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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CLVII. Minor Matters of a Great Year
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|The Grant episode, so important in all its phases, naturally overshadowed
other events of 1885. Mark Twain was so deeply absorbed in this great
publishing enterprise that he wasted little thought or energy in other
Yet there are a few minor things that it seems worth while to remember.
Howells has told something of the Authors' Reading given for the
Longfellow Memorial, an entertainment managed by George Parsons Lathrop,
though Howells justly claims the glory of having fixed the price of
admission at five dollars. Then he recalls a pleasing anecdote of
Charles Eliot Norton, who introduced the attractions.
Norton presided, and when it came Clemens's turn to read he introduced
him with such exquisite praises as he best knew how to give, but before
he closed he fell a prey to one of those lapses of tact which are the
peculiar peril of people of the greatest tact. He was reminded of
Darwin's delight in Mark Twain, and how when he came from his long day's
exhausting study, and sank into bed at midnight, he took up a volume of
Mark Twain, whose books he always kept on a table beside him, and
whatever had been his tormenting problem, or excess of toil, he felt
secure of a good night's rest from it. A sort of blank ensued which
Clemens filled in the only possible way. He said he should always be
glad he had contributed to the repose of that great man, to whom science
owed so much, and then without waiting for the joy in every breast to
burst forth, he began to read.
Howells tells of Mark Twain's triumph on this occasion, and in a letter
at the time he wrote: "You simply straddled down to the footlights and
took that house up in the hollow of your hand and tickled it."
Howells adds that the show netted seventeen hundred dollars. This was
early in May.
Of literary work, beyond the war paper, the "Private History of a
Campaign that Failed" (published December, 1885), Clemens appears to have
done very little. His thoughts were far too busy with plans for
furthering the sale of the great military Memoir to follow literary
ventures of his own. At one time he was impelled to dictate an
autobiography--Grant's difficulties in his dying hour suggesting this--
and he arranged with Redpath, who was no longer a lecture agent and
understood stenography, to co-operate with him in the work. He dictated
a few chapters, but he was otherwise too much occupied to continue.
Also, he was unused to dictation, and found it hard and the result
Two open communications from Mark Twain that year deserve to be
remembered. One of these; unsigned, was published in the Century
Magazine, and expressed the need for a "universal tinker," the man who
can accept a job in a large household or in a community as master of all
trades, with sufficient knowledge of each to be ready to undertake
whatever repairs are likely to be required in the ordinary household,
such as--"to put in windowpanes, mend gas leaks, jack-plane the edges of
doors that won't shut, keep the waste-pipe and other water-pipe joints,
glue and otherwise repair havoc done in furniture, etc." The letter was
signed X. Y. Z., and it brought replies from various parts of the world.
None of the applicants seemed universally qualified, but in Kansas City a
business was founded on the idea, adopting "The Universal Tinker" as its
The other letter mentioned was written to the 'Christian Union', inspired
by a tale entitled, "What Ought We to Have Done?" It was a tale
concerning the government of children; especially concerning the
government of one child--John Junior--a child who, as it would appear
from the tale, had a habit of running things pretty much to his own
notion. The performance of John junior, and of his parents in trying to
manage him, stirred Mark Twain considerably--it being "enough to make a
body's blood boil," as he confesses--and it impelled him to set down
surreptitiously his impressions of what would have happened to John
Junior as a member of the Clemens household. He did not dare to show the
communication to Mrs. Clemens before he sent it, for he knew pretty well
what its fate would be in that case. So he took chances and printed it
without her knowledge. The letter was published July 16, 1885. It is
too long to be included entire, but it is too illuminating to be
altogether omitted. After relating, in considerable detail, Mrs.
Clemens's method of dealing with an unruly child--the gentleness yet
firmness of her discipline--he concludes:
The mother of my children adores them--there is no milder term for
it--and they worship her; they even worship anything which the touch
of her hand has made sacred. They know her for the best and truest
friend they have ever had, or ever shall have; they know her for one
who never did them a wrong, and cannot do them a wrong; who never
told them a lie, nor the shadow of one; who never deceived them by
even an ambiguous gesture; who never gave them an unreasonable
command, nor ever contented herself with anything short of a perfect
obedience; who has always treated them as politely and considerately
as she would the best and oldest in the land, and has always
required of them gentle speech and courteous conduct toward all, of
whatsoever degree with whom they chanced to come in contact; they
know her for one whose promise, whether of reward or punishment, is
gold, and always worth its face, to the uttermost farthing. In a
word, they know her, and I know her, for the best and dearest mother
that lives--and by a long, long way the wisest....
In all my life I have never made a single reference to my wife in
print before, as far as I can remember, except once in the
dedication of a book; and so, after these fifteen years of silence,
perhaps I may unseal my lips this one time without impropriety or
indelicacy. I will institute one other novelty: I will send this
manuscript to the press without her knowledge and without asking her
to edit it. This will save it from getting edited into the stove.
Susy's biography refers to this incident at considerable length. She
states that her father had misgivings after he had sent it to the
Christian Union, and that he tried to recall the manuscript, but found it
too late. She sets down some comments of her own on her mother's
government, then tells us of the appearance of the article:
When the Christian Union reached the farm and papa's article in it, all
ready and waiting to be read to mama, papa hadn't the courage to show it
to her (for he knew she wouldn't like it at all) at first, and he didn't,
but he might have let it go and never let her see it; but finally he gave
his consent to her seeing it, and told Clara and I we could take it to
her, which we did with tardiness, and we all stood around mama while she
read it, all wondering what she would say and think about it.
She was too much surprised (and pleased privately too) to say much at
first; but, as we all expected, publicly (or rather when she remembered
that this article was to be read by every one that took the Christian
Union) she was rather shocked and a little displeased.
Susy goes on to tell that the article provoked a number of letters, most
of them pleasant ones, but some of them of quite another sort. One of
the latter fell into her mother's hands, after which there was general
regret that the article had been printed, and the subject was no longer
discussed at Quarry Farm.
Susy's biography is a unique record. It was a sort of combined memoir
and journal, charming in its innocent frankness and childish insight.
She used to keep it under her pillow, and after she was asleep the
parents would steal it out and find a tender amusement and pathos in its
quaint entries. It is a faithful record so far as it goes, and the
period it covers is an important one; for it presents a picture of Mark
Twain in the fullness of his manhood, in the golden hour of his fortune.
Susy's beginning has a special value here:--[Susy's' spelling and
punctuation are preserved.]
We are a very happy family! We consist of papa, mama, Jean, Clara
and me. It is papa I am writing about, and I shall have no trouble
in not knowing what to say about him, as he is a very striking
character. Papa's appearance has been described many times, but
very incorrectly; he has beautiful curly grey hair, not any too
thick, or any too long, just right; a Roman nose, which greatly
improves the beauty of his features, kind blue eyes, and a small
mustache, he has a wonderfully shaped head, and profile, he has a
very good figure in short he is an extraordinarily fine looking man.
All his features are perfect, except that he hasn't extraordinary
teeth. His complexion is very fair, and he doesn't ware a beard:
He is a very good man, and a very funny one; he has got a temper but
we all of us have in this family. He is the loveliest man I ever
saw, or ever hope to see, and oh so absent-minded!
That this is a fair statement of the Clemens home, and the truest picture
of Mark Twain at fifty that has been preserved, cannot be doubted. His
hair was iron-gray, not entirely white at this time, the auburn tints
everywhere mingled with the shining white that later would mantle it like
a silver crown. He did not look young for his years, but he was still
young, always young--indestructibly young in spirit and bodily vigor.
Susy tells how that summer he blew soap-bubbles for the children, filling
the bubbles with tobacco smoke; how he would play with the cats, and come
clear down from his study on the hill to see how "Sour Mash," then a
kitten, was getting along; also how he wrote a poem for Jean's donkey,
Cadichon (which they made Kiditchin): She quotes the poem:
O du lieb' Kiditchin
Du bist ganz bewitchin,
Waw- - - -he!
In summer days Kiditchin
Thou'rt dear from nose to britchin
No dought thoult get a switchin
When for mischief thou'rt itchin'
Waw- - - -he!
But when you're good Kiditchin
You shall feast in James's kitchin
Waw- - - -he!
O now lift up thy song
Thy noble note prolong
Thou living Chinese gong!
Waw---he! waw---he waw
Sweetest donkey man ever saw.
Clemens undertook to ride Kiditchin one day, to show the children how it
should be done, but Kiditchin resented this interference and promptly
flung him over her head. He thought she might have been listening to the
poem he had written of her.
Susy's discovery that the secret of her biography was known is shown by
the next entry, and the touch of severity in it was probably not entirely
Papa said the other day, "I am a mugwump and a mugwump is pure from
the marrow out." (Papa knows that I am writing this biography of
him, and he said this for it.) He doesn't like to go to church at
all, why I never understood, until just now. He told us the other
day that he couldn't bear to hear anyone talk but himself, but that
he could listen to himself talk for hours without getting tired, of
course he said this in joke, but I've no doubt it was founded on
Susy's picture of life at Quarry Farm at this period is realistic and
valuable--too valuable to be spared from this biography:
There are eleven cats at the farm here now. Papa's favorite is a
little tortoise-shell kitten he has named "Sour Mash," and a little
spotted one "Fannie." It is very pretty to see what papa calls the
cat procession; it was formed in this way. Old Minniecat headed,
(the mother of all the cats) next to her came aunt Susie, then Clara
on the donkey, accompanied by a pile of cats, then papa and Jean
hand in hand and a pile of cats brought up in the rear, mama and I
made up the audience.
Our varius occupations are as follows. Papa rises about 1/2 past 7
in the morning, breakfasts at eight, writes, plays tennis with Clara
and me and tries to make the donkey go, in the morning; does varius
things in P.M., and in the evening plays tennis with Clara and me
and amuses Jean and the donkey.
Mama rises about 1/4 to eight, breakfasts at eight, teaches Jean
German reading from 9-10; reads German with me from 10-11. Then she
reads studdies or visits with aunt Susie for a while, and then she
reads to Clara and I till lunch time things connected with English
history (for we hope to go to England next summer) while we sew.
Then we have lunch. She studdies for about half an hour or visits
with aunt Susie, then reads to us an hour or more, then studdies
writes reads and rests till supper time. After supper she sits out
on the porch and works till eight o'clock, from eight o'clock to
bedtime she plays whist with papa and after she has retired she
reads and studdies German for a while.
Clara and I do most everything from practicing to donkey riding and
playing tag. While Jean's time is spent in asking mama what she can
have to eat.
It is impossible, at this distance, to convey all that the farm meant to
the children during the summers of their infancy and childhood and
girlhood which they spent there. It was the paradise, the dreamland they
looked forward to during all the rest of the year. Through the long,
happy months there they grew strong and brown, and drank deeply of the
joy of life. Their cousins Julia, Jervis, and Ida Langdon ranged about
their own ages and were almost their daily companions. Their games were
mainly of the out-of-doors; the woods and meadows and hillside pastures
were their playground. Susy was thirteen when she began her diary; a
gentle, thoughtful, romantic child. One afternoon she discovered a
wonderful tangle of vines and bushes between the study and the sunset--a
rare hiding-place. She ran breathlessly to her aunt:
"Can I have it? Can Clara and I have it all for our own?"
The petition was granted, of course, and the place was named Helen's
Bower, for they were reading Thaddeus of Warsaw and the name appealed to
Susy's poetic fancy. Then Mrs. Clemens conceived the idea of building a
house for the children just beyond the bower. It was a complete little
cottage when finished, with a porch and with furnishings contributed by
friends and members of the family. There was a stove--a tiny affair, but
practical--dishes, table, chairs, shelves, and a broom. The little house
was named Ellerslie, out of Grace Aguilar's Days of Robert Bruce, and
became one of the children's most beloved possessions. But alas for
Helen's Bower! A workman was sent to clear away the debris after the
builders, and being a practical man, he cut away Helen's Bower--destroyed
it utterly. Susy first discovered the vandalism, and came rushing to the
house in a torrent of sorrow. For her the joy of life seemed ended, and
it was long before she could be comforted. But Ellerslie in time
satisfied her hunger for retreat, became, in fact, the nucleus around
which the children's summer happiness centered.
To their elders the farm remained always the quiet haven. Once to
Orion's wife Clemens wrote:
This is a superb Sunday . . . .
The city in the valley is purple with shade, as seen from up here at
the study. The Cranes are reading and loafing in the canvas-
curtained summer-house, fifty yards away, on a higher (the highest)
point; the cats are loafing over at Ellerslie, which is the
children's estate and dwelling house in their own private grounds
(by deed from Susie Crane), a hundred yards from the study, among
the clover and young oaks and willows. Livy is down at the house,
but I shall now go and bring her up to the Cranes to help us occupy
the lounges and hammocks, whence a great panorama of distant hills
and valley and city is seeable. The children have gone on a lark
through the neighboring hills and woods, Susie and Clara horseback
and Jean, driving a buggy, with the coachman for comrade and
assistant at need. It is a perfect day indeed.
The ending of each year's summer brought only regret. Clemens would
never take away all his things. He had an old superstition that to leave
some article insured return. Mrs. Clemens also left something--her
heart's content. The children went around bidding various objects good-
by and kissed the gates of Ellerslie too.