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

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any infamy at the time is a good enough custom for those who think
it justifiable. Your correspondent is not stupid, I judge, but
purely and simply malicious. He knew there was not the shadow of a
suggestion, from the beginning to the end of "A Curious Episode,"
that the story was an invention; he knew he had no warrant for
trying to persuade the public that I had stolen the narrative and
was endeavoring to palm it off as a piece of literary invention; he
also knew that he was asking his closing question with a base
motive, else he would have asked it of me by letter, not spread it
before the public.

I have never wronged you in any way, and I think you had no right to
print that communication; no right, neither any excuse. As to
publicly answering that correspondent, I would as soon think of
bandying words in public with any other prostitute.

The editor replied in a manly, frank acknowledgment of error. He had not
looked up the article itself in the Century before printing the

"Your letter has taught me a lesson," he said. "The blame belongs
to me for not hunting up the proofs. Please accept my apology."

Mark Twain was likely to be peculiarly sensitive to printed innuendos.
Not always. Sometimes he would only laugh at them or be wholly
indifferent. Indeed, in his later years, he seldom cared to read
anything about himself, one way or the other, but at the time of which we
are now writing - the period of the early eighties - he was alive to any
comment of the press. His strong sense of humor, and still stronger
sense of human weakness, caused him to overlook many things which another
might regard as an affront; but if the thing printed were merely an
uncalled-for slur, an inexcusable imputation, he was inclined to rage and
plan violence. Sometimes he conceived retribution in the form of libel
suits with heavy damages. Sometimes he wrote blasting answers, which
Mrs. Clemens would not let him print.

At one time he planned a biography of a certain editor who seemed to be
making a deliberate personal campaign against his happiness. Clemens had
heard that offending items were being printed in this man's paper;
friends, reporting with customary exaggeration, declared that these
sneers and brutalities appeared almost daily, so often as to cause
general remark.

This was enough. He promptly began to collect data - damaging data
- relating to that editor's past history. He even set a man to work in
England collecting information concerning his victim. One of his
notebooks contains the memoranda; a few items will show how terrific was
to be the onslaught.

When the naturalist finds a new kind of animal, he writes him up in
the interest of science. No matter if it is an unpleasant animal.
This is a new kind of animal, and in the cause of society must be
written up. He is the polecat of our species . . . . He is
purely and simply a Guiteau with the courage left out . . . .

Steel portraits of him as a sort of idiot, from infancy up - to a
dozen scattered through the book - all should resemble him.

But never mind the rest. When he had got thoroughly interested in his
project Mrs. Clemens, who had allowed the cyclone to wear itself out a
little with its own vehemence, suggested that perhaps it would be well to
have some one make an examination of the files of the paper and see just
what had been said of him. So he subscribed for the paper himself and
set a man to work on the back numbers. We will let him tell the
conclusion of the matter himself, in his report of it to Howells:

The result arrived from my New York man this morning. Oh, what a
pitiable wreck of high hopes! The "almost daily" assaults for two
months consist of (1) adverse criticism of P. & P. from an enraged
idiot in the London Athenaeum, (2) paragraphs from some indignant
Englishman in the Pall Mall Gazette, who pays me the vast compliment
of gravely rebuking some imaginary ass who has set me up in the
neighborhood of Rabelais, (3) a remark about the Montreal dinner,
touched with an almost invisible satire, and, (4) a remark about
refusal of Canadian copyright, not complimentary, but not
necessarily malicious; and of course adverse criticism which is not
malicious is a thing which none but fools irritate themselves about.

There, that is the prodigious bugaboo in its entirety! Can you
conceive of a man's getting himself into a sweat over so diminutive
a provocation? I am sure I can't. What the devil can those friends
of mine have been thinking about to spread those three or four
harmless things out into two months of daily sneers and affronts?

Boiled down, this vast outpouring of malice amounts to simply this:
one jest (one can make nothing more serious than that out of it).
One jest, and that is all; for foreign criticisms do not count, they
being matters of news, and proper for publication in anybody's
newspaper . . . .

Well, my mountain has brought forth its mouse, and a sufficiently
small mouse it is, God knows. And my three weeks' hard work has got
to go into the ignominious pigeonhole. Confound it, I could have
earned ten thousand dollars with infinitely less trouble.

Howells refers to this episode, and concludes:

So the paper was acquitted and the editor's life was spared. The
wretch never, never knew how near he was to losing it, with
incredible preliminaries of obloquy, and a subsequent devotion to
lasting infamy.



To write a detailed biography of Mark Twain at this period would be to
defy perusal. Even to set down all the interesting matters, interesting
to the public of his time, would mean not only to exhaust the subject,
but the reader. He lived at the top of his bent, and almost anything
relating to him was regarded as news. Daily and hourly he mingled with
important matters or spoke concerning them. A bare list of the
interesting events of Mark Twain's life would fill a large volume.

He was so busy, so deeply interested himself, so vitally alive to every
human aspect. He read the papers through, and there was always enough to
arouse his indignation - the doings of the human race at large could be
relied upon to do that - and he would write, and write, to relieve
himself. His mental Niagara was always pouring away, turning out
articles, essays, communications on every conceivable subject, mainly
with the idea of reform. There were many public and private abuses, and
he wanted to correct them all. He covered reams of paper with lurid
heresies - political, religious, civic - for most of which there was no
hope of publication.

Now and then he was allowed to speak out: An order from the Past-office
Department at Washington concerning the superscription of envelopes
seemed to him unwarranted. He assailed it, and directly the nation was
being entertained by a controversy between Mark Twain and the
Postmaster-General's private secretary, who subsequently receded from the
field. At another time, on the matter of postage rates he wrote a paper
which began: "Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a
member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

It is hardly necessary to add that the paper did not appear.

On the whole, Clemens wrote his strictures more for relief than to print,
and such of these papers as are preserved to-day form a curious
collection of human documents. Many of them could be printed to-day,
without distress to any one. The conditions that invited them are
changed; the heresies are not heresies any more. He may have had some
thought of their publication in later years, for once he wrote:

Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take the pen and put
them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then
all that ink and labor are wasted because I can't print the result.
I have just finished an article of this kind, and it satisfies me
entirely. It does my weather-beaten soul good to read it, and
admire the trouble it would make for me and the family. I will
leave it behind and utter it from the grave. There is a free speech
there, and no harm to the family.

It is too late and too soon to print most of these things; too late to
print them for their salutary influence, too soon to print them as

He was interested in everything: in music, as little as he knew of it. He
had an ear for melody, a dramatic vision, and the poetic conception of
sound. Reading some lilting lyric, he could fancy the words marching to
melody, and would cast about among his friends for some one who could
supply a tuneful setting. Once he wrote to his friend the Rev. Dr.
Parker, who was a skilled musician, urging him to write a score for
Tennyson's "Bugle Song," outlining an attractive scheme for it which the
order of his fancy had formulated. Dr. Parker replied that the "Bugle
Song," often attempted, had been the despair of many musicians.

He was interested in business affairs. Already, before the European
trip, he had embarked in, and disembarked from, a number of pecuniary
ventures. He had not been satisfied with a strictly literary income. The
old tendency to speculative investment, acquired during those restless
mining days, always possessed him. There were no silver mines in the
East, no holes in the ground into which to empty money and effort; but
there were plenty of equivalents - inventions, stock companies, and the
like. He had begun by putting five thousand dollars into the American
Publishing Company; but that was a sound and profitable venture, and
deserves to be remembered for that reason.

Then a man came along with a patent steam generator which would save
ninety per cent. of the fuel energy, or some such amount, and Mark Twain
was early persuaded that it would revolutionize the steam manufactures of
the world; so he put in whatever bank surplus he had and bade it a
permanent good-by.

Following the steam generator came a steam pulley, a rather small
contrivance, but it succeeded in extracting thirty-two thousand dollars
from his bank account in a period of sixteen months.

By the time he had accumulated a fresh balance, a new method of marine
telegraphy was shown him, so he used it up on that, twenty-five thousand
dollars being the price of this adventure.

A watch company in western New York was ready to sell him a block of
shares by the time he was prepared to experiment again, but it did not
quite live to declare the first dividend on his investment.

Senator John P. Jones invited him to join in the organization of an
accident insurance company, and such was Jones's confidence in the
venture that he guaranteed Clemens against loss. Mark Twain's only
profit from this source was in the delivery of a delicious speech, which
he made at a dinner given to Cornelius Walford, of London, an insurance
author of repute. Jones was paying back the money presently, and about
that time came a young inventor named Graham Bell, offering stock in a
contrivance for carrying the human voice on an electric wire. At almost
any other time Clemens would eagerly have welcomed this opportunity; but
he was so gratified at having got his money out of the insurance venture
that he refused to respond to the happy "hello" call of fortune. In some
memoranda made thirty years later he said:

I declined. I said I didn't want anything more to do with wildcat
speculation. Then he [Bell] offered the stock to me at twenty-five. I
said I didn't want it at any price. He became eager; insisted that I
take five hundred dollars' worth. He said he would sell me as much as I
wanted for five hundred dollars; offered to let me gather it up in my
hands and measure it in a plug hat; said I could have a whole hatful for
five hundred dollars. But I was the burnt child, and I resisted all
these temptations-resisted them easily; went off with my check intact,
and next day lent five thousand of it, on an unendorsed note, to a friend
who was going to go bankrupt three days later.

About the end of the year I put up a telephone wire from my house down to
the Courant office, the only telephone wire in town, and the first one
that was ever used in a private house in the world.

That had been only a little while before he sailed for Europe. When he
returned he would have been willing to accept a very trifling interest in
the telephone industry for the amount of his insurance salvage.

He had a fresh interest in patents now, and when his old friend Dan Slote
got hold of a new process for engraving - the kaolatype or "chalk-plate"
process - which was going to revolutionize the world of illustration, he
promptly acquired a third interest, and eventually was satisfied with
nothing short of control. It was an ingenious process: a sheet of
perfectly smooth steel was coated with a preparation of kaolin (or china
clay), and a picture was engraved through the coating down to the steel
surface. This formed the matrix into which the molten metal was poured
to make the stereotype plate, or die, for printing. It was Clemens's
notion that he could utilize this process for the casting of brass dies
for stamping book covers - that, so applied, the fortunes to be made out
of it would be larger and more numerous. Howells tells how, at one time,
Clemens thought the "damned human race" was almost to be redeemed by a
process of founding brass without air-bubbles in it. This was the time
referred to and the race had to go unredeemed; for, after long, worried,
costly experimenting, the brass refused to accommodate its nature to the
new idea, while the chalk plate itself, with all its subsidiary and
auxiliary possibilities, was infringed upon right and left, and the
protecting patent failed to hold. The process was doomed, in any case.
It was barely established before the photographic etching processes,
superior in all ways, were developed and came quickly into use. The
kaolatype enterprise struggled nobly for a considerable period. Clemens
brought his niece's husband, young Charles L. Webster, from Fredonia to
manage it for him, and backed it liberally. Webster was vigorous,
hard-working, and capable; but the end of each month showed a deficit,
until Clemens was from forty to fifty thousand dollars out of pocket in
his effort to save the race with chalk and brass. The history of these
several ventures (and there were others), dismissed here in a few
paragraphs, would alone make a volume not without interest, certainly not
without humor. Following came the type-setting machine, but we are not
ready for that. Of necessity it is a longer, costlier story.

Mrs. Clemens did not share his enthusiasm in these various enterprises.
She did not oppose them, at least not strenuously, but she did not
encourage them. She did not see their need. Their home was beautiful;
they were happy; he could do his work in deliberation and comfort. She
knew the value of money better than he, cared more for it in her own way;
but she had not his desire to heap up vast and sudden sums, to revel in
torrential golden showers. She was willing to let well enough alone.
Clemens could not do this, and suffered accordingly. In the midst of
fair home surroundings and honors we find him writing to his mother:

Life has come to be a very serious matter with me. I have a
badgered, harassed feeling a good part of my time. It comes mainly
from business responsibilities and annoyances.

He had no moral right to be connected with business at all. He had a
large perception of business opportunity, but no vision of its
requirements - its difficulties and details. He was the soul of honor,
but in anything resembling practical direction he was but a child. During
any period of business venture he was likely to be in hot water: eagerly
excited, worried, impatient; alternately suspicious and over-trusting,
rash, frenzied, and altogether upset.

Yet never, even to the end of his days, would he permanently lose faith
in speculative ventures. Human traits are sometimes modified, but never
eliminated. The man who is born to be a victim of misplaced confidence
will continue to be one so long as he lives and there are men willing to
victimize him. The man who believes in himself as an investor will
uphold that faith against all disaster so long as he draws breath and has
money to back his judgments.



By a statement made on the 1st of January, 1882, of Mark Twain's
disbursements for the preceding year, it is shown that considerably more
than one hundred thousand dollars had been expended during that twelve
months. It is a large sum for an author to pay out in one year. It
would cramp most authors to do it, and it was not the best financing,
even for Mark Twain. It required all that the books could earn, all the
income from the various securities, and a fair sum from their principal.
There is a good deal of biography in the statement. Of the amount
expended forty-six thousand dollars represented investments; but of this
comfortable sum less than five thousand dollars would cover the
legitimate purchases; the rest had gone in the "ventures" from whose
bourne no dollar would ever return. Also, a large sum had been spent for
the additional land and for improvements on the home - somewhat more than
thirty thousand dollars altogether - while the home life had become more
lavish, the establishment had grown each year to a larger scale, the
guests and entertainments had become more and, more numerous, until the
actual household expenditure required about as much as the books and
securities could earn.

It was with the increased scale of living that Clemens had become
especially eager for some source of commercial profit; something that
would yield a return, not in paltry thousands, but hundreds of thousands.
Like Colonel Sellers, he must have something with "millions in it."
Almost any proposition that seemed to offer these possible millions
appealed to him, and in his imagination he saw the golden freshet pouring

His natural taste was for a simple, inexpensive life; yet in his large
hospitality, and in a certain boyish love of grandeur, he gloried in the
splendor of his entertainment, the admiration and delight of his guests.
There were always guests; they were coming and going constantly. Clemens
used to say that he proposed to establish a bus line between their house
and the station for the accommodation of his company. He had the
Southern hospitality. Much company appealed to a very large element in
his strangely compounded nature. For the better portion of the year he
was willing to pay the price of it, whether in money or in endurance, and
Mrs. Clemens heroically did her part. She loved these things also, in
her own way. She took pride in them, and realized that they were a part
of his vast success. Yet in her heart she often longed for the simpler
life - above all, for the farm life at Elmira. Her spirit cried out for
the rest and comfort there. In one of her letters she says:
The house has been full of company, and I have been "whirled
around." How can a body help it? Oh, I cannot help sighing for the
peace and quiet of the farm. This is my work, and I know that I do
very wrong when I feel chafed by it, but how can I be right about
it? Sometimes it seems as if the simple sight of people would drive
me mad. I am all wrong; if I would simply accept the fact that this
is my work and let other things go, I know I should not be so
fretted; but I want so much to do other things, to study and do
things with the children, and I cannot.

I have the best French teacher that I ever had, and if I could give
any time to it I could not help learning French.

When we reflect on the conditions, we are inclined to say how much better
it would have been to have remained there among the hills in that quiet,
inexpensive environment, to have let the world go. But that was not
possible. The game was of far larger proportions than any that could be
restricted to the limits of retirement and the simpler round of life.
Mark Twain's realm had become too large for his court to be established
in a cottage.

It is hard to understand that in spite of a towering fame Mark Twain was
still not regarded by certain American arbiters of reputations as a
literary fixture; his work was not yet recognized by them as being of
important meaning and serious purport.

In Boston, at that time still the Athens of America, he was enjoyed,
delighted in; but he was not honored as being quite one of the elect.
Howells tells us that:

In proportion as people thought themselves refined they questioned
that quality which all recognize in him now, but which was then the
inspired knowledge of the simple-hearted multitude.

Even at the Atlantic dinners his place was "below the salt" - a place of
honor, but not of the greatest honor. He did not sit on the dais with
Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Whittier, Howells, and Aldrich. We of a
later period, who remember him always as the center of every board - the
one supreme figure, his splendid head and crown of silver hair the target
of every eye-find it hard to realize the Cambridge conservatism that clad
him figuratively always in motley, and seated him lower than the throne

Howells clearly resented this condition, and from random review corners
had ventured heresy. Now in 1882 he seems to have determined to declare
himself, in a large, free way, concerning his own personal estimate of
Mark Twain. He prepared for the Century Magazine a biographical
appreciation, in which he served notice to the world that Mark Twain's
work, considered even as literature, was of very considerable importance
indeed. Whether or not Howells then realized the "inspired knowledge of
the multitude," and that most of the nation outside of the counties of
Suffolk and Essex already recognized his claim, is not material. Very
likely he did; but he also realized the mental dusk of the cultured
uninspired and his prerogative to enlighten them. His Century article
was a kind of manifesto, a declaration of independence, no longer
confined to the obscurities of certain book notices, where of course one
might be expected to stretch friendly favor a little for a popular
Atlantic contributor. In the open field of the Century Magazine Howells
ventured to declare:

Mark Twain's humor is as simple in form and as direct as the
statesmanship of Lincoln or the generalship of Grant.

When I think how purely and wholly American it is I am a little
puzzled at its universal acceptance . . . . Why, in fine, should
an English chief-justice keep Mark Twain's books always at hand?
Why should Darwin have gone to them for rest and refreshment at
midnight, when spent with scientific research?

I suppose that Mark Twain transcends all other American humorists in
the universal qualities. He deals very little with the pathetic,
which he nevertheless knows very well how to manage, as he has
shown, notably in the true story of the old slave-mother; but there
is a poetic lift in his work, even when he permits you to recognize
it only as something satirized. There is always the touch of
nature, the presence of a sincere and frank manliness in what he
says, the companionship of a spirit which is at once delightfully
open and deliciously shrewd. Elsewhere I have tried to persuade the
reader that his humor is, at its best, the foamy break of the strong
tide of earnestness in him. But it would be limiting him unjustly
to describe him as a satirist, and it is hardly practicable to
establish him in people's minds as a moralist; he has made them
laugh too long; they will not believe him serious; they think some
joke is always intended. This is the penalty, as Dr. Holmes has
pointed out, of making one's first success as a humorist. There was
a paper of Mark Twain's printed in the Atlantic Monthly some years
ago and called, "The Facts Concerning the Late Carnival of Crime in
Connecticut," which ought to have won popular recognition of the
ethical intelligence underlying his humor. It was, of course,
funny; but under the fun it was an impassioned study of the human
conscience. Hawthorne or Bunyan might have been proud to imagine
that powerful allegory, which had a grotesque force far beyond
either of them.... Yet it quite failed of the response I had hoped

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Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 → online text (page 12 of 20)