Albert Bigelow Paine.

Mark Twain, a Biography — Volume I, Part 1: 1835-1866 online

. (page 1 of 21)
Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume I, Part 1: 1835-1866 → online text (page 1 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by David Widger




VOLUME I, Part 1: 1835-1866



Dear William Dean Howells, Joseph Hopkins Twichell, Joseph T. Goodman,
and other old friends of Mark Twain:

I cannot let these volumes go to press without some grateful word to you
who have helped me during the six years and more that have gone to their

First, I want to confess how I have envied you your association with Mark
Twain in those days when you and he "went gipsying, a long time ago."
Next, I want to express my wonder at your willingness to give me so
unstintedly from your precious letters and memories, when it is in the
nature of man to hoard such treasures, for himself and for those who
follow him. And, lastly, I want to tell you that I do not envy you so
much, any more, for in these chapters, one after another, through your
grace, I have gone gipsying with you all. Neither do I wonder now, for I
have come to know that out of your love for him grew that greater
unselfishness (or divine selfishness, as he himself might have termed
it), and that nothing short of the fullest you could do for his memory
would have contented your hearts.

My gratitude is measureless; and it is world-wide, for there is no land
so distant that it does not contain some one who has eagerly contributed
to the story. Only, I seem so poorly able to put my thanks into words.

Albert Bigelow Paine.


Certain happenings as recorded in this work will be found to differ
materially from the same incidents and episodes as set down in the
writings of Mr. Clemens himself. Mark Twain's spirit was built of the
very fabric of truth, so far as moral intent was concerned, but in his
earlier autobiographical writings - and most of his earlier writings were
autobiographical - he made no real pretense to accuracy of time, place, or
circumstance - seeking, as he said, "only to tell a good story" - while in
later years an ever-vivid imagination and a capricious memory made
history difficult, even when, as in his so-called "Autobiography," his
effort was in the direction of fact.

"When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or
not," he once said, quaintly, "but I am getting old, and soon I shall
remember only the latter."

The reader may be assured, where discrepancies occur, that the writer of
this memoir has obtained his data from direct and positive sources:
letters, diaries, account-books, or other immediate memoranda; also from
the concurring testimony of eye-witnesses, supported by a unity of
circumstance and conditions, and not from hearsay or vagrant printed




On page 492 of the old volume of Suetonius, which Mark Twain read until
his very last day, there is a reference to one Flavius Clemens, a man of
wide repute "for his want of energy," and in a marginal note he has

"I guess this is where our line starts."

It was like him to write that. It spoke in his whimsical fashion the
attitude of humility, the ready acknowledgment of shortcoming, which was
his chief characteristic and made him lovable - in his personality and in
his work.

Historically, we need not accept this identity of the Clemens ancestry.
The name itself has a kindly meaning, and was not an uncommon one in
Rome. There was an early pope by that name, and it appears now and again
in the annals of the Middle Ages. More lately there was a Gregory
Clemens, an English landowner who became a member of Parliament under
Cromwell and signed the death-warrant of Charles I. Afterward he was
tried as a regicide, his estates were confiscated, and his head was
exposed on a pole on the top of Westminster Hall.

Tradition says that the family of Gregory Clemens did not remain in
England, but emigrated to Virginia (or New Jersey), and from them, in
direct line, descended the Virginia Clemenses, including John Marshall
Clemens, the father of Mark Twain. Perhaps the line could be traced, and
its various steps identified, but, after all, an ancestor more or less
need not matter when it is the story of a descendant that is to be

Of Mark Twain's immediate forebears, however, there is something to be
said. His paternal grandfather, whose name also was Samuel, was a man of
culture and literary taste. In 1797 he married a Virginia girl, Pamela
Goggin; and of their five children John Marshall Clemens, born August 11,
1798, was the eldest - becoming male head of the family at the age of
seven, when his father was accidentally killed at a house-raising. The
family was not a poor one, but the boy grew up with a taste for work. As
a youth he became a clerk in an iron manufactory, at Lynchburg, and
doubtless studied at night. At all events, he acquired an education, but
injured his health in the mean time, and somewhat later, with his mother
and the younger children, removed to Adair County, Kentucky, where the
widow presently married a sweetheart of her girlhood, one Simon Hancock,
a good man. In due course, John Clemens was sent to Columbia, the
countyseat, to study law. When the living heirs became of age he
administered his father's estate, receiving as his own share three negro
slaves; also a mahogany sideboard, which remains among the Clemens
effects to this day.

This was in 1821. John Clemens was now a young man of twenty-three,
never very robust, but with a good profession, plenty of resolution, and
a heart full of hope and dreams. Sober, industrious, and unswervingly
upright, it seemed certain that he must make his mark. That he was
likely to be somewhat too optimistic, even visionary, was not then
regarded as a misfortune.

It was two years later that he met Jane Lampton; whose mother was a Casey
- a Montgomery-Casey whose father was of the Lamptons (Lambtons) of
Durham, England, and who on her own account was reputed to be the
handsomest girl and the wittiest, as well as the best dancer, in all
Kentucky. The Montgomeries and the Caseys of Kentucky had been Indian
fighters in the Daniel Boone period, and grandmother Casey, who had been
Jane Montgomery, had worn moccasins in her girlhood, and once saved her
life by jumping a fence and out-running a redskin pursuer. The
Montgomery and Casey annals were full of blood-curdling adventures, and
there is to-day a Casey County next to Adair, with a Montgomery County
somewhat farther east. As for the Lamptons, there is an earldom in the
English family, and there were claimants even then in the American
branch. All these things were worth while in Kentucky, but it was rare
Jane Lampton herself - gay, buoyant, celebrated for her beauty and her
grace; able to dance all night, and all day too, for that matter - that
won the heart of John Marshall Clemens, swept him off his feet almost at
the moment of their meeting. Many of the characteristics that made Mark
Twain famous were inherited from his mother. His sense of humor, his
prompt, quaintly spoken philosophy, these were distinctly her
contribution to his fame. Speaking of her in a later day, he once said:

"She had a sort of ability which is rare in man and hardly existent in
woman - the ability to say a humorous thing with the perfect air of not
knowing it to be humorous."

She bequeathed him this, without doubt; also her delicate complexion; her
wonderful wealth of hair; her small, shapely hands and feet, and the
pleasant drawling speech which gave her wit, and his, a serene and
perfect setting.

It was a one-sided love affair, the brief courtship of Jane Lampton and
John Marshall Clemens. All her life, Jane Clemens honored her husband,
and while he lived served him loyally; but the choice of her heart had
been a young physician of Lexington with whom she had quarreled, and her
prompt engagement with John Clemens was a matter of temper rather than
tenderness. She stipulated that the wedding take place at once, and on
May 6, 1823, they were married. She was then twenty; her husband
twenty-five. More than sixty years later, when John Clemens had long
been dead, she took a railway journey to a city where there was an Old
Settlers' Convention, because among the names of those attending she had
noticed the name of the lover of her youth. She meant to humble herself
to him and ask forgiveness after all the years. She arrived too late;
the convention was over, and he was gone. Mark Twain once spoke of this,
and added:

"It is as pathetic a romance as any that has crossed the field of my
personal experience in a long lifetime."



With all his ability and industry, and with the-best of intentions, John
Clemens would seem to have had an unerring faculty for making business
mistakes. It was his optimistic outlook, no doubt - his absolute
confidence in the prosperity that lay just ahead - which led him from one
unfortunate locality or enterprise to another, as long as he lived. About
a year after his marriage he settled with his young wife in Gainsborough,
Tennessee, a mountain town on the Cumberland River, and here, in 1825,
their first child, a boy, was born. They named him Orion - after the
constellation, perhaps - though they changed the accent to the first
syllable, calling it Orion. Gainsborough was a small place with few
enough law cases; but it could hardly have been as small, or furnished as
few cases; as the next one selected, which was Jamestown, Fentress
County, still farther toward the Eastward Mountains. Yet Jamestown had
the advantage of being brand new, and in the eye of his fancy John
Clemens doubtless saw it the future metropolis of east Tennessee, with
himself its foremost jurist and citizen. He took an immediate and active
interest in the development of the place, established the county-seat
there, built the first Court House, and was promptly elected as circuit
clerk of the court.

It was then that he decided to lay the foundation of a fortune for
himself and his children by acquiring Fentress County land. Grants could
be obtained in those days at the expense of less than a cent an acre, and
John Clemens believed that the years lay not far distant when the land
would increase in value ten thousand, twenty, perhaps even a hundred
thousandfold. There was no wrong estimate in that. Land covered with
the finest primeval timber, and filled with precious minerals, could
hardly fail to become worth millions, even though his entire purchase of
75,000 acres probably did not cost him more than $500. The great tract
lay about twenty nines to the southward of Jamestown. Standing in the
door of the Court House he had built, looking out over the "Knob" of the
Cumberland Mountains toward his vast possessions, he said:

"Whatever befalls me now, my heirs are secure. I may not live to see
these acres turn into silver and gold, but my children will."

Such was the creation of that mirage of wealth, the "Tennessee land,"
which all his days and for long afterward would lie just ahead - a golden
vision, its name the single watchword of the family fortunes - the dream
fading with years, only materializing at last as a theme in a story of
phantom riches, The Gilded Age.

Yet for once John Clemens saw clearly, and if his dream did not come true
he was in no wise to blame. The land is priceless now, and a corporation
of the Clemens heirs is to-day contesting the title of a thin fragment of
it - about one thousand acres - overlooked in some survey.

Believing the future provided for, Clemens turned his attention to
present needs. He built himself a house, unusual in its style and
elegance. It had two windows in each room, and its walls were covered
with plastering, something which no one in Jamestown had ever seen
before. He was regarded as an aristocrat. He wore a swallow-tail coat
of fine blue jeans, instead of the coarse brown native-made cloth. The
blue-jeans coat was ornamented with brass buttons and cost one dollar and
twenty-five cents a yard, a high price for that locality and time. His
wife wore a calico dress for company, while the neighbor wives wore
homespun linsey-woolsey. The new house was referred to as the Crystal
Palace. When John and Jane Clemens attended balls - there were continuous
balls during the holidays - they were considered the most graceful

Jamestown did not become the metropolis he had dreamed. It attained
almost immediately to a growth of twenty-five houses - mainly log houses
- and stopped there. The country, too, was sparsely settled; law
practice was slender and unprofitable, the circuit-riding from court to
court was very bad for one of his physique. John Clemens saw his reserve
of health and funds dwindling, and decided to embark in merchandise. He
built himself a store and put in a small country stock of goods. These
he exchanged for ginseng, chestnuts, lampblack, turpentine, rosin, and
other produce of the country, which he took to Louisville every spring
and fall in six-horse wagons. In the mean time he would seem to have
sold one or more of his slaves, doubtless to provide capital. There was
a second baby now - a little girl, Pamela, - born in September, 1827.
Three years later, May 1830, another little girl, Margaret, came. By
this time the store and home were in one building, the store occupying
one room, the household requiring two - clearly the family fortunes were

About a year after little Margaret was born, John Clemens gave up
Jamestown and moved his family and stock of goods to a point nine miles
distant, known as the Three Forks of Wolf. The Tennessee land was safe,
of course, and would be worth millions some day, but in the mean time the
struggle for daily substance was becoming hard.

He could not have remained at the Three Forks long, for in 1832 we find
him at still another place, on the right bank of Wolf River, where a
post-office called Pall Mall was established, with John Clemens as
postmaster, usually addressed as "Squire" or "Judge." A store was run in
connection with the postoffice. At Pall Mall, in June, 1832, another
boy, Benjamin, was born.

The family at this time occupied a log house built by John Clemens
himself, the store being kept in another log house on the opposite bank
of the river. He no longer practised law. In The Gilded Age we have
Mark Twain's picture of Squire Hawkins and Obedstown, written from
descriptions supplied in later years by his mother and his brother Orion;
and, while not exact in detail, it is not regarded as an exaggerated
presentation of east Tennessee conditions at that time. The chapter is
too long and too depressing to be set down here. The reader may look it
up for himself, if he chooses. If he does he will not wonder that Jane
Clemens's handsome features had become somewhat sharper, and her manner a
shade graver, with the years and burdens of marriage, or that John
Clemens at thirty-six-out of health, out of tune with his environment
- was rapidly getting out of heart. After all the bright promise of the
beginning, things had somehow gone wrong, and hope seemed dwindling away.

A tall man, he had become thin and unusually pale; he looked older than
his years. Every spring he was prostrated with what was called
"sunpain," an acute form of headache, nerve-racking and destroying to all
persistent effort. Yet he did not retreat from his moral and
intellectual standards, or lose the respect of that shiftless community.
He was never intimidated by the rougher element, and his eyes were of a
kind that would disconcert nine men out of ten. Gray and deep-set under
bushy brows, they literally looked you through. Absolutely fearless, he
permitted none to trample on his rights. It is told of John Clemens, at
Jamestown, that once when he had lost a cow he handed the minister on
Sunday morning a notice of the loss to be read from the pulpit, according
to the custom of that community. For some reason, the minister put the
document aside and neglected it. At the close of the service Clemens
rose and, going to the pulpit, read his announcement himself to the
congregation. Those who knew Mark Twain best will not fail to recall in
him certain of his father's legacies.

The arrival of a letter from "Colonel Sellers" inviting the Hawkins
family to come to Missouri is told in The Gilded Age. In reality the
letter was from John Quarles, who had married Jane Clemens's sister,
Patsey Lampton, and settled in Florida, Monroe County, Missouri. It was
a momentous letter in The Gilded Age, and no less so in reality, for it
shifted the entire scene of the Clemens family fortunes, and it had to do
with the birthplace and the shaping of the career of one whose memory is
likely to last as long as American history.



Florida, Missouri, was a small village in the early thirties - smaller
than it is now, perhaps, though in that day it had more promise, even if
less celebrity. The West was unassembled then, undigested, comparatively
unknown. Two States, Louisiana and Missouri, with less than half a
million white persons, were all that lay beyond the great river. St.
Louis, with its boasted ten thousand inhabitants and its river trade with
the South, was the single metropolis in all that vast uncharted region.
There was no telegraph; there were no railroads, no stage lines of any
consequence - scarcely any maps. For all that one could see or guess, one
place was as promising as another, especially a settlement like Florida,
located at the forks of a pretty stream, Salt River, which those early
settlers believed might one day become navigable and carry the
merchandise of that region down to the mighty Mississippi, thence to the
world outside.

In those days came John A. Quarles, of Kentucky, with his wife, who had
been Patsey Ann Lampton; also, later, Benjamin Lampton, her father, and
others of the Lampton race. It was natural that they should want Jane
Clemens and her husband to give up that disheartening east Tennessee
venture and join them in this new and promising land. It was natural,
too, for John Quarles - happy-hearted, generous, and optimistic - to write
the letter. There were only twenty-one houses in Florida, but Quarles
counted stables, out-buildings - everything with a roof on it - and set
down the number at fifty-four.

Florida, with its iridescent promise and negligible future, was just the
kind of a place that John Clemens with unerring instinct would be certain
to select, and the Quarles letter could have but one answer. Yet there
would be the longing for companionship, too, and Jane Clemens must have
hungered for her people. In The Gilded Age, the Sellers letter ends:

"Come! - rush! - hurry! - don't wait for anything!"

The Clemens family began immediately its preparation for getting away.
The store was sold, and the farm; the last two wagon-loads of produce
were sent to Louisville; and with the aid of the money realized, a few
hundred dollars, John Clemens and his family "flitted out into the great
mysterious blank that lay beyond the Knobs of Tennessee." They had a
two-horse barouche, which would seem to have been preserved out of their
earlier fortunes. The barouche held the parents and the three younger
children, Pamela, Margaret, anal the little boy, Benjamin. There were
also two extra horses, which Orion, now ten, and Jennie, the house-girl,
a slave, rode. This was early in the spring of 1835.

They traveled by the way of their old home at Columbia, and paid a visit
to relatives. At Louisville they embarked on a steamer bound for St.
Louis; thence overland once more through wilderness and solitude into
what was then the Far West, the promised land.

They arrived one evening, and if Florida was not quite all in appearance
that John Clemens had dreamed, it was at least a haven - with John
Quarles, jovial, hospitable, and full of plans. The great Mississippi
was less than fifty miles away. Salt River, with a system of locks and
dams, would certainly become navigable to the Forks, with Florida as its
head of navigation. It was a Sellers fancy, though perhaps it should be
said here that John Quarles was not the chief original of that lovely
character in The Gilded Age. That was another relative - James Lampton, a
cousin - quite as lovable, and a builder of even more insubstantial

John Quarles was already established in merchandise in Florida, and was
prospering in a small way. He had also acquired a good farm, which he
worked with thirty slaves, and was probably the rich man and leading
citizen of the community. He offered John Clemens a partnership in his
store, and agreed to aid him in the selection of some land. Furthermore,
he encouraged him to renew his practice of the law. Thus far, at least,
the Florida venture was not a mistake, for, whatever came, matters could
not be worse than they had been in Tennessee.

In a small frame building near the center of the village, John and Jane
Clemens established their household. It was a humble one-story affair,
with two main rooms and a lean-to kitchen, though comfortable enough for
its size, and comparatively new. It is still standing and occupied when
these lines are written, and it should be preserved and guarded as a
shrine for the American people; for it was here that the foremost
American-born author - the man most characteristically American in every
thought and word and action of his life - drew his first fluttering
breath, caught blinkingly the light of a world that in the years to come
would rise up and in its wide realm of letters hail him as a king.

It was on a bleak day, November 30, 1835, that he entered feebly the
domain he was to conquer. Long, afterward, one of those who knew him
best said:

"He always seemed to me like some great being from another planet - never
quite of this race or kind."

He may have been, for a great comet was in the sky that year, and it
would return no more until the day when he should be borne back into the
far spaces of silence and undiscovered suns. But nobody thought of this,

He was a seven-months child, and there was no fanfare of welcome at his
coming. Perhaps it was even suggested that, in a house so small and so
sufficiently filled, there was no real need of his coming at all. One
Polly Ann Buchanan, who is said to have put the first garment of any sort
on him, lived to boast of the fact, - [This honor has been claimed also
for Mrs. Millie Upton and a Mrs. Damrell. Probably all were present and
assisted.] - but she had no particular pride in that matter then. It was
only a puny baby with a wavering promise of life. Still, John Clemens
must have regarded with favor this first gift of fortune in a new land,
for he named the little boy Samuel, after his father, and added the name
of an old and dear Virginia friend, Langhorne. The family fortunes would
seem to have been improving at this time, and he may have regarded the
arrival of another son as a good omen.

With a family of eight, now, including Jennie, the slavegirl, more room
was badly needed, and he began building without delay. The result was
not a mansion, by any means, being still of the one-story pattern, but it
was more commodious than the tiny two-room affair. The rooms were
larger, and there was at least one ell, or extension, for kitchen and
dining-room uses. This house, completed in 1836, occupied by the Clemens
family during the remainder of the years spent in Florida, was often in
later days pointed out as Mark Twain's birthplace. It missed that
distinction by a few months, though its honor was sufficient in having
sheltered his early childhood. - [This house is no longer standing. When
it was torn down several years ago, portions of it were carried off and
manufactured into souvenirs. Mark Twain himself disclaimed it as his
birthplace, and once wrote on a photograph of it: "No, it is too stylish,
it is not my birthplace."]



It was not a robust childhood. The new baby managed to go through the
winter - a matter of comment among the family and neighbors. Added
strength came, but slowly; "Little Sam," as they called him, was always
delicate during those early years.

It was a curious childhood, full of weird, fantastic impressions and
contradictory influences, stimulating alike to the imagination and that
embryo philosophy of life which begins almost with infancy. John Clemens

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume I, Part 1: 1835-1866 → online text (page 1 of 21)