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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CXVII. Germany and German
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|From the note-book:
It is a marvel that never loses its surprise by repetition, this
aiming a ship at a mark three thousand miles away and hitting the
bull's-eye in a fog--as we did. When the fog fell on us the captain
said we ought to be at such and such a spot (it had been eighteen
hours since an observation was had), with the Scilly islands bearing
so and so, and about so many miles away. Hove the lead and got
forty-eight fathoms; looked on the chart, and sure enough this depth
of water showed that we were right where the captain said we were.
Another idea. For ages man probably did not know why God carpeted
the ocean bottom with sand in one place, shells in another, and so
on. But we see now; the kind of bottom the lead brings up shows
where a ship is when the soundings don't, and also it confirms the
They reached Hamburg after two weeks' stormy sailing. They rested a few
days there, then went to Hanover and Frankfort, arriving at Heidelberg
early in May.
They had no lodgings selected in Heidelberg, and leaving the others at an
inn, Clemens set out immediately to find apartments. Chance or
direction, or both, led him to the beautiful Schloss Hotel, on a hill
overlooking the city, and as fair a view as one may find in all Germany.
He did not go back after his party. He sent a message telling them to
take carriage and drive at once to the Schloss, then he sat down to enjoy
Coming up the hill they saw him standing on the veranda, waving his hat
in welcome. He led them to their rooms--spacious apartments--and pointed
to the view. They were looking down on beautiful Heidelberg Castle,
densely wooded hills, the far-flowing Neckar, and the haze-empurpled
valley of the Rhine. By and by, pointing to a small cottage on the
hilltop, he said:
"I have been picking out my little house to work in; there it is over
there; the one with the gable in the roof. Mine is the middle room on
the third floor."
Mrs. Clemens thought the occupants of the house might be surprised if he
should suddenly knock and tell them he had come to take possession of his
room. Nevertheless, they often looked over in that direction and
referred to it as his office. They amused themselves by watching his
"people" and trying to make out what they were like. One day he went
over there, and sure enough there was a sign out, "Moblirte Wohnung zu
Vermiethen." A day or two later he was established in the very room he
had selected, it being the only room but one vacant.
In A Tramp Abroad Mark Twain tells of the beauty of their Heidelberg
environment. To Howells he wrote:
Our bedroom has two great glass bird-cages (inclosed balconies), one
looking toward the Rhine Valley and sunset, the other looking up the
Neckar cul-de-sac, and naturally we spend pearly all our time in
these. We have tables and chairs in them; we do our reading,
writing, studying, smoking, and suppering in them . . . . It
must have been a noble genius who devised this hotel. Lord, how
blessed is the repose, the tranquillity of this place! Only two
sounds: the happy clamor of the birds in the groves and the muffled
music of the Neckar tumbling over the opposing dikes. It is no
hardship to lie awake awhile nights, for this subdued roar has
exactly the sound of a steady rain beating upon a roof. It is so
healing to the spirit; and it bears up the thread of one's
imaginings as the accompaniment bears up a song....
I have waited for a "call" to go to work--I knew it would come.
Well, it began to come a week ago; my note-book comes out more and
more frequently every day since; three days ago I concluded to move
my manuscripts over to my den. Now the call is loud and decided at
last. So to-morrow I shall begin regular, steady work, and stick to
it till the middle of July or August 1st, when I look for Twichell;
we will then walk about Germany two or three weeks, and then I'll go
to work again (perhaps in Munich).
The walking tour with Twichell had been contemplated in the scheme for
gathering book material, but the plan for it had not been completed when
he left Hartford. Now he was anxious that they should start as soon as
possible. Twichell, receiving the news in Hartford, wrote that it was a
great day for him: that his third son had been happily born early that
morning, and now the arrival of this glorious gift of a tramp through
Germany and Switzerland completed his blessings.
I am almost too joyful for pleasure [he wrote]. I labor with my
felicities. How I shall get to sleep to-night I don't know, though
I have had a good start, in not having slept much last night. Oh,
my! do you realize, Mark, what a symposium it is to be? I do. To
begin with, I am thoroughly tired and the rest will be worth
everything. To walk with you and talk with you for weeks together--
why, it's my dream of luxury. Harmony, who at sunrise this morning
deemed herself the happiest woman on the Continent when I read your
letter to her, widened her smile perceptibly, and revived another
degree of strength in a minute. She refused to consider her being
left alone; but: only the great chance opened to me.
SHOES--Mark, remember that ever so much of our pleasure depends upon
your shoes. Don't fail to have adequate preparation made in that
Meantime, the struggle with the "awful German language" went on. It was
a general hand-to-hand contest. From the head of the household down to
little Clara not one was exempt. To Clemens it became a sort of
nightmare. Once in his note-book he says:
"Dreamed all bad foreigners went to German heaven; couldn't talk, and
wished they had gone to the other place"; and a little farther along,
"I wish I could hear myself talk German."
To Mrs. Crane, in Elmira, he reported their troubles:
Clara Spaulding is working herself to death with her German; never
loses an instant while she is awake--or asleep, either, for that
matter; dreams of enormous serpents, who poke their heads up under
her arms and glare upon her with red-hot eyes, and inquire about the
genitive case and the declensions of the definite article. Livy is
bully-ragging herself about as hard; pesters over her grammar and
her reader and her dictionary all day; then in the evening these two
students stretch themselves out on sofas and sigh and say, "Oh,
there's no use! We never can learn it in the world!" Then Livy
takes a sentence to go to bed on: goes gaping and stretching to her
pillow murmuring, "Ich bin Ihnen sehr verbunden--Ich bin Ihnen sehr
verbunden--Ich bin Ihnen sehr verbunden--I wonder if I can get that
packed away so it will stay till morning"--and about an hour after
midnight she wakes me up and says, "I do so hate to disturb you, but
is it 'Ich Ben Jonson sehr befinden'?"
And Mrs. Clemens wrote:
Oh, Sue dear, strive to enter in at the straight gate, for many
shall seek to enter it and shall not be able. I am not striving
these days. I am just interested in German.
Rosa, the maid, was required to speak to the children only in German,
though Bay at first would have none of it. The nurse and governess tried
to blandish her, in vain. She maintained a calm and persistent attitude
of scorn. Little Susy tried, and really made progress; but one, day she
"Mama, I wish Rosa was made in English."
Yet a little later Susy herself wrote her Aunt Sue:
I know a lot of German; everybody says I know a lot. I give you a
million dollars to see you, and you would give two hundred dollars
to see the lovely woods that we see.
Even Howells, in far-off America, caught the infection and began a letter
in German, though he hastened to add, "Or do you prefer English by this
time? Really I could imagine the German going hard with you, for you
always seemed to me a man who liked to be understood with the least
possible personal inconvenience."
Clemens declared more than once that he scorned the "outrageous and
impossible German grammar," and abandoned it altogether. In his note-
book he records how two Germans, strangers in Heidelberg, asked him a
direction, and that when he gave it, in the most elaborate and correct
German he could muster, one of them only lifted his eyes and murmured:
"Gott im Himmel!"
He was daily impressed with the lingual attainments of foreigners and his
own lack of them. In the notes he comments:
Am addressed in German, and when I can't speak it immediately the
person tackles me in French, and plainly shows astonishment when I
stop him. They naturally despise such an ignoramus. Our doctor
here speaks as pure English, as I.
On the Fourth of July he addressed the American students in Heidelberg in
one of those mixtures of tongues for which he had a peculiar gift.
The room he had rented for a study was let by a typical German family,
and he was a great delight to them. He practised his German on them, and
interested himself in their daily affairs.
Howells wrote insistently for some assurance of contributions to the
I must begin printing your private letters to satisfy the popular
demand," he said. "People are constantly asking when you are going to
Clemens replied that he would be only too glad to write for the Atlantic
if his contributions could be copyrighted in Canada, where pirates were
I do not know that I have any printable stuff just now--separatable
stuff, that is--but I shall have by and by. It is very gratifying to
hear that it is wanted by anybody. I stand always prepared to hear the
reverse, and am constantly surprised that it is delayed so long.
Consequently it is not going to astonish me when it comes.
The Clemens party enjoyed Heidelberg, though in different ways. The
children romped and picnicked in the castle grounds, which adjoined the
hotel; Mrs. Clemens and Miss Spaulding were devoted to bric-a-brac
hunting, picture-galleries, and music. Clemens took long walks, or made
excursions by rail and diligence to farther points. Art and opera did
not appeal to him. The note-book says:
I have attended operas, whenever I could not help it, for fourteen
years now; I am sure I know of no agony comparable to the listening
to an unfamiliar opera. I am enchanted with the airs of "Trovatore"
and other old operas which the hand-organ and the music-box have
made entirely familiar to my ear. I am carried away with delighted
enthusiasm when they are sung at the opera. But oh, how far between
they are! And what long, arid, heartbreaking and headaching
"between-times" of that sort of intense but incoherent noise which
always so reminds me of the time the orphan asylum burned down.
Sunday night, 11th. Huge crowd out to-night to hear the band play
the "Fremersberg." I suppose it is very low-grade music--I know it
must be low-grade music--because it so delighted me, it so warmed
me, moved me, stirred me, uplifted me, enraptured me, that at times
I could have cried, and at others split my throat with shouting.
The great crowd was another evidence that it was low-grade music,
for only the few are educated up to a point where high-class music
gives pleasure. I have never heard enough classic music to be able
to enjoy it, and the simple truth is I detest it. Not mildly, but
with all my heart.
What a poor lot we human beings are anyway! If base music gives me
wings, why should I want any other? But I do. I want to like the
higher music because the higher and better like it. But you see I
want to like it without taking the necessary trouble, and giving the
thing the necessary amount of time and attention. The natural
suggestion is, to get into that upper tier, that dress-circle, by a
lie--we will pretend we like it. This lie, this pretense, gives to
opera what support it has in America.
And then there is painting. What a red rag is to a bull Turner's
"Slave Ship" is to me. Mr. Ruskin is educated in art up to a point
where that picture throws him into as mad an ecstasy of pleasure as
it throws me into one of rage. His cultivation enables him to see
water in that yellow mud; his cultivation reconciles the floating of
unfloatable things to him--chains etc.; it reconciles him to fishes
swimming on top of the water. The most of the picture is a manifest
impossibility, that is to say, a lie; and only rigid cultivation can
enable a man to find truth in a lie. A Boston critic said the
"Slave Ship" reminded him of a cat having a fit in a platter of
tomatoes. That went home to my non-cultivation, and I thought, here
is a man with an unobstructed eye.
Mark Twain has dwelt somewhat upon these matters in 'A Tramp Abroad'. He
confesses in that book that later he became a great admirer of Turner,
though perhaps never of the "Slave Ship" picture. In fact, Mark Twain
was never artistic, in the common acceptance of that term; neither his
art nor his tastes were of an "artistic" kind.