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

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present, or carrying back into that age of magicians and armor and
superstition and cruelties a brisk American of progressive ideas who
would institute reforms. His note-book began to be filled with memoranda
of situations and possibilities for the tale he had in mind. These were
vague, unformed fancies as yet, and it would be a long time before the
story would become a fact. This was the first entry:

Dream of being a knight-errant in armor in the Middle Ages. Have
the notions and habits, though, of the present day mixed with the
necessities of that. No pockets in the armor. No way to manage
certain requirements of nature. Can't scratch. Cold in the head
and can't blow. Can't get a handkerchief; can't use iron sleeve;
iron gets red-hot in the sun; leaks in the rain; gets white with
frost and freezes me solid in winter; makes disagreeable clatter
when I enter church. Can't dress or undress myself. Always getting
struck by lightning. Fall down and can't get up.

Twenty-one years later, discussing the genesis of the story, he said:

"As I read those quaint and curious old legends I suppose I naturally
contrasted those days with ours, and it made me curious to fancy what
might be the picturesque result if we could dump the nineteenth century
down into the sixth century and observe the consequences."

The reading tour continued during the first two months of the new year
and carried them as far west as Chicago. They read in Hannibal and
Keokuk, and Clemens spent a day in the latter place with his mother, now
living with Orion, brisk and active for her years and with her old-time
force of character. Mark Twain, arranging for her Keokuk residence, had

Ma wants to board with you, and pay her board. She will pay you $20
a month (she wouldn't pay a cent more in heaven; she is obstinate on
this point), and as long as she remains with you and is content I
will add $25 a month to the sum Perkins already sends you.

Jane Clemens attended the Keokuk reading, and later, at home, when her
children asked her if she could still dance, she rose, and at eighty-one
tripped as lightly as a girl. It was the last time that Mark Twain ever
saw his mother in the health and vigor which had been always so much a
part of her personality.

Clemens saw another relative on that trip; in St. Louis, James Lampton,
the original of Colonel Sellers, called.

He was become old and white-headed, but he entered to me in the same old
breezy way of his earlier life, and he was all there, yet - not a detail
wanting: the happy light in his eye, the abounding hope in his heart, the
persuasive tongue, the miracle-breeding imagination - they were all there;
and before I could turn around he was polishing up his Aladdin's lamp and
flashing the secret riches of the world before me. I said to myself: "I
did not overdraw him by a shade, I set him down as he was; and he is the
same man to-day. Cable will recognize him."

Clemens opened the door into Cable's room and allowed the golden
dream-talk to float in. It was of a "small venture" which the caller had
undertaken through his son.

"Only a little thing - a mere trifle - a bagatelle. I suppose there's a
couple of millions in it, possibly three, but not more, I think; still,
for a boy, you know - - "

It was the same old Cousin Jim. Later, when he had royally accepted some
tickets for the reading and bowed his exit, Cable put his head in at the

"That was Colonel Sellers," he said.



In the December Century (1884) appeared a chapter from 'The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn', "The Grangerford-Shepherdson Feud," a piece of writing
which Edmund Clarence Stederian, Brander Matthews, and others promptly
ranked as among Mark Twain's very best; when this was followed, in the
January number, by "King Sollermun," a chapter which in its way delighted
quite as many readers, the success of the new book was accounted certain.
- [Stedman, writing to Clemens of this instalment, said: "To my mind it
is not only the most finished and condensed thing you have done but as
dramatic and powerful an episode as I know in modern literature."]

'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' was officially published in England
and America in December, 1884, but the book was not in the canvassers'
hands for delivery until February. By this time the orders were
approximately for forty thousand copies, a number which had increased to
fifty thousand a few weeks later. Webster's first publication venture
was in the nature of a triumph. Clemens wrote to him March 16th:

"Your news is splendid. Huck certainly is a success."

He felt that he had demonstrated his capacity as a general director and
Webster had proved his efficiency as an executive. He had no further
need of an outside publisher.

The story of Huck Finn will probably stand as the best of Mark Twain's
purely fictional writings. A sequel to Tom Sawyer, it is greater than
its predecessor; greater artistically, though perhaps with less immediate
interest for the juvenile reader. In fact, the books are so different
that they are not to be compared - wherein lies the success of the later
one. Sequels are dangerous things when the story is continuous, but in
Huckleberry Finn the story is a new one, wholly different in environment,
atmosphere, purpose, character, everything. The tale of Huck and Nigger
Jim drifting down the mighty river on a raft, cross-secting the various
primitive aspects of human existence, constitutes one of the most
impressive examples of picaresque fiction in any language. It has been
ranked greater than Gil Blas, greater even than Don Quixote; certainly it
is more convincing, more human, than either of these tales. Robert Louis
Stevenson once wrote, "It is a book I have read four times, and am quite
ready to begin again to-morrow."

It is by no means a flawless book, though its defects are trivial enough.
The illusion of Huck as narrator fails the least bit here and there; the
"four dialects" are not always maintained; the occasional touch of broad
burlesque detracts from the tale's reality. We are inclined to resent
this. We never wish to feel that Huck is anything but a real character.
We want him always the Huck who was willing to go to hell if necessary,
rather than sacrifice Nigger Jim; the Huck who watched the river through
long nights, and, without caring to explain why, felt his soul go out to
the sunrise.

Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum
by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way
we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there
- sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights and laid up and hid
daytimes; soon as the night was most gone we stopped navigating and
tied up - nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then
cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them. Then
we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim,
so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy
bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight
come. Not a sound anywheres - perfectly still - just like the whole
world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe.
The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of
dull line - that was the woods on t'other side, you couldn't make
nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness,
spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn't
black anymore, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting
along, ever so far away - trading scows, and such things; and long
black streaks - rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or
jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by-
and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the
look of the streak that there's a snag there in a swift current
which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see
the mist curl up off the water, and the east reddens up, and the
river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away
on the bank on t'other side of the river, being a wood-yard, likely,
and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it
anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you
over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the
woods and the flowers.... And next you've got the full day, and
everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!

This is the Huck we want, and this is the Huck we usually have, and that
the world has long been thankful for.

Take the story as a whole, it is a succession of startling and unique
pictures. The cabin in the swamp which Huck and his father used together
in their weird, ghastly relationship; the night adventure with Jim on the
wrecked steamboat; Huck's night among the towheads; the
Grangerford-Shepherdson battle; the killing of Boggs - to name a few of
the many vivid presentations - these are of no time or literary fashion
and will never lose their flavor nor their freshness so long as humanity
itself does not change. The terse, unadorned Grangerford-Shepherdson
episode - built out of the Darnell - Watson feuds - [See Life on the
Mississippi, chap. xxvi. Mark Twain himself, as a cub pilot, came near
witnessing the battle he describes.] - is simply classic in its vivid
casualness, and the same may be said of almost every incident on that
long river-drift; but this is the strength, the very essence of
picaresque narrative. It is the way things happen in reality; and the
quiet, unexcited frame of mind in which Huck is prompted to set them down
would seem to be the last word in literary art. To Huck, apparently, the
killing of Boggs and Colonel Sherburn's defiance of the mob are of about
the same historical importance as any other incidents of the day's
travel. When Colonel Sherburn threw his shotgun across his arm and bade
the crowd disperse Huck says:

The crowd washed back sudden, and then broke all apart and went
tearing off every which way, and Buck Harkness he heeled it after
them, looking tolerable cheap. I could a staid if I'd a wanted to,
but I didn't want to.

I went to the circus, and loafed around the back side till the
watchman went by, and then dived in under the tent.

That is all. No reflections, no hysterics; a murder and a mob dispersed,
all without a single moral comment. And when the Shepherdsons had got
done killing the Grangerfords, and Huck had tugged the two bodies ashore
and covered Buck Grangerford's face with a handkerchief, crying a little
because Buck had been good to him, he spent no time in sentimental
reflection or sermonizing, but promptly hunted up Jim and the raft and
sat down to a meal of corn-dodgers, buttermilk, pork and cabbage, and

There ain't nothing in the world so good, when it is cooked right;
and while I eat my supper we talked, and had a good time. I was
powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away
from the swamp. We said there warn't no home like a raft, after
all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft
don't; you feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.

It was Huck Finn's morality that caused the book to be excluded from the
Concord Library, and from other libraries here and there at a later day.
The orthodox mental attitude of certain directors of juvenile literature
could not condone Huck's looseness in the matter of statement and
property rights, and in spite of New England traditions, Massachusetts
librarians did not take any too kindly to his uttered principle that,
after thinking it over and taking due thought on the deadly sin of
abolition, he had decided that he'd go to hell rather than give Jim over
to slavery. Poor vagrant Ben Blankenship, hiding his runaway negro in an
Illinois swamp, could not dream that his humanity would one day supply
the moral episode of an immortal book.

Able critics have declared that the psychology of Huck Finn is the book's
large feature: Huck's moral point of view - the struggle between his heart
and his conscience concerning the sin of Jim's concealment, and his final
decision of self-sacrifice. Time may show that as an epic of the river,
the picture of a vanished day, it will rank even greater. The problems
of conscience we have always with us, but periods once passed are gone
forever. Certainly Huck's loyalty to that lovely soul Nigger Jim was
beautiful, though after all it may not have been so hard for Huck, who
could be loyal to anything. Huck was loyal to his father, loyal to Tom
Sawyer of course, loyal even to those two river tramps and frauds, the
King and the Duke, for whom he lied prodigiously, only weakening when a
new and livelier loyalty came into view - loyalty to Mary Wilks.

The King and the Duke, by the way, are not elsewhere matched in fiction.
The Duke was patterned after a journeyman-printer Clemens had known in
Virginia City, but the King was created out of refuse from the whole
human family - "all tears and flapdoodle," the very ultimate of disrepute
and hypocrisy - so perfect a specimen that one must admire, almost love,
him. "Hain't we all the fools in town on our side? and ain't that a big
enough majority in any town?" he asks in a critical moment - a remark
which stamps him as a philosopher of classic rank. We are full of pity
at last when this pair of rapscallions ride out of the history on a rail,
and feel some of Huck's inclusive loyalty and all the sorrowful truth of
his comment: "Human beings can be awful cruel to one another."

The "poor old king" Huck calls him, and confesses how he felt "ornery and
humble and to blame, somehow," for the old scamp's misfortunes. "A
person's conscience ain't got no sense," he says, and Huck is never more
real to us, or more lovable, than in that moment. Huck is what he is
because, being made so, he cannot well be otherwise. He is a boy
throughout - such a boy as Mark Twain had known and in some degree had
been. One may pettily pick a flaw here and there in the tale's
construction if so minded, but the moral character of Huck himself is not
open to criticism. And indeed any criticism of this the greatest of Mark
Twain's tales of modern life would be as the mere scratching of the
granite of an imperishable structure. Huck Finn is a monument that no
puny pecking will destroy. It is built of indestructible blocks of human
nature; and if the blocks do not always fit, and the ornaments do not
always agree, we need not fear. Time will blur the incongruities and
moss over the mistakes. The edifice will grow more beautiful with the



The success of Huck Finn, though sufficiently important in itself,
prepared the way for a publishing venture by the side of which it
dwindled to small proportions. One night (it was early in November,
1884), when Cable and Clemens had finished a reading at Chickering Hall,
Clemens, coming out into the wet blackness, happened to hear Richard
Watson Gilder's voice say to some unseen companion:

"Do you know General Grant has actually determined to write his memoirs
and publish them. He has said so to-day, in so many words."

Of course Clemens was immediately interested. It was the thing he had
proposed to Grant some three years previously, during his call that day
with Howells concerning the Toronto consulship.

With Mrs. Clemens, he promptly overtook Gilder and accompanied him to his
house, where they discussed the matter in its various particulars. Gilder
said that the Century Editors had endeavored to get Grant to contribute
to their war series, but that not until his financial disaster, as a
member of the firm of Grant & Ward, had he been willing to consider the
matter. He said that Grant now welcomed the idea of contributing three
papers to the series, and that the promised payment of five hundred
dollars each for these articles had gladdened his heart and relieved him
of immediate anxiety. - [Somewhat later the Century Company, voluntarily,
added liberally to this sum.]

Gilder added that General Grant seemed now determined to continue his
work until he had completed a book, though this at present was only a

Clemens was in the habit of calling on Grant, now and then, to smoke a
cigar with him, and he dropped in next morning to find out just how far
the book idea had developed, and what were the plans of publication. He
found the General and his son, Colonel Fred Grant, discussing some
memoranda, which turned out to be a proposition from the Century Company
for the book publication of his memoirs. Clemens asked to be allowed to
look over the proposed terms, and when he had done so he said:

"General, it is clear that the Century people do not realize the
importance - the commercial magnitude of your book. It is not strange
that this is true, for they are comparatively new publishers and have had
little or no experience with books of this class. The terms they propose
indicate that they expect to sell five, possibly ten thousand copies. A
book from your hand, telling the story of your life and battles, should
sell not less than a quarter of a million, perhaps twice that sum. It
should be sold only by subscription, and you are entitled to double the
royalty here proposed. I do not believe it is to your interest to
conclude this contract without careful thought and investigation. Write
to the American Publishing Company at Hartford and see what they will do
for you."

But Grant demurred. He said that, while no arrangements had been made
with the Century Company, he thought it only fair and right that they
should have the book on reasonable terms; certainly on terms no greater
than he could obtain elsewhere. He said that, all things being equal,
the book ought to go to the man who had first suggested it to him.

Clemens spoke up: "General, if that is so, it belongs to me."

Grant did not understand until Clemens recalled to him how he had urged
him, in that former time, to write his memoirs; had pleaded with him,
agreeing to superintend the book's publication. Then he said:

"General, I am publishing my own book, and by the time yours is ready it
is quite possible that I shall have the best equipped subscription
establishment in the country. If you will place your book with my firm
- and I feel that I have at least an equal right in the consideration - I
will pay you twenty per cent. of the list price, or, if you prefer, I
will give you seventy per cent. of the net returns and I will pay all
office expenses out of my thirty per cent."

General Grant was really grieved at this proposal. It seemed to him that
here was a man who was offering to bankrupt himself out of pure
philanthropy - a thing not to be permitted. He intimated that he had
asked the Century Company president, Roswell Smith, a careful-headed
business man, if he thought his book would pay as well as Sherman's,
which the Scribners had published at a profit to Sherman of twenty-five
thousand dollars, and that Smith had been unwilling to guarantee that
amount to the author. - [Mark Twain's note-book, under date of March,
1885, contains this memorandum: "Roswell Smith said to me: 'I'm glad you
got the book, Mr. Clemens; glad there was somebody with courage enough to
take it, under the circumstances. What do you think the General wanted
to require of me?'

"'He wanted me to insure a sale of twenty-five thousand sets of his book.
I wouldn't risk such a guarantee on any book that was ever published.'"

Yet Roswell Smith, not so many years later, had so far enlarged his views
of subscription publishing that he fearlessly and successfully invested a
million dollars or more in a dictionary, regardless of the fact that the
market was already thought to be supplied.]

Clemens said:

"General, I have my check-book with me. I will draw you a check now for
twenty-five thousand dollars for the first volume of your memoirs, and
will add a like amount for each volume you may write as an advance
royalty payment, and your royalties will continue right along when this
amount has been reached."

Colonel Fred Grant now joined in urging that matters be delayed, at least
until more careful inquiry concerning the possibilities of publishing
could be made.

Clemens left then, and set out on his trip with Cable, turning the whole
matter over to Webster and Colonel Fred for settlement. Meantime, the
word that General Grant was writing his memoirs got into the newspapers
and various publishing propositions came to him. In the end the General
sent over to Philadelphia for his old friend, George W. Childs, and laid
the whole matter before him. Childs said later it was plain that General
Grant, on the score of friendship, if for no other reason, distinctly
wished to give the book to Mark Twain. It seemed not to be a question of
how much money he would make, but of personal feeling entirely. Webster's
complete success with Huck Finn being now demonstrated, Colonel Fred
Grant agreed that he believed Clemens and Webster could handle the book
as profitably as anybody; and after investigation Childs was of the same
opinion. The decision was that the firm of Charles L. Webster & Co.
should have the book, and arrangements for drawing the contract were

General Grant, however, was still somewhat uneasy as to the terms. He
thought he was taking an unfair advantage in receiving so large a
proportion of the profits. He wrote to Clemens, asking him which of his
two propositions - the twenty per cent. gross-royalty or the seventy per
cent. of the net profit - would be the best all around. Clemens sent
Webster to tell him that he believed the simplest, as well as the most
profitable for the author, would be the twenty per cent. arrangement.
Whereupon Grant replied that he would take the alternative; as in that
case, if the book were a failure, and there were no profits, Clemens
would not be obliged to pay him anything. He could not consent to the
thought of receiving twenty per cent. on a book published at a loss.

Meantime, Grant had developed a serious illness. The humiliation of his
business failure had undermined his health. The papers announced his
malady as cancer of the tongue. In a memorandum which Clemens made,
February 26, 1885, he states that on the 21st he called at the Grant
home, 3 East 66th Street, and was astonished to see how thin and weak the
General looked. He was astonished because the newspaper, in a second
report, had said the threatening symptoms had disappeared, that the
cancer alarm was a false one.

I took for granted the report, and said I had been glad to see that
news. He smiled and said, "Yes - if it had only been true."

One of the physicians was present, and he startled me by saying the
General's condition was the opposite of encouraging.

Then the talk drifted to business, and the General presently said:
"I mean you shall have the book - I have about made up my mind to
that - but I wish to write to Mr. Roswell Smith first, and tell him I
have so decided. I think this is due him."

From the beginning the General has shown a fine delicacy toward
those people - a delicacy which was native to the character of the
man who put into the Appomattox terms of surrender the words,
"Officers may retain their side-arms," to save General Lee the
humiliation of giving up his sword. [Note-book.]

The physician present was Dr. Douglas, and upon Clemens assuming that the
General's trouble was probably due to smoking, also that it was a warning
to those who smoked to excess, himself included, Dr. Douglas said that
General Grant's affliction could not be attributed altogether to smoking,
but far more to his distress of mind, his year-long depression of spirit,
the grief of his financial disaster. Dr. Douglas's remark started
General Grant upon the subject of his connection with Ward, which he
discussed with great freedom and apparent relief of mind. Never at any
time did he betray any resentment toward Ward, but characterized him as
one might an offending child. He spoke as a man who has been deeply
wronged and humiliated and betrayed, but without a venomous expression or
one with revengeful nature. Clemens confessed in his notes that all the
time he himself was "inwardly boiling - scalping Ward - flaying him alive

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Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 → online text (page 17 of 20)