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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 2: 1866 - 1875|
XCIV. Beginning "Tom Sawyer"
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|The Clemens household went to Quarry Farm in April, leaving the new house
once more in the hands of the architect and builders. It was costing a
vast sum of money, and there was a financial stress upon land. Mrs.
Clemens, always prudent, became a little uneasy at times, though without
warrant in those days, for her business statement showed that her
holdings were only a little less than a quarter of a million in her own
right, while her husband's books and lectures had been highly
remunerative, and would be more so. They were justified in living in
ample, even luxurious comfort, and how free from financial worries they
could have lived for the rest of their days!
Clemens, realizing his happiness, wrote Dr. Brown:
Indeed I am thankful for the wifey and the child, and if there is one
individual creature on all this footstool who is more thoroughly and
uniformly and, unceasingly happy than I am I defy the world to produce
him and prove him. In my opinion he don't exist. I was a mighty rough,
coarse, unpromising subject when Livy took charge of me, four years ago,
and I may still be to the rest of the world, but not to her. She has
made a very creditable job of me.
Truly fortune not only smiled, but laughed. Every mail brought great
bundles of letters that sang his praises. Robert Watt, who had
translated his books into Danish, wrote of their wide popularity among
his people. Madame Blanc (Th. Bentzon), who as early as 1872 had
translated The Jumping Frog into French, and published it, with extended
comment on the author and his work, in the 'Revue des deux mondes', was
said to be preparing a review of 'The Gilded Age'. All the world seemed
ready to do him honor.
Of course, one must always pay the price, usually a vexatious one. Bores
stopped him on the street to repeat ancient and witless stories.
Invented anecdotes, some of them exasperating ones, went the rounds of
the press. Impostors in distant localities personated him, or claimed to
be near relatives, and obtained favors, sometimes money, in his name.
Trivial letters, seeking benefactions of every kind, took the savor from
his daily mail. Letters from literary aspirants were so numerous that he
prepared a "form" letter of reply:
DEAR SIR OR MADAM,--Experience has not taught me very much, still it has
taught me that it is not wise to criticize a piece of literature, except
to an enemy of the person who wrote it; then if you praise it that enemy
admires--you for your honest manliness, and if you dispraise it he
admires you for your sound judgment.
S. L. C.
Even Orion, now in Keokuk on a chicken farm, pursued him with manuscripts
and proposals of schemes. Clemens had bought this farm for Orion, who
had counted on large and quick returns, but was planning new enterprises
before the first eggs were hatched. Orion Clemens was as delightful a
character as was ever created in fiction, but he must have been a trial
now and then to Mark Twain. We may gather something of this from a
letter written by the latter to his mother and sister at this period:
I can't "encourage" Orion. Nobody can do that conscientiously, for
the reason that before one's letter has time to reach him he is off
on some new wild-goose chase. Would you encourage in literature a
man who the older he grows the worse he writes?
I cannot encourage him to try the ministry, because he would change
his religion so fast that he would have to keep a traveling agent
under wages to go ahead of him to engage pulpits and board for him.
I cannot conscientiously encourage him to do anything but potter
around his little farm and put in his odd hours contriving new and
impossible projects at the rate of 365 a year which is his customary
average. He says he did well in Hannibal! Now there is a man who
ought to be entirely satisfied with the grandeurs, emoluments, and
activities of a hen farm.
If you ask me to pity Orion I can do that. I can do it every day
and all day long. But one can't "encourage" quicksilver; because
the instant you put your finger on it, it isn't there. No, I am
saying too much. He does stick to his literary and legal
aspirations, and he naturally would elect the very two things which
he is wholly and preposterously unfitted for. If I ever become
able, I mean to put Orion on a regular pension without revealing the
fact that it is a pension.
He did presently allow the pension, a liberal one, which continued
until neither Orion Clemens nor his wife had further earthly need of
Mark Twain for some time had contemplated one of the books that will
longest preserve his memory, 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'. The success
of 'Roughing It' naturally made him cast about for other autobiographical
material, and he remembered those days along the river-front in Hannibal
--his skylarking with Tom Blankenship, the Bowen boys, John Briggs, and
the rest. He had recognized these things as material--inviting material
it was--and now in the cool luxury of Quarry Farm he set himself to spin
the fabric of youth.
He found summer-time always his best period for literary effort, and on a
hillside just by the old quarry, Mrs. Crane had built for him that spring
a study--a little room of windows, somewhat suggestive of a pilot-house--
overlooking the long sweep of grass and the dreamlike city below. Vines
were planted that in the course of time would cover and embower it; there
was a tiny fireplace for chilly days. To Twichell, of his new retreat,
It is the loveliest study you ever saw. It is octagonal, with a peaked
roof, each face filled with a spacious window, and it sits perched in
complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of
valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a
cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four
chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the
lightning flashes behind the hills beyond, and the rain beats upon the
roof over my head, imagine the luxury of it.
He worked steadily there that summer. He would go up mornings, after
breakfast, remaining until nearly dinner-time, say until five o'clock or
after, for it was not his habit to eat luncheon. Other members of the
family did not venture near the place, and if he was urgently wanted they
blew a horn. Each evening he brought down his day's performance to read
to the assembled family. He felt the need of audience and approval.
Usually he earned the latter, but not always. Once, when for a day he
put aside other matters to record a young undertaker's love-affair, and
brought down the result in the evening, fairly bubbling with the joy of
it, he met with a surprise. The tale was a ghastly burlesque, its humor
of the most disheartening, unsavory sort. No one spoke during the
reading, nobody laughed: The air was thick with disapproval. His voice
lagged and faltered toward the end. When he finished there was heavy
silence. Mrs. Clemens was the only one who could speak:
"Youth, let's walk a little," she said.
The "Undertaker's Love Story" is still among the manuscripts of that
period, but it is unlikely that it will ever see the light of print.
--[This tale bears no relation to "The Undertaker's Story" in Sketches
New and Old.]
The Tom Sawyer tale progressed steadily and satisfactorily. Clemens
wrote Dr. Brown:
I have been writing fifty pages of manuscript a day, on an average,
for some time now, on a book (a story), and consequently have been
so wrapped up in it, and dead to everything else, that I have fallen
mighty short in letter-writing....
On hot days I spread the study wide open, anchor my papers down with
brickbats, and write in the midst of the hurricane, clothed in the
same thin linen we make shirts of.
He incloses some photographs in this letter.
The group [he says] represents the vine-clad carriageway in front of
the farm-house. On the left is Megalopis sitting in the lap of her
German nurse-maid. I am sitting behind them. Mrs. Crane is in the
center. Mr. Crane next to her. Then Mrs. Clemens and the new baby.
Her Irish nurse stands at her back. Then comes the table waitress,
a young negro girl, born free. Next to her is Auntie Cord (a
fragment of whose history I have just sent to a magazine). She is
the cook; was in slavery more than forty years; and the self-
satisfied wench, the last of the group, is the little baby's
American nurse-maid. In the middle distance my mother-in-law's
coachman (up on errand) has taken a position unsolicited to help out
the picture. No, that is not true. He was waiting there a minute
or two before the photographer came. In the extreme background,
under the archway, you glimpse my study.
The "new baby," "Bay," as they came to call her, was another little
daughter, born in June, a happy, healthy addition to the household.
In a letter written to Twichell we get a sweet summer picture of this
period, particularly of little sunny-haired, two-year-old Susy.
There is nothing selfish about the Modoc. She is fascinated with
the new baby. The Modoc rips and tears around outdoors most of the
time, and consequently is as hard as a pineknot and as brown as an
Indian. She is bosom friend to all the chickens, ducks, turkeys,
and guinea-hens on the place. Yesterday, as she marched along the
winding path that leads up the hill through the red-clover beds to
the summer-house, there was a long procession of these fowls
stringing contentedly after her, led by a stately rooster, who can
look over the Modoc's head. The devotion of these vassals has been
purchased with daily largess of Indian meal, and so the Modoc,
attended by her body-guard, moves in state wherever she goes.
There were days, mainly Sundays, when he did not work at all; peaceful
days of lying fallow, dreaming in shady places, drowsily watching little
Susy, or reading with Mrs. Clemens. Howells's "Foregone Conclusion" was
running in the Atlantic that year, and they delighted in it. Clemens
wrote the author:
I should think that this must be the daintiest, truest, most
admirable workmanship that was ever put on a story. The creatures
of God do not act out their natures more unerringly than yours do.
If your genuine stories can die I wonder by what right old Walter
Scott's artificialities shall continue to live.
At other times he found comfort in the society of Theodore Crane. These
two were always fond of each other, and often read together the books in
which they were mutually interested. They had portable-hammock
arrangements, which they placed side by side on the lawn, and read and
discussed through summer afternoons. The 'Mutineers of the Bounty' was
one of the books they liked best, and there was a story of an Iceland
farmer, a human document, that had an unfading interest. Also there were
certain articles in old numbers of the Atlantic that they read and
reread. 'Pepys' Diary', 'Two Years Before the Mast', and a book on the
Andes were reliable favorites. Mark Twain read not so many books, but
read a few books often. Those named were among the literature he asked
for each year of his return to Quarry Farm. Without them, the farm and
the summer would not be the same.
Then there was 'Lecky's History of European Morals'; there were periods
when they read Lecky avidly and discussed it in original and unorthodox
ways. Mark Twain found an echo of his own philosophies in Lecky. He
made frequent marginal notes along the pages of the world's moral
history--notes not always quotable in the family circle. Mainly,
however, they were short, crisp interjections of assent or disapproval.
In one place Lecky refers to those who have undertaken to prove that all
our morality is a product of experience, holding that a desire to obtain
happiness and to avoid pain is the only possible motive to action; the
reason, and the only reason, why we should perform virtuous actions being
"that on the whole such a course will bring us the greatest amount of
happiness." Clemens has indorsed these philosophies by writing on the
margin, "Sound and true." It was the philosophy which he himself would
always hold (though, apparently, never live by), and in the end would
embody a volume of his own.--[What Is Man? Privately printed in 1906.]--
In another place Lecky, himself speaking, says:
Fortunately we are all dependent for many of our pleasures on
others. Co-operation and organization are essential to our
happiness, and these are impossible without some restraint being
placed upon our appetites. Laws are made to secure this restraint,
and being sustained by rewards, and punishments they make it the
interest of the individual to regard that of the community.
"Correct!" comments Clemens. "He has proceeded from unreasoned
selfishness to reasoned selfishness. All our acts, reasoned and
unreasoned, are selfish." It was a conclusion he logically never
departed from; not the happiest one, it would seem, at first glance, but
one easier to deny than to disprove.
On the back of an old envelope Mark Twain set down his literary
declaration of this period.
"I like history, biography, travels, curious facts and strange
happenings, and science. And I detest novels, poetry, and theology."
But of course the novels of Howells would be excepted; Lecky was not
theology, but the history of it; his taste for poetry would develop
later, though it would never become a fixed quantity, as was his devotion
to history and science. His interest in these amounted to a passion.