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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XV. A Young Ben Franklin
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|For a third time death had entered the Clemens home: not only had it
brought grief now, but it had banished the light of new fortune from the
very threshold. The disaster seemed complete.
The children were dazed. Judge Clemens had been a distant, reserved man,
but they had loved him, each in his own way, and they had honored his
uprightness and nobility of purpose. Mrs. Clemens confided to a neighbor
that, in spite of his manner, her husband had been always warm-hearted,
with a deep affection for his family. They remembered that he had never
returned from a journey without bringing each one some present, however
trifling. Orion, looking out of his window next morning, saw old Abram
Kurtz, and heard him laugh. He wondered how anybody could still laugh.
The boy Sam was fairly broken down. Remorse, which always dealt with him
unsparingly, laid a heavy hand on him now. Wildness, disobedience,
indifference to his father's wishes, all were remembered; a hundred
things, in themselves trifling, became ghastly and heart-wringing in the
knowledge that they could never be undone. Seeing his grief, his mother
took him by the hand and led him into the room where his father lay.
"It is all right, Sammy," she said. "What's done is done, and it does
not matter to him any more; but here by the side of him now I want you to
He turned, his eyes streaming with tears, and flung himself into her
"I will promise anything," he sobbed, "if you won't make me go to school!
His mother held him for a moment, thinking, then she said:
"No, Sammy; you need not go to school any more. Only promise me to be a
better boy. Promise not to break my heart."
So he promised her to be a faithful and industrious man, and upright,
like his father. His mother was satisfied with that. The sense of honor
and justice was already strong within him. To him a promise was a
serious matter at any time; made under conditions like these it would be
That night--it was after the funeral--his tendency to somnambulism
manifested itself. His mother and sister, who were sleeping together,
saw the door open and a form in white enter. Naturally nervous at such a
time, and living in a day of almost universal superstition, they were
terrified and covered their heads. Presently a hand was laid on the
coverlet, first at the foot, then at the head of the bed. A thought
struck Mrs. Clemens:
"Sam!" she said.
He answered, but he was sound asleep and fell to the floor. He had risen
and thrown a sheet around him in his dreams. He walked in his sleep
several nights in succession after that. Then he slept more soundly.
Orion returned to St. Louis. He was a very good book and job printer by
this time and received a salary of ten dollars a week (high wages in
those frugal days), of which he sent three dollars weekly to the family.
Pamela, who had acquired a considerable knowledge of the piano and
guitar, went to the town of Paris, in Monroe County, about fifty miles
away, and taught a class of music pupils, contributing whatever remained
after paying for her board and clothing to the family fund. It was a
hard task for the girl, for she was timid and not over-strong; but she
was resolute and patient, and won success. Pamela Clemens was a noble
character and deserves a fuller history than can be afforded in this
Mrs. Clemens and her son Samuel now had a sober talk, and, realizing that
the printing trade offered opportunity for acquiring further education as
well as a livelihood, they agreed that he should be apprenticed to Joseph
P. Ament, who had lately moved from Palmyra to Hannibal and bought a
weekly Democrat paper, the Missouri Courier. The apprentice terms were
not over-liberal. They were the usual thing for that time: board and
clothes--"more board than clothes, and not much of either," Mark Twain
used to say.
"I was supposed to get two suits of clothes a year, like a nigger, but I
didn't get them. I got one suit and took the rest out in Ament's old
garments, which didn't fit me in any noticeable way. I was only about
half as big as he was, and when I had on one of his shirts I felt as if I
had on a circus tent. I had to turn the trousers up to my ears to make
them short enough."
There was another apprentice, a young fellow of about eighteen, named
Wales McCormick, a devilish fellow and a giant. Ament's clothes were too
small for Wales, but he had to wear them, and Sam Clemens and Wales
McCormick together, fitted out with Ament's clothes, must have been a
picturesque pair. There was also, for a time, a boy named Ralph; but he
appears to have presented no features of a striking sort, and the memory
of him has become dim.
The apprentices ate in the kitchen at first, served by the old slave-cook
and her handsome mulatto daughter; but those printer's "devils" made it
so lively there that in due time they were promoted to the family table,
where they sat with Mr. and Mrs. Ament and the one journeyman, Pet
McMurry--a name that in itself was an inspiration. What those young
scamps did not already know Pet McMurry could teach them. Sam Clemens
had promised to be a good boy, and he was, by the standards of boyhood.
He was industrious, regular at his work, quick to learn, kind, and
truthful. Angels could hardly be more than that in a printing-office;
but when food was scarce even an angel--a young printer angel--could
hardly resist slipping down the cellar stairs at night for raw potatoes,
onions, and apples which they carried into the office, where the boys
slept on a pallet on the floor, and this forage they cooked on the office
stove. Wales especially had a way of cooking a potato that his associate
It is unfortunate that no photographic portrait has been preserved of Sam
Clemens at this period. But we may imagine him from a letter which, long
years after, Pet McMurry wrote to Mark Twain. He said:
If your memory extends so far back, you will recall a little sandy-
haired boy--[The color of Mark Twain's hair in early life has been
variously referred to as red, black, and brown. It was, in fact, as
stated by McMurry, "sandy" in boyhood, deepening later to that rich,
mahogany tone known as auburn.]--of nearly a quarter of a century
ago, in the printing-office at Hannibal, over the Brittingham
drugstore, mounted upon a little box at the case, pulling away at a
huge cigar or a diminutive pipe, who used to love to sing so well
the expression of the poor drunken man who was supposed to have
fallen by the wayside: "If ever I get up again, I'll stay up--if I
kin." . . . Do you recollect any of the serious conflicts that
mirth-loving brain of yours used to get you into with that
diminutive creature Wales McCormick--how you used to call upon me to
hold your cigar or pipe, whilst you went entirely through him?
This is good testimony, without doubt. When he had been with Ament
little more than a year Sam had become office favorite and chief standby.
Whatever required intelligence and care and imagination was given to Sam
Clemens. He could set type as accurately and almost as rapidly as Pet
McMurry; he could wash up the forms a good deal better than Pet; and he
could run the job-press to the tune of "Annie Laurie" or "Along the Beach
at Rockaway," without missing a stroke or losing a finger. Sometimes, at
odd moments, he would "set up" one of the popular songs or some favorite
poem like "The Blackberry Girl," and of these he sent copies printed on
cotton, even on scraps of silk, to favorite girl friends; also to Puss
Quarles, on his uncle's farm, where he seldom went now, because he was
really grown up, associating with men and doing a man's work. He had
charge of the circulation--which is to say, he carried the papers.
During the last year of the Mexican War, when a telegraph-wire found its
way across the Mississippi to Hannibal--a long sagging span, that for
some reason did not break of its own weight--he was given charge of the
extras with news from the front; and the burning importance of his
mission, the bringing of news hot from the field of battle, spurred him
to endeavors that won plaudits and success.
He became a sort of subeditor. When the forms of the paper were ready to
close and Ament was needed to supply more matter, it was Sam who was
delegated to find that rather uncertain and elusive person and labor with
him until the required copy was produced. Thus it was he saw literature
in the making.
It is not believed that Sam had any writing ambitions of his own. His
chief desire was to be an all-round journeyman printer like Pet McMurry;
to drift up and down the world in Pet's untrammeled fashion; to see all
that Pet had seen and a number of things which Pet appeared to have
overlooked. He varied on occasion from this ambition. When the first
negro minstrel show visited Hannibal and had gone, he yearned for a brief
period to be a magnificent "middle man" or even the "end-man" of that
combination; when the circus came and went, he dreamed of the day when, a
capering frescoed clown, he would set crowded tiers of spectators
guffawing at his humor; when the traveling hypnotist arrived, he
volunteered as a subject, and amazed the audience by the marvel of his
In later life he claimed that he had not been hypnotized in any degree,
but had been pretending throughout--a statement always denied by his
mother and his brother Orion. This dispute was never settled, and never
could be. Sam Clemens's tendency to somnambulism would seem to suggest
that he really might have taken on a hypnotic condition, while his
consummate skill as an actor, then and always, and his early fondness of
exhibition and a joke, would make it not unlikely that he was merely
"showing off" and having his fun. He could follow the dictates of a
vivid imagination and could be as outrageous as he chose without
incurring responsibility of any sort. But there was a penalty: he must
allow pins and needles to be thrust into his flesh and suffer these
tortures without showing discomfort to the spectators. It is difficult
to believe that any boy, however great his exhibitory passion, could
permit, in the full possession of his sensibilities, a needle to be
thrust deeply into his flesh without manifestations of a most unmesmeric
sort. The conclusion seems warranted that he began by pretending, but
that at times he was at least under semi-mesmeric control. At all
events, he enjoyed a week of dazzling triumph, though in the end he
concluded to stick to printing as a trade.
We have said that he was a rapid learner and a neat workman. At Ament's
he generally had a daily task, either of composition or press-work, after
which he was free. When he had got the hang of his work he was usually
done by three in the afternoon; then away to the river or the cave, as in
the old days, sometimes with his boy friends, sometimes with Laura
Hawkins gathering wild columbine on that high cliff overlooking the
river, Lover's Leap.
He was becoming quite a beau, attending parties on occasion, where old-
fashioned games--Forfeits, Ring-around-a-Rosy, Dusty Miller, and the
like--were regarded as rare amusements. He was a favorite with girls of
his own age. He was always good-natured, though he played jokes on them,
too, and was often a severe trial. He was with Laura Hawkins more than
the others, usually her escort. On Saturday afternoons in winter he
carried her skates to Bear Creek and helped her to put them on. After
which they skated "partners," holding hands tightly, and were a likely
pair of children, no doubt. In The Gilded Age Laura Hawkins at twelve is
pictured "with her dainty hands propped into the ribbon-bordered pockets
of her apron . . . a vision to warm the coldest heart and bless and
cheer the saddest." The author had the real Laura of his childhood in
his mind when he wrote that, though the story itself bears no resemblance
to her life.
They were never really sweethearts, those two. They were good friends
and comrades. Sometimes he brought her magazines--exchanges from the
printing--office--Godey's and others. These were a treat, for such
things were scarce enough. He cared little for reading, himself, beyond
a few exciting tales, though the putting into type of a good deal of
miscellaneous matter had beyond doubt developed in him a taste for
general knowledge. It needed only to be awakened.