|Clemens was never much inclined to work, away from his Elmira study.
"Magnanimous Incident Literature" (for the Atlantic) was about his only
completed work of the winter of 1877-78. He was always tinkering with
the "Visit to Heaven," and after one reconstruction Howells suggested
that he bring it out as a book, in England, with Dean Stanley's
indorsement, though this may have been only semi-serious counsel. The
story continued to lie in seclusion.
Clemens had one new book in the field--a small book, but profitable. Dan
Slote's firm issued for him the Mark Twain Scrap-book, and at the end of
the first royalty period rendered a statement of twenty-five thousand
copies sold, which was well enough for a book that did not contain a
single word that critics could praise or condemn. Slote issued another
little book for him soon after Punch, Brothers, Punch!--which, besides
that lively sketch, contained the "Random Notes" and seven other
Mark Twain was tempted to go into the lecture field that winter, not by
any of the offers, though these were numerous enough, but by the idea of
a combination which he thought night be not only profitable but pleasant.
Thomas Nast had made a great success of his caricature lectures, and
Clemens, recalling Nast's long-ago proposal, found it newly attractive.
He wrote characteristically:
MY DEAR NAST,-- I did not think I should ever stand on a platform
again until the time was come for me to say, "I die innocent." But
the same old offers keep arriving. I have declined them all, just
as usual, though sorely tempted, as usual.
Now, I do not decline because I mind talking to an audience, but
because (1) traveling alone is so heartbreakingly dreary, and (2)
shouldering the whole show is such a cheer-killing responsibility.
Therefore, I now propose to you what you proposed to me in 1867, ten
years ago (when I was unknown)--viz., that you stand on the platform
and make pictures, and I stand by you and blackguard the audience.
I should enormously enjoy meandering around (to big towns--don't
want to go to the little ones), with you for company.
My idea is not to fatten the lecture agents and lyceums on the
spoils, but to put all the ducats religiously into two equal piles,
and say to the artist and lecturer, "absorb these."
For instance, [here follows a plan and a possible list of the cities
to be visited]. The letter continues:
Call the gross receipts $100,00 for four months and a half, and the
profit from $60,000 to $75,000 (I try to make the figures large
enough, and leave it to the public to reduce them).
I did not put in Philadelphia because Pugh owns that town, and last
winter, when I made a little reading-trip, he only paid me $300, and
pretended his concert (I read fifteen minutes in the midst of a
concert) cost him a vast sum, and so he couldn't afford any more.
I could get up a better concert with a barrel of cats.
I have imagined two or three pictures and concocted the accompanying
remarks, to see how the thing would go. I was charmed.
Well, you think it over, Nast, and drop me a line. We should have
Undoubtedly this would have been a profitable combination, but Nast had a
distaste for platforming--had given it up, as he thought, for life. So
Clemens settled down to the fireside days, that afforded him always the
larger comfort. The children were at an age "to be entertaining, and to
be entertained. In either case they furnished him plenty of diversion
when he did not care to write. They had learned his gift as a romancer,
and with this audience he might be as extravagant as he liked. They
sometimes assisted by furnishing subjects. They would bring him a
picture, requiring him to invent a story for it without a moment's delay.
Sometimes they suggested the names of certain animals or objects, and
demanded that these be made into a fairy tale. If they heard the name of
any new creature or occupation they were likely to offer them as
impromptu inspiration. Once he was suddenly required to make a story out
of a plumber and a "bawgunstrictor," but he was equal to it. On one side
of the library, along the book-shelves that joined the mantelpiece, were
numerous ornaments and pictures. At one end was the head of a girl, that
they called "Emeline," and at the other was an oil-painting of a cat.
When other subjects failed, the romancer was obliged to build a story
impromptu, and without preparation, beginning with the cat, working along
through the bric-a-brac, and ending with"Emeline." This was the
unvarying program. He was not allowed to begin with "Emeline" and end
with the cat, and he was not permitted to introduce an ornament from any
other portion of the room. He could vary the story as much as he liked.
In fact, he was required to do that. The trend of its chapters, from the
cat to "Emeline," was a well-trodden and ever-entertaining way.
He gave up his luxurious study to the children as a sort of nursery and
playroom, and took up his writing-quarters, first in a room over the
stables, then in the billiard-room, which, on the whole, he preferred to
any other place, for it was a third-story remoteness, and he could knock
the balls about for inspiration.
The billiard-room became his headquarters. He received his callers there
and impressed them into the game. If they could play, well and good; if
they could not play, so much the better--he could beat them
extravagantly, and he took a huge delight in such conquests. Every
Friday evening, or oftener, a small party of billiard-lovers gathered,
and played until a late hour, told stories, and smoked till the room was
blue, comforting themselves with hot Scotch and general good-fellowship.
Mark Twain always had a genuine passion for billiards. He was never
tired of the game. He could play all night. He would stay till the last
man gave out from sheer weariness; then he would go on knocking the balls
about alone. He liked to invent new games and new rules for old games,
often inventing a rule on the spur of the moment to fit some particular
shot or position on the table. It amused him highly to do this, to make
the rule advantage his own play, and to pretend a deep indignation when
his opponents disqualified his rulings and rode him down. S. C. Dunham
was among those who belonged to the "Friday Evening Club," as they called
it, and Henry C. Robinson, long dead, and rare Ned Bunce, and F. G.
Whitmore; and the old room there at the top of the house, with its little
outside balcony, rang with their voices and their laughter in that day
when life and the world for them was young. Clemens quoted to them
Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of spring
Your winter garment of repentance fling;
The bird of time has but a little way
To flutter, and the bird is on the wing.
Omar was new then on this side of the Atlantic, and to his serene "eat,
drink, and be merry" philosophy, in Fitzgerald's rhyme, these were early
converts. Mark Twain had an impressive, musical delivery of verse; the
players were willing at any moment to listen as he recited:
For some we loved, the loveliest and best
That from his vintage rolling time has prest,
Have drunk their cup a round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the dust descend;
Dust unto dust, and under dust to lie,
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and--sans End.'
--[The 'Rubaiyat' had made its first appearance, in Hartford, a little
before in a column of extracts published in the Courant.] Twichell
immediately wrote Clemens a card:
"Read (if you haven't) the extracts from Omar Khayyam, on the first page
of this morning's Courant. I think we'll have to get the book. I never
yet came across anything that uttered certain thoughts of mine so
adequately. And it's only a translation. Read it, and we'll talk it
over. There is something in it very like the passage of Emerson you read
me last night, in fact identical with it in thought.
"Surely this Omar was a great poet. Anyhow, he has given me an immense
revelation this morning.
"Hoping that you are better,
J. H. T."
Twichell's "only a translation" has acquired a certain humor with time.