By Archibald Henderson
With Photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn
"Haply—who knows?—somewhere In Avalon, Isle of Dreams, In vast contentment at last, With every grief done away, While Chaucer and Shakespeare wait, And Moliere hangs on his words, And Cervantes not far off Listens and smiles apart, With that incomparable drawl He is jesting with Dagonet now."
There are to-day, all over the world, men and women and children who owe a debt of almost personal gratitude to Mark Twain for the joy of his humour and the charm of his personality. In the future they will, I doubt not, seek and welcome opportunities to acknowledge that debt. My own experience with the works of Mark Twain is in no sense exceptional. From the days of early childhood, my feeling for Mark Twain, derived first solely from acquaintance with his works, was a feeling of warm and, as it were, personal affection. With limitless interest and curiosity, I used to hear the Uncle Remus stories from the lips of one of our old family servants, a negro to whom I was devotedly attached. These stories were narrated to me in the negro dialect with such perfect naturalness and racial gusto that I often secretly wondered if the narrator were not Uncle Remus himself in disguise. I was thus cunningly prepared, "coached" shall I say, for the maturer charms of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. With Uncle Remus and Mark Twain as my preceptors, I spent the days of my youth—excitedly alternating, spell-bound, between the inexhaustible attractions of Tom, Huck, Jim, Indian Joe, the Duke and the Dauphin, and their compeers on the one hand; and Brer Rabbit, Sis Cow, and a thousand other fantastic, but very real creatures of the animal kingdom on the other.
I felt a strange sort of camaraderie, of personal attachment, for Mark Twain during all the years before I came into personal contact with him. It was the dictum of a distinguished English critic, to the effect that Huckleberry Finn was a literary masterpiece, which first awoke in me, then a mere boy, a genuine respect for literary criticism; for here was expressed an opinion which I had long secretly cherished, but somehow never dared to utter!
My personal association with Mr. Clemens, comparatively brief though it was—an ocean voyage, meetings here and there, a brief stay as a guest in his home—gave me at last the justification for paying the debt which, with the years, had grown greater and more insistently obligatory. I felt both relief and pleasure when he authorized me to pay that debt by writing an interpretation of his life and work.
It is an appreciation originating in the heart of one who loved Mark Twain's works for a generation before he ever met Samuel L. Clemens. It is an interpretation springing from the conviction that Mark Twain was a great American who comprehensively incorporated and realized his own country and his own age as no American has so completely done before him; a supreme humorist who ever wore the panache of youth, gaiety, and bonhomie; a brilliant wit who never dipped his darts in the poison of cynicism, misanthropy, or despair; constitutionally a reformer who, heedless of self, boldly struck for the right as he saw it; a philosopher and sociologist who intuitively understood the secret springs of human motive and impulse, and empirically demonstrated that intuition in works which crossed frontiers, survived translation, and went straight to the human, beneath the disguise of the racial; a genius who lived to know and enjoy the happy rewards of his own fame; a great man who saw life steadily and saw it whole.
LONDON, August 5, 1910.
NOTE.—The author esteems himself in the highest degree fortunate in having the co-operation of Mr. Alvin Langdon Coburn. All the illustrations, both autochrome and monochrome, are the work of Mr. Coburn.
I. INTRODUCTORY II. THE MAN III. THE HUMORIST IV. WORLD-FAMED GENIUS V. PHILOSOPHER, MORALIST, SOCIOLOGIST
"I've a theory that every author, while living, has a projection of himself, a sort of eidolon, that goes about in near and distant places, and makes friends and enemies for him out of folk who never knew him in the flesh. When the author dies, this phantom fades away, not caring to continue business at the old stand. Then the dead writer lives only in the impression made by his literature; this impression may grow sharper or fainter according to the fashions and new conditions of the time."
Letter of THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH to WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS of date December 23, 1901.
In the past, the attitude of the average American toward Mark Twain has been most characteristically expressed in a sort of complacent and chuckling satisfaction. There was pride in the thought that America, the colossal, had produced a superman of humour. The national vanity was touched when the nations of the world rocked and roared with laughter over the comically primitive barbarisms of the funny man from the "Wild and Woolly West." Mark Twain was lightly accepted as an international comedian magically evoking the laughter of a world. It would be a mis-statement to affirm that the works of Mark Twain were reckoned as falling within the charmed circle of "Literature." They were not reckoned in connexion with literature at all.
The fingers of one hand number those who realized in Mark Twain one of the supreme geniuses of our age. Even in the event of his death, when the flood-gates of critical chatter have been thrown emptily wide, there is room for grave doubt whether a realization of the unique and incomparable position of Mark Twain in the republic of letters has fully dawned upon the American consciousness. The literatures of England and Europe do not posit an aesthetic, embracing work of such primitive crudity and apparently unstudied frankness as the work of Mark Twain. It is for American criticism to posit this more comprehensive aesthetic, and to demonstrate that the work of Mark Twain is the work of a great artist. It would be absurd to maintain that Mark Twain's appeal to posterity depends upon the dicta of literary criticism. It would be absurd to deny that upon America rests the task of demonstrating, to a world willing enough to be convinced, that Mark Twain is one of the supreme and imperishable glories of American literature.
At any given moment in history, the number of living writers to whom can be attributed what a Frenchman would call mondial eclat is surprisingly few. It was not so many years ago that Rudyard Kipling, with vigorous, imperialistic note, won for himself the unquestioned title of militant spokesman for the Anglo-Saxon race. That fame has suffered eclipse in the passage of time. To-day, Bernard Shaw has a fame more world-wide than that of any other literary figure in the British Isles. His dramas are played from Madrid to Helsingfors, from Buda-Pesth to Stockholm, from Vienna to St Petersburg, from Berlin to Buenos Ayres. Recently Zola, Ibsen and, Tolstoy constituted the literary hierarchy of the world—according to popular verdict. Since Zola and Ibsen have passed from the scene, Tolstoy experts unchallenged the profoundest influence upon the thought and consciousness of the world. This is an influence streaming less from his works than from his life, less from his intellect than from his conscience. The literati bemoan the artist of an epoch prior to 'What is Art?' The whole world pays tribute to the passionate integrity of Tolstoy's moral aspiration.
[While this book was going through the press, news has come of the death of Tolstoy.]
Until yesterday, Mark Twain vied with Tolstoy for the place of most widely read and most genuinely popular author in the world. In a sense not easily misunderstood, Mark Twain has a place in the minds and hearts of the great mass of humanity throughout the civilized world, which, if measured in terms of affection, sympathy, and spontaneous enjoyment, is without a parallel. The robust nationalism of Kipling challenges the defiant opposition of foreigners; whilst his reportorial realism offends many an inviolable canon of European taste. With all his incandescent wit and comic irony, Bernard Shaw makes his most vivid impression upon the upper strata of society; his legendary character, moreover, is perpetually standing in the light of the serious reformer. Tolstoy's works are Russia's greatest literary contribution to posterity; and yet his literary fame has suffered through his extravagant ideals, the magnificent futility of his inconsistency, and the almost maniacal mysticism of his unrealizable hopes.
If Mark Twain makes a more deeply, more comprehensively popular appeal, it is doubtless because he makes use of the universal solvent of humour. That eidolon of which Aldrich speaks—a compact of good humour, robust sanity, and large-minded humanity—has diligently "gone about in near and distant places," everywhere making warm and lifelong friends of folk of all nationalities who have never known Mark Twain in the flesh. The French have a way of speaking of an author's public as if it were a select and limited segment of the conglomerate of readers; and in a country like France, with its innumerable literary cliques and sects, there is some reason for the phraseology. In reality, the author appeals to many different "publics" or classes of readers—in proportion to the many-sidedness of the reader's human interests and the catholicity of his tastes. Mark Twain first opens the eyes of many a boy to the power of the great human book, warm with the actuality of experience and the life-blood of the heart. By humorous inversion, he points the sound moral and vivifies the right principle for the youth to whom the dawning consciousness of morality is the first real psychological discovery of life. With hearty laughter at the stupid irritations of self-conscious virtue, with ironic scorn for the frigid Puritanism of mechanical morality, Mark Twain enraptures that innumerable company of the sophisticated who have chafed under the omnipresent influence of a "good example" and stilled the painless pangs of an unruly conscience. With splendid satire for the base, with shrill condemnation for tyranny and oppression, with the scorpion-lash for the equivocal, the fraudulent, and the insincere, Mark Twain inspires the growing body of reformers in all countries who would remedy the ills of democratic government with the knife of publicity. The wisdom of human experience and of sagacious tolerance informing his books for the young, provokes the question whether these books are not more apposite to the tastes of experienced age than to the fancies of callow youth. The navvy may rejoice in 'Life on the Mississippi'. Youth and age may share without jealousy the abounding fun and primitive naturalness of 'Huckleberry Finn'. True lovers of adventure may revel in the masterly narrative of 'Tom Sawyer'. The artist may bestow his critical meed of approval upon the beauty of 'Joan of Arc'. The moralist may heartily validate the ethical lesson of 'The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg'. Anyone may pay the tribute of irresistible explosions of laughter to the horse-play of 'Roughing It', the colossal extravagance of 'The Innocents Abroad', the irreverence and iconoclasm of that Yankee intruder into the hallowed confines of Camelot. All may rejoice in the spontaneity and refreshment of truth; spiritually co-operate in forthright condemnation of fraud, peculation, and sham; and breathe gladly the fresh and bracing air of sincerity, sanity, and wisdom. The stevedore on the dock, the motor-man on the street car, the newsboy on the street, the riverman on the Mississippi—all speak with exuberant affection in memory of that quaint figure in his white suit, his ruddy face shining through wreaths of tobacco smoke and surmounted by a great halo of silvery hair. In one day, as Mark Twain was fond of relating, an emperor and a portier vied with each other in tributes of admiration and esteem for this man and his works. It is Mark Twain's imperishable glory, not simply that his name is the most familiar of that of any author who has lived in our own times, but that it is remembered with infinite irrepressible zest.
"We think of Mark Twain not as other celebrities, but as the man whom we knew and loved," said Dr. Van Dyke in his Memorial Address. "We remember the realities which made his life worth while, the strong and natural manhood that was in him, the depth and tenderness of his affections, his laughing enmity to all shams and pretences, his long and faithful witness to honesty and fair-dealing.
"Those who know the story of Mark Twain's career know how bravely he faced hardships and misfortune, how loyally he toiled for years to meet a debt of conscience, following the injunction of the New Testament, to provide not only things honest, but things 'honourable in the sight of all men.'
"Those who know the story of his friendships and his family life know that he was one who loved much and faithfully, even unto the end. Those who know his work as a whole know that under the lambent and irrepressible humour which was his gift, there was a foundation of serious thoughts and noble affections and desires.
"Nothing could be more false than to suppose that the presence of humour means the absence of depth and earnestness. There are elements of the unreal, the absurd, the ridiculous in this strange, incongruous world which must seem humorous even to the highest mind. Of these the Bible says: 'He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Almighty shall hold them in derision.' But the mark of this higher humour is that it does not laugh at the weak, the helpless, the true, the innocent; only at the false, the pretentious, the vain, the hypocritical.
"Mark Twain himself would be the first to smile at the claim that his humour was infallible; but we say without doubt that he used his gift, not for evil, but for good. The atmosphere of his work is clean and wholesome. He made fun without hatred. He laughed many of the world's false claimants out of court, and entangled many of the world's false witnesses in the net of ridicule. In his best books and stories, coloured with his own experiences, he touched the absurdities of life with penetrating, but not unkindly, mockery, and made us feel somehow the infinite pathos of life's realities. No one can say that he ever failed to reverence the purity, the frank, joyful, genuine nature of the little children, of whom Christ said, 'Of such is the kingdom of heaven.'
"Now he is gone, and our thoughts of him are tender, grateful, proud. We are glad of his friendship; glad that he expressed so richly one of the great elements in the temperament of America; glad that he has left such an honourable record as a man of letters; and glad also for his own sake that after many and deep sorrows he is at peace and, we trust, happy in the fuller light.
"'Rest after toil, port after stormy seas, Death after life doth greatly please."'
"'We cannot live always on the cold heights of the sublime—the thin air stifles'—I have forgotten who said it. We cannot flush always with the high ardour of the signers of the Declaration, nor remain at the level of the address at Gettysburg, nor cry continually, 'O Beautiful! My country!' Yet, in the long dull interspans between these sacred moments we need some one to remind us that we are a nation. For in the dead vast and middle of the years insidious foes are lurking—anaemic refinements, cosmopolitan decadencies, the egotistic and usurping pride of great cities, the cold sickening of the heart at the reiterated exposures of giant fraud and corruption. When our countrymen migrate because we have no kings or castles, we are thankful to any one who will tell us what we can count on. When they complain that our soil lacks the humanity essential to great literature, we are grateful even for the firing of a national joke heard round the world. And when Mark Twain, robust, big-hearted, gifted with the divine power to use words, makes us all laugh together, builds true romances with prairie fire and Western clay, and shows us that we are at one on all the main points, we feel that he has been appointed by Providence to see to it that the precious ordinary self of the Republic shall suffer no harm."
STUART P. SHERMAN: "MARK TWAIN." The Nation, May 12, 1910.
American literature, indeed I might say American life, can exhibit no example of supreme success from the humblest beginnings, so signal as the example of Mark Twain. Lincoln became President of the United States, as did Grant and Johnson. But assassination began for Lincoln an apotheosis which has gone to deplorable lengths of hero-worship and adulation. Grant was one of the great failures in American public life; and Johnson, brilliant but unstable, narrowly escaped impeachment. Mark Twain enjoys the unique distinction of exhibiting a progressive development, a deepening and broadening of forces, a ripening of intellectual and spiritual powers from the beginning to the end of his career. From the standpoint of the man of letters, the evolution of Mark Twain from a journeyman printer to a great author, from a merry-andrew to a world-humorist, from a river-pilot to a trustworthy navigator on the vast and uncharted seas of human experience, may be taken as symbolic of the romance of American life.
With a sort of mock—pride, Clemens referred at times to the ancestral glories of his house—the judge who condemned Charles I., and all those other notables, of Dutch and English breeds, who shed lustre upon the name of Clemens. Yet he claimed that he had not examined into these traditions, chiefly because "I was so busy polishing up this end of the line and trying to make it showy." His mother, a "Lambton with a p," of Kentucky, married John Marshall Clemens, of Virginia, a man of determination and force, in Lexington, in 1823; but neither was endowed with means, and their life was of the simplest. From Jamestown, in the mountain solitudes of East Tennessee, they removed in 1829, much as Judge Hawkins is said to have done in 'The Gilded Age', settling at Florida, Missouri. Here was born, on November 30, 1835, a few months after their arrival, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Long afterwards he stated that he had increased by one per cent. the population of this village of one hundred inhabitants, thereby doing more than the best man in history had ever done for any other town.
Although weak and sickly, the child did not suffer from the hard life, and survived two other children, Margaret and Benjamin. At different times his life was in danger, the local doctor always coming to the rescue. He once asked his mother, after she had reached old age, if she hadn't been uneasy about him. She admitted she had been uneasy about him the whole time. But when he inquired further if she was afraid he would not live, she answered after a reflective pause—as if thinking out the facts—that she had been afraid he would!
His sister Pamela afterwards became the mother of Samuel E. Moffett, the writer; and his brother Orion, ten years his senior, afterwards was intimately associated with him in life and found a place in his writings.
In 1839, John Marshall Clemens tired of the unpromising life of Florida and removed to Hannibal, Missouri. He was a stern, unbending man, a lawyer by profession, a merchant by vocation; after his removal to Hannibal he became a Justice of the Peace, an office he filled with all the dignity of a local autocrat. His forum was a "dingy" office, furnished with "a dry-goods box, three or four rude stools, and a puncheon bench." The solemnity of his manner in administering the law won for him, among his neighbours, the title of Judge.
One need but recall the scenes in which Tom Sawyer was born and bred to realize in its actuality the model from which these scenes were drawn. "Sam was always a good-hearted boy," his mother once remarked, "but he was a very wild and mischievous one, and, do what we would, we could never make him go to school. This used to trouble his father and me dreadfully, and we were convinced that he would never amount to as much in the world as his brothers, because he was not near so steady and sober-minded as they were." At school, he "excelled only in spelling"; outside of school he was the prototype of his own Huckleberry Finn, mischievous and prankish, playing truant whenever the opportunity afforded. "Often his father would start him off to school," his mother once said, "and in a little while would follow him to ascertain his whereabouts. There was a large stump on the way to the schoolhouse, and Sam would take his position behind that, and as his father went past would gradually circle around it in such a way as to keep out of sight. Finally, his father and the teacher both said it was of no use to try to teach Sam anything, because he was determined not to learn. But I never gave up. He was always a great boy for history, and could never get tired of that kind of reading; but he hadn't any use for schoolhouses and text books."
Mr. Howells has aptly described Hannibal as a "loafing, out-at-elbows, down-at-the-heels, slaveholding Mississippi river town." Young Clemens accepted the institution of slavery as a matter of course, for his father was a slave-owner; and his mother's wedding dowry consisted in part of two or three slaves. Judge Clemens was a very austere man; like so many other slave-holders, he silently abhorred slavery. To his children, especially to Sam, as well as to his slaves, he was, however, a stern taskmaster. Mark Twain has described the terms on which he and his father lived as a sort of armed neutrality. If at times this neutrality was broken and suffering ensued, the breaking and the suffering were always divided up with strict impartiality between them —his father doing the breaking and he the suffering! Sam claimed to be a very backward, cautious, unadventurous boy. But this modest estimate is subject to modification when we learn that once he jumped off a two-story stable; another time he gave an elephant a plug of tobacco, and retired without waiting for an answer; and still another time he pretended to be talking in his sleep, and got off a portion of every original conundrum in hearing of his father. He begs the curious not to pry into the result—as it was of no consequence to any one but himself!
The cave, so graphically described in Tom Sawyer, was one of Sam's favourite haunts; and his first sweetheart was Laura Hawkins, the Becky Thatcher of Tom's admiration. "Sam was always up to some mischief," this lady once remarked in later life, when in reminiscential mood. "We attended Sunday-school together, and they had a system of rewards for saying verses after committing them to memory. A blue ticket was given for ten verses, a red ticket for ten blue, a yellow for ten red, and a Bible for ten yellow tickets. If you will count up, you will see it makes a Bible for ten thousand verses. Sam came up one day with his ten yellow tickets, and everybody knew he had not said a verse, but had just got them by trading with the boys. But he received his Bible with all the serious air of a diligent student!"
Mark Twain, save when in humorous vein, has never pretended that his success was due to any marvellous qualities of mind, any indefatigable industry, any innate energy and perseverance. I have good reason to recall his favourite theory, which he was fond of expounding, to the effect that circumstance is man's master. He likened circumstance to the attraction of gravity; and declared that while it is man's privilege to argue with circumstance, as it is the honourable privilege of the falling body to argue with the attraction of gravity, it does no good: man has to obey. Circumstance has as its working partner man's temperament, his natural disposition. Temperament is not the creation of man, but an innate quality; over it he has no authority; for its acts he cannot be held responsible. It cannot be permanently changed or even modified. No power can keep it modified. For it is inherent and enduring, as unchanging as the lines upon the thumb or the conformation of the skull. Throughout his life, circumstance seemed like a watchful spirit, switching his temperament into those channels of experience and development leading unerringly to the career of the author.
The death of Judge Clemens was the first link in the long chain of circumstance—for his son was at once taken from school and apprenticed to the editor and proprietor of the Hannibal Courier. He was allowed the usual emolument of the office apprentice, "board and clothes, but no money"; and even at that, though the board was paid, the clothes rarely materialized. Several weeks later his brother Orion returned to Hannibal, and in 1850 brought out a little paper called the 'Hannibal Journal.' He took Sam out of the Courier office and engaged him for the Journal at $3.50 a week—though he was never able to pay a cent of the wages. One of Mark's fellow-townsmen once confessed: "Yes, I knew him when he was a boy. He was a printer's devil—I think that's what they called him—and they didn't miss it." At a banquet some years ago, Mark Twain aptly described at length his experiences as a printer's apprentice. There were a thousand and one menial services he was called upon to perform. If the subscribers paid at all, it was only sometimes —and then the town subscribers paid in groceries, the country subscribers in cabbages and cordwood. If they paid, they were puffed in the paper; and if the editor forgot to insert the puff, the subscriber stopped the paper! Every subscriber regarded himself as assistant editor, ex officio; gave orders as to how the paper was to be edited, supplied it with opinions, and directed its policy. Of course, every time the editor failed to follow his suggestions, he revenged himself by stopping the paper!
After some financial stress, the paper was moved into the Clemens home, a "two-story brick"; and here for several years it managed to worry along, spasmodically hovering between life and death. Life was easy with the editors of that paper; for if they pied a form, they suspended until the next week. They always suspended anyhow, every now and then, when the fishing was good; and always fell back upon the illness of the editor as a convenient excuse, Mark admitted that this was a paltry excuse, for the all-sufficing reason that a paper of that sort was just as well off with a sick editor as a well one, and better off with a dead one than with either of them. At the age of fifteen he considered himself a skilled journeyman printer; and his faculty for comedic portrayal had already betrayed itself in occasional clumsy efforts. In 'My First Literary Venture', he narrates his experiences, amongst others how greatly he increased the circulation of the paper, and incensed the "inveterate woman-killer," whose poetry for that week's paper read, "To Mary in H—l" (Hannibal). Mark added a "snappy foot—note" at the bottom, in which he agreed to let the thing pass, for just that once; but distinctly warning Mr. J. Gordon Runnels that the paper had a character to sustain, and that in future, when Mr. Runnels wanted to commune with his friends in h—l, he must select some other medium for that communication! Many were the humorous skits, crudely illustrated with cuts made from wooden blocks hacked out with his jack-knife, which the mischievous young "devil" inserted in his brother's paper. Here we may discern the first spontaneous outcroppings of the genuine humorist. "It was on this paper, the 'Hannibal Journal'," says his biographer, Mr. Albert B. Paine, "that young Sam Clemens began his writings—burlesques, as a rule, of local characters and conditions—usually published in his brother's absence, generally resulting in trouble on his return. Yet they made the paper sell, and if Orion had but realized his possession he might have turned his brother's talent into capital even then."
One evening in 1858, the boy, consumed with wanderlust, asked his mother for five dollars—to start on his travels. He failed to receive the money, but he defiantly announced that he would go "anyhow." He had managed to save a tiny sum, and that night he disappeared and fled to St Louis. There he worked in the composing-room of the Evening News for a time, and then started out "to see the world"—New York, where a little World's Fair was in progress. He was somewhat better off than was Benjamin Franklin when he entered Philadelphia—for he had two or three dollars in pocket-change, and a ten-dollar bank-bill concealed in the lining of his coat. For a time he sweltered in a villainous mechanics' boarding-house in Duane Street, and worked at starvation wages in the printing-office of Gray & Green. Being recognized one day by a man from Hannibal, he fled to Philadelphia where he worked for some months as a "sub" on the 'Inquirer' and the 'Public Ledger'. Next came a flying trip to Washington "to see the sights there," and then back he went to the Mississippi Valley. This journey to the "vague and fabled East" really opened his eyes to the great possibilities that the world has in store for the traveller.
Meantime, Orion had gone to Muscatine, Ohio, and acquired a small interest there; and, after his marriage, he and his wife went to Keokuk and started a little job printing-office. Here Sam worked with his brother until the winter of 1856-7, when circumstance once again played the part of good fairy. As he was walking along the street one snowy evening, his attention was attracted by a piece of paper which the wind had blown against the wall. It proved to be a fifty-dollar bill; and after advertising for the owner for four days, he stealthily moved to Cincinnati in order "to take that money out of danger." Now comes the second crucial event in his life!
For long the ambition for river life had remained with him—and now there seemed some possibility of realizing these ambitions. He first wanted to be a cabin boy; then his ideal was to be a deck hand, because of his splendid conspicuousness as he stood on the end of the stage plank with a coil of rope in his hand. But these were only day-dreams —he didn't admit, even to himself, that they were anything more than heavenly impossibilities. But as he worked during the winter in the printing-office of Wrightson & Company of Cincinnati, he whiled away his leisure hours reading Lieutenant Herndon's account of his explorations of the Amazon, and became greatly interested in his description of the cocoa industry. Now he set to work to map out a new and thrilling career. The expedition sent out by the government to explore the Amazon had encountered difficulties and left unfinished the exploration of the country about the head-waters, thousands of miles from the mouth of the river. It mattered not to him that New Orleans was fifteen hundred miles away from Cincinnati, and that he had only thirty dollars left. His mind was made up he would go on and complete the work of exploration. So in April, 1857, he set sail for New Orleans on an ancient tub, called the Paul Jones. For the paltry sum of sixteen dollars, he was enabled to revel in the unimagined glories of the main saloon. At last he was under way—realizing his boyhood dream, unable to contain himself for joy. At last he saw himself as that hero of his boyish fancy—a traveller.
When he reached New Orleans, after the prolonged ecstasy of two weeks on a tiny Mississippi steamer, he discovered that no ship was leaving for Para, that there never had been one leaving for Para and that there probably would not be one leaving for Para that century. A policeman made him, move, on, threatening to run him in if he ever caught him reflecting in the public street again. Just as his money failed him, his old friend circumstance arrived, with another turning-point in his life—a new link. On his way down the river he had met Horace Bixby; he turned to him in this hour of need. It has been charged against Mark Twain that he was deplorably lazy—apocryphal anecdotes are still narrated with much gusto to prove it. Think of a lazy boy undertaking the stupendous task of learning to know the intricate and treacherous secrets of the great river, to know every foot of the route in the dark as well as he knew his own face in the glass! And yet he confesses that he was unaware of the immensity of the undertaking upon which he had embarked.
"In 1852," says Bixby, "I was chief pilot on the 'Paul Jones', a boat that made occasional trips from Pittsburg to New Orleans. One day a tall, angular, hoosier-like young fellow, whose limbs appeared to be fastened with leather hinges, entered the pilot-house, and in a peculiar, drawling voice, said—
"'Good mawnin, sir. Don't you want to take er piert young fellow and teach 'im how to be er pilot?'
"'No sir; there is more bother about it than it's worth.'
"'I wish you would, mister. I'm er printer by trade, but it don't 'pear to 'gree with me, and I'm on my way to Central America for my health. I believe I'll make a tolerable good pilot, 'cause I like the river.'
"'What makes you pull your words that way?'
"'I don't know, mister; you'll have to ask my Ma. She pulls hern too. Ain't there some way that we can fix it, so that you'll teach me how to be er pilot?'
"'The only way is for money.'
"'How much are you going to charge?
"'Well, I'll teach you the river for $500.'
"'Gee whillikens! he! he! I ain't got $500, but I've got five lots in Keokuk, Iowa, and 2000 acres of land in Tennessee that is worth two bits an acre any time. You can have that if you want it.'
"I told him I did not care for his land, and after a while he agreed to pay $100 in cash (borrowed from his brother-in-law, William A. Moffett, of Virginia), $150 in twelve months, and the balance when he became a pilot. He was with me for a long time, but sometimes took occasional trips with other pilots." And he significantly adds "He was always drawling out dry jokes, but then we did not pay any attention to him."
It cannot be thought accidental that Sam Clemens became a pilot. Bixby became his mentor, the pilot-house his recitation-room, the steamboat his university, the great river the field of knowledge.
In that stupendous course in nature's own college, he "learned the river" as schoolboy seldom masters his Greek or his mathematics. With the naive assurance of youth, he gaily enters upon the task of "learning" some twelve or thirteen hundred miles of the great Mississippi. Long afterwards, he confessed that had he really known what he was about to require of his faculties, he would never have had the courage to begin.
His comic sketches, published in the 'Hannibal Weekly Courier' in his brother's absence, furnish the first link, his apprenticeship to Bixby the second link in the chain of circumstance. For two years and a half he sailed the river as a master pilot; his trustworthiness secured for him the command of some of the best boats on the river, and he was so skilful that he never met disaster on any of his trips. He narrowly escaped it in 1861, for when Louisiana seceded, his boat was drafted into the Confederate service. As he reached St. Louis, having taken passage for home, a shell came whizzing by and carried off part of the pilot-house. It was the end of an era: the Civil War had begun. The occupation of the pilot was gone; but the river had given up to him all of its secrets. He was to show them to a world, in 'Life on the Mississippi' and 'Huckleberry Finn'.
The story of the derivation of the famous nom de guerre has often been narrated-and as often erroneously. As the steamboat approaches a sandbank, snag, or other obstruction, the man at the bow heaves the lead and sings out, "By the mark, three," "Mark twain," etc.-meaning three fathoms deep, two fathoms, and so on. The thought of adopting Mark Twain as a nom de guerre was not original with Clemens; but the world owes him a debt of gratitude for making forever famous a name that, but for him, would have been forever lost. "There was a man, Captain Isaiah Sellers, who furnished river news for the New Orleans Picayune, still one of the best papers in the South," Mr. Clemens once confessed to Professor Wm. L. Phelps. "He used to sign his articles Mark Twain. He died in 1863. I liked the name, and stole it. I think I have done him no wrong, for I seem to have made this name somewhat generally known."
The inglorious escapade of his military career, at which he himself has poked unspeakable fun, and for which not even his most enthusiastic biographers have any excuse, was soon ended. Had his heart really been enlisted on the side of the South, he would doubtless have stayed at his post. In reality, he was at that time lacking in conviction; and in after life he became a thorough Unionist and Abolitionist. In the summer of 1861, Governor Jackson of Missouri called for fifty thousand volunteers to drive out the Union forces. While visiting in the small town where his boyhood had been spent, Hannibal, Marion County, young Clemens and some of his friends met together in a secret place one night, and formed themselves into a military company. The spirited but untrained Tom Lyman was made captain; and in lieu of a first lieutenant —strange omission!—young Clemens was made second lieutenant. These fifteen hardy souls proudly dubbed themselves the Marion Rangers. No one thought of finding fault with such a name—it sounded too well. All were full of notions as high-flown as the name of their company. One of their number, named Dunlap, was ashamed of his name, because it had a plebeian sound to his ear. So he solved the difficulty and gratified his aristocratic ambitions by writing it d'Unlap. This may serve as a sample of the stuff of which the company was made. Dunlap was by no means useless; for he invented hifalutin names for the camps, and generally succeeded in proposing a name that was, as his companions agreed, "no slouch."
There was no real organization, nobody obeyed orders, there was never a battle. They retreated, according to the tale of the humorist, at every sign of the enemy. In truth, this little band had plenty of stomach for fighting, despite its loose organization; and quite a number fought all through the war. Mark Twain is doubtless correct in the main, in his assertion that he has not given an unfair picture of the conditions prevailing in many of the militia camps in the first months of the war between the states. The men were raw and unseasoned, and even the leaders were lacking in the rudiments of military training and discipline. The situation was strange and unprecedented, the terrors were none the less real that they were imaginary. As Mark says, it took an actual collision with the enemy on the field of battle to change them from rabbits into soldiers. Young Clemens, according to his nephew's account, was first detailed to special duty on the river because of his knowledge acquired as a pilot; it was not long before he was captured and paroled. Again he was captured, this time sent to St. Louis, and imprisoned there in a tobacco warehouse. Fearing recognition and tragic consequences, perhaps courtmartial and death, should he, during the formalities of exchange, be recognized by the command in Grant's army which first captured him, he made his escape, abandoned the cause which he afterwards spoke of as "the rebellion," and went west as secretary to his brother Orion, lately appointed Territorial Secretary of Nevada by the President.
A very credible and interesting biography of Mark Twain might be compiled from his own works; and Roughing it is full of autobiography of a coloured sort, though in the main correct. His joy in the prospect of that trip, the exciting details of the long journey, are all narrated with gusto and fine effect. In the "unique sinecure" of the office of private secretary, he found he had nothing to do and no salary; so after a short time—the fear of being recognized by Union soldiers and shot for breaking his parole still haunting him—he, and a companion, went off together on a fishing jaunt to Lake Tahoe. Everywhere he saw fortunes made in a moment. He fell a prey to the prevailing excitement and went mad like all the rest. Little wonder over the wild talk, when cartloads of solid silver bricks as large as pigs of lead were passing by every day before their very eyes. The wild talk grew more frenzied from day to day. And young Clemens yielded to no one in enthusiasm and excitement. For vividness or picturesqueness of expression none could vie with him. With three companions, he began "prospecting," with the most indifferent success; and soon tiring of their situation, they moved on down to Esmeralda (now Aurora), on the other side of Carson City. Here new life seemed to inspire the party. What mattered it if they were in debt to the butcher—for did they not own thirty thousand feet apiece in the "richest mines on earth"! Who cared if their credit was not good with the grocer, so long as they revelled in mountains of fictitious wealth and raved in the frenzied cant of the hour over their immediate prospect of fabulous riches! But at last the practical necessities of living put a sudden damper on their enthusiasm. Clemens was forced at last to abandon mining, and go to work as a common labourer in a quartz mill, at ten dollars a week and board—after flour had soared to a dollar a pound and the rate on borrowed money had gone to eight per cent. a month. This work was very exhausting, and after a week Clemens asked his employer for an advance of wages. The employer replied that he was paying Clemens ten dollars a week, and thought that all he was worth. How much did he want? When Clemens replied that four hundred thousand dollars a month, and board, was all he could reasonably ask, considering the hard times, he was ordered off the premises! In after days, Mark only regretted that, in view of the arduous labours he had performed in that mill, he had not asked seven hundred thousand for his services!
After a time, Mark and his friend Higbie established their claim to a mine, became mad with excitement, and indulged in the wildest dreams for the future. Under the laws of the district, work of a certain character must be done upon the claim within ten days after location in order to establish the right of possession. Mark was called away to the bedside of a sick friend, Higbie failed to receive Mark's note, and the work was never done—each thinking it was being properly attended to by the other. On their return, they discovered that their claim was "re-located," and that millions had slipped from their grasp! The very stars in their courses seemed to fight to force young Clemens into literature. Had Samuel Clemens become a millionaire at this time, it is virtually certain that there would have been no Mark Twain.
After one day more of heartless prospecting, Clemens "dropped in" at the wayside post-office. It was the hour of fate! A letter awaited him there. We cannot call it accident—it was the result of forces and events which had long been converging toward this end. Samuel Clemens began his career as an itinerant, tramping "jour" printer. He wrote for the papers on which he served as printer; and he actually read the matter he set up in type. By observation on his travels, by study of the writing of others, Clemens acquired information, knowledge of life, and ingenuity of expression. He hadn't served his ten—years' apprenticeship as a printer for nothing. In the process of setting up tons of good and bad literature, he had learned—half unconsciously—to appraise and to discriminate. In the same half-unconscious way, he was actually gaining some inkling of the niceties of style. After he began "learning the river," Clemens once wrote a funny sketch about Captain Sellers which made a genuine "hit" with the officers on the boat. The sketch fell into the hands of the "river-editor" of the 'St. Louis Republican', found a place in that journal, and was widely copied throughout the West. On the strength of it, Clemens became a sort of river reporter, and from time to time published memoranda and comic squibs in the 'Republican'. That passion which a French critic has characterized as distinctively American, the passion for "seeing yourself in print," still burned in Clemens, even during all the hardships of prospecting and milling. At intervals he sent from the mining regions of "Washoe," as all that part of Nevada was then called, humorous letters signed "Josh" to the 'Daily Territorial Enterprise' of Virginia City, at that time one of the most progressive and wide—awake newspapers in the West.
The fateful letter which I have mentioned, contained an offer to Clemens from the proprietor of the 'Enterprise', of the position of city editor, at a salary of twenty-five dollars a week. To Clemens at this time, this offer came as a perfect godsend. Twenty-five dollars a week was nothing short of wealth, luxury. His enthusiasm oozed away when he reflected over his ignorance and incompetence; and he gloomily recalled his repeated failures. But necessity faced him; and opportunity knocks but once at every door. His doubts were speedily resolved; and he afterwards confessed that, had he been offered at that time a salary to translate the Talmud from the original Hebrew, he would unhesitatingly have accepted, despite some natural misgivings, and have tried to throw as much variety into it as he could for the money. It was to fill a vacancy, caused by the absence of Dan De Quille, the regular reporter, on a visit to "the States," that Clemens was offered this position; but he retained it after De Quille returned. "Mark and I had our hands full," relates De Quille, "and no grass grew under our feet. There was a constant rush of startling events; they came tumbling over one another as though playing at leap-frog. While a stage robbery was being written up, a shooting affray started; and perhaps before the pistol shots had ceased to echo among the surrounding hills, the firebells were banging out an alarm." A record of the variegated duties of these two, found in an old copy of the Territorial Enterprise of 1863, bears the unmistakable hallmarks of Mark Twain. "Our duty is to keep the universe thoroughly posted concerning murders and street fights, and balls and theatres, and pack-trains, and churches, and lectures, and school-houses, and city military affairs, and highway robberies, and Bible societies, and hay wagons, and the thousand other things which it is within the province of local reporters to keep track of and magnify into undue importance for the instruction of the readers of a great daily newspaper. Beyond this revelation everything connected with these two experiments of Providence must for ever remain an impenetrable mystery." An admirable picture of Mark Twain on his native heath, in the latter part of 1863, is given by Edward Peron Hingston, author of "The Genial Showman," in the introduction to the English edition of "The Innocents Abroad."
The fame of the Western humorist had already reached the ears of Hingston; and as soon as he reached Virginia City, he went to the office of the 'Territorial Enterprise' and asked to be presented to Mark Twain.
When he heard his name called by some one, Clemens called out:
"Pass the gentleman into my den. The noble animal is here."
The noble animal proved to be "a young man, strongly built, ruddy in complexion, his hair of a sunny hue, his eyes light and twinkling, in manner hearty, and nothing of the student about him—one who looked as if he could take his own part in a quarrel, strike a smart blow as readily as he could say a telling thing, bluffly jolly, brusquely cordial, off-handedly good-natured." The picture is detailed and vivid:
"Let it be borne in mind that from the windows of the newspaper office the American desert was visible; that within a radius of ten miles Indians were encamping amongst the sage—brush; that the whole city was populated with miners, adventurers, Jew traders, gamblers, and all the rough-and-tumble class which a mining town in a new territory collects together, and it will be readily understood that a reporter for a daily paper in such a place must neither go about his duties wearing light kid gloves, nor be fastidious about having gilt edges to his note-books. In Mark Twain I found the very man I had expected to see—a flower of the wilderness, tinged with the colour of the soil, the man of thought and the man of action rolled into one, humorist and hard-worker, Momus in a felt hat and jack-boots. In the reporter of the 'Territorial Enterprise' I became introduced to a Californian celebrity, rich in eccentricities of thought, lively in fancy, quaint in remark, whose residence upon the fringe of civilization had allowed his humour to develop without restraint, and his speech to be rarely idiomatic."
Under the influence of the example of the proprietors of the 'Enterprise', strict stylistic disciplinarians of the Dana school of journalism, Clemens learned the advantages of the crisp, direct style which characterizes his writing. As a reporter, he was really industrious in matters that met his fancy; but "cast-iron items"—for he hated facts and figures requiring absolute accuracy—got from him only "a lick and a promise." He was much interested in Tom Fitch's effort to establish a literary journal, 'The Weekly Occidental'. Daggett's opening chapters of a wonderful story, of which Fitch, Mrs Fitch, J. T. Goodman, Dan De Quille, and Clemens were to write successive instalments, gave that paper the coup de grace in its very first issue. Of this wonderful novel, at the close of each instalment of which the "hero was left in a position of such peril that it seemed impossible he could be rescued, except through means and wisdom more than human"; of the Bohemian days of the "Visigoths,"—Clemens, De Quille, Frank May, Louis Aldrich, and their confreres; of the practical jokes played on each other, particularly the incident of the imitation meerschaum ("mere sham") pipe, solemnly presented to Clemens by Steve Gillis, C. A. V. Putnam, D. E. M'Carthy, De Quille and others—all these belong to the fascinating domain of the biographer. When Clemens was sent down to Carson City to report the meetings of the first Nevada Legislature, he began for the first time to sign his letters "Mark Twain." In his Autobiography he has explained that his function as a legislative correspondent was to dispense compliment and censure with impartial justice. As his disquisitions covered about half a page each morning in the Enterprise, it is easy to understand that he was an "influence." Questioned by Carlyle Smith in regard to his choice of "Mark Twain," Mr. Clemens replied: "I chose my pseudonym because to nine hundred and ninety-nine persons out of a thousand it had no meaning, and also because it was short. I was a reporter in the Legislature at the time, and I wished to save the Legislature time. It was much shorter to say in their debates—for I was certain to be the occasion of some questions of privilege—'Mark Twain' than 'the unprincipled and lying Parliamentary Reporter of the 'Territorial Enterprise'.'"
Already his name was known the whole length of the Pacific Coast; the Enterprise published many things from his pen which gave him local, and afterwards national, fame; such sketches as 'The Undertaker's Chat', 'The Petrified Man' and 'The Marvellous 'Bloody Massacre'' had attracted favourable and wide notice east of the Rocky Mountains. But his career in Carson City came to a sudden close when he challenged the editor of the Virginia Union to a duel, the bloodless conclusion of which is narrated in the Autobiography. But even a challenge to a duel was against the new law of Nevada; and obeying the warning of Governor North, the duellists crossed the border without ceremony, and stood not upon the order of their going.
While Mark Twain was still with the Enterprise, he was in the habit of reserving all his "sketches" for the San Francisco newspapers, the 'Golden Era' and the 'Morning Call'. He now turns his steps to that storied city of "Frisco," and was not long in extending his fame on that coast. He was incorrigibly lazy, as George Barnes, the editor of the Call, soon discovered; and Kipling was told when he was in San Francisco that Mark was in the habit of coiling himself into a heap and meditating until the last minute, when he would produce copy having no relationship to the subject of his assignment—"which made the editor swear horribly, and the readers of 'The Call' ask for more." His love for practical joking during the California days brought him unpopularity; and one reads in a San Francisco paper of the early days: "There have been moments in the lives of various kind-hearted and respectable citizens of California and Nevada, when, if Mark Twain were before them as members of a vigilance committee for any mild crime, such as mule-stealing or arson, it is to be feared his shrift would have been short. What a dramatic picture the idea conjures up, to be sure! Mark, before these honest men, infuriated by his practical jokes, trying to show them what an innocent creature he was when it came to mules, or how the only policy of fire insurance he held had lapsed, how void of guile he was in any direction, and all with that inimitable drawl, that perplexed countenance and peculiar scraping of the left foot, like a boy speaking his first piece at school." If he just escaped disaster, he likewise just escaped millions; on one occasion, for the space of a few moments, he owned the famous Comstock Lode, which was, though he never suspected it, worth millions. His trunkful of securities, which were eminently saleable at one time, proved to be of fictitious value when "the bottom dropped out" of the Nevada boom; and that silver mine, which he was commissioned to sell in New York, was finally sold for three million dollars! It was, as Mark says, the blind lead over again. Mark Twain had the true Midas touch; but the mine of riches he was destined to discover was a mine, not of gold or silver, but the mine of intellect and rich human experience.
To The 'Golden Era', Mark Twain, like Prentice Mulford and Joaquin Miller, contributed freely; and after a time he became associated with Bret Harte on 'The Californian', Harte as editor at twenty dollars a week, and Mark receiving twelve dollars for an article. Here forgathered that group of brilliant writers of the Pacific Slope, numbering Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Charles Warren Stoddard, Charles Henry Webb, and Prentice Mulford among its celebrities; two of that remarkable coterie were soon destined to achieve world-wide fame. "These ingenuous young men, with the fatuity of gifted people," says Mr. Howells, "had established a literary newspaper in San Francisco, and they brilliantly co-operated in its early extinction." Of his first meeting with Mark Twain, Bret Harte has left a memorable picture:
"His head was striking. He had the curly hair, the aquiline nose, and even the aquiline eye—an eye so eagle-like that a second lid would not have surprised me—of an unusual and dominant nature. His eyebrows were very thick and bushy. His dress was careless, and his general manner was one of supreme indifference to surroundings and circumstances. Barnes introduced him as Mr. Sam Clemens, and remarked that he had shown a very unusual talent in a number of newspaper articles contributed over the signature of 'Mark Twain.'"
Mark tired of the life of literary drudgery in San Francisco—on one occasion he was reduced to a solitary ten—cent piece; and General John McComb wooed him back to journalism just as he was on the point of returning to his old work on the Mississippi River, this time as a Government pilot. During the earlier years in San Francisco, he was in the habit of writing weekly letters to the 'Territorial Enterprise' —personals, market-chat, and the like. But when he criticized the police department of San Francisco in the most scathing terms, the officials "found means for bringing charges that made the author's presence there difficult and comfortless." So he welcomed the opportunity to join Steve Gillis in a pilgrimage to the mountain home of Jim Gillis, his brother—a "sort of Bohemian infirmary." Mark Twain revelled in the delightful company of the original of Bret Harte's "Truthful James," and he enjoyed the mining methods of Jackass Hill, like the true Bohemian that he was. Soon after his arrival, Mark and Jim Gillis started out in search of golden pockets. As De Quille says:
"They soon found and spent some days in working up the undisturbed trail of an undiscovered deposit, They were on the 'golden bee-line' and stuck to it faithfully, though it was necessary to carry each sample of dirt a considerable distance to a small stream in the bed of a canon in order to wash it. However, Mark hungered and thirsted to find a big rich pocket, and he pitched in after the manner of Joe Bowers of old—just like a thousand of brick.
"Each step made sure by the finding of golden grains, they at last came upon the pocket whence these grains had trailed out down the slope of the mountain. It was a cold, dreary drizzling day when the 'home deposit' was found. The first sample of dirt carried to the stream and washed out yielded only a few cents. Although the right vein had been discovered, they had as yet found only the tail end of the pocket.
"Returning to the vein, they dug a sample of the decomposed ore from a new place, and were about to carry it down to the ravine and test it, when the rain increased to a lively downpour."
Mark was chilled to the bone, and refused to carry another pail of water. In slow, drawling tones he protested decisively:
"Jim, I won't carry any more water. This work is too disagreeable. Let's go to the house and wait till it clears up."
Gillis was eager to test the sample he had just taken out.
"Bring just one more pail, Sam," he urged.
"I won't do it, Jim!" replied the now thoroughly disgusted Clemens. "Not a drop! Not if I knew there were a million dollars in that pan!"
Moved by Sam's dejected appearance—blue nose and humped back—and realizing doubtless that it was futile to reason with him further, Jim yielded and emptied the sacks of dirt just dug upon the ground. They now started out for the nearest shelter, the hotel in Angel's Camp, kept by Coon Drayton, formerly a Mississippi River pilot. Imagine the jests and shouts that went around as Mark and Coon vied with each other in narrating interesting experiences. For three days the rain and the stories held out; and among those told by Drayton was a story of a frog. He narrated this story with the utmost solemnity as a thing that had happened in Angel's Camp in the spring of '49—the story of a frog trained by its owner to become a wonderful jumper, but which failed to "make good" in a contest because the owner of a rival frog, in order to secure the winning of the wager, filled the trained frog full of shot during its owner's absence. This story appealed irresistibly to Mark as a first-rate story told in a first-rate way; he divined in it the magic quality unsuspected by the narrator—universal humour. He made notes in order to remember the story, and on his return to the Gillis' cabin, "wrote it up." He wrote a number of other things besides, all of which he valued above the frog story; but Gillis thought it the best thing he had ever written.
Meantime the rain had washed off the surface soil from their last pan, which they had left in their hurry. Some passing miners were astonished to behold the ground glittering with gold; they appropriated it, but dared not molest the deposit until the expiration of the thirty-day claim-notice posted by Jim Gillis. They sat down to wait, hoping that the claimants would not return. At the expiration of the thirty days, the claim-jumpers took possession, and soon cleared out the pocket, which yielded twenty thousand dollars. It was one of the most fortunate accidents in Mark Twain's career. He came within one pail of water of comparative wealth; but had he discovered that pocket, he would probably have settled down as a pocketminer, and might have pounded quartz for the rest of his life. Had his nerve held out a moment longer, he would never have gone to Angel's Camp, would never have heard The Story of the Jumping Frog, and would have escaped that sudden fame which this little story soon brought him.
On his return to San Francisco, he dropped in one morning to see Bret Harte, and told him this story. As Harte records:
"He spoke in a slow, rather satirical drawl, which was in itself irresistible. He went on to tell one of those extravagant stories, and half-unconsciously dropped into the lazy tone and manner of the original narrator. I asked him to tell it again to a friend who came in, and they asked him to write it for 'The Californian'. He did so, and when published it was an emphatic success. It was the first work of his that had attracted general attention, and it crossed the Sierras for an Eastern reading. The story was 'The Jumping Frog of Calaveras.' It is now known and laughed over, I suppose, wherever the English language is spoken; but it will never be as funny to anyone in print as it was to me, told for the first time, by the unknown Twain himself, on that morning in the San Francisco Mint."
When Artemus Ward passed through California on a literary tour in 1864, Mark Twain regaled him—as he regaled all worthy acquaintances—with his favourite story, 'The Jumping Frog'. Ward was delighted with it.
"Write it out," he said, "give it all the necessary touches, and let me use it in a volume of sketches I am preparing for the press. Just send it to Carleton, my publisher, in New York."
It arrived too late for Ward's book, and Carleton presented it to Henry Clapp, who published it in his paper, The Saturday Press of November 18, 1864. In his Autobiography, Mr. Clemens has narrated how 'The Jumping Frog' put a quietus on 'The Saturday Press', and was immediately copied in numerous newspapers in England and America. He was always proud of the celebrity that story achieved; but he never sought to claim the credit for himself. He freely admits that it was not Mark Twain, but the frog, that became celebrated. The author, alas, remained in obscurity!
Carleton afterwards confessed that he had lost the chance of a life —time by giving The Jumping Frog away; but Mark Twain's old friend, Charles Henry Webb, came to the rescue and published it. About four thousand copies were sold in three years; but the real fame of the story was in its newspaper and magazine notoriety. In 1872 it was translated into the 'Revue des Deux Mondes'; and it was almost as widely read in England, India, and Australia as it was in America.
Meantime Mark Twain was still awaiting the rewards of journalism, and doing literary hack work of one sort or another. In 1866 the proprietors of the 'Sacramento Union' employed him to write a series of letters from the Sandwich Islands. The purpose of these letters was to give an account of the sugar industry. Mark told the story of sugar, but, as was his wont, threw in a lot of extraneous matter that had nothing to do with sugar. It was the extraneous matter, and not the sugar, that won him a wide audience on the Pacific Coast. During these months of "luxurious vagrancy" he described in the most vivid way many of the most notable features of the Sandwich Islands. Nowadays such letters would at once have been embodied in a volume. In his 'My Debut as a Literary Person', Mark Twain has described in admirably graphic style his great "scoop" of the news of the Hornet disaster; how Anson Burlingame had him, ill though he was, carried on a cot to the hospital, so that he could interview the half-dead sailors. His bill—twenty dollars a week for general correspondence, and one hundred dollars a column for the Hornet story—was paid with all good will. On the strength of this story, he hoped to become a "Literary Person," and sent his account of the Hornet disaster to Harper's Magazine, where it appeared in December, 1866. But alas! he could not give the banquet he was going to give to celebrate his debut as a "Literary Person." He had not written the "Mark Twain" distinctly, and when it appeared it had been transformed into "Mike Swain"!
When Mark returned to San Francisco, he resolved to follow the example of Stoddard and Mulford, and "enter the lecture field." The "extraneous matter" in his letters to the Sacramento Union had made him "notorious"; and, as he put it, "San Francisco invited me to lecture." The historic account of that lecture, in 'Roughing It', is found elsewhere in this book. Noah Brooks, editor of the Alta California, who was present at this lecture, has written the following graphic piece of description "Mark Twain's method as a lecturer was distinctly unique and novel. His slow, deliberate drawl, the anxious and perturbed expression of his visage, the apparently painful effort with which he framed his sentences, and, above all, the surprise that spread over his face when the audience roared with delight or rapturously applauded the finer passages of his word-painting, were unlike anything of the kind they had ever known. All this was original; it was Mark Twain." Employing D. E. McCarthy as his agent, Mark gave a number of lectures at various places on the Pacific Coast. From this time forward we recognize in Mark Twain one of the supreme masters of the art of lecturing in our time.
In December, 1866, he set out for New York, preparatory to the grand tour around the world. His own account of the circular describing the projected trip is famous. He had proposed, for twelve hundred dollars in gold,—at the rate of twenty dollars apiece, to write a series of letters for the 'Alta California'. Brooks, the editor, fortified the grave misgivings of the proprietors over this proposition; but Colonel John McComb (then on the editorial staff) argued vehemently for Mark, and turned the scale in his favour. While Mark was in New York, he was urged by Frank Fuller, whom he had known as Territorial Governor of Utah, to deliver a lecture—in order to establish his reputation on the Atlantic coast. Fuller, an enthusiastic admirer of Mark Twain, overcame all objections, and engaged Cooper Union for the occasion. Though few tickets were sold, Fuller cleverly succeeded in packing the hall by sending out a multitude of complimentary tickets to the school-teachers of New York City and the adjacent territory. That lecture proved to be a supreme success—Mark's reputation as a lecturer on the Atlantic coast was assured.
On June 10, 1867, the Quaker City set sail for its Oriental tour. It bore on board a comparatively unknown person of the name of Clemens, who, in applying for passage, represented himself to be a Baptist minister in ill-health from San Francisco!
It brought back a celebrity, destined to become famous throughout the world. Prior to sailing he arranged to contribute letters to the 'New York Tribune' and the 'New York Herald', as well as to the 'Alta California'.
"His letters to the 'Alta California'," says Noah Brooks, "made him famous. It was my business to prepare one of these letters for the Sunday morning paper, taking the topmost letter from a goodly pile that was stacked in a pigeon-hole of my desk. Clemens was an indefatigable correspondent, and his last letter was slipped in at the bottom of a tall stack.
"It would not be quite accurate to say that Mark Twain's letters were the talk of the town; but it was very rarely that readers of the paper did not come into the office on Mondays to confide to the editors their admiration of the writer, and their enjoyment of his weekly contributions. The California newspapers copied these letters, with unanimous approval and disregard of the copyrights of author and publisher."
It was the Western humour, and the quaintly untrammelled American intelligence, focussed upon diverse and age-encrusted civilizations, which caught the instantaneous fancy of a vast public. It was a virgin field for the humorous observer; Europe had not yet become the playground of America. It was rather a terra incognita, regarded with a sort of reverential ignorance by the average American tourist. By the range of his humour, the pertinency of his observation, and the vigour of his expression he awoke immediate attention. And he aroused a deeply sympathetic response in the hearts of Americans by his manly and outspoken expression—his respect for the worthy, the admirable, the praiseworthy, his scorn and detestation for the spurious, the specious and the fraudulent. In this book, for the first time, he strikes the key-note of his life and thought, which sounds so clearly throughout all his later works. It is the true beginning of his career.
On his return to the United States in November, he resumed his newspaper work, this time at the National Capital. On his arrival there he found a letter from Elisha Bliss, of the 'American Publishing Company', proposing a volume recounting the adventures of the "Excursion," to be elaborately illustrated, and sold by subscription on a five per cent. royalty. He eagerly accepted the offer and set to work on his notes.
"I knew Mark Twain in Washington," says Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada, in his reminiscences 'A Senator of the Sixties', "at a time when he was without money. He told me his condition, and said he was very anxious to get out his book. He showed me his notes, and I saw that they would make a great book, and probably bring him in a fortune. I promised that I would 'stake' him until he had the book written. I made him a clerk to my committee in the senate, which paid him six dollars per day; then I hired a man for one hundred dollars per month to do the work!" His mischievously extravagant description of Mark Twain at this time is eminently worthy of record "He was arrayed in a seedy suit which hung upon his lean frame in bunches, with no style worth mentioning. A sheaf of scraggly, black hair leaked out of a battered, old, slouch hat, like stuffing from an ancient Colonial sofa, and an evil-smelling cigar butt, very much frazzled, protruded from the corner of his mouth. He had a very sinister appearance. He was a man I had known around the Nevada mining camps several years before, and his name was Samuel L. Clemens."
It was during this winter that Mark wrote a number of humorous articles and sketches—'The Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract', the account of his resignation as clerk of the Senate Committee on Conchology, and 'Riley—Newspaper Correspondent'. His time was chiefly devoted to preparing the material for his book; but finding Washington too distracting, he returned to San Francisco and completed the manuscript therein July, 1868. For a year the publication of the book was delayed, as recorded in the Autobiography; but it finally appeared in print following Mark's indignant telegram to Bliss that, if the book was not on sale in twenty-four hours, he would bring suit for damages. Mark Twain records that in nine months the book had taken the publishing house out of debt, advanced its stock from twenty-five to two hundred, and left seventy thousand dollars clear profit. Eighty-five thousand copies were sold within sixteen months, the largest sale of a four dollar book ever achieved in America in so short a time up to that date. It is, miraculous to relate, still the leader in its own special field —a "bestseller" for forty years!
The proprietors of the 'Alta California' were exceeding wroth when they heard that Clemens was preparing for publication the very letters which they had commissioned him to write and had printed in their own paper. They prepared to publish a cheap paper-covered edition of the letters, and sent the American Publishing Co. a challenge in the shape of an advance notice of their publication. Clemens hurried back to San Francisco from the East, and soon convinced the proprietors of the 'Alta California' of the authenticity of his copyright. The paper-covered edition was then and there abandoned forever.
Before leaving the West to settle permanently in the East, Mark Twain was associated for a short time with the 'Overland Monthly', edited by Bret Harte. In his review of 'The Innocents Abroad', Harte asserted that Clemens deserved "to rank foremost among Western humorists"; but he was grievously disappointed in the first few contributions from Clemens to the Overland Monthly—notably 'By Rail through France' (later incorporated in The Innocents Abroad)—because of their perfect gravity. At last, 'A Mediaeval Romance'—a story which has been said to contain the germ of 'A Connecticut Yankee', because of its burlesque of mediaevalism—won the enthusiastic approval of Bret Harte.
From this time forward, Samuel L. Clemens is seen in a new environment, in association with new ideas and a new civilization. The history of this second period does not fall within the scope of the present work. It has just been narrated with brilliancy and charm by his close associate and most intimate friend, Mr. William Dean Howells, in his admirable book 'My Mark Twain'. In the subsequent portion of the present work attention will be directed solely to those features of Mark Twain's life which have a direct bearing upon his career as a man of letters, and which throw into relief the progressive development of his genius.
The South and the West contributed to Mark Twain's development, and added to his store of vital experience, in greater measure than all the other influences of his life combined. From the inexhaustible well of those experiences he drew ever fresh contributions for the satisfaction of the world. His mind was stocked with the rich, crude ore of early experience—the romance and the reality of a life full of prismatic variations of colour. The civilization of the East, its culture and refinement, tempered the genius of Mark Twain in conformity with the indispensable criteria of classic art. Under the broadening influence of its persistent nationalism, he became more deeply, more profoundly, imbued with the comprehensive ideals of American democracy. He never lost the first fine virginal spontaneity of his native style, never weakened in the vigour of his thought or in the primitiveness of his expression. His contact with the East compassed the liberation of that vast fund of stored—up early experiences, acquired through grappling with life in many a rude encounter.
Out of its own life, the East never contributed to Mark Twain's works, in any appreciably momentous way, either volume or immensity of fertile, suggestive human experience. If we eliminate from the list of Mark Twain's works those books which have their roots deep set in the soil of South and West, we eliminate the most priceless assets of his art. Indeed, it may be doubted whether, were those works struck from the catalogue of his contributions, Mark Twain could justly rank as a great genius. To his association with the South and the Southwest are due 'Tom Sawyer', 'Huckleberry Finn', 'Pudd'nhead Wilson', and 'Life on the Mississippi'. 'The Jumping Frog' and 'Roughing It' belong peculiarly to the West, and even 'The Innocents Abroad' falls wholly within the period of Mark Twain's influence by the West, its standards, outlook, and localized viewpoint.
Colonel Mulberry Sellers is a veritably human type, the embodiment, laughably lovable, of a temperamental phase of American character in the course of the national development. But 'The Gilded Age' has long since disappeared from that small but tremendously significant group of works which are tentatively destined to rank as classics. Much as I enjoy the satiric comedy of 'A Yankee in King Arthur's Court', I have always felt that it set before Europe an American type which is neither elevating nor inspiring—nor national. It tends to the gratification of England and Europe, even in the face of its democratic demolition of feudalistic survival, by sealing a certain cheap type of vulgarity with the national stamp. One must, nevertheless, confess with regret that this type is the embodiment of an "ideal" still only too commonly cherished in America. The national type, I take it, is found in such characters as Lincoln and Phillips Brooks, in Lee and Henry W. Grady, in Charles W. Eliot and Edwin A. Alderman, and not in a provincial 'Connecticut Yankee', jovial and whole—hearted though he be. I say this without forgetting or minimizing for a moment the art displayed in effecting the devastating and illimitably humorous contrast of a present with a remotely past civilization. 'Joan of Arc' has no local association, being a pure work of the heart, the chivalric impulse of a noble spirit. 'The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg', viewed from any standpoint, is a masterpiece; but its significance lies, not in the locality of its setting, but in the universality of its moral.
In a word, it was the East which broadened and universalized the spirit of Mark Twain. We shall see, later on, that it steadily fostered in him a spirit of true nationalism and hardy democracy. But it was the South and the West which lavishly gave him of their most priceless riches, and thereby created in Mark Twain an unique and incomparable genius, the veritable type and embodiment of their inalienably individual life and civilization. This first phase of the life of Mark Twain has been so strongly stressed here, because the first half of his life has always seemed to me to have been a period of—shall I say?—God-appointed preparation for the most significant and lastingly permanent work of the latter half, namely, the narration of the incidents of early experience, and the imaginative reminting of the gold of that experience.
One has only to read Mark Twain's works to learn the real history of his life. There were momentous episodes in the latter half of his career; but they were concerned with his life rather than with his art. We cannot, indeed, say what or how profound is the effect of life and experience on art. There was the happy marriage, the tragic losses of wife and children. There were the associations with the culture and art—circles of America and Europe—New England, New York, Berlin, Vienna, London, Glasgow; the academic degrees—Missouri, Yale; finally ancient Oxford for the first time conferring the coveted honour of its degree upon a humorist; the honours his own country delighted to bestow upon him. And there too was that gallant struggle to pay off a tremendous debt, begun at sixty—and accomplished one year sooner than he expected—after the most spectacular and remarkable lecture tour in history. The beautiful chivalric spirit of this great soul shone brightest in disaster. He insisted that it was his wife who refused to compromise his debts for forty cents on the dollar—that it was she who declared it must be dollar for dollar; and when a fund was raised by his admirers to assist in lightening his burden, that it was his wife who refused to accept it, though he was willing enough to accept it as a welcome relief.
As an American, I can say nothing more significantly characteristic of the man than that he was a good citizen. He possessed in rich measure the consciousness of personal responsibility for the standards, government, and ideals of his town, his city, and his country. Civic conscientiousness burned strong within him; and he fought to develop and to maintain breadth of public view and sanity of popular ideals. Blind patriotism was impossible for this great American: he exposed the shallowness of popular enthusiasms and the narrowness of rampant spread-eagleism, without regard for consequence to himself or his popularity. What a tribute to his personality that, instead of suffering, he gained in popularity by his honest and downright outspokenness! He wielded the lash of his bitter scorn and fearful irony upon the wrong-doer, the hypocrite, the fraud; and aroused public opinion to impatience with public abuse, open offence, and official discourtesy.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens impressed me as the most complete and human individual I have ever known. He was not a great thinker; his views were not "advanced".
The glory of his temperament was its splendid sanity, balance, and normality. The homeliest virtues of life were his the republican virtue of simplicity; the domestic virtue of, personal purity and passionately simple regard for the sanctity of the marriage bond; the civic virtue of public honesty; the business virtue of stainless private honour. Mark Twain was one of the supreme literary geniuses of his time. But he was something even more than this. He was not simply a great genius: he was a great man.
"Exhilaration can be infinite, like sorrow; a joke can be so big that it breaks the roof of the stars. By simply going on being absurd, a thing can become godlike; there is but one step from the ridiculous to the sublime." GILBERT K. CHESTERTON: Charles Dickens.
Not without wide significance in its bearing upon the general outlines of contemporary literature is the circumstance that Mark Twain served his apprenticeship to letters in the high school of journalism. Like his contemporaries, Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, he first found free play for his comic intransigeance in the broad freedom of the journal for the masses. Brilliant as he was, Artemus Ward seemed most effective only when he spoke in weird vernacular through the grotesque mouthpiece of his own invention. Bret Harte sacrificed more and more of the native flavour of his genius in his progressive preoccupation with the more sophisticated refinements of the purely literary. Mark Twain never lost the ruddy glow of his first inspiration, and his style, to the very end, remained as it began—journalistic, untamed, primitive.
Both Rudyard Kipling and Bernard Shaw, who like Mark Twain have achieved comprehensive international reputations, have succeeded in preserving the early vigour and telling directness acquired in journalistic apprenticeship. It was by the crude, almost barbaric, cry of his journalese that Rudyard Kipling awoke the world with a start. That trenchant and forthright style which imparts such an air of heightened verisimilitude to his plays, Bernard Shaw acquired in the ranks of the new journalism. "The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are 'not for an age, but for all time,'" says Bernard Shaw, "has his reward in being unreadable in all ages; whilst Plato and Aristophanes trying to knock some sense into the Athens of their day, Shakespeare peopling that same Athens with Elizabethan mechanics and Warwickshire hunts, Ibsen photographing the local doctors and vestrymen of a Norwegian parish, Carpaccio painting the life of St. Ursula exactly as if she were a lady living in the next street to him, are still alive and at home everywhere among the dust and ashes of many thousands of academic, punctilious, most archaeologically correct men of letters and art who spent their lives haughtily avoiding the journalists' vulgar obsession with the ephemeral." Mark Twain began his career by studying the people and period he knew in relation to his own life. Jamestown, Hannibal, and Virginia City, the stately Mississippi, and the orgiastic, uproarious life of Western prairie, mountain, and gulch start to life and live again in the pages of his books. Colonel Sellers, in the main correct but "stretched a little" here and there; Tom Sawyer, the "magerful" hero of boyhood; the shrewd and kindly Aunt Polly, drawn from his own mother; Huck Finn, with the tender conscience and the gentle heart—these and many another were drawn from the very life. In writing of his time a propos of himself, Mark Twain succeeded in telling the truth about humanity in general and for any time.
In the main—though there are noteworthy exceptions—Mark Twain's works originated fundamentally in the facts of his own life. He is a master humorist—which is only another way of saying that he is a master psychologist with the added gift of humour—because he looked upon himself always as a complete and well-rounded repository of universally human characteristics. Humanus sum; et nil humanum mihi alienum est —this might well have served for his motto. It was his conviction that the American possessed no unique and peculiar human characteristics differentiating him from the rest of the world. In the same way, he regarded himself as possessing no unique or peculiar human characteristics differentiating him from the rest of the human race. Like Omar he might have said "I myself am Heaven and Hell"——for within himself he recognized, in some form, at higher or lower power, every feature, trait, instinct, characteristic of which a human being is capable. The last half century of his life, as he himself said in his Autobiography, had been constantly and faithfully devoted to the study of the human race. His knowledge came from minute self-examination—for he regarded himself as the entire human race compacted together. It was by concentrating his attention upon himself, by recognizing in himself the quintessential type of the race, that he succeeded in producing works of such pure naturalness and utter verity. A humour which is at bottom good humour is always contagious; but there is a deeper and more universal appeal which springs from genial and unaffected representation of the human species, of the universal 'Genus Homo'.
It has been said, by foreign critics, that the intellectual life of America in general takes its cue from the day, whilst the intellectual life of Europe derives from history. If American literature be really "Journalism under exceptionally favourable conditions," as defined by the Danish critic, Johannes V. Jensen, then must Mark Twain be a typical product of American literature. A certain modicum of truth may rest in this startling and seemingly uncomplimentary definition. Interpreted liberally, it may be taken to mean that America finds her key to the future in the immediate vital present, rather than in a remote and hazy past. Mark Twain was a great creative genius because he saw himself, and so saw human nature, in the strong, searching light of the living present. He is the greatest genius evolved by natural selection out of the ranks of American journalism. Crude, rudimentary and boisterous as his early writing was, at times provincial and coarse, it bore upon its face the fresh stamp of contemporary actuality.
To the American of to-day, it is not a little exasperating to be placidly assured by our British critics that America is sublimely unconscious that her childhood is gone. And this gay paradox is less arresting than the asseveration that America is lacking in humour because she is lacking in self-knowledge. There is a certain grimly comic irony in this commiseration with us, on the part of our British critics, for our failure joyously to realize our old age, which they would have us believe is a sort of premature senescence and decay. The New World is pitied for her failure to know without illusion the futility of the hurried pursuit of wealth, of the passion for extravagant opulence and inordinate display, of all the hostages youth in America eternally gives to old age. "America has produced great artists," admits Mr. Gilbert Chesterton. Yet he maintains that "that fact most certainly proves that she is full of a fine futility and the end of all things. Whatever the American men of genius are, they are not young gods making a young world. Is the art of Whistler a brave, barbaric art, happy and headlong? Does Mr. Henry James infect us with the spirit of a schoolboy? . . . Out of America has come a sweet and startling cry, as unmistakable as the cry of a dying man." This sweet and startling cry is less startling than the obvious reflection that Mr. Chesterton has chosen to illustrate his ludicrous paradox, the two American geniuses who have lived outside their own country, absorbed the art ideals of the older, more sophisticated civilizations, and lost touch with the youthful spirit, the still almost barbaric violence, the ongoing rush and progress of America. It is worthy of remark that Mr. James has always maintained that Mark Twain was capable of amusing only very primitive persons; and Whistler, with his acid diablerie, was wholly alien in spirit to the boisterous humour of Mark Twain. That other brilliant but incoherent interpreter of American life, Mr. Charles Whibley, bound to the presupposed paradox of America's pathetic senescence and total deficiency in humour, blithely gives away his case in the vehement assertion that America's greatest national interpreter is—Mark Twain!
To the general, Mark Twain is, first and foremost and exclusively, the humorist—with his shrieking Philistinism, his dominant sense for the colossally incongruous, his spontaneous faculty for staggering, ludicrous contrast. To the reflective, Mark Twain subsumed within himself a "certain surcharge and overplus of power, a buoyancy, and a sense of conquest" which typified the youth of America. It is memorable that he breathed in his youth the bracing air of the prairie, shared the collective ardour of the Argonauts, felt the rising thrill of Western adventure, and expressed the crude and manly energy of navigation, exploration, and the daring hazard for new fortune. To those who knew him in personal intimacy, the quality that was outstanding, omnipresent and eternally ineradicable from his nature was—paradoxical as it may sound—not humour, not wit, not irony, not a thousand other terms that might be associated with his name, but—the spirit of eternal youth. It is comprehensively significant and conclusive that, to the day of her death, Mrs. Clemens never called her husband anything but the bright nickname—"Youth." Mark Twain is great as humorist, admirable as teller of tales, pungent as stylist. But he has achieved another sort of eminence that is peculiarly gratifying to Americans. "They distinguish in his writings," says an acute French critic, "exalted and sublimated by his genius, their national qualities of youth and of gaiety, of force and of faith; they love his philosophy, at once practical and high —minded. They are fond of his simple style, animated with verve and spice, thanks to which his work is accessible to every class of readers. They think he describes his contemporaries with such an art of distinguishing their essential traits, that he manages to evoke, to create even, characters and types of eternal verity. They profess for Mark Twain the same sort of vehement admiration that we have in France for Balzac."
Whilst Mark Twain has solemnly averred that humour is a subject which has never had much interest for him, it is nothing more than a commonplace to say that it is as a humorist, and as a humorist only, that the world seems to persist in regarding him. The philosophy of his early life was what George Meredith has aptly termed the "philosophy of the Broad Grin." Mr. Gilbert Chesterton once said that "American humour, neither unfathomably absurd like the French, nor sharp and sensible and full of the realities of life like the Scotch, is simply the humour of imagination. It consists in piling towers on towers and mountains on mountains; of heaping a joke up to the stars and extending it to the end of the world." This partial and somewhat conventional foreign conception of American humour is admirably descriptive of the cumulative and "sky-breaking" humour of the early Mark Twain. Then no exaggeration was too absurd for him, no phantasm too unreal, no climax too extreme.
The humour of that day was the humour bred of a barbaric freedom and a lawless, untrammelled life. Mark Twain grew up with a civilization but one remove from barbarism; supremacy in marksmanship was the arbiter of argument; the greatest joke was the discomfiture of a fellow-creature. In the laughter of these wild Westerners was something at once rustic and sanguinary. The refinements of art and civilization seemed effeminate, artificial, to these rude spirits, who laughed uproariously at one another, plotted dementedly in circumvention of each other's plans, and gloried in their defiance of both man and God. Deep in their hearts they cherished tenderness for woman, sympathy for the weak and the afflicted, and generosity indescribable. And yet they prided themselves upon their barbaric rusticity, glorying in a native cunning bred of their wild life and sharpened in the struggle for existence. What, after all, is 'The Jumping Frog' but the elaborate narrative, in native vernacular, of a shrewd practical joke? As Mark Twain first heard it, this story was a solemn recital of an interesting incident in the life of Angel's Camp. It was Mark Twain who "created" the story: he endowed with the comic note of whimsicality that imaginative realization of une chose vue, which went round the world. The humour of rustic shrewdness in criticism of art, so elaborately exploited in 'The Innocents Abroad', was displayed, perhaps invented, by Mark Twain in the early journalistic days in San Francisco. In 'The Golden Era' an excellent example is found in the following observations upon a celebrated painting of Samson and Delilah, then on exhibition in San Francisco: