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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CLXI. History: Mainly by Susy
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Suzy, in her biography, which she continued through this period, writes:
Mama and I have both been very much troubled of late because papa,
since he had been publishing General Grant's books, has seemed to
forget his own books and works entirely; and the other evening, as
papa and I were promonading up and down the library, he told me that
he didn't expect to write but one more book, and then he was ready
to give up work altogether, die, or, do anything; he said that he
had written more than he had ever expected to, and the only book
that he had been pertickularly anxious to write was one locked up in
the safe downstairs, not yet published.
The book locked in the safe was Captain Stormfield, and the one he
expected to write was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He
had already worked at it in a desultory way during the early months of
1886, and once wrote of it to Webster:
I have begun a book whose scene is laid far back in the twilight of
tradition; I have saturated myself with the atmosphere of the day
and the subject and got myself into the swing of the work. If I peg
away for some weeks without a break I am safe.
But he could not peg away. He had too many irons in the fire for that.
Matthew Arnold had criticized General Grant's English, and Clemens
immediately put down other things to rush to his hero's defense. He
pointed out that in Arnold's criticism there were no less than "two
grammatical crimes and more than several examples of very crude and
slovenly English," and said:
There is that about the sun which makes us forget his spots, and
when we think of General Grant our pulses quicken and his grammar
vanishes; we only remember that this is the simple soldier, who, all
untaught of the silken phrase-makers, linked words together with an
art surpassing the art of the schools, and put into them a something
which will still bring to American ears, as long as America shall
last, the roll of his vanished drums and the tread of his marching
hosts. --[Address to Army and Navy Club. For full text see
Clemens worked at the Yankee now and then, and Howells, when some of the
chapters were read to him, gave it warm approval and urged its
Howells was often in Hartford at this time. Webster & Co. were planning
to publish The Library of Humor, which Howells and "Charley" Clark had
edited several years before, and occasional conferences were desirable.
Howells tells us that, after he and Clark had been at great trouble to
get the matter logically and chronologically arranged, Clemens pulled it
all to pieces and threw it together helter-skelter, declaring that there
ought to be no sequence in a book of that sort, any more than in the
average reader's mind; and Howells admits that this was probably the
truer method in a book made for the diversion rather than the instruction
of the reader.
One of the literary diversions of this time was a commentary on a
delicious little book by Caroline B. Le Row--English as She Is Taught--
being a compilation of genuine answers given to examination questions by
pupils in our public schools. Mark Twain was amused by such definitions
as: "Aborigines, system of mountains"; "Alias--a good man in the Bible";
"Ammonia--the food of the gods," and so on down the alphabet.
Susy, in her biography, mentions that her father at this is time read to
them a little article which he had just written, entitled "Luck," and
that they thought it very good. It was a story which Twichell had heard
and told to Clemens, who set it down about as it came to him. It was
supposed to be true, yet Clemens seemed to think it too improbable for
literature and laid it away for a number of years. We shall hear of it
again by and by.
From Susy's memoranda we gather that humanity at this time was to be
healed of all evils and sorrows through "mind cure "
Papa has been very much interested of late in the "mind-cure"
theory. And, in fact, so have we all. A young lady in town has
worked wonders by using the "mind cure" upon people; she is
constantly busy now curing peoples' diseases in this way--and curing
her own, even, which to me seems the most remarkable of all.
A little while past papa was delighted with the knowledge of what he
thought the best way of curing a cold, which was by starving it.
This starving did work beautifully, and freed him from a great many
severe colds. Now he says it wasn't the starving that helped his
colds, but the trust in the starving, the "mind cure" connected with
I shouldn't wonder if we finally became firm believers in "mind
cure." The next time papa has a cold I haven't a doubt he will send
for Miss Holden, the young lady who is doctoring in the "mind-cure"
theory, to cure him of it.
Again, a month later, she writes:
April 19, 1886. Yes, the "mind cure" does seem to be working
wonderfully. Papa, who has been using glasses now for more than a
year, has laid them off entirely. And my near-sightedness is really
getting better. It seems marvelous. When Jean has stomack-ache
Clara and I have tried to divert her by telling her to lie on her
side and try "mind cure." The novelty of it has made her willing to
try it, and then Clara and I would exclaim about how wonderful it
was she was getting better. And she would think it realy was
finally, and stop crying, to our delight.
The other day mama went into the library and found her lying on the
sofa with her back toward the door. She said, "Why, Jean, what's
the matter? Don't you feel well?" Jean said that she had a little
stomack-ache, and so thought she would lie down. Mama said, "Why
don't you try 'mind cure'?" "I am," Jean answered.
Howells and Twichell were invited to try the "mind cure," as were all
other friends who happened along. To the end of his days Clemens would
always have some panacea to offer to allay human distress. It was a good
trait, when all is said, for it had its root in his humanity. The "mind
cure" did not provide all the substance of things hoped for, though he
always allowed for it a wide efficacy. Once, in later years, commenting
on Susy's record, he said:
The mind cannot heal broken bones, and doubtless there are many
other physical ills which it cannot heal, but it can greatly help to
modify the severities of all of them without exception, and there
are mental and nervous ailments which it can wholly heal without the
help of physician or surgeon.
Susy records another burning interest of this time:
Clara sprained her ankle a little while ago by running into a tree
when coasting, and while she was unable to walk with it she played
solotaire with cards a great deal. While Clara was sick and papa
saw her play solotaire so much he got very much interested in the
game, and finally began to play it himself a little; then Jean took
it up, and at last mama even played it occasionally; Jean's and
papa's love for it rapidly increased, and now Jean brings the cards
every night to the table and papa and mama help her play, and before
dinner is at an end papa has gotten a separate pack of cards and is
playing alone, with great interest. Mama and Clara next are made
subject to the contagious solotaire, and there are four
solotarireans at the table, while you hear nothing but "Fill up the
place," etc. It is dreadful!
But a little further along Susy presents her chief subject more
seriously. He is not altogether absorbed with "mind cure" and solitaire,
or even with making humorous tales.
Papa has done a great deal in his life I think that is good and very
remarkable, but I think if he had had the advantages with which he
could have developed the gifts which he has made no use of in
writing his books, or in any other way, for peoples' pleasure and
benefit outside of his own family and intimate friends, he could
have done more than he has, and a great deal more, even. He is
known to the public as a humorist, but he has much more in him that
is earnest than that is humorous. He has a keen sense of the
ludicrous, notices funny stories and incidents, knows how to tell
them, to improve upon them, and does not forget them.
When we are all alone at home nine times out of ten he talks about
some very earnest subject (with an occasional joke thrown in), and
he a good deal more often talks upon such subjects than upon the
He is as much of a philosopher as anything, I think. I think he
could have done a great deal in this direction if he had studied
while young, for he seems to enjoy reasoning out things, no matter
what; in a great many such directions he has greater ability than in
the gifts which have made him famous.
It was with the keen eyes and just mind of childhood that Susy estimated,
and there is little to add to her valuation.
Susy's biography came to an end that summer after starting to record a
visit which they all made to Keokuk to see Grandma Clemens. They went by
way of the Lakes and down the Mississippi from St. Paul. A pleasant
incident happened that first evening on the river. Soon after nightfall
they entered a shoal crossing. Clemens, standing alone on the hurricane-
deck, heard the big bell forward boom out the call for leads. Then came
the leadsman's long-drawn chant, once so familiar, the monotonous
repeating in river parlance of the depths of water. Presently the lead
had found that depth of water signified by his nom de plume and the call
of "Mark Twain, Mark Twain" floated up to him like a summons from the
past. All at once a little figure came running down the deck, and Clara
confronted him, reprovingly:
"Papa," she said, "I have hunted all over the boat for you. Don't you
know they are calling for you?"
They remained in Keokuk a week, and Susy starts to tell something of
their visit there. She begins:
"We have arrived in Keokuk after a very pleasant----"
The sentence remains unfinished. We cannot know what was the
interruption or what new interest kept her from her task. We can only
regret that the loving little hand did not continue its pleasant history.
Years later, when Susy had passed from among the things we know, her
father, commenting, said:
When I look at the arrested sentence that ends the little book it
seems as if the hand that traced it cannot be far--it is gone for a
moment only, and will come again and finish it. But that is a
dream; a creature of the heart, not of the mind--a feeling, a
longing, not a mental product; the same that lured Aaron Burr, old,
gray, forlorn, forsaken, to the pier day after day, week after week,
there to stand in the gloom and the chill of the dawn, gazing
seaward through veiling mists and sleet and snow for the ship which
he knew was gone down, the ship that bore all his treasure--his