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

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serene and practical. It was said, when a pet cat died - this was some
years later - that Susy deeply reflected as to its life here and
hereafter, while Bay was concerned only as to the style of its funeral.
Susy showed early her father's quaintness of remark. Once they bought
her a heavier pair of shoes than she approved of. She was not in the
best of humors during the day, and that night, when at prayer-time her
mother said, "Now, Susy, put your thoughts on God," she answered, "Mama,
I can't with those shoes."

Clemens worked steadily that summer and did a variety of things. He had
given up a novel, begun with much enthusiasm, but he had undertaken
another long manuscript. By the middle of August he had written several
hundred pages of a story which was to be a continuation of Tam Sawyer
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now, here is a curious phase of
genius. The novel which for a time had filled him with enthusiasm and
faith had no important literary value, whereas, concerning this new tale,
he says:

"I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have gone, and may possibly
pigeonhole or burn the manuscript when it is done" - this of the story
which, of his books of pure fiction, will perhaps longest survive. He
did, in fact, give the story up, and without much regret, when it was
about half completed, and let it lie unfinished for years.

He wrote one short tale, "The Canvasser's Story," a burlesque of no
special distinction, and he projected for the Atlantic a scheme of
"blindfold novelettes," a series of stories to be written by well-known
authors and others, each to be constructed on the same plot. One can
easily imagine Clemens's enthusiasm over a banal project like that; his
impulses were always rainbow-hued, whether valuable or not; but it is
curious that Howells should welcome and even encourage an enterprise so
far removed from all the traditions of art. It fell to pieces, at last,
of inherent misconstruction. The title was to be, "A Murder and a
Marriage." Clemens could not arrive at a logical climax that did not
bring the marriage and the hanging on the same day.

The Atlantic started its "Contributors' Club," and Howells wrote to
Clemens for a paragraph or more of personal opinion on any subject,
assuring him that he could "spit his spite" out at somebody or something
as if it were a passage from a letter. That was a fairly large
permission to give Mark Twain. The paragraph he sent was the sort of
thing he would write with glee, and hug himself over in the thought of
Howells's necessity of rejecting it. In the accompanying note he said:

Say, Boss, do you want this to lighten up your old freight-train with? I
suppose you won't, but then it won't take long to say, so.

He was always sending impossible offerings to the magazines; innocently
enough sometimes, but often out of pure mischievousness. Yet they were
constantly after him, for they knew they were likely to get a first-water
gem. Mary Mopes Dodge, of St. Nicholas, wrote time and again, and
finally said:

"I know a man who was persecuted by an editor till he went distracted."

In his reading that year at the farm he gave more than customary
attention to one of his favorite books, Pepys' Diary, that captivating
old record which no one can follow continuously without catching the
infection of its manner and the desire of imitation. He had been reading
diligently one day, when he determined to try his hand on an imaginary
record of conversation and court manners of a bygone day, written in the
phrase of the period. The result was Fireside Conversation in the Time
of Queen Elizabeth, or, as he later called it, 1601. The "conversation,"
recorded by a supposed Pepys of that period, was written with all the
outspoken coarseness and nakedness of that rank day, when fireside
sociabilities were limited only by the range of loosened fancy,
vocabulary, and physical performance, and not by any bounds of
convention. Howells has spoken of Mark Twain's "Elizabethan breadth of
parlance," and how he, Howells, was always hiding away in discreet holes
and corners the letters in which Clemens had "loosed his bold fancy to
stoop on rank suggestion." "I could not bear to burn them," he declares,
"and I could not, after the first reading, quite bear to look at them."

In the 1601 Mark Twain outdid himself in the Elizabethan field. It was
written as a letter to that robust divine, Rev. Joseph Twichell, who had
no special scruples concerning Shakespearian parlance and customs. Before
it was mailed it was shown to David Gray, who was spending a Sunday at
Elmira. Gray said:

"Print it and put your name to it, Mark. You have never done a greater
piece of work than that."

John Hay, whom it also reached in due time, pronounce it a classic - a
"most exquisite bit of old English morality." Hay surreptitiously
permitted some proofs to be made of it, and it has been circulated
privately, though sparingly, ever since. At one time a special font of
antique type was made for it and one hundred copies were taken on
hand-made paper. They would easily bring a hundred dollars each to-day.

1601 is a genuine classic, as classics of that sort go. It is better
than the gross obscenities of Rabelais, and perhaps, in some day to come,
the taste that justified Gargantua and the Decameron will give this
literary refugee shelter and setting among the more conventional writings
of Mark Twain. Human taste is a curious thing; delicacy is purely a
matter of environment and point of view. - [In a note-book of a later
period Clemens himself wrote: "It depends on who writes a thing whether
it is coarse or not. I once wrote a conversation between Elizabeth,
Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Sir W. Raleigh, Lord Bacon, Sir
Nicholas Throckmorton, and a stupid old nobleman - this latter being
cup-bearer to the queen and ostensible reporter of the talk.

"There were four maids of honor present and a sweet young girl two years
younger than the boy Beaumont. I built a conversation which could have
happened - I used words such as were used at that time - 1601. I sent it
anonymously to a magazine, and how the editor abused it and the sender!
But that man was a praiser of Rabelais, and had been saying, 'O that we
had a Rabelais!' I judged that I could furnish him one."]

Eighteen hundred and seventy-six was a Presidential year - the year of the
Hayes-Tilden campaign. Clemens and Howells were both warm Republicans
and actively interested in the outcome, Clemens, as he confessed, for the
first time in his life. Before his return to Hartford he announced
himself publicly as a Hayes man, made so by Governor Hayes's letter of
acceptance, which, he said, "expresses my own political convictions." His
politics had not been generally known up to that time, and a Tilden and
Hendricks club in Jersey City had invited him to be present and give them
some political counsel, at a flag-raising. He wrote, declining
pleasantly enough, then added:

"You have asked me for some political counsel or advice: In view of Mr.
Tilden's Civil War record my advice is not to raise the flag."

He wrote Howells: "If Tilden is elected I think the entire country will
go pretty straight to - Mrs. Howells's bad place."

Howells was writing a campaign biography of Hayes, which he hoped would
have a large sale, and Clemens urged him to get it out quickly and save
the country. Howells, working like a beaver, in turn urged Clemens to
take the field in the cause. Returning to Hartford, Clemens presided at
a political rally and made a speech, the most widely quoted of the
campaign. All papers, without distinction as to party, quoted it, and
all readers, regardless of politics, read it with joy.

Yet conditions did not improve. When Howells's book had been out a
reasonable length of time he wrote that it had sold only two thousand

"There's success for you," he said. "It makes me despair of the
Republic, I can tell you."

Clemens, however, did not lose faith, and went on shouting for Hayes and
damning Tilden till the final vote was cast. In later life he changed
his mind about Tilden (as did many others) through sympathy. Sympathy
could make - Mark Twain change his mind any time. He stood for the right,
but, above all, for justice. He stood for the wronged, regardless of all
other things.



Clemens gave a few readings in Boston and Philadelphia, but when urged to
go elsewhere made the excuse that he was having his portrait painted and
could not leave home.

As a matter of fact, he was enjoying himself with Frank Millet, who had
been invited to the house to do the portrait and had captured the fervent
admiration of the whole family. Millet was young, handsome, and lively;
Clemens couldn't see enough of him, the children adored him and added his
name to the prayer which included each member of the household - the "Holy
Family," Clemens called it.

Millet had brought with him but one piece of canvas for the portrait, and
when the first sketch was finished Mrs. Clemens was so delighted with it
that she did not wish him to touch it again. She was afraid of losing
some particular feeling in it which she valued. Millet went to the city.
for another canvas and Clemens accompanied him. While Millet was doing
his shopping it happened to occur to Clemens that it would be well to
fill in the time by having his hair cut. He left word with a clerk to
tell Millet that he had gone across the street. By and by the artist
came over, and nearly wept with despair when he saw his subject sheared
of the auburn, gray-sprinkled aureola that had made his first sketch a
success. He tried it again, and the result was an excellent likeness,
but it never satisfied Millet.

The 'Adventures of Tom Sawyer' appeared late in December (1876), and
immediately took its place as foremost of American stories of boy life, a
place which it unquestionably holds to this day. We have already
considered the personal details of this story, for they were essentially
nothing more than the various aspects of Mark Twain's own boyhood. It is
only necessary to add a word concerning the elaboration of this period in
literary form.

From every point it is a masterpiece, this picture of boy life in a
little lazy, drowsy town, with all the irresponsibility and general
disreputability of boy character coupled with that indefinable, formless,
elusive something we call boy conscience, which is more likely to be boy
terror and a latent instinct of manliness. These things are so truly
portrayed that every boy and man reader finds the tale fitting into his
own remembered years, as if it had grown there. Every boy has played off
sick to escape school; every boy has reflected in his heart Tom's picture
of himself being brought home dead, and gloated over the stricken
consciences of those who had blighted his young life; every boy - of that
day, at least - every normal, respectable boy, grew up to "fear God and
dread the Sunday-school," as Howells puts it in his review.

As for the story itself, the narrative of it, it is pure delight. The
pirate camp on the island is simply boy heaven. What boy, for instance,
would not change any other glory or boon that the world holds for this:

They built a fire against the side of a great log twenty or thirty
steps within the somber depths of the forest, and then cooked some
bacon in the frying-pan for supper, and used up half of the corn
"pone" stock they had brought. It seemed glorious sport to be
feasting in that wild, free way in the virgin forest of an
unexplored and uninhabited island, far from the haunts of men, and
they said they never would return to civilization. The climbing
fire lit up their faces and threw its ruddy glare upon the pillared
tree-trunks of their forest-temple, and upon the varnished foliage
and the festooning vines.

There is a magic in it. Mark Twain, when he wrote it, felt renewed in
him all the old fascination of those days and nights with Tom
Blankenship, John Briggs, and the Bowen boys on Glasscock's Island.
Everywhere in Tom Sawyer there is a quality, entirely apart from the
humor and the narrative, which the younger reader is likely to overlook.
No one forgets the whitewashing scene, but not many of us, from our early
reading, recall this delicious bit of description which introduces it:

The locust-trees were in bloom, and the fragrance of the blossoms
filled the air. Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was
green with vegetation, and it lay just far enough away to seem a
delectable land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.

Tom's night visit home; the graveyard scene, with the murder of Dr.
Robinson; the adventures of Tom and Becky in the cave - these are all
marvelously invented. Literary thrill touches the ultimate in one
incident of the cave episode. Brander Matthews has written:

Nor is there any situation quite as thrilling as that awful moment
in the cave when the boy and girl are lost in the darkness, and when
Tom suddenly sees a human hand bearing a light, and then finds that
the hand is the hand of Indian Joe, his one mortal enemy. I have
always thought that the vision of the hand in the cave in Tom Sawyer
was one of the very finest things in the literature of adventure
since Robinson Crusoe first saw a single footprint in the sand of
the sea-shore.

Mark Twain's invention was not always a reliable quantity, but with that
eccentricity which goes with any attribute of genius, it was likely at
any moment to rise supreme. If to the critical, hardened reader the tale
seems a shade overdone here and there, a trifle extravagant in its
delineations, let him go back to his first long-ago reading of it and see
if he recalls anything but his pure delight in it then. As a boy's story
it has not been equaled.

Tom Sawyer has ranked in popularity with Roughing It.

Its sales go steadily on from year to year, and are likely to continue so
long as boys and girls do not change, and men and women remember.

- [Col. Henry Watterson, when he finished Tom Sawyer, wrote: "I have
just laid down Tom Sawyer, and cannot resist the pressure. It is
immense! I read every word of it, didn't skip a line, and nearly
disgraced myself several times in the presence of a sleeping-car full of
honorable and pious people. Once I had to get to one side and have a
cry, and as for an internal compound of laughter and tears there was no
end to it.... The 'funeral' of the boys, the cave business, and the hunt
for the hidden treasure are as dramatic as anything I know of in fiction,
while the pathos - particularly everything relating to Huck and Aunt
Polly - makes a cross between Dickens's skill and Thackeray's nature,
which, resembling neither, is thoroughly impressive and original."]



It was the fall and winter of '76 that Bret Harte came to Hartford and
collaborated with Mark Twain on the play "Ah Sin," a comedy-drama, or
melodrama, written for Charles T. Parsloe, the great impersonator of
Chinese character. Harte had written a successful play which
unfortunately he had sold outright for no great sum, and was eager for
another venture. Harte had the dramatic sense and constructive
invention. He also had humor, but he felt the need of the sort of humor
that Mark Twain could furnish. Furthermore, he believed that a play
backed by both their reputations must start with great advantages.
Clemens also realized these things, and the arrangement was made.
Speaking of their method of working, Clemens once said:

"Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret
wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to
get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect."
Which is hardly a fair statement of the case. They both worked on the
play, and worked hard.

During the period of its construction Harte had an order for a story
which he said he must finish at once, as he needed the money. It must be
delivered by the following night, and he insisted that he must be getting
at it without a moment's delay. Still he seemed in no haste to begin.
The evening passed; bedtime came. Then he asked that an open fire might
be made in his room and a bottle of whisky sent up, in case he needed.
something to keep him awake. George attended to these matters, and
nothing more was heard of Harte until very early next morning, when he
rang for George and asked for a fresh fire and an additional supply of
whisky. At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elate, with the
announcement that his story was complete.

That forenoon the Saturday Morning Club met at the Clemens home. It was
a young women's club, of which Mark Twain was a sort of honorary member
- a club for the purpose of intellectual advancement, somewhat on the
order of the Monday Evening Club of men, except that the papers read
before it were not prepared by members, but by men and women prominent in
some field of intellectual progress. Bret Harte had agreed to read to
them on this particular occasion, and he gaily appeared and gave them the
story just finished, "Thankful Blossom," a tale which Mark Twain always
regarded as one of Harte's very best.

The new play, "Ah Sin," by Mark Twain and Bret Harte, was put on at
Washington, at the National Theater, on the evening of May 7, 1877. It
had been widely exploited in the newspapers, and the fame of the authors
insured a crowded opening. Clemens was unable to go over on account of a
sudden attack of bronchitis. Parsloe was nervous accordingly, and the
presence of Harte does not seem to have added to his happiness.

"I am not very well myself," he wrote to Clemens. "The excitement of the
first night is bad enough, but to have the annoyance with Harte that I
have is too much for a new beginner."

Nevertheless, the play seems to have gone well, with Parsloe as Ah Sin
- a Chinese laundryman who was also a great number of other diverting
things - with a fair support and a happy-go-lucky presentation of frontier
life, which included a supposed murder, a false accusation, and a general
clearing-up of mystery by the pleasant and wily and useful and
entertaining Ah Sin. It was not a great play. It was neither very
coherent nor convincing, but it had a lot of good fun in it, with
character parts which, if not faithful to life, were faithful enough to
the public conception of it to be amusing and exciting. At the end of
each act not only Parsloe, but also the principal members of the company,
were called before the curtain for special acknowledgments. When it was
over there was a general call for Ah Sin, who came before the curtain and
read a telegram.

CHARLES T. PARSLOE, - I am on the sick-list, and therefore cannot come to
Washington; but I have prepared two speeches - one to deliver in event of
failure of the play, and the other if successful. Please tell me which I
shall send. May be better to put it to vote.


The house cheered the letter, and when it was put to vote decided
unanimously that the play had been a success - a verdict more kindly than

J. I. Ford, of the theater management, wrote to Clemens, next morning
after the first performance, urging him to come to Washington in person
and "wet nurse" the play until "it could do for itself."

Ford expressed satisfaction with the play and its prospects, and

I inclose notices. Come if you can. "Your presence will be worth ten
thousand men. The king's name is a tower of strength." I have urged the
President to come to-night.

The play made no money in Washington, but Augustin Daly decided to put it
on in New York at the Fifth Avenue Theater, with a company which
included, besides Parsloe, Edmund Collier, P. A. Anderson, Dora
Goldthwaite, Henry Crisp, and Mrs. Wells, a very worthy group of players
indeed. Clemens was present at the opening, dressed in white, which he
affected only for warm-weather use in those days, and made a speech at
the end of the third act.

"Ah Sin" did not excite much enthusiasm among New York dramatic critics.
The houses were promising for a time, but for some reason the performance
as a whole did not contain the elements of prosperity. It set out on its
provincial travels with no particular prestige beyond the reputation of
its authors; and it would seem that this was not enough, for it failed to
pay, and all parties concerned presently abandoned it to its fate and it
was heard of no more. Just why "Ah Sin" did not prosper it would not
become us to decide at this far remove of time and taste. Poorer plays
have succeeded and better plays have failed since then, and no one has
ever been able to demonstrate the mystery. A touch somewhere, a
pulling-about and a readjustment, might have saved "Ali Sin," but the
pullings and haulings which they gave it did not. Perhaps it still lies
in some managerial vault, and some day may be dragged to light and
reconstructed and recast, and come into its reward. Who knows? Or it
may have drifted to that harbor of forgotten plays, whence there is no

As between Harte and Clemens, the whole matter was unfortunate. In the
course of their association there arose a friction and the long-time
friendship disappeared.



On the 16th of May, 1877, Mark Twain set out on what, in his note-book,
he declared to be "the first actual pleasure-trip" he had ever taken,
meaning that on every previous trip he had started with a purpose other
than that of mere enjoyment. He took with him his, friend and pastor,
the Rev. Joseph H. Twichell, and they sailed for Bermuda, an island
resort not so well known or so fashionable as to-day.

They did not go to a hotel. Under assumed names they took up quarters in
a boarding-house, with a Mrs. Kirkham, and were unmolested and altogether
happy in their wanderings through four golden days. Mark Twain could not
resist keeping a note-book, setting down bits of scenery and character
and incident, just as he had always done. He was impressed with the
cheapness of property and living in the Bermuda of that period. He makes
special mention of some cottages constructed of coral blocks: "All as
beautiful and as neat as a pin, at the cost of four hundred and eighty
dollars each." To Twichell he remarked:

"Joe, this place is like Heaven, and I'm going to make the most of it."

"Mark," said Twichell, "that's right; make the most of a place that is
like Heaven while you have a chance."

In one of the entries - the final one - Clemens says:

"Bermuda is free (at present) from the triple curse of railways,
telegraphs, and newspapers, but this will not last the year. I propose
to spend next year here and no more."

When they were ready to leave, and started for the steamer, Twichell made
an excuse to go back, his purpose being to tell their landlady and her
daughter that, without knowing it, they had been entertaining Mark Twain.

"Did you ever hear of Mark Twain?" asked Twichell.

The daughter answered.

"Yes," she said, "until I'm tired of the name. I know a young man who
never talks of anything else."

"Well," said Twichell, "that gentleman with me is Mark Twain."

The Kirkhams declined to believe it at first, and then were in deep
sorrow that they had not known it earlier. Twichell promised that he and
Clemens would come back the next year; and they meant to go back - we
always mean to go back to places - but it was thirty years before they
returned at last, and then their pleasant landlady was dead.

On the home trip they sighted a wandering vessel, manned by blacks,
trying to get to New York. She had no cargo and was pretty helpless.
Later, when she was reported again, Clemens wrote about it in a Hartford
paper, telling the story as he knew it. The vessel had shipped the crew,
on a basis of passage to New York, in exchange for labor. So it was a
"pleasure-excursion!" Clemens dwelt on this fancy:

I have heard of a good many pleasure-excursions, but this heads the
list. It is monumental, and if ever the tired old tramp is found I
should like to be there and see him in his sorrowful rags and his
venerable head of grass and seaweed, and hear the ancient mariners
tell the story of their mysterious wanderings through the solemn
solitudes of the ocean.

Long afterward this vagrant craft was reported again, still drifting with
the relentless Gulf Stream. Perhaps she reached New York in time; one

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Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 → online text (page 2 of 20)