an exception,
and many a time he had violated the rules

16 Mark Twain

and been rebuked by the court. Upon
one occasion McDonald was plaintiff in
a case against one Jacob Smith. Judge
Clemens was presiding with his usual
dignity, and the court room was filled
with witnesses and friends of the parties
to the suit. One Frank Snyder, a peac-
able citizen, had given his testimony in
favor of defendant Smith and resumed his
seat, when McDonald with an exasperat
ing air made a face at him. As quick as
a flash Snyder whipped out an old pepper
box revolver and emptied every barrel at
McDonald, hurting no one, but filling
the room with smoke and consternation.
In the confusion that followed Judge
Clemens, doubtless remembering Mc
Donald s turbulent spirit, instantly con
cluded that he was the aggressor, and
seizing a hammer that lay near by, he
dealt him a blow that sent him senseless
and quivering to the floor. The court
was completely master of the situation.
Being a kind-hearted man, he was greatly
mortified when he learned that he had
struck the wrong fellow, but the oldest

His Life and Work.

inhabitant never heard him admit that it
was "a lick amiss." His death occurred
in 1843. His grave in Mount Olivet
cemetery, near Hannibal, is marked by
a tasteful monument erected by his son.
Hannibal was a sleepy river town
characteristic of that day. William Dean
Howells, in a brief sketch of Mark Twain s
career, says: "Hannibal as a name is
hopelessly confused and ineffective; but
if we know nothing of Mr. Clemens from
Hannibal, we can know much of Han
nibal from Mr. Clemens, who, in fact,
has studied a loafing, out-at -elbows,
down-at-the-heels, slave-holding, Missis
sippi river town of thirty years ago, with
such strong reality in his boy s romance
of Tom Sawyer/ that we need inquire
nothing further concerning the type.
The original perhaps no longer exists
anywhere, certainly not in Hannibal,
which has grown into a flourishing little
city. The morality of the place was the
morality of a slave-holding community,
fierce, arrogant, onesided; the religion
W as Galvanism in various phases, with

1 8 Mark Twain

its predestinate aristocracy of saints and
its rabble of hopeless sinners. Doubt
less young Clemens escaped neither of
the opposing influences wholly. His
people, like the rest, were slave-holders;
but his father like so many other slave
holders, abhorred slavery silently, as
he must in such a time and place. "

Mark Twain s childhood home was
that of an ordinary backwood s infant.
His boyhood was a series of mischievous
adventures. He was sent to school at
an early age, where he says he "excelled
only in spelling. " He delighted to spend
much of his time upon the river, and so
successfully was he in getting into the
turbid waters, that he was dragged out
of the river six times before he was twelve
years of age. His mother said of him ;
"Sam was always a good-hearted boy,
but he was a very wild and mischievous
one, and do what we could, we could
never make him go to school. This used
to trouble his father and me dreadfully,
and w$ were convinced that he would
never amount to as much in the world as

His Life and Work-

his brothers, because he was not near so
steady and sober-minded as they were.
Often his father would start him off to
school, and in a little while would follow
him to ascertain his whereabouts. There
was a large stump on the way to the
school-house, and Sam would take his
position behind that, and as his father
went past would gradually circle around
it in such a way as to keep out of sight.
Finally, his father and the teacher both
said it was of no use to try to teach Sam
anything, because he was determined not
to learn. But I never gave up, He was
always a great boy for history, and could
never get tired of that kind of reading;
but he hadn t any use tor school-houses
and text books."

A friend who lived amid the scenes of his
boyhood, writes: "The old home of the
Clemens family was a two story brick, with
a large tree in front. A little way down
the river is the cave by which 4 Tom
Sawyer made his wonderful escape, and
by means of an underground passage
the city of Hannibal is easily regained.

2O Mark Twain

We used to play about the old village
blacksmith shop, and were always in
mischief. The old blacksmith became
so provoked one day, that he caught Sam
and with a shingle made him so sore,
that he did not sit down for a week. As
soon as Sam recovered we went up on
the hill immediately above the blacksmith
shop, and every day for about a week we
worked at digging up a big boulder.
Finally we got all the earth from around
it, and all we had to do was to give it a
shove, and down the hill it would go with
terrible velocity. Saturday afternoon was
always a holiday in Hannibal in those
days. This particular afternoon was a
beautiful June day, and the blacksmith
shop was closed. About three o clock in
the afternoon we started the boulder down
the hill. It struck the blacksmith shop
and the building was almost demolished.*

In a humorous sketch written in 1870,
Mark Twain tells the following of his
father and his boyhood:

When I say that I never knew my
austere parent to be enamored of but

His Life and Work. 21

one poem in all the long half-century
that he lived, persons who knew him will
easily believe me; when I say that I have
never composed but one poem in all the
long third of a century that I have lived,
persons who know me will be sincerely
grateful: and finally, when I say that the
poem which I composed was not the one
which my father was enamored of, per
sons who may have known us both will
not need to have this truth shot into
them with a mountain howitzer before
they can receive it. My father and I
were always on the most distant terms
when I was a boy a sort of armed neu
trality , so to speak . At irregular in tervals
this neutrality was broken and suffering
ensued; but I will be candid enough to
say that the breaking and the suffering
were always divided up with strict im
partiality between us which is to say
my father did the breaking, and I did the
suffering. As a general thing I was a
backward, cautious unadventurous boy.
But once I jumped off a two-story stable;
another time I gave an elephant a plug

Mark Twain

of tobacco, and retired without waiting
for aa answer; and still another time I
pretended to be talking in ray sleep, and
got off a portion of every original conun
drum in heanng of my father. Let us
not pry into the result; it was of no con
sequence to any one but me.

"But the poem I have referred to as
attracting my father s attention, and
achieving his favor was Hiawatha.
Some man who courted a sudden and
awful death presented him an early copy,
and I never lost faith in my own senses
until I saw him sit down and go to read
ing it in cold blood saw him open the
book, and heard him read these following
lines, with the same inflectionless judicial
frigidity with which he always read his
charge to the jury, or administered an
oath to a witness

"Take your bow, O Hiawatha,
Take your arrows, jasper-headed,
Take your war-club, Puggawaugun,
And your mittens, Minjekahwan,
And your birch canoe for sailing,
And the oil of Mishe-Nama."

Hts Life and Work. 23

From all accounts Mark was an incor
rigible boy, filled with roving imaginations
from his very earliest age. Many of the
scenes in his books are taken from the
real occurrences of his boyhood. The
steamboat scene in "The Gilded Age"
was witnessed by him while out on his
aimless wanderings. His adventure with
a dead man in his father s office was also
literally true. He had played " hookey *
from school all day and far into the night
was absent, and rather than go home and
be greeted with a flogging, raised the
window and climbed into the office with
the intention of resting all night upon a
lounge. His description of the horror
creeping over him as he saw a ghastly
hand lying in the moonlight; how he
shut his eyes and tried to count, and
opened them in time to see the dead man
lying on the floor, stiff and stark, with a
ghastly wound in his side, and at last,
how he beat a terrified retreat through
the window, carrying the sash with him
for convenience" is vividly remembered
by every reader of his works. Mrs.

24 Mark Twain

Clemens asserts that the whole affair
transpired as Mark recorded it the man
was killed in a street fight almost in front *
of the office door, and was taken in there
while & post mortem examination was held,
and there left until next morning. Dur
ing the night Mark came in, and the
scene he has so ludicrously but graphically
depicted was enacted.

His books abound in stories of his
boyhood. "Tom Sawyer" tells of his
youthful adventures, although his coun
terpart is more correctly depicted in
"Huckleberry Finn". In his "Old Times
on the Mississippi" he says: "When I was
a boy, there was but one permanent am
bition among my comrades in our village
on the west bank of the Mississippi
river. That was to be a steamboatman.
We had transient ambitions of other
sorts, but they were only transient.
When a circus came and went it left us
all burning to become clowns; the first
negro minstrel show that came to our
section left us all suffering to try that
kind of life; now and then we had a hope

His Life and Work.

that if we lived and were good, God
would permit us to become pirates.
These ambitions faded out, each in its
turn, but the ambition to be a steamboat-
man always remained."

When the father died, the mother was
left with four children, Sam being twelve
years of age. The sons realized that
they must do their part in the struggle
for the support of the family. In those
early years he tried various methods of
earning a livelihood, and finally entered
the office of the Hannibal Weekly Courier,
as a printer s apprentice. At a printers
banquet in New York, some years ago,
he told the story of his apprenticeship, in
which he said: "It may be that the
printer of to-day is not the printer of
thirty-five years ago. I was no stranger
to him. I knew him well. I built the
fire for him in the winter mornings; I
brought his water from the village pump;
I swept out his office; I picked up his
type from under his stand; and, if he was
there to see, I put the good type in his
case and the broken ones among the

26 Mark Twain

hell matter; and if he wasn t there to see,
I dumped it all with the pi on the im
posing stone for that was the furtive
fashion of the cub, and I was the cub.
I wetted down the paper Saturdays, I
turned it Sundays for this was a country
weekly; I rolled, I washed the rollers,
I washed the forms, I folded the papers,
I carried them around in the disagree
able dawn Thursday mornings. The
carrier was then an object of interest to
all the dogs in town. If I had saved up
all the bites I ever received, I could keep
M. Pasteur busy for a year. I enveloped
the papers that were for the mail we
had 100 town subscribers and 350 country
ones; the town subscribers paid in gro
ceries and the country ones in cabbage
and cord wood when they paid at all,
which was merely sometimes, and then
we always stated the fact in the paper,
and gave them a puff; and if we forgot
to they stopped the paper. Every man
in the town list helped to edit the thing;
that is, he gave orders as to how it was
to be edited; dictated its opinions, marked

His Life and Work.

out its course for it, and every time the
boss failed to connect, he stopped his

"Life was easy with us; if we pied a
form we suspended till next week, and
we always suspended every now and then
when the fishing was good, and explained
it by the illness of the editor, a paltry
excuse, because that kind of a paper was
just as well off with a sick editor as a
well one, and better off with a dead one
than with either of them.

"I can see that printing office of pre
historic times yet, with its horse bills on
the walls, its *d boxes clogged with
tallow, because we always stood the
candle in the *k* box nights, its towel,
which was not considered soiled until it
could stand alone, and other signs and
symbols that marked the establishment
of that kind in Mississippi valley."

For three years he worked faithfully in
the office of the Courier , and at the age
of fifteen considered himself a full-fledged
journeyman printer. He had been earn
ing fifty cents a week, and had saved his

28 Mark Twain

money. One evening upon coming home
he asked his mother for five dollars. On
being questioned as to what he wanted
with it, he said he wanted it to start out
traveling with. He failed to obtain the
five dollars, but he assured his mother
that he would go all the same, and he
really went, nor did the old lady ever
set eyes on him again until he had be
come a man. He had made up his mind
to run away and see the exposition in
New York. He worked his way east
ward as a tramp printer, stopping for
several weeks in Sandusky and other
towns in Ohio.

Arriving in New York his worldly
possessions amounted to twelve dollars,
a ten dollar bill of which sum he had
sewed into his coat sleeve. After he
had visited and carefully examined the
long coveted exposition, he found em
ployment in the printing office of John
N. Green. Some two or three months
after this the boy met a man from his
own town of Hannibal, and fearing that
his whereabouts would be reported, he

His Life and Work. 29

suddenly took his departure for Philadel
phia. He secured work in the office of
the Ledger and other newspapers, and
remained in the Quaker city for several
months. While here, as a result of
taking the part of a poor boy who was
imposed upon by a fireman, he was
severely beaten by the latter, so that "he
resembled Lisbon after the earthquake, "
to quote his own language. One day he
made up his mind that he had seen
enough of the world in the Eastern States,
and, with his ten dollars still sewed in
his coat sleeve, he started westward,
having in view his Missouri home. He
tarried awhile in Cincinnati, Louisville
and other river towns, and finally arrived
in St. Louis. He was at this time seven
teen years of age, and his longings and
ambitions for river life returned. I first
wanted to be a cabin boy," he says, "and
then a deck hand who stood on the end
of the stage plank with a coil of rope in
his hand, because he was particularly
conspicuous. But these were only day
dreams they were too heavenly to be

jo Mark Twain

contemplated as real possibilities. * *
I said I never would come home again
till I was a pilot and could come in glory.
But somehow I could not manage it. I
went meekly aboard a few boats that lay
packed together like sardines at the long
St. Louis wharf, and very humbly in
quired for the pilots, but got only a cold
shoulder and short words from mates and
clerks. But I was ashamed to go home.
* * * I was in Cincinnati and I set to
work to map out a new career. I had
been reading about the recent explora
tions of the River Amazon by an expedi
tion sent out by our government. It
was said that the expedition, owing to
difficulties, had not thoroughly explored
a part of the country lying about the
head-waters, some four thousand miles
from the mouth of the river. It was
only about fifteen hundred miles from
Cincinnati to New Orleans where I
could doubtless get a ship. I had thirty
dollars left. I would go on and complete
the exploration of the Amazon. I packed
my valise, and took passage on an ancient

His Life and Work. 31

tub, called the Paul Jones, for New
Orleans. For the sum of sixteen dollars
I had the scarred and tarnished splendors

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Online LibraryWilliam Montgomery ClemensMark Twain; his life and work. A biographical sketch → online text (page 1 of 9)