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Mark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 online

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Produced by David Widger


By Albert Bigelow Paine

VOLUME II, Part 1: 1875-1886



In conversation with John Hay, Hay said to Clemens:

"A man reaches the zenith at forty, the top of the hill. From that time
forward he begins to descend. If you have any great undertaking ahead,
begin it now. You will never be so capable again."

Of course this was only a theory of Hay's, a rule where rules do not
apply, where in the end the problem resolves itself into a question of
individualities. John Hay did as great work after forty as ever before,
so did Mark Twain, and both of them gained in intellectual strength and
public honor to the very end.

Yet it must have seemed to many who knew him, and to himself, like
enough, that Mark Twain at forty had reached the pinnacle of his fame and
achievement. His name was on every lip; in whatever environment
observation and argument were likely to be pointed with some saying or
anecdote attributed, rightly or otherwise, to Mark Twain. "As Mark Twain
says," or, "You know that story of Mark Twain's," were universal and
daily commonplaces. It was dazzling, towering fame, not of the best or
most enduring kind as yet, but holding somewhere within it the structure
of immortality.

He was in a constant state of siege, besought by all varieties and
conditions of humanity for favors such as only human need and abnormal
ingenuity can invent. His ever-increasing mail presented a marvelous
exhibition of the human species on undress parade. True, there were
hundreds of appreciative tributes from readers who spoke only out of a
heart's gratitude; but there were nearly as great a number who came with
a compliment, and added a petition, or a demand, or a suggestion, usually
unwarranted, often impertinent. Politicians, public speakers, aspiring
writers, actors, elocutionists, singers, inventors (most of them he had
never seen or heard of) cheerfully asked him for a recommendation as to
their abilities and projects.

Young men wrote requesting verses or sentiments to be inscribed in young
ladies' autograph albums; young girls wrote asking him to write the story
of his life, to be used as a school composition; men starting obscure
papers coolly invited him to lend them his name as editor, assuring him
that he would be put to no trouble, and that it would help advertise his
books; a fruitful humorist wrote that he had invented some five thousand
puns, and invited Mark Twain to father this terrific progeny in book form
for a share of the returns. But the list is endless. He said once:

"The symbol of the race ought to be a human being carrying an ax, for
every human being has one concealed about him somewhere, and is always
seeking the opportunity to grind it."

Even P. T. Barnum had an ax, the large ax of advertising, and he was
perpetually trying to grind it on Mark Twain's reputation; in other
words, trying to get him to write something that would help to popularize
"The Greatest Show on Earth."

There were a good many curious letters-letters from humorists, would-be
and genuine. A bright man in Duluth sent him an old Allen "pepper-box"
revolver with the statement that it had been found among a pile of bones
under a tree, from the limb of which was suspended a lasso and a buffalo
skull; this as evidence that the weapon was the genuine Allen which Bemis
had lost on that memorable Overland buffalo-hunt. Mark Twain enjoyed
that, and kept the old pepper-box as long as he lived. There were
letters from people with fads; letters from cranks of every description;
curious letters even from friends. Reginald Cholmondeley, that lovely
eccentric of Condover Hall, where Mr. and Mrs. Clemens had spent some
halcyon days in 1873, wrote him invitations to be at his castle on a
certain day, naming the hour, and adding that he had asked friends to
meet him. Cholmondeley had a fancy for birds, and spared nothing to
improve his collection. Once he wrote Clemens asking him to collect for
him two hundred and five American specimens, naming the varieties and the
amount which he was to pay for each. Clemens was to catch these birds
and bring them over to England, arriving at Condover on a certain day,
when there would be friends to meet him, of course.

Then there was a report which came now and then from another English
castle - the minutes of a certain "Mark Twain Club," all neatly and
elaborately written out, with the speech of each member and the
discussions which had followed - the work, he found out later, of another
eccentric; for there was no Mark Twain Club, the reports being just the
mental diversion of a rich young man, with nothing else to do. - [In
Following the Equator Clemens combined these two pleasant characters in
one story, with elaborations.]

Letters came queerly addressed. There is one envelope still in existence
which bears Clemens's name in elaborate design and a very good silhouette
likeness, the work of some talented artist. "Mark Twain, United States,"
was a common address; "Mark Twain, The World," was also used; "Mark
Twain, Somewhere," mailed in a foreign country, reached him promptly, and
"Mark Twain, Anywhere," found its way to Hartford in due season. Then
there was a letter (though this was later; he was abroad at the time),
mailed by Brander Matthews and Francis Wilson, addressed, "Mark Twain,
God Knows Where." It found him after traveling half around the world on
its errand, and in his answer he said, "He did." Then some one sent a
letter addressed, "The Devil Knows Where." Which also reached him, and
he answered, "He did, too."

Surely this was the farthest horizon of fame.

Countless Mark Twain anecdotes are told of this period, of every period,
and will be told and personally vouched for so long as the last soul of
his generation remains alive. For seventy years longer, perhaps, there
will be those who will relate "personal recollections" of Mark Twain.
Many of them will be interesting; some of them will be true; most of them
will become history at last. It is too soon to make history of much of
this drift now. It is only safe to admit a few authenticated examples.

It happens that one of the oftenest-told anecdotes has been the least
elaborated. It is the one about his call on Mrs. Stowe. Twichell's
journal entry, set down at the time, verifies it:

Mrs. Stowe was leaving for Florida one morning, and Clemens ran over
early to say good-by. On his return Mrs. Clemens regarded him

"Why, Youth," she said, "you haven't on any collar and tie."

He said nothing, but went up to his room, did up these items in a neat
package, and sent it over by a servant, with a line:

"Herewith receive a call from the rest of me."

Mrs. Stowe returned a witty note, in which she said that he had
discovered a new principle, the principle of making calls by instalments,
and asked whether, in extreme cases, a man might not send his hat, coat,
and boots and be otherwise excused.

Col. Henry Watterson tells the story of an after-theater supper at the
Brevoort House, where Murat Halstead, Mark Twain, and himself were
present. A reporter sent in a card for Colonel Watterson, who was about
to deny himself when Clemens said:

"Give it to me; I'll fix it." And left the table. He came back in a
moment and beckoned to Watterson.

"He is young and as innocent as a lamb," he said. "I represented myself
as your secretary. I said that you were not here, but if Mr. Halstead
would do as well I would fetch him out. I'll introduce you as Halstead,
and we'll have some fun."

Now, while Watterson and Halstead were always good friends, they were
political enemies. It was a political season and the reporter wanted
that kind of an interview. Watterson gave it to him, repudiating every
principle that Halstead stood for, reversing him in every expressed
opinion. Halstead was for hard money and given to flying the "bloody
shirt" of sectional prejudice; Watterson lowered the bloody shirt and
declared for greenbacks in Halstead's name. Then he and Clemens returned
to the table and told frankly what they had done. Of course, nobody
believed it. The report passed the World night-editor, and appeared,
next morning. Halstead woke up, then, and wrote a note to the World,
denying the interview throughout. The World printed his note with the
added line:

"When Mr. Halstead saw our reporter he had dined."

It required John Hay (then on the Tribune) to place the joke where it

There is a Lotos Club anecdote of Mark Twain that carries the internal
evidence of truth. Saturday evening at the Lotos always brought a
gathering of the "wits," and on certain evenings - "Hens and chickens"
nights - each man had to tell a story, make a speech, or sing a song. On
one evening a young man, an invited guest, was called upon and recited a
very long poem.

One by one those who sat within easy reach of the various exits melted
away, until no one remained but Mark Twain. Perhaps he saw the
earnestness of the young man, and sympathized with it. He may have
remembered a time when he would have been grateful for one such attentive
auditor. At all events, he sat perfectly still, never taking his eyes
from the reader, never showing the least inclination toward discomfort or
impatience, but listening, as with rapt attention, to the very last line.
Douglas Taylor, one of the faithful Saturday-night members, said to him

"Mark, how did you manage to sit through that dreary, interminable poem?"

"Well," he said, "that young man thought he had a divine message to
deliver, and I thought he was entitled to at least one auditor, so I
stayed with him."

We may believe that for that one auditor the young author was willing to
sacrifice all the others.

One might continue these anecdotes for as long as the young man's poem
lasted, and perhaps hold as large an audience. But anecdotes are not all
of history. These are set down because they reflect a phase of the man
and an aspect of his life at this period. For at the most we can only
present an angle here and there, and tell a little of the story, letting
each reader from his fancy construct the rest.



Once that winter the Monday Evening Club met at Mark Twain's home, and
instead of the usual essay he read them a story: "The Facts Concerning
the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut." It was the story of a
man's warfare with a personified conscience - a sort of "William Wilson"
idea, though less weird, less somber, and with more actuality, more
verisimilitude. It was, in fact, autobiographical, a setting-down of the
author's daily self-chidings. The climax, where conscience is slain, is
a startling picture which appeals to most of humanity. So vivid is it
all, that it is difficult in places not to believe in the reality of the
tale, though the allegory is always present.

The club was deeply impressed by the little fictional sermon. One of its
ministerial members offered his pulpit for the next Sunday if Mark Twain
would deliver it to his congregation. Howells welcomed it for the
Atlantic, and published it in June. It was immensely successful at the
time, though for some reason it seems to be little known or remembered
to-day. Now and then a reader mentions it, always with enthusiasm.
Howells referred to it repeatedly in his letters, and finally persuaded
Clemens to let Osgood bring it out, with "A True Story," in dainty,
booklet form. If the reader does not already know the tale, it will pay
him to look it up and read it, and then to read it again.

Meantime Tom Sawyer remained unpublished.

"Get Bliss to hurry it up!" wrote Howells. "That boy is going to make a
prodigious hit."

But Clemens delayed the book, to find some means to outwit the Canadian
pirates, who thus far had laid hands on everything, and now were
clamoring at the Atlantic because there was no more to steal.

Moncure D. Conway was in America, and agreed to take the manuscript of
Sawyer to London and arrange for its publication and copyright. In
Conway's Memoirs he speaks of Mark Twain's beautiful home, comparing it
and its surroundings with the homes of Surrey, England. He tells of an
entertainment given to Harriet Beecher Stowe, a sort of animated jarley
wax-works. Clemens and Conway went over as if to pay a call, when
presently the old lady was rather startled by an invasion of costumed.
figures. Clemens rose and began introducing them in his gay, fanciful
fashion. He began with a knight in full armor, saying, as if in an
aside, "Bring along that tinshop," and went on to tell the romance of the
knight's achievements.

Conway read Tom Sawyer on the ship and was greatly excited over it.
Later, in London, he lectured on it, arranging meantime for its
publication with Chatto & Windus, thus establishing a friendly business
relation with that firm which Mark Twain continued during his lifetime.

Clemens lent himself to a number of institutional amusements that year,
and on the 26th of April, 1876, made his first public appearance on the
dramatic stage.

It was an amateur performance, but not of the usual kind. There was
genuine dramatic talent in Hartford, and the old play of the "Loan of the
Lover," with Mark Twain as Peter Spuyk and Miss Helen Smith - [Now Mrs.
William W. Ellsworth.] - as Gertrude, with a support sufficient for their
needs, gave a performance that probably furnished as much entertainment
as that pleasant old play is capable of providing. Mark Twain had in him
the making of a great actor. Henry Irving once said to him:

"You made a mistake by not adopting the stage as a profession. You would
have made even a greater actor than a writer."

Yet it is unlikely that he would ever have been satisfied with the stage.
He had too many original literary ideas. He would never have been
satisfied to repeat the same part over and over again, night after night
from week to month, and from month to year. He could not stick to the
author's lines even for one night. In his performance of the easy-going,
thick-headed Peter Spuyk his impromptu additions to the lines made it
hard on the company, who found their cues all at sixes and sevens, but it
delighted the audience beyond measure. No such impersonation of that.
character was ever given before, or ever will be given again. It was
repeated with new and astonishing variations on the part of Peter, and it
could have been put on for a long run. Augustin Daly wrote immediately,
offering the Fifth Avenue Theater for a "benefit" performance, and again,
a few days later, urging acceptance. "Not for one night, but for many."

Clemens was tempted, no doubt. Perhaps, if he had yielded, he would
today have had one more claim on immortality.



Howells and Clemens were visiting back and forth rather oftener just
then. Clemens was particularly fond of the Boston crowd - Aldrich,
Fields, Osgood, and the rest - delighting in those luncheons or dinners
which Osgood, that hospitable publisher, was always giving on one pretext
or another. No man ever loved company more than Osgood, or to play the
part of host and pay for the enjoyment of others. His dinners were
elaborate affairs, where the sages and poets and wits of that day (and
sometimes their wives) gathered. They were happy reunions, those
fore-gatherings, though perhaps a more intimate enjoyment was found at
the luncheons, where only two or three were invited, usually Aldrich,
Howells, and Clemens, and the talk continued through the afternoon and
into the deepening twilight, such company and such twilight as somehow
one seems never to find any more.

On one of the visits which Howells made to Hartford that year he took his
son John, then a small boy, with him. John was about six years old at
the time, with his head full of stories of Aladdin, and of other Arabian
fancies. On the way over his father said to him:

"Now, John, you will see a perfect palace."

They arrived, and John was awed into silence by the magnificence and
splendors of his surroundings until they went to the bath-room to wash
off the dust of travel. There he happened to notice a cake of pink soap.

"Why," he said, "they've even got their soap painted!" Next morning he
woke early - they were occupying the mahogany room on the ground floor
- and slipping out through the library, and to the door of the
dining-room, he saw the colored butler, George - the immortal
George - setting the breakfast-table. He hurriedly tiptoed back and
whispered to his father:

"Come quick! The slave is setting the table!"

This being the second mention of George, it seems proper here that he
should be formally presented. Clemens used to say that George came one
day to wash windows and remained eighteen years. He was precisely the
sort of character that Mark Twain loved. He had formerly been the
body-servant of an army general and was typically racially Southern, with
those delightful attributes of wit and policy and gentleness which go
with the best type of negro character. The children loved him no less
than did their father. Mrs. Clemens likewise had a weakness for George,
though she did not approve of him. George's morals were defective. He
was an inveterate gambler. He would bet on anything, though prudently
and with knowledge. He would investigate before he invested. If he
placed his money on a horse, he knew the horse's pedigree and the
pedigree of the horses against it, also of their riders. If he invested
in an election, he knew all about the candidates. He had agents among
his own race, and among the whites as well, to supply him with
information. He kept them faithful to him by lending them money - at
ruinous interest. He buttonholed Mark Twain's callers while he was
removing their coats concerning the political situation, much to the
chagrin of Mrs. Clemens, who protested, though vainly, for the men liked
George and his ways, and upheld him in his iniquities.

Mrs. Clemens's disapproval of George reached the point, now and then,
where she declared he could not remain.

She even discharged him once, but next morning George was at the
breakfast-table, in attendance, as usual. Mrs. Clemens looked at him

"George," she said, "didn't I discharge you yesterday?"

"Yes, Mis' Clemens, but I knew you couldn't get along without me, so I
thought I'd better stay a while."

In one of the letters to Howells, Clemens wrote:

When George first came he was one of the most religious of men. He had
but one fault - young George Washington's. But I have trained him; and
now it fairly breaks Mrs. Clemens's heart to hear him stand at that front
door and lie to an unwelcome visitor.

George was a fine diplomat. He would come up to the billiard-room with a
card or message from some one waiting below, and Clemens would fling his
soul into a sultry denial which became a soothing and balmy subterfuge
before it reached the front door.

The "slave" must have been setting the table in good season, for the
Clemens breakfasts were likely to be late. They usually came along about
nine o'clock, by which time Howells and John were fairly clawing with

Clemens did not have an early appetite, but when it came it was a good
one. Breakfast and dinner were his important meals. He seldom ate at
all during the middle of the day, though if guests were present he would
join them at luncheon-time and walk up and down while they were eating,
talking and gesticulating in his fervent, fascinating way. Sometimes
Mrs. Clemens would say:

"Oh, Youth, do come and sit down with us. We can listen so much better."

But he seldom did. At dinner, too, it was his habit, between the
courses, to rise from the table and walk up and down the room, waving his
napkin and talking! - talking in a strain and with a charm that he could
never quite equal with his pen. It's the opinion of most people who knew
Mark Twain personally that his impromptu utterances, delivered with that
ineffable quality of speech, manifested the culmination of his genius.

When Clemens came to Boston the Howells household was regulated, or
rather unregulated, without regard to former routine. Mark Twain's
personality was of a sort that unconsciously compelled the general
attendance of any household. The reader may recall Josh Billings's
remark on the subject. Howells tells how they kept their guest to
themselves when he visited their home in Cambridge, permitting him to
indulge in as many unconventions as he chose; how Clemens would take a
room at the Parker House, leaving the gas burning day and night, and
perhaps arrive at Cambridge, after a dinner or a reading, in evening
dress and slippers, and joyously remain with them for a day or more in
that guise, slipping on an overcoat and a pair of rubbers when they went
for a walk. Also, how he smoked continuously in every room of the house,
smoked during every waking moment, and how Howells, mindful of his
insurance, sometimes slipped in and removed the still-burning cigar after
he was asleep.

Clemens had difficulty in getting to sleep in that earlier day, and for a
time found it soothing to drink a little champagne on retiring. Once,
when he arrived in Boston, Howells said:

"Clemens, we've laid in a bottle of champagne for you."

But he answered:

"Oh, that's no good any more. Beer's the thing."

So Howells provided the beer, and always afterward had a vision of his
guest going up-stairs that night with a pint bottle under each arm.

He invented other methods of inducing slumber as the years went by, and
at one time found that this precious boon came more easily when he
stretched himself on the bath-room floor.

He was a perpetual joy to the Howells family when he was there, even
though the household required a general reorganization when he was gone.

Mildred Howells remembers how, as a very little girl, her mother
cautioned her not to ask for anything she wanted at the table when
company was present, but to speak privately of it to her. Miss Howells
declares that while Mark Twain was their guest she nearly starved because
it was impossible to get her mother's attention; and Mrs. Howells, after
one of those visits of hilarity and disorder, said:

"Well, it 'most kills me, but it pays," a remark which Clemens vastly
enjoyed. Howells himself once wrote:

Your visit was a perfect ovation for us; we never enjoy anything so much
as those visits of yours. The smoke and the Scotch and the late hours
almost kill us; but we look each other in the eyes when you are gone, and
say what a glorious time it was, and air the library, and begin sleeping
and longing to have you back again....



They went to Elmira, that summer of '76, to be "hermits and eschew caves
and live in the sun," as Clemens wrote in a letter to Dr. Brown. They
returned to the place as to Paradise: Clemens to his study and the books
which he always called for, Mrs. Clemens to a blessed relief from social
obligations, the children to the shady play-places, the green, sloping
hill, where they could race and tumble, and to all their animal friends.

Susy was really growing up. She had had several birthdays, quite grand
affairs, when she had been brought down in the morning, decked, and with
proper ceremonies, with subsequent celebration. She was a strange,
thoughtful child, much given to reflecting on the power and presence of
infinity, for she was religiously taught. Down in the city, one night,
there was a grand display of fireworks, and the hilltop was a good place
from which to enjoy it; but it grew late after a little, and Susy was
ordered to bed. She said, thoughtfully:

"I wish I could sit up all night, as God does."

The baby, whom they still called "Bay," was a tiny, brown creature who
liked to romp in the sun and be rocked to sleep at night with a song.
Clemens often took them for extended' walks, pushing Bay in her carriage.
Once, in a preoccupied moment, he let go of the little vehicle and it
started downhill, gaining speed rapidly.

He awoke then, and set off in wild pursuit. Before he could overtake the
runaway carriage it had turned to the roadside and upset. Bay was lying
among the stones and her head was bleeding. Hastily binding the wound
with a handkerchief he started full speed with her up the hill toward the
house, calling for restoratives as he came. It was no serious matter.
The little girl was strong and did not readily give way to affliction.

The children were unlike: Susy was all contemplation and nerves; Bay

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Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 → online text (page 1 of 20)