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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CXXVII. Letters, Tales, and Plans
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|The reader has not failed to remark the great number of letters which
Samuel Clemens wrote to his friend William Dean Howells; yet
comparatively few can even be mentioned. He was always writing to
Howells, on every subject under the sun; whatever came into his mind--
business, literature, personal affairs--he must write about it to
Howells. Once, when nothing better occurred, he sent him a series of
telegrams, each a stanza from an old hymn, possibly thinking they might
carry comfort.--["Clemens had then and for many years the habit of
writing to me about what he was doing, and still more of what he was
experiencing. Nothing struck his imagination, in or out of the daily
routine, but he wished to write me of it, and he wrote with the greatest
fullness and a lavish dramatization, sometimes to the length of twenty or
forty pages:" (My Mark Twain, by W. D. Howells.)] Whatever of
picturesque happened in the household he immediately set it down for
Howells's entertainment. Some of these domestic incidents carry the
flavor of his best humor. Once he wrote:
Last night, when I went to bed, Mrs. Clemens said, "George didn't
take the cat down to the cellar; Rosa says he has left it shut up in
the conservatory." So I went down to attend to Abner (the cat).
About three in the morning Mrs. C. woke me and said, "I do believe
I hear that cat in the drawing-room. What did you do with him?" I
answered with the confidence of a man who has managed to do the
right thing for once, and said, "I opened the conservatory doors,
took the library off the alarm, and spread everything open, so that
there wasn't any obstruction between him and the cellar." Language
wasn't capable of conveying this woman's disgust. But the sense of
what she said was, "He couldn't have done any harm in the
conservatory; so you must go and make the entire house free to him
and the burglars, imagining that he will prefer the coal-bins to the
drawing-room. If you had had Mr. Howells to help you I should have
admired, but not have been astonished, because I should know that
together you would be equal to it; but how you managed to contrive
such a stately blunder all by yourself is what I cannot understand."
So, you see, even she knows how to appreciate our gifts....
I knocked off during these stirring hours, and don't intend to go to
work again till we go away for the summer, four or six weeks hence.
So I am writing to you, not because I have anything to say, but
because you don't have to answer and I need something to do this
The rightful earl has----
Well, never mind about the rightful earl; he merely wanted to-borrow
money. I never knew an American earl that didn't.
After a trip to Boston, during which Mrs. Clemens did some bric-a-brac
shopping, he wrote:
Mrs. Clemens has two imperishable topics now: the museum of andirons
which she collected and your dinner. It is hard to tell which she
admires the most. Sometimes she leans one way and sometimes the
other; but I lean pretty steadily toward the dinner because I can
appreciate that, whereas I am no prophet in andirons. There has
been a procession of Adams Express wagons filing before the door all
day delivering andirons.
In a more serious vein he refers to the aged violinist Ole Bull and his
wife, whom they had met during their visit, and their enjoyment of that
Clemens did some shorter work that spring, most of which found its way
into the Atlantic. "Edward Mills and George Benton," one of the
contributions of this time, is a moral sermon in its presentation of a
pitiful human spectacle and misdirected human zeal.
It brought a pack of letters of approval, not only from laity, but the
church, and in some measure may have helped to destroy the silly
sentimentalism which manifested itself in making heroes of spectacular
criminals. That fashion has gone out, largely. Mark Twain wrote
frequently on the subject, though never more effectively than in this
particular instance. "Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning" was another
Atlantic story, a companion piece to "Mrs. McWilliams's Experience with
the Membranous Croup," and in the same delightful vein--a vein in which
Mark Twain was likely to be at his best--the transcription of a scene not
so far removed in character from that in the "cat" letter just quoted:
something which may or may not have happened, but might have happened,
approximately as set down. Rose Terry Cooke wrote:
Horrid man, how did you know the way I behave in a thunderstorm?
Have you been secreted in the closet or lurking on the shed roof?
I hope you got thoroughly rained on; and worst of all is that you
made me laugh at myself; my real terrors turned round and grimaced
at me: they were sublime, and you have made them ridiculous just
come out here another year and have four houses within a few rods of
you struck and then see if you write an article of such exasperating
levity. I really hate you, but you are funny.
In addition to his own work, he conceived a plan for Orion. Clemens
himself had been attempting, from time to time, an absolutely faithful
autobiography; a document in which his deeds and misdeeds, even his moods
and inmost thoughts, should be truly set down. He had found it an
impossible task. He confessed freely that he lacked the courage, even
the actual ability, to pen the words that would lay his soul bare, but he
believed Orion equal to the task. He knew how rigidly honest he was, how
ready to confess his shortcomings, how eager to be employed at some
literary occupation. It was Mark Twain's belief that if Orion would
record in detail his long, weary struggle, his succession of attempts and
failures, his past dreams and disappointments, along with his sins of
omission and commission, it would make one of those priceless human
documents such as have been left by Benvenuto Cellini, Cazenova, and
"Simply tell your story to yourself," he wrote, "laying all hideousness
utterly bare, reserving nothing. Banish the idea of the audience and all
Orion, out in Keokuk, had long since abandoned the chicken farm and a
variety of other enterprises. He had prospected insurance, mining,
journalism, his old trade of printing, and had taken down and hung up his
law shingle between each of these seizures. Aside from business, too, he
had been having a rather spectacular experience. He had changed his
politics three times (twice in one day), and his religion as many more.
Once when he was delivering a political harangue in the street, at night,
a parade of the opposition (he had but just abandoned them) marched by
carrying certain flaming transparencies, which he himself had made for
them the day before. Finally, after delivering a series of infidel
lectures; he had been excommunicated and condemned to eternal flames by
the Presbyterian Church. He was therefore ripe for any new diversion,
and the Autobiography appealed to him. He set about it with splendid
enthusiasm, wrote a hundred pages or so of his childhood with a startling
minutia of detail and frankness, and mailed them to his brother for
They were all that Mark Twain had expected; more than he had expected.
He forwarded them to Howells with great satisfaction, suggesting, with
certain excisions, they be offered anonymously to the Atlantic readers.
But Howells's taste for realism had its limitations. He found the story
interesting--indeed, torturingly, heart-wringingly so--and, advising
strongly against its publication, returned it.
Onion was steaming along at the rate of ten to twenty pages a day now,
forwarding them as fast as written, while his courage was good and the
fires warm. Clemens, receiving a package by every morning mail, soon
lost interest, then developed a hunted feeling, becoming finally
desperate. He wrote wildly to shut Orion off, urging him to let his
manuscript accumulate, and to send it in one large consignment at the
end. This Orion did, and it is fair to say that in this instance at
least he stuck to his work faithfully to the bitter, disheartening end.
And it would have been all that Mark Twain had dreamed it would be, had
Orion maintained the simple narrative spirit of its early pages. But he
drifted off into theological byways; into discussions of his
excommunication and infidelities, which were frank enough, but lacked
In old age Mark Twain once referred to Orion's autobiography in print and
his own disappointment in it, which he attributed to Orion's having
departed from the idea of frank and unrestricted confession to exalt
himself as a hero-a statement altogether unwarranted, and due to one of
those curious confusions of memory and imagination that more than once
resulted in a complete reversal of the facts. A quantity of Orion's
manuscript has been lost and destroyed, but enough fragments of it remain
to show its fidelity to the original plan. It is just one long record of
fleeting hope, futile effort, and humiliation. It is the story of a life
of disappointment; of a man who has been defeated and beaten down and
crushed by the world until he has nothing but confession left to
surrender. --[Howells, in his letter concerning the opening chapters,
said that they would some day make good material. Fortunately the
earliest of these chapters were preserved, and, as the reader may
remember, furnished much of the childhood details for this biography.]
Whatever may have been Mark Twain's later impression of his brother's
manuscript, its story of failure and disappointment moved him to definite
action at the time.
Several years before, in Hartford, Orion had urged him to make his
publishing contracts on a basis of half profits, instead of on the
royalty plan. Clemens, remembering this, had insisted on such an
arrangement for the publication of 'A Tramp Abroad', and when his first
statement came in he realized that the new contract was very largely to
his advantage. He remembered Orion's anxiety in the matter, and made it
now a valid excuse for placing his brother on a firm financial footing.
Out of the suspicions which you bred in me years ago has grown this
result, to wit: that I shall within the twelve months get $40,000 out of
this Tramp, instead of $20,000. $20,000, after taxes and other expenses
are stripped away, is worth to the investor about $75 a month, so I shall
tell Mr. Perkins [his lawyer and financial agent] to make your check that
amount per month hereafter.... This ends the loan business, and
hereafter you can reflect that you are living not on borrowed money, but
on money which you have squarely earned, and which has no taint or savor
of charity about it, and you can also reflect that the money which you
have been receiving of me is charged against the heavy bill which the
next publisher will have to stand who gets a book of mine.
From that time forward Orion Clemens was worth substantially twenty
thousand dollars--till the day of his death, and, after him, his widow.
Far better was it for him that the endowment be conferred in the form of
an income, than had the capital amount been placed in his hands.