By a statement made on the 1st of January, 1882, of Mark Twain's
disbursements for the preceding year, it is shown that considerably more
than one hundred thousand dollars had been expended during that twelve
months. It is a large sum for an author to pay out in one year. It
would cramp most authors to do it, and it was not the best financing,
even for Mark Twain. It required all that the books could earn, all the
income from the various securities, and a fair sum from their principal.
There is a good deal of biography in the statement. Of the amount
expended forty-six thousand dollars represented investments; but of this
comfortable sum less than five thousand dollars would cover the
legitimate purchases; the rest had gone in the "ventures" from whose
bourne no dollar would ever return. Also, a large sum had been spent for
the additional land and for improvements on the home--somewhat more than
thirty thousand dollars altogether--while the home life had become more
lavish, the establishment had grown each year to a larger scale, the
guests and entertainments had become more and, more numerous, until the
actual household expenditure required about as much as the books and
securities could earn.
It was with the increased scale of living that Clemens had become
especially eager for some source of commercial profit; something that
would yield a return, not in paltry thousands, but hundreds of thousands.
Like Colonel Sellers, he must have something with "millions in it."
Almost any proposition that seemed to offer these possible millions
appealed to him, and in his imagination he saw the golden freshet pouring
His natural taste was for a simple, inexpensive life; yet in his large
hospitality, and in a certain boyish love of grandeur, he gloried in the
splendor of his entertainment, the admiration and delight of his guests.
There were always guests; they were coming and going constantly. Clemens
used to say that he proposed to establish a bus line between their house
and the station for the accommodation of his company. He had the
Southern hospitality. Much company appealed to a very large element in
his strangely compounded nature. For the better portion of the year he
was willing to pay the price of it, whether in money or in endurance, and
Mrs. Clemens heroically did her part. She loved these things also, in
her own way. She took pride in them, and realized that they were a part
of his vast success. Yet in her heart she often longed for the simpler
life--above all, for the farm life at Elmira. Her spirit cried out for
the rest and comfort there. In one of her letters she says:
The house has been full of company, and I have been "whirled
around." How can a body help it? Oh, I cannot help sighing for the
peace and quiet of the farm. This is my work, and I know that I do
very wrong when I feel chafed by it, but how can I be right about
it? Sometimes it seems as if the simple sight of people would drive
me mad. I am all wrong; if I would simply accept the fact that this
is my work and let other things go, I know I should not be so
fretted; but I want so much to do other things, to study and do
things with the children, and I cannot.
I have the best French teacher that I ever had, and if I could give
any time to it I could not help learning French.
When we reflect on the conditions, we are inclined to say how much better
it would have been to have remained there among the hills in that quiet,
inexpensive environment, to have let the world go. But that was not
possible. The game was of far larger proportions than any that could be
restricted to the limits of retirement and the simpler round of life.
Mark Twain's realm had become too large for his court to be established
in a cottage.
It is hard to understand that in spite of a towering fame Mark Twain was
still not regarded by certain American arbiters of reputations as a
literary fixture; his work was not yet recognized by them as being of
important meaning and serious purport.
In Boston, at that time still the Athens of America, he was enjoyed,
delighted in; but he was not honored as being quite one of the elect.
Howells tells us that:
In proportion as people thought themselves refined they questioned
that quality which all recognize in him now, but which was then the
inspired knowledge of the simple-hearted multitude.
Even at the Atlantic dinners his place was "below the salt"--a place of
honor, but not of the greatest honor. He did not sit on the dais with
Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Whittier, Howells, and Aldrich. We of a
later period, who remember him always as the center of every board--the
one supreme figure, his splendid head and crown of silver hair the target
of every eye-find it hard to realize the Cambridge conservatism that clad
him figuratively always in motley, and seated him lower than the throne
Howells clearly resented this condition, and from random review corners
had ventured heresy. Now in 1882 he seems to have determined to declare
himself, in a large, free way, concerning his own personal estimate of
Mark Twain. He prepared for the Century Magazine a biographical
appreciation, in which he served notice to the world that Mark Twain's
work, considered even as literature, was of very considerable importance
indeed. Whether or not Howells then realized the "inspired knowledge of
the multitude," and that most of the nation outside of the counties of
Suffolk and Essex already recognized his claim, is not material. Very
likely he did; but he also realized the mental dusk of the cultured
uninspired and his prerogative to enlighten them. His Century article
was a kind of manifesto, a declaration of independence, no longer
confined to the obscurities of certain book notices, where of course one
might be expected to stretch friendly favor a little for a popular
Atlantic contributor. In the open field of the Century Magazine Howells
ventured to declare:
Mark Twain's humor is as simple in form and as direct as the
statesmanship of Lincoln or the generalship of Grant.
When I think how purely and wholly American it is I am a little
puzzled at its universal acceptance . . . . Why, in fine, should
an English chief-justice keep Mark Twain's books always at hand?
Why should Darwin have gone to them for rest and refreshment at
midnight, when spent with scientific research?
I suppose that Mark Twain transcends all other American humorists in
the universal qualities. He deals very little with the pathetic,
which he nevertheless knows very well how to manage, as he has
shown, notably in the true story of the old slave-mother; but there
is a poetic lift in his work, even when he permits you to recognize
it only as something satirized. There is always the touch of
nature, the presence of a sincere and frank manliness in what he
says, the companionship of a spirit which is at once delightfully
open and deliciously shrewd. Elsewhere I have tried to persuade the
reader that his humor is, at its best, the foamy break of the strong
tide of earnestness in him. But it would be limiting him unjustly
to describe him as a satirist, and it is hardly practicable to
establish him in people's minds as a moralist; he has made them
laugh too long; they will not believe him serious; they think some
joke is always intended. This is the penalty, as Dr. Holmes has
pointed out, of making one's first success as a humorist. There was
a paper of Mark Twain's printed in the Atlantic Monthly some years
ago and called, "The Facts Concerning the Late Carnival of Crime in
Connecticut," which ought to have won popular recognition of the
ethical intelligence underlying his humor. It was, of course,
funny; but under the fun it was an impassioned study of the human
conscience. Hawthorne or Bunyan might have been proud to imagine
that powerful allegory, which had a grotesque force far beyond
either of them.... Yet it quite failed of the response I had hoped
for it, and I shall not insist here upon Mark Twain as a moralist;
though I warn the reader that if he leaves out of the account an
indignant sense of right and wrong, a scorn of all affectations and
pretense, an ardent hate of meanness and injustice, he will come
infinitely short of knowing Mark Twain.
Howells realized the unwisdom and weakness of dogmatic insistence, and
the strength of understatement. To him Mark Twain was already the
moralist, the philosopher, and the statesman; he was willing that the
reader should take his time to realize these things. The article, with
his subject's portrait as a frontispiece, appeared in the Century for
September, 1882. If it carried no new message to many of its readers, it
at least set the stamp of official approval upon what they had already
established in their hearts.