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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 2: 1907 - 1910|
CCLXII. From Mark Twain's Mail
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|If the reader has any curiosity as to some of the less usual letters
which a man of wide public note may inspire, perhaps he will find a
certain interest in a few selected from the thousands which yearly came
to Mark Twain.
For one thing, he was constantly receiving prescriptions and remedies
whenever the papers reported one of his bronchial or rheumatic attacks.
It is hardly necessary to quote examples of these, but only a form of his
occasional reply, which was likely to be in this wise:
DEAR SIR [or MADAM],--I try every remedy sent to me. I am now on
No. 87. Yours is 2,653. I am looking forward to its beneficial
Of course a large number of the nostrums and palliatives offered were
preparations made by the wildest and longest-haired medical cranks. One
of these sent an advertisement of a certain Elixir of Life, which was
guaranteed to cure everything--to "wash and cleanse the human molecules,
and so restore youth and preserve life everlasting."
Anonymous letters are not usually popular or to be encouraged, but Mark
Twain had an especial weakness for compliments that came in that way.
They were not mercenary compliments. The writer had nothing to gain.
Two such letters follow--both written in England just at the time of his
DEAR SIR,--Please accept a poor widow's good-by and kindest wishes.
I have had some of your books sent to me; have enjoyed them very
much--only wish I could afford to buy some.
I should very much like to have seen you. I have many photos of you
which I have cut from several papers which I read. I have one where
you are writing in bed, which I cut from the Daily News. Like
myself, you believe in lots of sleep and rest. I am 70 and I find I
need plenty. Please forgive the liberty I have taken in writing to
you. If I can't come to your funeral may we meet beyond the river.
May God guard you, is the wish of a lonely old widow.
The other letter also tells its own story:
DEAR, KIND MARK TWAIN,--For years I have wanted to write and thank
you for the comfort you were to me once, only I never quite knew
where you were, and besides I did not want to bother you; but to-day
I was told by some one who saw you going into the lift at the Savoy
that you looked sad and I thought it might cheer you a little tiny
bit to hear how you kept a poor lonely girl from ruining her eyes
with crying every night for long months.
Ten years ago I had to leave home and earn my living as a governess
and Fate sent me to spend a winter with a very dull old country
family in the depths of Staffordshire. According to the genial
English custom, after my five charges had gone to bed, I took my
evening meal alone in the school-room, where "Henry Tudor had supped
the night before Bosworth," and there I had to stay without a soul
to speak to till I went to bed. At first I used to cry every night,
but a friend sent me a copy of your Huckleberry Finn and I never
cried any more. I kept him handy under the copy-books and maps, and
when Henry Tudor commenced to stretch out his chilly hands toward me
I grabbed my dear Huck and he never once failed me; I opened him at
random and in two minutes I was in another world. That's why I am
so grateful to you and so fond of you, and I thought you might like
to know; for it is yourself that has the kind heart, as is easily
seen from the way you wrote about the poor old nigger. I am a
stenographer now and live at home, but I shall never forget how you
helped me. God bless you and spare you long to those you are dear
A letter which came to him soon after his return from England contained a
clipping which reported the good work done by Christian missionaries in
the Congo, especially among natives afflicted by the terrible sleeping
sickness. The letter itself consisted merely of a line, which said:
Won't you give your friends, the missionaries, a good mark for this?
The writer's name was signed, and Mark Twain answered:
In China the missionaries are not wanted, & so they ought to be
decent & go away. But I have not heard that in the Congo the
missionary servants of God are unwelcome to the native.
Evidently those missionaries are pitying, compassionate, kind. How
it would improve God to take a lesson from them! He invented &
distributed the germ of that awful disease among those helpless,
poor savages, & now He sits with His elbows on the balusters & looks
down & enjoys this wanton crime. Confidently, & between you & me-
well, never mind, I might get struck by lightning if I said it.
Those are good and kindly men, those missionaries, but they are a
measureless satire upon their Master.
To which the writer answered:
O wicked Mr. Clemens! I have to ask Saint Joan of Arc to pray for
you; then one of these days, when we all stand before the Golden
Gates and we no longer "see through a glass darkly and know only in
part," there will be a struggle at the heavenly portals between Joan
of Arc and St. Peter, but your blessed Joan will conquer and she'll
lead Mr. Clemens through the gates of pearl and apologize and plead
Of the letters that irritated him, perhaps the following is as fair a
sample as any, and it has additional interest in its sequel.
DEAR SIR,--I have written a book--naturally--which fact, however,
since I am not your enemy, need give you no occasion to rejoice.
Nor need you grieve, though I am sending you a copy. If I knew of
any way of compelling you to read it I would do so, but unless the
first few pages have that effect I can do nothing. Try the first
few pages. I have done a great deal more than that with your books,
so perhaps you owe me some thing--say ten pages. If after that
attempt you put it aside I shall be sorry--for you.
I am afraid that the above looks flippant--but think of the
twitterings of the soul of him who brings in his hand an unbidden
book, written by himself. To such a one much is due in the way of
indulgence. Will you remember that? Have you forgotten early
twitterings of your own?
In a memorandum made on this letter Mark Twain wrote:
Another one of those peculiarly depressing letters--a letter cast in
artificially humorous form, whilst no art could make the subject
Commenting further, he said:
As I have remarked before about one thousand times the coat of arms
of the human race ought to consist of a man with an ax on his
shoulder proceeding toward a grindstone, or it ought to represent
the several members of the human race holding out the hat to one
another; for we are all beggars, each in his own way. One beggar is
too proud to beg for pennies, but will beg for an introduction into
society; another does not care for society, but he wants a
postmastership; another will inveigle a lawyer into conversation and
then sponge on him for free advice. The man who wouldn't do any of
these things will beg for the Presidency. Each admires his own
dignity and greatly guards it, but in his opinion the others haven't
Mendicancy is a matter of taste and temperament, no doubt, but no
human being is without some form of it. I know my own form, you
know yours. Let us conceal them from view and abuse the others.
There is no man so poor but what at intervals some man comes to him
with an ax to grind. By and by the ax's aspect becomes familiar to
the proprietor of the grindstone. He perceives that it is the same
old ax. If you are a governor you know that the stranger wants an
office. The first time he arrives you are deceived; he pours out
such noble praises of you and your political record that you are
moved to tears; there's a lump in your throat and you are thankful
that you have lived for this happiness. Then the stranger discloses
his ax, and you are ashamed of yourself and your race. Six
repetitions will cure you. After that you interrupt the compliments
and say, "Yes, yes, that's all right; never mind about that. What
is it you want?"
But you and I are in the business ourselves. Every now and then we
carry our ax to somebody and ask a whet. I don't carry mine to
strangers--I draw the line there; perhaps that is your way. This is
bound to set us up on a high and holy pinnacle and make us look down
in cold rebuke on persons who carry their axes to strangers.
I do not know how to answer that stranger's letter. I wish he had
spared me. Never mind about him--I am thinking about myself. I
wish he had spared me. The book has not arrived yet; but no matter,
I am prejudiced against it.
It was a few days later that he added:
I wrote to that man. I fell back upon the old Overworked, polite
lie, and thanked him for his book and said I was promising myself
the pleasure of reading it. Of course that set me free; I was not
obliged to read it now at all, and, being free, my prejudice was
gone, and as soon as the book came I opened it to see what it was
like. I was not able to put it down until I had finished. It was
an embarrassing thing to have to write to that man and confess that
fact, but I had to do it. That first letter was merely a lie. Do
you think I wrote the second one to give that man pleasure? Well, I
did, but it was second-hand pleasure. I wrote it first to give
myself comfort, to make myself forget the original lie.
Mark Twain's interest was once aroused by the following:
DEAR SIR,--I have had more or less of your works on my shelves for
years, and believe I have practically a complete set now. This is
nothing unusual, of course, but I presume it will seem to you
unusual for any one to keep books constantly in sight which the
owner regrets ever having read.
Every time my glance rests on the books I do regret having read
them, and do not hesitate to tell you so to your face, and care not
who may know my feelings. You, who must be kept busy attending to
your correspondence, will probably pay little or no attention to
this small fraction of it, yet my reasons, I believe, are sound and
are probably shared by more people than you are aware of.
Probably you will not read far enough through this to see who has
signed it, but if you do, and care to know why I wish I had left
your work unread, I will tell you as briefly as possible if you will
GEORGE B. LAUDER.
Clemens did not answer the letter, but put it in his pocket, perhaps
intending to do so, and a few days later, in Boston, when a reporter
called, he happened to remember it. The reporter asked permission to
print the queer document, and it appeared in his Mark Twain interview
next morning. A few days later the writer of it sent a second letter,
this time explaining:
MY DEAR SIR,--I saw in to-day's paper a copy of the letter which I
wrote you October 26th.
I have read and re-read your works until I can almost recall some of
them word for word. My familiarity with them is a constant source
of pleasure which I would not have missed, and therefore the regret
which I have expressed is more than offset by thankfulness.
Believe me, the regret which I feel for having read your works is
entirely due to the unalterable fact that I can never again have the
pleasure of reading them for the first time.
Your sincere admirer,
GEORGE B. LAUDER.
Mark Twain promptly replied this time:
DEAR SIR, You fooled me completely; I didn't divine what the letter
was concealing, neither did the newspaper men, so you are a very
S. L. CLEMENS.
It was about the end of 1907 that the new St. Louis Harbor boat, was
completed. The editor of the St. Louis Republic reported that it has
been christened "Mark Twain," and asked for a word of comment. Clemens
sent this line:
May my namesake follow in my righteous footsteps, then neither of us
will need any fire insurance.