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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XIX. In the Footsteps of Franklin
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|He went to St. Louis by the night boat, visited his sister Pamela, and
found a job in the composing-room of the Evening News. He remained on
the paper only long enough to earn money with which to see the world.
The "world" was New York City, where the Crystal Palace Fair was then
going on. The railway had been completed by this time, but he had not
traveled on it. It had not many comforts; several days and nights were
required for the New York trip; yet it was a wonderful and beautiful
experience. He felt that even Pet McMurry could hardly have done
anything to surpass it. He arrived in New York with two or three dollars
in his pocket and a ten-dollar bill concealed in the lining of his coat.
New York was a great and amazing city. It almost frightened him. It
covered the entire lower end of Manhattan Island; visionary citizens
boasted that one day it would cover it all. The World's Fair building,
the Crystal Palace, stood a good way out. It was where Bryant Park is
now, on Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue. Young Clemens classed it
as one of the wonders of the world and wrote lavishly of its marvels.
A portion of a letter to his sister Pamela has been preserved and is
given here not only for what it contains, but as the earliest existing
specimen of his composition. The fragment concludes what was doubtless
an exhaustive description.
From the gallery (second floor) you have a glorious sight--the flags
of the different countries represented, the lofty dome, glittering
jewelry, gaudy tapestry, etc., with the busy crowd passing to and
fro 'tis a perfect fairy palace--beautiful beyond description.
The machinery department is on the main floor, but I cannot
enumerate any of it on account of the lateness of the hour (past 1
o'clock). It would take more than a week to examine everything on
exhibition; and I was only in a little over two hours to-night.
I only glanced at about one-third of the articles; and, having a
poor memory, I have enumerated scarcely any of even the principal
objects. The visitors to the Palace average 6,000 daily--double the
population of Hannibal. The price of admission being 50 cents, they
take in about $3,000.
The Latting Observatory (height about 280 feet) is near the Palace-
from it you can obtain a grand view of the city and the country
around. The Croton Aqueduct, to supply the city with water, is the
greatest wonder yet. Immense sewers are laid across the bed of the
Hudson River, and pass through the country to Westchester County,
where a whole river is turned from its course and brought to New
York. From the reservoir in the city to the Westchester County
reservoir the distance is thirty-eight miles and, if necessary, they
could easily supply every family in New York with one hundred
barrels of water per day!
I am very sorry to learn that Henry has been sick. He ought to go
to the country and take exercise, for he is not half so healthy as
Ma thinks he is. If he had my walking to do, he would be another
boy entirely. Four times every day I walk a little over a mile; and
working hard all day and walking four miles is exercise. I am used
to it now, though, and it is no trouble. Where is it Orion's going
to? Tell Ma my promises are faithfully kept; and if I have my
health I will take her to Ky. in the spring--I shall save money for
this. Tell Jim (Wolfe) and all the rest of them to write, and give
me all the news ....
(It has just struck 2 A.M., and I always get up at 6, and am at work
at 7.) You ask where I spend my evenings. Where would you suppose,
with a free printer's library containing more than 4,000 volumes
within a quarter of a mile of me, and nobody at home to talk to?
Truly your brother, SAM
P.S.-I have written this by a light so dim that you nor Ma could not
read by it. Write, and let me know how Henry is.
It is a good letter; it is direct and clear in its descriptive quality,
and it gives us a scale of things. Double the population of Hannibal
visited the Crystal Palace in one day! and the water to supply the city
came a distance of thirty-eight miles! Doubtless these were amazing
Then there was the interest in family affairs--always strong--his concern
for Henry, whom he loved tenderly; his memory of the promise to his
mother; his understanding of her craving to visit her old home. He did
not write to her direct, for the reason that Orion's plans were then
uncertain, and it was not unlikely that he had already found a new
location. From this letter, too, we learn that the boy who detested
school was reveling in a library of four thousand books--more than he had
ever seen together before. We have somehow the feeling that he had all
at once stepped from boyhood to manhood, and that the separation was
marked by a very definite line.
The work he had secured was in Cliff Street in the printing establishment
of John A. Gray & Green, who agreed to pay him four dollars a week, and
did pay that amount in wildcat money, which saved them about twenty-five
per cent. of the sum. He lodged at a mechanics' boarding-house in Duane
Street, and when he had paid his board and washing he sometimes had as
much as fifty cents to lay away.
He did not like the board. He had been accustomed to the Southern mode
of cooking, and wrote home complaining that New-Yorkers did not have
"hot-bread" or biscuits, but ate "light-bread," which they allowed to get
stale, seeming to prefer it in that way. On the whole, there was not
much inducement to remain in New York after he had satisfied himself with
its wonders. He lingered, however, through the hot months of 1853, and
found it not easy to go. In October he wrote to Pamela, suggesting plans
for Orion; also for Henry and Jim Wolfe, whom he seems never to have
overlooked. Among other things he says:
I have not written to any of the family for some time, from the
fact, firstly, that I didn't know where they were, and, secondly,
because I have been fooling myself with the idea that I was going to
leave New York every day for the last two weeks. I have taken a
liking to the abominable place, and every time I get ready to leave
I put it off a day or so, from some unaccountable cause. I think I
shall get off Tuesday, though.
Edwin Forrest has been playing for the last sixteen days at the
Broadway Theater, but I never went to see him till last night. The
play was the "Gladiator." I did not like parts of it much, but
other portions were really splendid. In the latter part of the last
act, where the "Gladiator" (Forrest) dies at his brother's feet (in
all the fierce pleasure of gratified revenge), the man's whole soul
seems absorbed in the part he is playing; and it is really startling
to see him. I am sorry I did not see him play "Damon and Pythias"--
the former character being the greatest. He appears in Philadelphia
on Monday night.
I have not received a letter from home lately, but got a "Journal"
the other day, in which I see the office has been sold . . . .
If my letters do not come often, you need not bother yourself about
me; for if you have a brother nearly eighteen years of age who is
not able to take care of himself a few miles from home, such a
brother is not worth one's thoughts; and if I don't manage to take
care of No. 1, be assured you will never know it. I am not afraid,
however; I shall ask favors of no one and endeavor to be (and shall
be) as "independent as a wood-sawyer's clerk.". . .
Passage to Albany (160 miles) on the finest steamers that ply the
Hudson is now 25 cents--cheap enough, but is generally cheaper than
that in the summer.
"I have been fooling myself with the idea that I was going to leave New
York" is distinctly a Mark Twain phrase. He might have said that fifty
He did go to Philadelphia presently and found work "subbing" on a daily
paper,'The Inquirer.' He was a fairly swift compositor. He could set
ten thousand ems a day, and he received pay according to the amount of
work done. Days or evenings when there was no vacant place for him to
fill he visited historic sites, the art-galleries, and the libraries.
He was still acquiring education, you see. Sometimes at night when he
returned to his boardinghouse his room-mate, an Englishman named Sumner,
grilled a herring, and this was regarded as a feast. He tried his hand
at writing in Philadelphia, though this time without success. For some
reason he did not again attempt to get into the Post, but offered his
contributions to the Philadelphia 'Ledger'--mainly poetry of an obituary
kind. Perhaps it was burlesque; he never confessed that, but it seems
unlikely that any other obituary poetry would have failed of print.
"My efforts were not received with approval," was all he ever said of it
There were two or three characters in the 'Inquirer' office whom he did
not forget. One of these was an old compositor who had "held a case" in
that office for many years. His name was Frog, and sometimes when he
went away the "office devils" would hang a line over his case, with a
hook on it baited with a piece of red flannel. They never got tired of
this joke, and Frog was always able to get as mad over it as he had been
in the beginning. Another old fellow there furnished amusement. He
owned a house in the distant part of the city and had an abnormal fear of
fire. Now and then, when everything was quiet except the clicking of the
types, some one would step to the window and say with a concerned air:
"Doesn't that smoke--[or that light, if it was evening]--seem to be in
the northwestern part of the city?" or "There go the fire-bells again!"
and away the old man would tramp up to the roof to investigate. It was
not the most considerate sport, and it is to be feared that Sam Clemens
had his share in it.
He found that he liked Philadelphia. He could save a little money there,
for one thing, and now and then sent something to his mother--small
amounts, but welcome and gratifying, no doubt. In a letter to Orion--
whom he seems to have forgiven with absence--written October 26th, he
incloses a gold dollar to buy her a handkerchief, and "to serve as a
specimen of the kind of stuff we are paid with in Philadelphia." Further
along he adds:
Unlike New York, I like this Philadelphia amazingly, and the people
in it. There is only one thing that gets my "dander" up--and that
is the hands are always encouraging me: telling me "it's no use to
get discouraged--no use to be downhearted, for there is more work
here than you can do!" "Downhearted," the devil! I have not had a
particle of such a feeling since I left Hannibal, more than four
months ago. I fancy they'll have to wait some time till they see me
downhearted or afraid of starving while I have strength to work and
am in a city of 400,000 inhabitants. When I was in Hannibal, before
I had scarcely stepped out of the town limits, nothing could have
convinced me that I would starve as soon as I got a little way from
He mentions the grave of Franklin in Christ Churchyard with its
inscription "Benjamin and Deborah Franklin," and one is sharply reminded
of the similarity between the early careers of Benjamin Franklin and
Samuel Clemens. Each learned the printer's trade; each worked in his
brother's printing-office and wrote for the paper; each left quietly and
went to New York, and from New York to Philadelphia, as a journeyman
printer; each in due season became a world figure, many-sided, human, and
of incredible popularity.
The foregoing letter ends with a long description of a trip made on the
Fairmount stage. It is a good, vivid description--impressions of a
fresh, sensitive mind, set down with little effort at fine writing; a
letter to convey literal rather than literary enjoyment. The Wire
Bridge, Fairmount Park and Reservoir, new buildings--all these passed in
review. A fine residence about completed impressed him:
It was built entirely of great blocks of red granite. The pillars
in front were all finished but one. These pillars were beautiful,
ornamental fluted columns, considerably larger than a hogshead at
the base, and about as high as Clapinger's second-story front
windows . . . . To see some of them finished and standing, and
then the huge blocks lying about, looks so massy, and carries one,
in imagination, to the ruined piles of ancient Babylon. I despise
the infernal bogus brick columns plastered over with mortar. Marble
is the cheapest building-stone about Philadelphia.
There is a flavor of the 'Innocents' about it; then a little further
I saw small steamboats, with their signs up--"For Wissahickon and
Manayunk 25 cents." Geo. Lippard, in his Legends of Washington and
his Generals, has rendered the Wissahickon sacred in my eyes, and I
shall make that trip, as well as one to Germantown, soon . . . .
There is one fine custom observed in Phila. A gentleman is always
expected to hand up a lady's money for her. Yesterday I sat in the
front end of the bus, directly under the driver's box--a lady sat
opposite me. She handed me her money, which was right. But, Lord!
a St. Louis lady would think herself ruined if she should be so
familiar with a stranger. In St. Louis a man will sit in the front
end of the stage, and see a lady stagger from the far end to pay her
There are two more letters from Philadelphia: one of November, 28th, to
Orion, who by this time had bought a paper in Muscatine, Iowa, and
located the family there; and one to Pamela dated December 5th.
Evidently Orion had realized that his brother might be of value as a
contributor, for the latter says:
I will try to write for the paper occasionally, but I fear my
letters will be very uninteresting, for this incessant night work
dulls one's ideas amazingly.... I believe I am the only person in
the Inquirer office that does not drink. One young fellow makes $18
for a few weeks, and gets on a grand "bender" and spends every cent
How do you like "free soil"?--I would like amazingly to see a good
old-fashioned negro. My love to all.
Truly your brother, SAM
In the letter to Pamela he is clearly homesick.
"I only want to return to avoid night work, which is injuring my eyes,"
is the excuse, but in the next sentence he complains of the scarcity of
letters from home and those "not written as they should be." "One only
has to leave home to learn how to write interesting letters to an absent
friend," he says, and in conclusion, "I don't like our present prospect
for cold weather at all."
He had been gone half a year, and the first attack of home-longing, for a
boy of his age, was due. The novelty of things had worn off; it was
coming on winter; changes had taken place among his home people and
friends; the life he had known best and longest was going on and he had
no part in it. Leaning over his case, he sometimes hummed:
"An exile from home, splendor dazzles in vain."
He weathered the attack and stuck it out for more than half a year
longer. In January, when the days were dark and he grew depressed, he
made a trip to Washington to see the sights of the capital. His stay was
comparatively brief, and he did not work there. He returned to
Philadelphia, working for a time on the Ledger and North American.
Finally he went back to New York. There are no letters of this period.
His second experience in New York appears not to have been recorded, and
in later years was only vaguely remembered. It was late in the summer of
1854 when he finally set out on his return to the West. His 'Wanderjahr'
had lasted nearly fifteen months.
He went directly to St. Louis, sitting up three days and nights in a
smoking-car to make the journey. He was worn out when he arrived, but
stopped there only a few hours to see Pamela. It was his mother he was
anxious for. He took the Keokuk Packet that night, and, flinging himself
on his berth, slept the clock three times around, scarcely rousing or
turning over, only waking at last at Muscatine. For a long time that
missing day confused his calculations.
When he reached Orion's house the family sat at breakfast. He came in
carrying a gun. They had not been expecting him, and there was a general
outcry, and a rush in his direction. He warded them off, holding the
butt of the gun in front of him.
"You wouldn't let me buy a gun," he said, "so I bought one myself, and I
am going to use it, now, in self-defense."
"You, Sam! You, Sam!" cried Jane Clemens. "Behave yourself," for she
was wary of a gun.
Then he had had his joke and gave himself into his mother's arms.