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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
CCXII. The Return of the Conqueror
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|It would be hard to exaggerate the stir which the newspapers and the
public generally made over the homecoming of Mark Twain. He had left
America, staggering under heavy obligation and set out on a pilgrimage of
redemption. At the moment when this Mecca was in view a great sorrow
had befallen him and, stirred a world-wide and soul-deep tide of human
sympathy. Then there had followed such ovation as has seldom been
conferred upon a private citizen, and now approaching old age, still in
the fullness of his mental vigor, he had returned to his native soil with
the prestige of these honors upon him and the vast added glory of having
made his financial fight single-handed-and won.
He was heralded literally as a conquering hero. Every paper in the land
had an editorial telling the story of his debts, his sorrow, and his
"He had behaved like Walter Scott," says Howells, "as millions rejoiced
to know who had not known how Walter Scott had behaved till they knew it
was like Clemens."
Howells acknowledges that he had some doubts as to the permanency of the
vast acclaim of the American public, remembering, or perhaps assuming, a
national fickleness. Says Howells:
He had hitherto been more intelligently accepted or more largely
imagined in Europe, and I suppose it was my sense of this that
inspired the stupidity of my saying to him when we came to consider
"the state of polite learning" among us, "You mustn't expect people
to keep it up here as they do in England." But it appeared that his
countrymen were only wanting the chance, and they kept it up in
honor of him past all precedent.
Clemens went to the Earlington Hotel and began search for a furnished
house in New York. They would not return to Hartford--at least not yet.
The associations there were still too sad, and they immediately became
more so. Five days after Mark Twain's return to America, his old friend
and co-worker, Charles Dudley Warner, died. Clemens went to Hartford to
act as a pall-bearer and while there looked into the old home. To
Sylvester Baxter, of Boston, who had been present, he wrote a few days
It was a great pleasure to me to renew the other days with you, &
there was a pathetic pleasure in seeing Hartford & the house again;
but I realized that if we ever enter the house again to live our
hearts will break. I am not sure that we shall ever be strong
enough to endure that strain.
Even if the surroundings had been less sorrowful it is not likely that
Clemens would have returned to Hartford at this time. He had become a
world-character, a dweller in capitals. Everywhere he moved a world
revolved about him. Such a figure in Germany would live naturally in
Berlin; in England London; in France, Paris; in Austria, Vienna; in
America his headquarters could only be New York.
Clemens empowered certain of his friends to find a home for him, and Mr.
Frank N. Doubleday discovered an attractive and handsomely furnished
residence at 14 West Tenth Street, which was promptly approved.
Doubleday, who was going to Boston, left orders with the agent to draw
the lease and take it up to the new tenant for signature. To Clemens he
"The house is as good as yours. All you've got to do is to sign the
lease. You can consider it all settled."
When Doubleday returned from Boston a few days later the agent called on
him and complained that he couldn't find Mark Twain anywhere. It was
reported at his hotel that he had gone and left no address. Doubleday
was mystified; then, reflecting, he had an inspiration. He walked over
to 14 West Tenth Street and found what he had suspected--Mark Twain had
moved in. He had convinced the caretaker that everything was all right
and he was quite at home. Doubleday said:
"Why, you haven't executed the lease yet."
"No," said Clemens, "but you said the house was as good as mine," to
which Doubleday agreed, but suggested that they go up to the real-estate
office and give the agent notice that he was in possession of the
Doubleday's troubles were not quite over, however. Clemens began to find
defects in his new home and assumed to hold Doubleday responsible for
them. He sent a daily postal card complaining of the windows, furnace,
the range, the water-whatever he thought might lend interest to
Doubleday's life. As a matter of fact, he was pleased with the place.
To MacAlister he wrote:
We were very lucky to get this big house furnished. There was not
another one in town procurable that would answer us, but this one is
all right-space enough in it for several families, the rooms all
old-fashioned, great size.
The house at 14 West Tenth Street became suddenly one of the most
conspicuous residences in New York. The papers immediately made its
appearance familiar. Many people passed down that usually quiet street,
stopping to observe or point out where Mark Twain lived. There was a
constant procession of callers of every kind. Many were friends, old and
new, but there was a multitude of strangers. Hundreds came merely to
express their appreciation of his work, hoping for a personal word or a
hand-shake or an autograph; but there were other hundreds who came with
this thing and that thing--axes to grind--and there were newspaper
reporters to ask his opinion on politics, or polygamy, or woman's
suffrage; on heaven and hell and happiness; on the latest novel; on the
war in Africa, the troubles in China; on anything under the sun,
important or unimportant, interesting or inane, concerning which one
might possibly hold an opinion. He was unfailing "copy" if they could
but get a word with him. Anything that he might choose to say upon any
subject whatever was seized upon and magnified and printed with
head-lines. Sometimes opinions were invented for him. If he let fall a
few words they were multiplied into a column interview.
"That reporter worked a miracle equal to the loaves and fishes," he said
of one such performance.
Many men would have become annoyed and irritable as these things
continued; but Mark Twain was greater than that. Eventually he employed
a secretary to stand between him and the wash of the tide, as a sort of
breakwater; but he seldom lost his temper no matter what was the request
which was laid before him, for he recognized underneath it the great
tribute of a great nation.
Of course his literary valuation would be affected by the noise of the
general applause. Magazines and syndicates besought him for manuscripts.
He was offered fifty cents and even a dollar a word for whatever he might
give them. He felt a child-like gratification in these evidences of his
market advancement, but he was not demoralized by them. He confined his
work to a few magazines, and in November concluded an arrangement with
the new management of Harper & Brothers, by which that firm was to have
the exclusive serial privilege of whatever he might write at a fixed rate
of twenty cents per word--a rate increased to thirty cents by a later
contract, which also provided an increased royalty for the publication of
The United States, as a nation, does not confer any special honors upon
private citizens. We do not have decorations and titles, even though
there are times when it seems that such things might be not
inappropriately conferred. Certain of the newspapers, more lavish in
their enthusiasm than others, were inclined to propose, as one paper
phrased it, "Some peculiar recognition--something that should appeal to
Samuel L. Clemens, the man, rather than to Mark Twain, the literate.
Just what form this recognition should take is doubtful, for the case has
no exact precedent."
Perhaps the paper thought that Mark Twain was entitled--as he himself
once humorously suggested-to the "thanks of Congress" for having come
home alive and out of debt, but it is just as well that nothing of the
sort was ever seriously considered. The thanks of the public at large
contained more substance, and was a tribute much more to his mind. The
paper above quoted ended by suggesting a very large dinner and memorial
of welcome as being more in keeping with the republican idea and the
American expression of good-will.
But this was an unneeded suggestion. If he had eaten all the dinners
proposed he would not have lived to enjoy his public honors a month. As
it was, he accepted many more dinners than he could eat, and presently
fell into the habit of arriving when the banqueting was about over and
the after-dinner speaking about to begin. Even so the strain told on
"His friends saw that he was wearing himself out," says Howells, and
perhaps this was true, for he grew thin and pale and contracted a hacking
cough. He did not spare himself as often as he should have done. Once
to Richard Watson Gilder he sent this line of regrets:
In bed with a chest cold and other company--Wednesday.
DEAR GILDER,--I can't. If I were a well man I could explain with
this pencil, but in the cir---ces I will leave it all to your
Was it Grady who killed himself trying to do all the dining and
No, old man, no, no!
He became again the guest of honor at the Lotos Club, which had dined him
so lavishly seven years before, just previous to his financial collapse.
That former dinner had been a distinguished occasion, but never before
had the Lotos Club been so brimming with eager hospitality as on the
second great occasion. In closing his introductory speech President
Frank Lawrence said, "We hail him as one who has borne great burdens with
manliness and courage, who has emerged from great struggles victorious,"
and the assembled diners roared out their applause. Clemens in his reply
Your president has referred to certain burdens which I was weighted
with. I am glad he did, as it gives me an opportunity which I
wanted--to speak of those debts. You all knew what he meant when he
referred to it, & of the poor bankrupt firm of C. L. Webster & Co.
No one has said a word about those creditors. There were ninety-six
creditors in all, & not by a finger's weight did ninety-five out of
the ninety-six add to the burden of that time. They treated me
well; they treated me handsomely. I never knew I owed them
anything; not a sign came from them.
It was like him to make that public acknowledgment. He could not let an
unfair impression remain that any man or any set of men had laid an
unnecessary burden upon him-his sense of justice would not consent to it.
He also spoke on that occasion of certain national changes.
How many things have happened in the seven years I have been away
from home! We have fought a righteous war, and a righteous war is a
rare thing in history. We have turned aside from our own comfort
and seen to it that freedom should exist, not only within our own
gates, but in our own neighborhood. We have set Cuba free and
placed her among the galaxy of free nations of the world. We
started out to set those poor Filipinos free, but why that righteous
plan miscarried perhaps I shall never know. We have also been
making a creditable showing in China, and that is more than all the
other powers can say. The "Yellow Terror" is threatening the world,
but no matter what happens the United States says that it has had no
part in it.
Since I have been away we have been nursing free silver. We have
watched by its cradle, we have done our best to raise that child,
but every time it seemed to be getting along nicely along came some
pestiferous Republican and gave it the measles or something. I fear
we will never raise that child.
We've done more than that. We elected a President four years ago.
We've found fault and criticized him, and here a day or two ago we
go and elect him for another four years, with votes enough to spare
to do it over again.
One club followed another in honoring Mark Twain--the Aldine, the St.
Nicholas, the Press clubs, and other associations and societies. His old
friends were at these dinners--Howells, Aldrich, Depew, Rogers,
ex-Speaker Reed--and they praised him and gibed him to his and their
It was a political year, and he generally had something to say on matters
municipal, national, or international; and he spoke out more and more
freely, as with each opportunity he warmed more righteously to his
At the dinner given to him by the St. Nicholas Club he said, with deep
Gentlemen, you have here the best municipal government in the world,
and the most fragrant and the purest. The very angels of heaven
envy you and wish they had a government like it up there. You got
it by your noble fidelity to civic duty; by the stern and ever
watchful exercise of the great powers lodged in you as lovers and
guardians of your city; by your manly refusal to sit inert when base
men would have invaded her high places and possessed them; by your
instant retaliation when any insult was offered you in her person,
or any assault was made upon her fair fame. It is you who have made
this government what it is, it is you who have made it the envy and
despair of the other capitals of the world--and God bless you for
it, gentlemen, God bless you! And when you get to heaven at last
they'll say with joy, "Oh, there they come, the representatives of
the perfectest citizenship in the universe show them the archangel's
box and turn on the limelight!"
Those hearers who in former years had been indifferent to Mark Twain's
more serious purpose began to realize that, whatever he may have been
formerly, he was by no means now a mere fun-maker, but a man of deep and
grave convictions, able to give them the fullest and most forcible
expression. He still might make them laugh, but he also made them think,
and he stirred them to a truer gospel of patriotism. He did not preach a
patriotism that meant a boisterous cheering of the Stars and Stripes
right or wrong, but a patriotism that proposed to keep the Stars and
Stripes clean and worth shouting for. In an article, perhaps it was a
speech, begun at this time he wrote:
We teach the boys to atrophy their independence. We teach them to
take their patriotism at second-hand; to shout with the largest
crowd without examining into the right or wrong of the matter--
exactly as boys under monarchies are taught and have always been
taught. We teach them to regard as traitors, and hold in aversion
and contempt, such as do not shout with the crowd, & so here in our
democracy we are cheering a thing which of all things is most
foreign to it & out of place--the delivery of our political
conscience into somebody else's keeping. This is patriotism on the
Howells tells of discussing these vital matters with him in "an upper
room, looking south over a quiet, open space of back yards where," he
says, "we fought our battles in behalf of the Filipinos and Boers, and he
carried on his campaign against the missionaries in China."
Howells at the time expressed an amused fear that Mark Twain's
countrymen, who in former years had expected him to be merely a humorist,
should now, in the light of his wider acceptance abroad, demand that he
be mainly serious.
But the American people were quite ready to accept him in any of his
phases, fully realizing that whatever his philosophy or doctrine it would
have somewhat of the humorous form, and whatever his humor, there would
somewhere be wisdom in it. He had in reality changed little; for a
generation he had thought the sort of things which he now, with advanced
years and a different audience, felt warranted in uttering openly. The
man who in '64 had written against corruption in San Francisco, who a few
years later had defended the emigrant Chinese against persecution, who at
the meetings of the Monday Evening Club had denounced hypocrisy in
politics, morals, and national issues, did not need to change to be able
to speak out against similar abuses now. And a newer generation as
willing to herald Mark Twain as a sage as well as a humorist, and on
occasion to quite overlook the absence of the cap and bells.