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

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impersonating Raymond as well as Sellers, making of it a sort of double
burlesque, and agreed to take the play on those terms. Burbank came to
Hartford and showed what he could do. Howells and Clemens agreed to give
him the play, and they hired the old Lyceum Theater for a week, at seven
hundred dollars, for its trial presentation. Daniel Frohman promoted it.
Clemens and Howells went over the play and made some changes, but they
were not as hilarious over it or as full of enthusiasm as they had been
in the beginning. Howells put in a night of suffering - long, dark hours
of hot and cold waves of fear - and rising next morning from a tossing
bed, wrote: "Here's a play which every manager has put out-of-doors and
which every actor known to us has refused, and now we go and give it to
an elocutioner. We are fools."

Clemens hurried over to Boston to consult with Howells, and in the end
they agreed to pay the seven hundred dollars for the theater, take the
play off and give Burbank his freedom. But Clemens's faith in it did not
immediately die. Howells relinquished all right and title in it, and
Clemens started it out with Burbank and a traveling company, doing
one-night stands, and kept it going for a week or more at his own
expense. It never reached New York.

"And yet," says Howells, "I think now that if it had come it would have
been successful. So hard does the faith of the unsuccessful dramatist
die." - [This was as late as the spring of 1886, at which time Howells's
faith in the play was exceedingly shaky. In one letter he wrote: "It is
a lunatic that we have created, and while a lunatic in one act might
amuse, I'm afraid that in three he would simply bore."

And again:

"As it stands, I believe the thing will fail, and it would be a disgrace
to have it succeed."]



Meanwhile, with the completion of the Sellers play Clemens had flung
himself into dramatic writing once more with a new and more violent
impetuosity than ever. Howells had hardly returned to Boston when he

Now let's write a tragedy.

The inclosed is not fancy, it is history; except that the little girl was
a passing stranger, and not kin to any of the parties. I read the
incident in Carlyle's Cromwell a year ago, and made a note in my
note-book; stumbled on the note to-day, and wrote up the closing scene of
a possible tragedy, to see how it might work.

If we made this colonel a grand fellow, and gave him a wife to suit - hey?
It's right in the big historical times - war; Cromwell in big, picturesque
power, and all that.

Come, let's do this tragedy, and do it well. Curious, but didn't
Florence want a Cromwell? But Cromwell would not be the chief figure

It was the closing scene of that pathetic passage in history from which
he would later make his story, "The Death Disc." Howells was too tired
and too occupied to undertake immediately a new dramatic labor, so
Clemens went steaming ahead alone.

My billiard-table is stacked up with books relating to the Sandwich
Islands; the walls are upholstered with scraps of paper penciled
with notes drawn from them. I have saturated myself with knowledge
of that unimaginably beautiful land and that most strange and
fascinating people. And I have begun a story. Its hidden motive
will illustrate a but-little considered fact in human nature: that
the religious folly you are born in you will die in, no matter what
apparently reasonabler religious folly may seem to have taken its
place; meanwhile abolished and obliterated it. I start Bill
Ragsdale at eleven years of age, and the heroine at four, in the
midst of the ancient idolatrous system, with its picturesque and
amazing customs and superstitions, three months before the arrival
of the missionaries and - the erection of a shallow Christianity upon
the ruins of the old paganism.

Then these two will become educated Christians and highly civilized.

And then I will jump fifteen years and do Ragsdale's leper business.
When we come to dramatize, we can draw a deal of matter from the
story, all ready to our hand.

He made elaborate preparations for the Sandwich Islands story, which he
and Howells would dramatize later, and within the space of a few weeks he
actually did dramatize 'The Prince and the Pauper' and 'Tom Sawyer', and
was prodding Webster to find proper actors or managers; stipulating at
first severe and arbitrary terms, which were gradually modified, as one
after another of the prospective customers found these dramatic wares
unsuited to their needs. Mark Twain was one of the most dramatic
creatures that ever lived, but he lacked the faculty of stage arrangement
of the dramatic idea. It is one of the commonest defects in the literary
make-up; also one of the hardest to realize and to explain.

The winter of 1883-84 was a gay one in the Clemens home. Henry Irving
was among those entertained, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Aldrich and his
wife, Howells of course, and George W. Cable. Cable had now permanently
left the South for the promised land which all authors of the South and
West seek eventually, and had in due course made his way to Hartford.
Clemens took Cable's fortunes in hand, as he had done with many another,
invited him to his home, and undertook to open negotiations with the
American Publishing Company, of which Frank Bliss was now the manager,
for the improvement of his fortunes.

Cable had been giving readings from his stories and had somewhere picked
up the measles. He suddenly came down with the complaint during his
visit to Clemens, and his case was a violent one. It required the
constant attendance of a trained nurse and one or two members of the
household to pull him through.

In the course of time he was convalescent, and when contagion was no
longer to be feared guests were invited in for his entertainment. At one
of these gatherings, Cable produced a curious book, which he said had
been lent to him by Prof. Francis Bacon, of New Haven, as a great rarity.
It was a little privately printed pamphlet written by a Southern youth,
named S. Watson Wolston, a Yale student of 1845, and was an absurd
romance of the hyperflorid, grandiloquent sort, entitled, "Love
Triumphant, or the Enemy Conquered." Its heroine's name was Ambulinia,
and its flowery, half-meaningless periods and impossible situations
delighted Clemens beyond measure. He begged Cable to lend it to him, to
read at the Saturday Morning Club, declaring that he certainly must own
the book, at whatever cost. Henry C. Robinson, who was present,
remembered having seen a copy in his youth, and Twichell thought he
recalled such a book on sale in New Haven during his college days.
Twichell said nothing as to any purpose in the matter; but somewhat
later, being in New Haven, he stepped into the old book-store and found
the same proprietor, who remembered very well the book and its author.
Twichell rather fearfully asked if by any chance a copy of it might still
be obtained.

"Well," was the answer, "I undertook to put my cellar in order the other
day, and found about a cord of them down there. I think I can supply

Twichell took home six of the books at ten cents each, and on their first
spring walk to Talcott's Tower casually mentioned to Clemens the quest
for the rare Ambulinia. But Clemens had given up the pursuit. New York
dealers had reported no success in the matter. The book was no longer in

"What would you give for a copy?" asked. Twichell.

Clemens became excited.

"It isn't a question of price," he said; "that would be for the owner to
set if I could find him."

Twichell drew a little package from his pocket.

"Well, Mark," he said, "here are six copies of that book, to begin with.
If that isn't enough, I can get you a wagon-load."

It was enough. But it did not deter Clemens in his purpose, which was to
immortalize the little book by pointing out its peculiar charms. He did
this later, and eventually included the entire story, with comments, in
one of his own volumes.

Clemens and Twichell did not always walk that spring. The early form of
bicycle, the prehistoric high-wheel, had come into vogue, and they each
got one and attempted its conquest. They practised in the early morning
hours on Farmington Avenue, which was wide and smooth, and they had an
instructor, a young German, who, after a morning or two, regarded Mark
Twain helplessly and said:

"Mr. Clemens, it's remarkable - you can fall off of a bicycle more
different ways than the man that invented it."

They were curious things, those old high-wheel machines. You were
perched away up in the air, with the feeling that you were likely at any
moment to strike a pebble or something that would fling you forward with
damaging results. Frequently that is what happened. The word "header"
seems to have grown out of that early bicycling period. Perhaps Mark
Twain invented it. He had enough experience to do it. He always
declared afterward that he invented all the new bicycle profanity that
has since come into general use. Once he wrote:

There was a row of low stepping-stones across one end of the street,
a measured yard apart. Even after I got so I could steer pretty
fairly I was so afraid of those stones that I always hit them. They
gave me the worst falls I ever got in that street, except those
which I got from dogs. I have seen it stated that no expert is
quick enough to run over a dog; that a dog is always able to skip
out of his way. I think that that may be true; but I think that the
reason he couldn't run over the dog was because he was trying to. I
did not try to run over any dog. But I ran over every dog that came
along. I think it makes a great deal of difference. If you try to
run over the dog he knows how to calculate, but if you are trying to
miss him he does not know how to calculate, and is liable to jump
the wrong way every time. It was always so in my experience. Even
when I could not hit a wagon I could hit a dog that came to see me
practise. They all liked to see me practise, and they all came, for
there was very little going on in our neighborhood to entertain a

He conquered, measurably, that old, discouraging thing, and he and
Twichell would go on excursions, sometimes as far as Wethersfield or to
the tower. It was a pleasant change, at least it was an interesting one;
but bicycling on the high wheel was never a popular diversion with Mark
Twain, and his enthusiasm in the sport had died before the "safety" came

He had his machine sent out to Elmira, but there were too many hills in
Chemung County, and after one brief excursion he came in, limping and
pushing his wheel, and did not try it again.

To return to Cable. When the 1st of April (1884) approached he concluded
it would be a good time to pay off his debt of gratitude for his recent
entertainment in the Clemens's home. He went to work at it
systematically. He had a "private and confidential" circular letter
printed, and he mailed it to one hundred and fifty of Mark Twain's
literary friends in Boston, Hartford, Springfield, New York, Brooklyn,
Washington, and elsewhere, suggesting that they write to him, so that
their letters would reach him simultaneously April 1st, asking for his
autograph. No stamps or cards were to be inclosed for reply, and it was
requested that "no stranger to Mr. Clemens and no minor" should take
part. Mrs. Clemens was let into the secret, so that she would see to it
that her husband did not reject his mail or commit it to the flames

It would seem that every one receiving the invitation must have responded
to it, for on the morning of April 1st a stupefying mass of letters was
unloaded on Mark Twain's table. He did not know what to make of it, and
Mrs. Clemens stood off to watch the results. The first one he opened was
from Dean Sage, a friend whom he valued highly. Sage wrote from

DEAR CLEMENS, - I have recently been asked by a young lady who
unfortunately has a mania for autograph-collecting, but otherwise is
a charming character, and comely enough to suit your fastidious
taste, to secure for her the sign manual of the few distinguished
persons fortunate enough to have my acquaintance. In enumerating
them to her, after mentioning the names of Geo. Shepard Page, Joe
Michell, Capt. Isaiah Ryndus, Mr. Willard, Dan Mace, and J. L.
Sullivan, I came to yours. "Oh!" said she, "I have read all his
works - Little Breeches, The Heathen Chinee, and the rest - and think
them delightful. Do oblige me by asking him for his autograph,
preceded by any little sentiment that may occur to him, provided it
is not too short."

Of course I promised, and hope you will oblige me by sending some
little thing addressed to Miss Oakes.

We are all pretty well at home just now, though indisposition has
been among us for the past fortnight. With regards to Mrs. Clemens
and the children, in which my wife joins,

Yours truly, DEAN SAGE.

It amused and rather surprised him, and it fooled him completely; but
when he picked up a letter from Brander Matthews, asking, in some absurd
fashion, for his signature, and another from Ellen Terry, and from
Irving, and from Stedman, and from Warner, and Waring, and H. C. Bunner,
and Sarony, and Laurence Hutton, and John Hay, and R. U. Johnson, and
Modjeska, the size and quality of the joke began to overawe him. He was
delighted, of course; for really it was a fine compliment, in its way,
and most of the letters were distinctly amusing. Some of them asked for
autographs by the yard, some by the pound. Henry Irving said:

I have just got back from a very late rehearsal-five o'clock - very
tired - but there will be no rest till I get your autograph.

Some requested him to sit down and copy a few chapters from The Innocents
Abroad for them or to send an original manuscript. Others requested that
his autograph be attached to a check of interesting size. John Hay
suggested that he copy a hymn, a few hundred lines of Young's "Night
Thoughts," and an equal amount of Pollak's "Course of Time."

I want my boy to form a taste for serious and elevated poetry, and
it will add considerable commercial value to have them in your

Altogether the reading of the letters gave him a delightful day, and his
admiration for Cable grew accordingly. Cable, too, was pleased with the
success of his joke, though he declared he would never risk such a thing
again. A newspaper of the time reports him as saying:

I never suffered so much agony as for a few days previous to the 1st
of April. I was afraid the letters would reach Mark when he was in
affliction, in which case all of us would never have ceased flying
to make it up to him.
When I visited Mark we used to open our budgets of letters together
at breakfast. We used to sing out whenever we struck an autograph-
hunter. I think the idea came from that. The first person I spoke
to about it was Robert Underwood Johnson, of the Century. My most
enthusiastic ally was the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. We never thought
it would get into the papers. I never played a practical joke
before. I never will again, certainly.

Mark Twain in those days did not encourage the regular
autograph-collectors, and seldom paid any attention to their requests for
his signature. He changed all this in later years, and kept a supply
always on hand to satisfy every request; but in those earlier days he had
no patience with collecting fads, and it required a particularly pleasing
application to obtain his signature.



Samuel Clemens by this time was definitely engaged in the publishing
business. Webster had a complete office with assistants at 658 Broadway,
and had acquired a pretty thorough and practical knowledge of
subscription publishing. He was a busy, industrious young man,
tirelessly energetic, and with a good deal of confidence, by no means
unnecessary to commercial success. He placed this mental and physical
capital against Mark Twain's inspiration and financial backing, and the
combination of Charles L. Webster & Co. seemed likely to be a strong

Already, in the spring of 1884., Webster had the new Mark Twain book,
'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn', well in hand, and was on the watch
for promising subscription books by other authors. Clemens, with his
usual business vision and eye for results, with a generous disregard of
detail, was supervising the larger preliminaries, and fulminating at the
petty distractions and difficulties as they came along. Certain plays he
was trying to place were enough to keep him pretty thoroughly upset
during this period, and proof-reading never added to his happiness. To
Howells he wrote:

My days are given up to cursings, both loud and deep, for I am
reading the 'Huck Finn' proofs. They don't make a very great many
mistakes, but those that do occur are of a nature that make a man
swear his teeth loose.

Whereupon Howells promptly wrote him that he would help him out with the
Huck Finn proofs for the pleasure of reading the story. Clemens, among
other things, was trying to place a patent grape-scissors, invented by
Howells's father, so that there was, in some degree, an equivalent for
the heavy obligation. That it was a heavy one we gather from his fervent

It took my breath away, and I haven't recovered it yet, entirely - I
mean the generosity of your proposal to read the proofs of Huck

Now, if you mean it, old man - if you are in earnest-proceed, in
God's name, and be by me forever blessed. I can't conceive of a
rational man deliberately piling such an atrocious job upon himself.
But if there be such a man, and you be that man, pile it on. The
proof-reading of 'The Prince and the Pauper' cost me the last rags
of my religion.

Clemens decided to have the Huckleberry Finn book illustrated after his
own ideas. He looked through the various comic papers to see if he could
find the work of some new man that appealed to his fancy. In the pages
of Life he discovered some comic pictures illustrating the possibility of
applying electrical burners to messenger boys, waiters, etc. The style
and the spirit of these things amused him. He instructed Webster to look
up the artist, who proved to be a young man, E. W. Kemble by name, later
one of our foremost cartoonists. Webster engaged Kemble and put the
manuscript in his hands. Through the publication of certain chapters of
Huck Finn in the Century Magazine, Kemble was brought to the notice of
its editors, who wrote Clemens that they were profoundly indebted to him
for unearthing "such a gem of an illustrator."

Clemens, encouraged and full of enthusiasm, now endeavored to interest
himself in the practical details of manufacture, but his stock of
patience was light and the details were many. His early business period
resembles, in some of its features, his mining experience in Esmeralda,
his letters to Webster being not unlike those to Orion in that former
day. They are much oftener gentle, considerate, even apologetic, but
they are occasionally terse, arbitrary, and profane. It required effort
for him to be entirely calm in his business correspondence. A criticism
of one of Webster's assistants will serve as an example of his less quiet

Charley, your proof-reader, is an idiot; and not only an idiot, but
blind; and not only blind, but partly dead.

Of course, one must regard many of Mark Twain's business aspects
humorously. To consider them otherwise is to place him in a false light
altogether. He wore himself out with his anxieties and irritations; but
that even he, in the midst of his furies, saw the humor of it all is
sufficiently evidenced by the form of his savage phrasing. There were
few things that did not amuse him, and certainly nothing amused more, or
oftener, than himself.

It is proper to add a detail in evidence of a business soundness which he
sometimes manifested. He had observed the methods of Bliss and Osgood,
and had drawn his conclusions. In the beginning of the Huck Finn canvass
he wrote Webster:

Keep it diligently in mind that we don't issue till we have made a
big sale.

Get at your canvassing early and drive it with all your might, with
an intent and purpose of issuing on the 10th or 15th of next
December (the best time in the year to tumble a big pile into the
trade); but if we haven't 40,000 subscriptions we simply postpone
publication till we've got them. It is a plain, simple policy, and
would have saved both of my last books if it had been followed.
[That is to say, 'The Prince and the Pauper' and the Mississippi
book, neither of which had sold up to his expectations on the
initial canvass.]



Gerhardt returned from Paris that summer, after three years of study, a
qualified sculptor. He was prepared to take commissions, and came to
Elmira to model a bust of his benefactor. The work was finished after
four or five weeks of hard effort and pronounced admirable; but Gerhardt,
attempting to make a cast one morning, ruined it completely. The family
gathered round the disaster, which to them seemed final, but the sculptor
went immediately to work, and in an amazingly brief time executed a new
bust even better than the first, an excellent piece of modeling and a
fine likeness. It was decided that a cut of it should be used as a
frontispiece for the new book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Clemens was at this time giving the final readings to the Huck Finn
pages, a labor in which Mrs. Clemens and the children materially
assisted. In the childish biography which Susy began of her father, a
year later, she says:

Ever since papa and mama were married papa has written his books and
then taken them to mama in manuscript, and she has expurgated
- [Susy's spelling is preserved] - them. Papa read Huckleberry Finn to
us in manuscript, - [Probably meaning proof.] - just before it came
out, and then he would leave parts of it with mama to expurgate,
while he went off to the study to work, and sometimes Clara and I
would be sitting with mama while she was looking the manuscript
over, and I remember so well, with what pangs of regret we used to
see her turn down the leaves of the pages, which meant that some
delightfully terrible part must be scratched out. And I remember
one part pertickularly which was perfectly fascinating it was so
terrible, that Clara and I used to delight in and oh, with what
despair we saw mama turn down the leaf on which it was written, we
thought the book would almost be ruined without it. But we
gradually came to think as mama did.

Commenting on this phase of Huck's evolution Mark Twain has since

I remember the special case mentioned by Susy, and can see the group
yet - two-thirds of it pleading for the life of the culprit sentence
that was so fascinatingly dreadful, and the other third of it
patiently explaining why the court could not grant the prayer of the
pleaders; but I do not remember what the condemned phrase was. It
had much company, and they all went to the gallows; but it is
possible that that especially dreadful one which gave those little
people so much delight was cunningly devised and put into the book
for just that function, and not with any hope or expectation that it
would get by the "expergator" alive. It is possible, for I had that

Little Jean was probably too youthful yet to take part in that literary
arbitration. She was four, and had more interest in cows. In some
memoranda which her father kept of that period - the "Children's Book" - he

She goes out to the barn with one of us every evening toward six
o'clock, to look at the cows - which she adores - no weaker word can
express her feeling for them. She sits rapt and contented while
David milks the three, making a remark now and then - always about
the cows. The time passes slowly and drearily for her attendant,
but not for her. She could stand a week of it. When the milking is
finished, and "Blanche," "Jean," and "the cross cow" are turned into
the adjoining little cow-lot, we have to set Jean on a shed in that

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Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 → online text (page 15 of 20)