Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 2: 1886 - 1900 Some Further Account of Charles L. Webster & Co. byPaine, Albert Bigelow
Flood-tide is a temporary condition, and the ebb in the business of
Charles L. Webster & Co., though very deliberate, was not delayed in its
beginning. Most of the books published--the early ones at least-were
profitable. McClellan's memoirs paid, as did others of the war series.
Even The Life of Pope Leo XIII. paid. What a statement to make, after
all their magnificent dreams and preparations! It was published
simultaneously in six languages. It was exploited in every conceivable
fashion, and its aggregate sales fell far short of the number which the
general agents had promised for their first orders. It was amazing, it
was incredible, but, alas! it was true. The prospective Catholic
purchaser had decided that the Pope's Life was not necessary to his
salvation or even to his entertainment. Howells explains it, to his own
satisfaction at least, when he says:
We did not consider how often Catholics could not read, how often,
when they could, they might not wish to read. The event proved
that, whether they could read or not, the immeasurable majority did
not wish to read The Life of the Pope, though it was written by a
dignitary of the Church and issued to the world with sanction from
Howells, of course, is referring to the laboring Catholic of that day.
There are no Catholics of this day--no American Catholics, at least--who
do not read, and money among them has become plentiful. Perhaps had the
Pope's Life been issued in this new hour of enlightenment the tale of its
success might have been less sadly told.
A variety of books followed. Henry Ward Beecher agreed to write an
autobiography, but he died just when he was beginning the work, and the
biography, which his family put together, brought only a moderate return.
A book of Sandwich Islands tales and legends, by his Hawaiian Majesty
King Kalakaua, edited by Clemens's old friend, Rollin M. Daggett, who had
become United States minister to the islands, barely paid for the cost of
manufacture, while a volume of reminiscences by General Hancock was still
less fortunate. The running expenses of the business were heavy. On the
strength of the Grant success Webster had moved into still larger
quarters at No. 3 East Fifteenth Street, and had a ground floor for a
salesroom. The force had become numerous and costly. It was necessary
that a book should pay largely to maintain this pretentious
establishment. A number of books were published at a heavy loss. Never
mind their titles; we may forget them, with the name of the bookkeeper
who presently embezzled thirty thousand dollars of the firm's money and
returned but a trifling sum.
By the end of 1887 there were three works in prospect on which great
hopes were founded--'The Library of Humor', which Howells and Clark had
edited; a personal memoir of General Sheridan's, and a Library of
American Literature in ten volumes, compiled by Edmund Clarence Stedman
and Ellen Mackay Hutchinson. It was believed these would restore the
fortunes and the prestige of the firm. They were all excellent,
attractive features. The Library of Humor was ably selected and
contained two hundred choice drawings by Kemble. The Sheridan Memoir was
finely written, and the public interest in it was bound to be general.
The Library of American Literature was a collection of the best American
writing, and seemed bound to appeal to every American reading-home. It
was necessary to borrow most of the money required to build these books,
for the profit made from the Grant Life and less fortunate ventures was
pretty well exhausted. Clemens presently found a little drift of his
notes accumulating at this bank and that--a disturbing condition, when he
remembered it, for he was financing the typesetting machine by this time,
and it was costing a pretty sum.
Meantime, Webster was no longer active in the management. In two years
he had broken down from overwork, and was now desperately ill with an
acute neuralgia that kept him away from the business most of the time.
Its burdens had fallen upon his assistant, Fred J. Hall, a willing,
capable young man, persevering and hopeful, lacking only years and
experience. Hall worked like a beaver, and continually looked forward to
success. He explained, with each month's report of affairs, just why the
business had not prospered more during that particular month, and just
why its profits would be greater during the next. Webster finally
retired from the business altogether, and Hall was given a small
partnership in the firm. He reduced expenses, worked desperately,
pumping out the debts, and managed to keep the craft afloat.
The Library of Humor, the Life of Sheridan, and The Library of American
Literature all sold very well; not so well as had been hoped, but the
sales yielded a fair profit. It was thought that if Clemens himself
would furnish a new book now and then the business might regain something
of its original standing.
We may believe that Clemens had not been always patient, not always
gentle, during this process of decline. He had differed with Webster,
and occasionally had gone down and reconstructed things after his own
notions. Once he wrote to Orion that he had suddenly awakened to find
that there was no more system in the office than in a nursery without a
"But," he added, "I have spent a good deal of time there since, and
reduced everything to exact order and system."
Just what were the new features of order instituted it would be
interesting to know. That the financial pressure was beginning to be
felt even in the Clemens home is shown by a Christmas letter to Mrs.
HARTFORD, December 18, 1887.
DEAR PAMELA,--Will you take this $15 & buy some candy or other trifle for
yourself & Sam & his wife to remind you that we remember you?
If we weren't a little crowded this year by the type-setter I'd send a
check large enough to buy a family Bible or some other useful thing like
that. However, we go on & on, but the type-setter goes on forever--at
$3,000 a month; which is much more satisfactory than was the case the
first 17 months, when the bill only averaged $2,000, & promised to take a
thousand years. We'll be through now in 3 or 4 months, I reckon, & then
the strain will let up and we can breathe freely once more, whether
success ensues or failure.
Even with a type-setter on hand we ought not to be in the least scrimped-
but it would take a long letter to explain why & who is to blame.
All the family send love to all of you, & best Christmas wishes for your