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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
CCXXXIV. Life at 21 Fifth Avenue
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|The house at 21 Fifth Avenue, built by the architect who had designed
Grace Church, had a distinctly ecclesiastical suggestion about its
windows, and was of fine and stately proportions within. It was a proper
residence for a venerable author and a sage, and with the handsome
Hartford furnishings distributed through it, made a distinctly suitable
setting for Mark Twain. But it was lonely for him. It lacked soul. He
added, presently, a great AEolian Orchestrelle, with a variety of music
for his different moods. He believed that he would play it himself when
he needed the comfort of harmony, and that Jean, who had not received
musical training, or his secretary could also play to him. He had a
passion for music, or at least for melody and stately rhythmic measures,
though his ear was not attuned to what are termed the more classical
compositions. For Wagner, for instance, he cared little, though in a
letter to Mrs. Crane he said:
Certainly nothing in the world is so solemn and impressive and so
divinely beautiful as "Tannhauser." It ought to be used as a religious
Beethoven's sonatas and symphonies also moved him deeply. Once, writing
to Jean, he asked:
What is your favorite piece of music, dear? Mine is Beethoven's Fifth
Symphony. I have found that out within a day or two.
It was the majestic movement and melodies of the second part that he
found most satisfying; but he oftener inclined to the still tenderer
themes of Chopin's nocturnes and one of Schubert's impromptus, while the
"Lorelei" and the "Erlking" and the Scottish airs never wearied him.
Music thus became a chief consolation during these lonely days--rich
organ harmonies that filled the emptiness of his heart and beguiled from
dull, material surroundings back into worlds and dreams that he had known
and laid away.
He went out very little that winter--usually to the homes of old and
intimate friends. Once he attended a small dinner given him by George
Smalley at the Metropolitan Club; but it was a private affair, with only
good friends present. Still, it formed the beginning of his return to
social life, and it was not in his nature to retire from the brightness
of human society, or to submerge himself in mourning. As the months wore
on he appeared here and there, and took on something of his old-time
habit. Then his annual bronchitis appeared, and he was confined a good
deal to his home, where he wrote or planned new reforms and enterprises.
The improvement of railway service, through which fewer persons should be
maimed and destroyed each year, interested him. He estimated that the
railroads and electric lines killed and wounded more than all of the wars
combined, and he accumulated statistics and prepared articles on the
subject, though he appears to have offered little of such matter for
publication. Once, however, when his sympathy was awakened by the victim
of a frightful trolley and train collision in Newark, New Jersey, he
wrote a letter which promptly found its way into print.
DEAR MISS MADELINE, Your good & admiring & affectionate brother has
told me of your sorrowful share in the trolley disaster which
brought unaccustomed tears to millions of eyes & fierce resentment
against those whose criminal indifference to their responsibilities
caused it, & the reminder has brought back to me a pang out of that
bygone time. I wish I could take you sound & whole out of your bed
& break the legs of those officials & put them in it--to stay there.
For in my spirit I am merciful, and would not break their necks &
backs also, as some would who have no feeling.
It is your brother who permits me to write this line--& so it is not
an intrusion, you see.
May you get well-& soon!
S. L. CLEMENS.
A very little later he was writing another letter on a similar subject to
St. Clair McKelway, who had narrowly escaped injury in a railway
DEAR McKELWAY, Your innumerable friends are grateful, most grateful.
As I understand the telegrams, the engineers of your train had never
seen a locomotive before . . . . The government's official
report, showing that our railways killed twelve hundred persons last
year & injured sixty thousand, convinces me that under present
conditions one Providence is not enough properly & efficiently to
take care of our railroad business. But it is characteristically
American--always trying to get along short-handed & save wages.
A massacre of Jews in Moscow renewed his animosity for semi-barbaric
Russia. Asked for a Christmas sentiment, he wrote:
It is my warm & world-embracing Christmas hope that all of us that
deserve it may finally be gathered together in a heaven of rest &
peace, & the others permitted to retire into the clutches of Satan,
or the Emperor of Russia, according to preference--if they have a
An article, "The Tsar's Soliloquy," written at this time, was published
in the North American Review for March (1905). He wrote much more, but
most of the other matter he put aside. On a subject like that he always
discarded three times as much as he published, and it was usually about
three times as terrific as that which found its way into type. "The
Soliloquy," however, is severe enough. It represents the Tsar as
contemplating himself without his clothes, and reflecting on what a poor
human specimen he presents:
Is it this that 140,000,000 Russians kiss the dust before and
worship?--manifestly not! No one could worship this spectacle which
is Me. Then who is it, what is it, that they worship? Privately,
none knows better than I: it is my clothes! Without my clothes I
should be as destitute of authority as any other naked person. No
one could tell me from a parson and barber tutor. Then who is the
real Emperor of Russia! My clothes! There is no other.
The emperor continues this fancy, and reflects on the fierce cruelties
that are done in his name. It was a withering satire on Russian
imperialism, and it stirred a wide response. This encouraged Clemens to
something even more pretentious and effective in the same line. He wrote
"King Leopold's Soliloquy," the reflections of the fiendish sovereign who
had maimed and slaughtered fifteen millions of African subjects in his
greed--gentle, harmless blacks-men, women, and little children whom he
had butchered and mutilated in his Congo rubber-fields. Seldom in the
history of the world have there been such atrocious practices as those of
King Leopold in the Congo, and Clemens spared nothing in his picture of
them. The article was regarded as not quite suitable for magazine
publication, and it was given to the Congo Reform Association and issued
as a booklet for distribution, with no return to the author, who would
gladly have written a hundred times as much if he could have saved that
unhappy race and have sent Leopold to the electric chair.--[The book was
price-marked twenty-five cents, but the returns from such as were sold
went to the cause. Thousands of them were distributed free. The Congo,
a domain four times as large as the German empire, had been made the ward
of Belgium at a convention in Berlin by the agreement of fourteen
nations, America and thirteen European states. Leopold promptly seized
the country for his personal advantage and the nations apparently found
themselves powerless to depose him. No more terrible blunder was ever
committed by an assemblage of civilized people.]
Various plans and movements were undertaken for Congo reform, and Clemens
worked and wrote letters and gave his voice and his influence and
exhausted his rage, at last, as one after another of the half-organized
and altogether futile undertakings showed no results. His interest did
not die, but it became inactive. Eventually he declared: "I have said
all I can say on that terrible subject. I am heart and soul in any
movement that will rescue the Congo and hang Leopold, but I cannot write
His fires were likely to burn themselves out, they raged so fiercely.
His final paragraph on the subject was a proposed epitaph for Leopold
when time should have claimed him. It ran:
Here under this gilded tomb lies rotting the body of one the smell
of whose name will still offend the nostrils of men ages upon ages
after all the Caesars and Washingtons & Napoleons shall have ceased
to be praised or blamed & been forgotten--Leopold of Belgium.
Clemens had not yet lost interest in the American policy in the
Philippines, and in his letters to Twichell he did not hesitate to
criticize the President's attitude in this and related matters. Once,
in a moment of irritation, he wrote:
DEAR JOE,--I knew I had in me somewhere a definite feeling about the
President. If I could only find the words to define it with! Here
they are, to a hair--from Leonard Jerome:
"For twenty years I have loved Roosevelt the man, and hated
Roosevelt the statesman and politician."
It's mighty good. Every time in twenty-five years that I have met
Roosevelt the man a wave of welcome has streaked through me with the
hand-grip; but whenever (as a rule) I meet Roosevelt the statesman &
politician I find him destitute of morals & not respect-worthy. It
is plain that where his political self & party self are concerned he
has nothing resembling a conscience; that under those inspirations
he is naively indifferent to the restraints of duty & even unaware
of them; ready to kick the Constitution into the back yard whenever
it gets in his way....
But Roosevelt is excusable--I recognize it & (ought to) concede it.
We are all insane, each in his own way, & with insanity goes
irresponsibility. Theodore the man is sane; in fairness we ought to
keep in mind that Theodore, as statesman & politician, is insane &
He wrote a great deal more from time to time on this subject; but that is
the gist of his conclusions, and whether justified by time, or otherwise,
it expresses today the deduction of a very large number of people. It is
set down here, because it is a part of Mark Twain's history, and also
because a little while after his death there happened to creep into print
an incomplete and misleading note (since often reprinted), which he once
made in a moment of anger, when he was in a less judicial frame of mind.
It seems proper that a man's honest sentiments should be recorded
concerning the nation's servants.
Clemens wrote an article at this period which he called the "War Prayer."
It pictured the young recruits about to march away for war--the
excitement and the celebration--the drum-beat and the heart-beat of
patriotism--the final assembly in the church where the minister utters
that tremendous invocation:
God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
Thunder, Thy clarion, and lightning, Thy sword!
and the "long prayer" for victory to the nation's armies. As the prayer
closes a white-robed stranger enters, moves up the aisle, and takes the
preacher's place; then, after some moments of impressive silence, he
"I come from the Throne-bearing a message from Almighty God!.....
He has heard the prayer of His servant, your shepherd, & will grant
it if such shall be your desire after I His messenger shall have
explained to you its import--that is to say its full import. For it
is like unto many of the prayers of men in that it asks for more
than he who utters it is aware of--except he pause & think.
"God's servant & yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused & taken
thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two--one uttered, the other
not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all
supplications, the spoken & the unspoken . . . .
"You have heard your servant's prayer--the uttered part of it. I am
commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it--that
part which the pastor--and also you in your hearts--fervently
prayed, silently. And ignorantly & unthinkingly? God grant that it
was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our
God!' That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is
completed into those pregnant words.
"Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken
part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!
"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go
forth to battle--be Thou near them! With them--in spirit--we
also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to
smite the foe.
"O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody
shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields
with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the
thunder of the guns with the wounded, writhing in pain; help us
to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help
us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with
unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their
little children to wander unfriended through wastes of their
desolated land in rags & hunger & thirst, sport of the sun-
flames of summer & the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit,
worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave &
denied it--for our sakes, who adore Thee, Lord, blast their
hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage,
make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain
the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask of
one who is the Spirit of love & who is the ever-faithful refuge
& friend of all that are sore beset, & seek His aid with humble
& contrite hearts. Grant our prayer, O Lord; & Thine shall be
the praise & honor & glory now & ever, Amen."
(After a pause.) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it,
speak!--the messenger of the Most High waits."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It was believed, afterward, that the man was a lunatic, because
there was no sense in what he said.
To Dan Beard, who dropped in to see him, Clemens read the "War Prayer,"
stating that he had read it to his daughter Jean, and others, who had
told him he must not print it, for it would be regarded as sacrilege.
"Still you--are going to publish it, are you not?"
Clemens, pacing up and down the room in his dressing-gown and slippers,
shook his head.
"No," he said, "I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men
can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead."
He did not care to invite the public verdict that he was a lunatic, or
even a fanatic with a mission to destroy the illusions and traditions and
conclusions of mankind. To Twichell he wrote, playfully but sincerely:
Am I honest? I give you my word of honor (privately) I am not. For
seven years I have suppressed a book which my conscience tells me I ought
to publish. I hold it a duty to publish it. There are other difficult
duties which I am equal to, but I am not equal to that one. Yes, even I
am dishonest. Not in many ways, but in some. Forty-one, I think it is.
We are certainly all honest in one or several ways--every man in the
world--though I have a reason to think I am the only one whose blacklist
runs so light. Sometimes I feel lonely enough in this lofty solitude.
It was his Gospel he referred to as his unpublished book, his doctrine of
Selfishness, and of Man the irresponsible Machine. To Twichell he
pretended to favor war, which he declared, to his mind, was one of the
very best methods known of diminishing the human race.
What a life it is!--this one! Everything we try to do, somebody intrudes
& obstructs it. After years of thought & labor I have arrived within one
little bit of a step of perfecting my invention for exhausting the oxygen
in the globe's air during a stretch of two minutes, & of course along
comes an obstructor who is inventing something to protect human life.
Damn such a world anyway.
He generally wrote Twichell when he had things to say that were outside
of the pale of print. He was sure of an attentive audience of one, and
the audience, whether it agreed with him or not, would at least
understand him and be honored by his confidence. In one letter of that
year he said:
I have written you to-day, not to do you a service, but to do myself one.
There was bile in me. I had to empty it or lose my day to-morrow. If I
tried to empty it into the North American Review--oh, well, I couldn't
afford the risk. No, the certainty! The certainty that I wouldn't be
satisfied with the result; so I would burn it, & try again to-morrow;
burn that and try again the next day. It happens so nearly every time.
I have a family to support, & I can't afford this kind of dissipation.
Last winter when I was sick I wrote a magazine article three times before
I got it to suit me. I Put $500 worth of work on it every day for ten
days, & at last when I got it to suit me it contained but 3,000 words-
$900. I burned it & said I would reform.
And I have reformed. I have to work my bile off whenever it gets to
where I can't stand it, but I can work it off on you economically,
because I don't have to make it suit me. It may not suit you, but that
isn't any matter; I'm not writing it for that. I have used you as an
equilibrium--restorer more than once in my time, & shall continue, I
guess. I would like to use Mr. Rogers, & he is plenty good-natured
enough, but it wouldn't be fair to keep him rescuing me from my leather-
headed business snarls & make him read interminable bile-irruptions
besides; I can't use Howells, he is busy & old & lazy, & won't stand it;
I dasn't use Clara, there's things I have to say which she wouldn't put
up with--a very dear little ashcat, but has claws. And so--you're It.
[See the preface to the "Autobiography of Mark Twain": 'I am writing
from the grave. On these terms only can a man be approximately
frank. He cannot be straitly and unqualifiedly frank either in the
grave or out of it.' D.W.]