Albert Bigelow Paine.

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

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for it, and I shall not insist here upon Mark Twain as a moralist;
though I warn the reader that if he leaves out of the account an
indignant sense of right and wrong, a scorn of all affectations and
pretense, an ardent hate of meanness and injustice, he will come
infinitely short of knowing Mark Twain.

Howells realized the unwisdom and weakness of dogmatic insistence, and
the strength of understatement. To him Mark Twain was already the
moralist, the philosopher, and the statesman; he was willing that the
reader should take his time to realize these things. The article, with
his subject's portrait as a frontispiece, appeared in the Century for
September, 1882. If it carried no new message to many of its readers, it
at least set the stamp of official approval upon what they had already
established in their hearts.



Osgood was doing no great things with The Prince and the Pauper, but
Clemens gave him another book presently, a collection of sketches - The
Stolen White Elephant. It was not an especially important volume, though
some of the features, such as "Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning" and the
"Carnival of Crime," are among the best of their sort, while the
"Elephant" story is an amazingly good take-off on what might be called
the spectacular detective. The interview between Inspector Blunt and the
owner of the elephant is typical. The inspector asks:

"Now what does this elephant eat, and how much?"

"Well, as to what he eats - he will eat anything. He will eat a man,
he will eat a Bible; he will eat anything between a man and a

"Good-very good, indeed, but too general. Details are necessary;
details are the only valuable thing in our trade. Very well, as to
men. At one meal - or, if you prefer, during one day - how many men
will he eat if fresh?"

"He would not care whether they were fresh or not; at a single meal
he would eat five ordinary men."

"Very good; five men. We will put that down. What nationalities
would he prefer?"

"He is indifferent about nationalities. He prefers acquaintances,
but is not prejudiced against strangers."

"Very good. Now, as to Bibles. How many Bibles would he eat at a

"He would eat an entire edition."

Clemens and Osgood had a more important publishing enterprise on hand.
The long-deferred completion of the Mississippi book was to be
accomplished; the long-deferred trip down the river was to be taken.
Howells was going abroad, but the charming Osgood was willing to make the
excursion, and a young man named Roswell Phelps, of Hartford, was engaged
as a stenographer to take the notes.

Clemens made a farewell trip to Boston to see Howells before his
departure, and together they went to Concord to call on Emerson; a
fortunate thing, for he lived but a few weeks longer. They went again in
the evening, not to see him, but to stand reverently outside and look at
his house. This was in April. Longfellow had died in March. The fact
that Howells was going away indefinitely, made them reminiscent and sad.

Just what breach Clemens committed during this visit is not remembered
now, and it does not matter; but his letter to Howells, after his return
to Hartford, makes it pretty clear that it was memorable enough at the
time. Half-way in it he breaks out:

But oh, hell, there is no hope for a person that is built like me,
because there is no cure, no cure.

If I could only know when I have committed a crime: then I could
conceal it, and not go stupidly dribbling it out, circumstance by
circumstance, into the ears of a person who will give no sign till
the confession is complete; and then the sudden damnation drops on a
body like the released pile-driver, and he finds himself in the
earth down to his chin. When he merely supposed he was being

Next day he was off with Osgood and the stenographer for St. Louis, where
they took the steamer Gold Dust down the river. He intended to travel
under an assumed name, but was promptly recognized, both at the Southern
Hotel and on the boat. In 'Life on the Mississippi' he has given us the
atmosphere of his trip, with his new impressions of old scenes; also his
first interview with the pilot, whom he did not remember, but who easily
remembered him.

"I did not write that story in the book quite as it happened," he
reflected once, many years later. "We went on board at night. Next
morning I was up bright and early and out on deck to see if I could
recognize any of the old landmarks. I could not remember any. I did not
know where we were at all. It was a new river to me entirely. I climbed
up in the pilot-house and there was a fellow of about forty at the wheel.
I said 'Good morning.' He answered pleasantly enough. His face was
entirely strange to me. Then I sat down on the high seat back of the
wheel and looked out at the river and began to ask a few questions, such
as a landsman would ask. He began, in the old way, to fill me up with
the old lies, and I enjoyed letting him do it. Then suddenly he turned
round to me and said:

"'I want to get a cup of coffee. You hold her, will you, till I come
back?' And before I could say a word he was out of the pilot-house door
and down the steps. It all came so suddenly that I sprang to the wheel,
of course, as I would have done twenty years before. Then in a moment I
realized my position. Here I was with a great big steamboat in the
middle of the Mississippi River, without any further knowledge than that
fact, and the pilot out of sight. I settled my mind on three
conclusions: first, that the pilot might be a lunatic; second, that he
had recognized me and thought I knew the river; third, that we were in a
perfectly safe place, where I could not possibly kill the steamboat. But
that last conclusion, though the most comforting, was an extremely
doubtful one. I knew perfectly well that no sane pilot would trust his
steamboat for a single moment in the hands of a greenhorn unless he were
standing by the greenhorn's side. Of course, by force of habit, when I
grabbed the wheel, I had taken the steering marks ahead and astern, and I
made up my mind to hold her on those marks to the hair; but I could feel
myself getting old and gray. Then all at once I recognized where we
were; we were in what is called the Grand Chain - a succession of hidden
rocks, one of the most dangerous places on the river. There were two
rocks there only about seventy feet apart, and you've got to go exactly
between them or wreck the boat. There was a time when I could have done
it without a tremor, but that time wasn't now. I would have given any
reasonable sum to have been on the shore just at that moment. I think I
was about ready to drop dead when I heard a step on the pilothouse stair;
then the door opened and the pilot came in, quietly picking his teeth,
and took the wheel, and I crawled weakly back to the seat. He said:

"'You thought you were playing a nice joke on me, didn't you? You
thought I didn't know who you were. Why, I recognized that drawl of
yours as soon as you opened your mouth.'

"I said, 'Who the h - l are you? I don't remember you.'

"'Well,' he said, 'perhaps you don't, but I was a cub pilot on the river
before the war, when you were a licensed pilot, and I couldn't get a
license when I was qualified for one, because the Pilots' Association was
so strong at that time that they could keep new pilots out if they wanted
to, and the law was that I had to be examined by two licensed pilots, and
for a good while I could not get any one to make that examination. But
one day you and another pilot offered to do it, and you put me through a
good, healthy examination and indorsed my application for a license. I
had never seen you before, and I have never seen you since until now, but
I recognized you.'

"'All right,' I said. 'But if I had gone half a mile farther with that
steamboat we might have all been at the bottom of the river.'

"We got to be good friends, of course, and I spent most of my time up
there with him. When we got down below Cairo, and there was a big, full
river - for it was highwater season and there was no danger of the boat
hitting anything so long as she kept in the river - I had her most of the
time on his watch. He would lie down and sleep, and leave me there to
dream that the years had not slipped away; that there had been no war, no
mining days, no literary adventures; that I was still a pilot, happy and
care-free as I had been twenty years before."

From the book we gather that he could not keep out of the pilot-house. He
was likely to get up at any hour of the night to stand his watch, and
truly enough the years had slipped away. He was the young fellow in his
twenties again, speculating on the problems of existence and reading his
fortune in the stars. To heighten the illusion, he had himself called
regularly with the four-o'clock watch, in order not to miss the mornings.
- [It will repay the reader to turn to chap. xxx of Life on the
Mississippi, and consider Mark Twain's word-picture of the river

The majesty and solitude of the river impressed him more than ever
before, especially its solitude. It had been so full of life in his
time; now it had returned once more to its primal loneliness - the
loneliness of God.

At one place two steamboats were in sight at once an unusual spectacle.
Once, in the mouth of a river, he noticed a small boat, which he made out
to be the Mark Twain. There had been varied changes in twenty-one years;
only the old fascination of piloting remained unchanged. To Bixby
afterward he wrote:

"I'd rather be a pilot than anything else I've ever done in my life. How
do you run Plum Point?"

He met Bixby at New Orleans. Bixby was captain now on a splendid new
Anchor Line steamboat, the City of Baton Rouge. The Anchor Line steamers
were the acme of Mississippi River steamboat-building, and they were
about the end of it. They were imposingly magnificent, but they were
only as gorgeous clouds that marked the sunset of Mississippi steamboat
travel. Mark Twain made his trip down the river just in time.

In New Orleans he met George W. Cable and Joel Chandler Harris, and they
had a fraternizing good time together, mousing about the old French
Quarter or mingling with the social life of the modern city. He made a
trip with Bixby in a tug to the Warmouth plantation, and they reviewed
old days together, as friends parted for twenty-one years will.
Altogether the New Orleans sojourn was a pleasant one, saddened only by a
newspaper notice of the death, in Edinburgh, of the kindly and gentle and
beloved Dr. Brown.

Clemens arranged to make the trip up the river on the Baton Rouge. Bixby
had one pretty inefficient pilot, and stood most of the watches himself,
so that with "Sam Clemens" in the pilot-house with him, it was
wonderfully like those old first days of learning the river, back in the

"Sam was ever making notes in his memorandum-book, just as he always
did," said Bixby to the writer, recalling the time. "I was sorry I had
to stay at the wheel so much. I wanted to have more time with Sam
without thinking of the river at all. Sam was sorry, too, from what he
wrote after he got home."

Bixby produced a letter in the familiar handwriting. It was a tender,
heart-spoken letter:

I didn't see half enough of you. It was a sore disappointment.
Osgood could have told you, if he would - discreet old dog - I
expected to have you with me all the time. Altogether, the most
pleasant part of my visit with you was after we arrived in St.
Louis, and you were your old natural self again. Twenty years have
not added a month to your age or taken a fraction from your

Said Bixby: "When we arrived in St. Louis we came to the Planters' Hotel;
to this very table where you and I are sitting now, and we had a couple
of hot Scotches between us, just as we have now, and we had a good last
talk over old times and old acquaintances. After he returned to New York
he sent for my picture. He wanted to use it in his book."

At St. Louis the travelers changed boats, and proceeded up the
Mississippi toward St. Paul. Clemens laid off three days at Hannibal.

Delightful days [he wrote home]. Loitering around all day long,
examining the old localities, and talking with the gray heads who were
boys and girls with me thirty or forty years ago. I spent my nights with
John and Helen Garth, three miles from town, in their spacious and
beautiful house. They were children with me, and afterward schoolmates.
That world which I knew in its blooming youth is old and bowed and
melancholy now; its soft cheeks are leathery and withered, the fire has
gone out of its eyes, the spring from its step. It will be dust and
ashes when I come again.

He had never seen the far upper river, and he found it very satisfying.
His note-book says:

The bluffs all along up above St. Paul are exquisitely beautiful
where the rough and broken turreted rocks stand up against the sky
above the steep, verdant slopes. They are inexpressibly rich and
mellow in color; soft dark browns mingled with dull greens - the very
tints to make an artist worship.

In a final entry he wrote:

The romance of boating is gone now. In Hannibal the steamboat man is no
longer the god.



Clemens took a further step toward becoming a publisher on his own
account. Not only did he contract to supply funds for the Mississippi
book, but, as kaolatype, the chalk-engraving process, which had been
lingeringly and expensively dying, was now become merely something to
swear at, he had his niece's husband, Webster, installed as Osgood's New
York subscription manager, with charge of the general agencies. There
was no delay in this move. Webster must get well familiarized with the
work before the Mississippi book's publication.

He had expected to have the manuscript finished pretty promptly, but the
fact that he had promised it for a certain time paralyzed his effort.
Even at the farm he worked without making much headway. At the end of
October he wrote Howells:

The weather turned cold, and we had to rush home, while I still
lacked thirty thousand words. I had been sick and got delayed. I
am going to write all day and two-thirds of the night until the
thing is done or break down at it. The spur and burden of the
contract are intolerable to me. I can endure the irritation of it
no longer. I went to work at nine o'clock yesterday morning and
went to bed an hour after midnight. Result of the day (mainly
stolen from books though credit given), 9,500 words, so I reduced my
burden by one-third in one day. It was five days' work in one. I
have nothing more to borrow or steal; the rest must all be written.
It is ten days' work and unless something breaks it will be finished
in five.

He had sworn once, when he had finally finished 'A Tramp Abroad', that he
would never limit himself as to time again. But he had forgotten that
vow, and was suffering accordingly.

Howells wrote from London urging him to drop everything and come over to
Europe for refreshment.

We have seen lots of nice people, and have been most pleasantly made
of; but I would rather have you smoke in my face and talk for half a
day, just for pleasure, than to go to the best house or club in

Clemens answered:

Yes, it would be more profitable to me to do that because, with your
society to help me, I should swiftly finish this now apparently
interminable book. But I cannot come, because I am not boss here,
and nothing but dynamite can move Mrs. Clemens away from home in the
winter season.

This was in November, and he had broken all restrictions as to time. He
declared that he had never had such a fight over any book before, and
that he had told Osgood and everybody concerned that they must wait.

I have said with sufficient positiveness that I will finish the book
at no particular date; that I will not hurry it; that I will not
hurry myself; that I will take things easy and comfortably - write
when I choose to write, leave it alone when I do so prefer . . .
I have got everything at a dead standstill, and that is where it
ought to be, and that is where it must remain; to follow any other
policy would be to make the book worse than it already is. I ought
to have finished it before showing it to anybody, and then sent it
across the ocean to you to be edited, as usual; for you seem to be a
great many shades happier than you deserve to be, and if I had
thought of this thing earlier I would have acted upon it and taken
the tuck somewhat out of your joyousness.

It was a long, heartfelt letter. Near the end of it he said:

Cable has been here, creating worshipers on all hands. He is a
marvelous talker on a deep subject. I do not see how even Spencer
could unwind a thought more smoothly or orderly, and do it in
cleaner, clearer, crisper English. He astounded Twichell with his
faculty. You know that when it comes down to moral honesty, limpid
innocence, and utterly blemishless piety, the apostles were mere
policemen to Cable; so with this in mind you must imagine him at a
midnight dinner in Boston the other night, where we gathered around
the board of the Summerset Club: Osgood full, Boyle O'Reilly full,
Fairchild responsively loaded, and Aldrich and myself possessing the
floor and properly fortified. Cable told Mrs. Clemens, when he
returned here, that he seemed to have been entertaining himself with
horses, and had a dreamy idea that he must have gone to Boston in a
cattle-car. It was a very large time. He called it an orgy. And
no doubt it was, viewed from his standpoint.

Osgood wanted Mark Twain to lecture that fall, as preliminary advertising
for the book, with "Life on the Mississippi" as his subject. Osgood was
careful to make this proposition by mail, and probably it was just as
well; for if there was any single straw that could have broken the back
of Clemens's endurance and made him violent at this particular time, it
was a proposition to go back on the platform. His answer to Osgood has
not been preserved.

Clemens spoke little that winter. In February he addressed the Monday
Evening Club on "What is Happiness?" presenting a theory which in later
years he developed as a part of his "gospel," and promulgated in a
privately printed volume, 'What is Man'? It is the postulate already
mentioned in connection with his reading of Lecky, that every human
action, bad or good, is the result of a selfish impulse; that is to say,
the result of a desire for the greater content of spirit. It is not a
new idea; philosophers in all ages have considered it, and accepted or
rejected it, according to their temperament and teachings, but it was
startling and apparently new to the Monday Evening Club. They scoffed
and jeered at it; denounced it as a manifest falsity. They did not quite
see then that there may be two sorts of selfishness - brutal and divine;
that he who sacrifices others to himself exemplifies the first, whereas
he who sacrifices himself for others personifies the second - the divine
contenting of his soul by serving the happiness of his fellow-men. Mark
Twain left this admonition in furtherance of that better sort:

"Diligently train your ideals upward, and still upward, toward a summit
where you will find your chiefest pleasure, in conduct which, while
contenting you, will be sure to confer benefits upon your neighbor and
the community."

It is a divine admonition, even if, in its suggested moral freedom, it
does seem to conflict with that other theory - the inevitable sequence
of cause and effect, descending from the primal atom. There is seeming
irrelevance in introducing this matter here; but it has a chronological
relation, and it presents a mental aspect of the time. Clemens was
forty-eight, and becoming more and more the philosopher; also, in logic
at least, a good deal of a pessimist. He made a birthday aphorism on the

"The man who is a pessimist before he is forty-eight knows too much; the
man who is an optimist after he is forty-eight knows too little."

He was never more than a pessimist in theory at any time. In practice he
would be a visionary; a builder of dreams and fortunes, a veritable
Colonel Sellers to the end of his days.



The Mississippi book was completed at last and placed in Osgood's hands
for publication. Clemens was immensely fond of Osgood. Osgood would
come down to Hartford and spend days discussing plans and playing
billiards, which to Mark Twain's mind was the proper way to conduct
business. Besides, there was Webster, who by this time, or a very little
later, had the word "publisher" printed in his letter-heads, and was
truly that, so far as the new book was concerned. Osgood had become
little more than its manufacturer, shipping-agent, and accountant. It
should be added that he made the book well, though somewhat expensively.
He was unaccustomed to getting out big subscription volumes. His taste
ran to the artistic, expensive product.

"That book cost me fifty thousand dollars to make," Clemens once
declared. "Bliss could have built a whole library, for that sum. But
Osgood was a lovely fellow."

Life on the Mississippi was issued about the middle of May. It was a
handsome book of its kind and a successful book, but not immediately a
profitable one, because of the manner of its issue. It was experimental,
and experiments are likely to be costly, even when successful in the
final result.

Among other things, it pronounced the final doom of kaolatype. The
artists who drew the pictures for it declined to draw them if they were
to be reproduced by that process, or indeed unless some one of the lately
discovered photographic processes was used. Furthermore, the latter were
much cheaper, and it was to the advantage of Clemens himself to repudiate
kaolatype, even for his own work.

Webster was ordered to wind up the last ends of the engraving business
with as little sacrifice as possible, and attend entirely to more
profitable affairs - viz., the distribution of books.

As literature, the Mississippi book will rank with Mark Twain's best - so
far, at least, as the first twenty chapters of it are concerned. Earlier
in this history these have been sufficiently commented upon. They
constitute a literary memorial seemingly as enduring as the river itself.

Concerning the remaining chapters of the book, they are also literature,
but of a different class. The difference is about the same as that
between 'A Tramp Abroad' and the 'Innocents'. It is the difference
between the labors of love and duty; between art and industry, literature
and journalism.

But the last is hardly fair. It is journalism, but it is literary
journalism, and there are unquestionably areas that are purely literary,
and not journalistic at all. There would always be those in any book of
travel he might write. The story of the river revisited is an
interesting theme; and if the revisiting had been done, let us say eight
or ten years earlier, before he had become a theoretical pessimist, and
before the river itself had become a background for pessimism, the tale
might have had more of the literary glamour and illusion, even if less
that is otherwise valuable.

'Life on the Mississippi' has been always popular in Germany. The
Emperor William of Germany once assured Mark Twain that it was his
favorite American book, and on the same evening the portier of the
author's lodging in Berlin echoed the Emperor's opinion.

Paul Lindau, a distinguished German author and critic, in an interview at
the time the Mississippi book appeared, spoke of the general delight of
his countrymen in its author. When he was asked, "But have not the
Germans been offended by Mark Twain's strictures on their customs and
language in his 'Tramp Abroad'" he replied, "We know what we are and how
we look, and the fanciful picture presented to our eyes gives us only
food for laughter, not cause for resentment. The jokes he made on our
long words, our inverted sentences, and the position of the verb have
really led to a reform in style which will end in making our language as
compact and crisp as the French or English. I regard Mark Twain as the

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Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 → online text (page 13 of 20)