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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
CCXXVII. The Second Riverdale Winter
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Most of Mark Twain's stories have been dramatized at one time or another,
and with more or less success. He had two plays going that winter, one
of them the little "Death Disk," which--in story form had appeared a year
before in Harper's Magazine. It was put on at the Carnegie Lyceum with
considerable effect, but it was not of sufficient importance to warrant a
Another play of that year was a dramatization of Huckleberry Finn, by Lee
Arthur. This was played with a good deal of success in Baltimore,
Philadelphia, and elsewhere, the receipts ranging from three hundred to
twenty-one hundred dollars per night, according to the weather and
locality. Why the play was discontinued is not altogether apparent;
certainly many a dramatic enterprise has gone further, faring worse.
Huck in book form also had been having adventures a little earlier, in
being tabooed on account of his morals by certain librarians of Denver
and Omaha. It was years since Huck had been in trouble of that sort, and
he acquired a good deal of newspaper notoriety in consequence.
Certain entries in Mark Twain's note-book reveal somewhat of his life and
thought at this period. We find such entries as this:
Saturday, January 3, 1903. The offspring of riches: Pride, vanity,
ostentation, arrogance, tyranny.
Sunday, January 4, 1903. The offspring of poverty: Greed,
sordidness, envy, hate, malice, cruelty, meanness, lying, shirking,
cheating, stealing, murder.
Monday, February 2, 1903. 33d wedding anniversary. I was allowed
to see Livy 5 minutes this morning in honor of the day. She makes
but little progress toward recovery, still there is certainly some,
we are sure.
Sunday, March 1, 1903. We may not doubt that society in heaven
consists mainly of undesirable persons.
Thursday, March 19, 1903. Susy's birthday. She would be 31 now.
The family illnesses, which presently included an allotment for himself,
his old bronchitis, made him rage more than ever at the imperfections of
the species which could be subject to such a variety of ills. Once he
Man was made at the end of the week's work when God was tired.
Adam, man's benefactor--he gave him all that he has ever received
that was worth having--death.
The Riverdale home was in reality little more than a hospital that
spring. Jean had scarcely recovered her physical strength when she was
attacked by measles, and Clara also fell a victim to the infection.
Fortunately Mrs. Clemens's health had somewhat improved.
It was during this period that Clemens formulated his eclectic
therapeutic doctrine. Writing to Twichell April 4, 1903, he said:
Livy does make a little progress these past 3 or 4 days, progress
which is visible to even the untrained eye. The physicians are
doing good work for her, but my notion is, that no art of healing is
the best for all ills. I should distribute the ailments around:
surgery cases to the surgeon; lupus to the actinic-ray specialist;
nervous prostration to the Christian Scientist; most ills to the
allopath & the homeopath; & (in my own particular case) rheumatism,
gout, & bronchial attack to the osteopathist.
He had plenty of time to think and to read during those weeks of
confinement, and to rage, and to write when he felt the need of that
expression, though he appears to have completed not much for print beyond
his reply to Mrs. Eddy, already mentioned, and his burlesque,
"Instructions in Art," with pictures by himself, published in the
Metropolitan for April and May.
Howells called his attention to some military outrages in the
Philippines, citing a case where a certain lieutenant had tortured one of
his men, a mild offender, to death out of pure deviltry, and had been
tried but not punished for his fiendish crime.--[The torture to death of
Private Edward C. Richter, an American soldier, by orders of a
commissioned officer of the United States army on the night of February
7, 1902. Private Richter was bound and gagged and the gag held in his
mouth by means of a club while ice-water was slowly poured into his face,
a dipper full at a time, for two hours and a half, until life became
Clemens undertook to give expression to his feelings on this subject, but
he boiled so when he touched pen to paper to write of it that it was
simply impossible for him to say anything within the bounds of print.
Then his only relief was to rise and walk the floor, and curse out his
fury at the race that had produced such a specimen.
Mrs. Clemens, who perhaps got some drift or the echo of these tempests,
now and then sent him a little admonitory, affectionate note.
Among the books that Clemens read, or tried to read, during his
confinement were certain of the novels of Sir Walter Scott. He had never
been able to admire Scott, and determined now to try to understand this
author's popularity and his standing with the critics; but after wading
through the first volume of one novel, and beginning another one, he
concluded to apply to one who could speak as having authority. He wrote
to Brander Matthews:
DEAR BRANDER,--I haven't been out of my bed for 4 weeks, but-well, I
have been reading a good deal, & it occurs to me to ask you to sit
down, some time or other when you have 8 or 9 months to spare, & jot
me down a certain few literary particulars for my help & elevation.
Your time need not be thrown away, for at your further leisure you
can make Columbian lectures out of the results & do your students a
1. Are there in Sir Walter's novels passages done in good English--
English which is neither slovenly nor involved?
2. Are there passages whose English is not poor & thin &
commonplace, but is of a quality above that?
3. Are there passages which burn with real fire--not punk, fox-
4. Has he heroes & heroines who are not cads and cadesses?
5. Has he personages whose acts & talk correspond with their
characters as described by him?
6. Has he heroes & heroines whom the reader admires--admires and
7. Has he funny characters that are funny, and humorous passages
that are humorous?
8. Does he ever chain the reader's interest & make him reluctant to
lay the book down?
9. Are there pages where he ceases from posing, ceases from
admiring the placid flood & flow of his own dilution, ceases from
being artificial, & is for a time, long or short, recognizably
sincere & in earnest?
10. Did he know how to write English, & didn't do it because he
didn't want to?
11. Did he use the right word only when he couldn't think of
another one, or did he run so much to wrong words because he didn't
know the right one when he saw it?
12. Can you read him and keep your respect for him? Of course a
person could in his day--an era of sentimentality & sloppy
romantics--but land! can a body do it to-day?
Brander, I lie here dying; slowly dying, under the blight of Sir
Walter. I have read the first volume of Rob Roy, & as far as
Chapter XIX of Guy Mannering, & I can no longer hold my head up or
take my nourishment. Lord, it's all so juvenile! so artificial, so
shoddy; & such wax figures & skeletons & specters. Interest? Why,
it is impossible to feel an interest in these bloodless shams, these
milk-&-water humbugs. And oh, the poverty of invention! Not
poverty in inventing situations, but poverty in furnishing reasons
for them. Sir Walter usually gives himself away when he arranges
for a situation--elaborates & elaborates & elaborates till, if you
live to get to it, you don't believe in it when it happens.
I can't find the rest of Rob Roy, I, can't stand any more Mannering-
I do not know just what to do, but I will reflect, & not quit this
great study rashly ....
My, I wish I could see you & Leigh Hunt!
S. L. CLEMENS.
But a few days later he experienced a revelation. It came when he
perseveringly attacked still a third work of Scott--Quentin Durward.
Hastily he wrote to Matthews again:
I'm still in bed, but the days have lost their dullness since I broke
into Sir Walter & lost my temper. I finished Guy Mannering that curious,
curious book, with its mob of squalid shadows gibbering around a single
flesh-&-blood being--Dinmont; a book crazily put together out of the very
refuse of the romance artist's stage properties--finished it & took up
Quentin Durward & finished that.
It was like leaving the dead to mingle with the living; it was like
withdrawing from the infant class in the college of journalism to sit
under the lectures in English literature in Columbia University.
I wonder who wrote Quentin Durward?--[This letter, enveloped, addressed,
and stamped, was evidently mislaid. It was found and mailed seven years
later, June, 1910 message from the dead.]
Among other books which he read that winter and spring was Helen Keller's
'The Story of My Life', then recently published. That he finished it in
a mood of sweet gentleness we gather from a long, lovely letter which he
wrote her--a letter in which he said:
I am charmed with your book--enchanted. You are a wonderful creature,
the most wonderful in the world--you and your other half together--Miss
Sullivan, I mean--for it took the pair of you to make a complete &
perfect whole. How she stands out in her letters! her brilliancy,
penetration, originality, wisdom, character, & the fine literary
competencies of her pen--they are all there.
When reading and writing failed as diversion, Mark Twain often turned to
mathematics. With no special talent for accuracy in the matter of
figures, he had a curious fondness for calculations, scientific and
financial, and he used to cover pages, ciphering at one thing and
another, arriving pretty inevitably at the wrong results. When the
problem was financial, and had to do with his own fortunes, his figures
were as likely as not to leave him in a state of panic. The expenditures
were naturally heavy that spring; and one night, when he had nothing
better to do, he figured the relative proportion to his income. The
result showed that they were headed straight for financial ruin. He put
in the rest of the night fearfully rolling and tossing, and
reconstructing his figures that grew always worse, and next morning
summoned Jean and Clara and petrified them with the announcement that the
cost of living was one hundred and twenty-five per cent. more than the
Writing to MacAlister three days later he said:
It was a mistake. When I came down in the morning, a gray and aged
wreck, I found that in some unaccountable way (unaccountable to a
business man, but not to me) I had multiplied the totals by two. By
God, I dropped seventy-five years on the floor where I stood!
Do you know it affected me as one is affected when one wakes out of
a hideous dream & finds it was only a dream. It was a great comfort
& satisfaction to me to call the daughters to a private meeting of
the board again. Certainly there is a blistering & awful reality
about a well-arranged unreality. It is quite within the
possibilities that two or three nights like that of mine would drive
a man to suicide. He would refuse to examine the figures, they
would revolt him so, & he would go to his death unaware that there
was nothing serious about them. I cannot get that night out of my
head, it was so vivid, so real, so ghastly: In any other year of
these thirty-three the relief would have been simple: go where you
can, cut your cloth to fit your income. You can't do that when your
wife can't be moved, even from one room to the next.
The doctor & a specialist met in conspiracy five days ago, & in
their belief she will by and by come out of this as good as new,
substantially. They ordered her to Italy for next winter--which
seems to indicate that by autumn she will be able to undertake the
voyage. So Clara is writing to a Florence friend to take a look
around among the villas for us in the regions near that city.