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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XX. Keokuk Days
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Orion wished his brother to remain with him in the Muscatine office, but
the young man declared he must go to St. Louis and earn some money before
he would be able to afford that luxury: He returned to his place on the
St. Louis Evening News, where he remained until late winter or early
spring of the following year.
He lived at this time with a Pavey family, probably one of the Hannibal
Paveys, rooming with a youth named Frank E. Burrough, a journeyman chair-
maker with a taste for Dickens, Thackeray, Scott, and Disraeli. Burrough
had really a fine literary appreciation for his years, and the boys were
comrades and close friends. Twenty-two years later Mark Twain exchanged
with Burrough some impressions of himself at that earlier time. Clemens
MY DEAR BURROUGH,--As you describe me I can picture myself as I was
22 years ago. The portrait is correct. You think I have grown
some; upon my word there was room for it. You have described a
callow fool, a self-sufficient ass, a mere human tumble-bug, stern
in air, heaving at his bit of dung, imagining that he is remodeling
the world and is entirely capable of doing it right.... That is
what I was at 19-20.
Orion Clemens in the mean time had married and removed to Keokuk. He had
married during a visit to that city, in the casual, impulsive way so
characteristic of him, and the fact that he had acquired a wife in the
operation seemed at first to have escaped his inner consciousness. He
tells it himself; he says:
At sunrise on the next morning after the wedding we left in a stage
for Muscatine. We halted for dinner at Burlington. After
despatching that meal we stood on the pavement when the stage drove
up, ready for departure. I climbed in, gathered the buffalo robe
around me, and leaned back unconscious that I had anything further
to do. A gentleman standing on the pavement said to my wife, "Miss,
do you go by this stage?" I said, "Oh, I forgot!" and sprang out
and helped her in. A wife was a new kind of possession to which I
had not yet become accustomed; I had forgotten her.
Orion's wife had been Mary Stotts; her mother a friend of Jane Clemens's
girlhood. She proved a faithful helpmate to Orion; but in those early
days of marriage she may have found life with him rather trying, and it
was her homesickness that brought them to Keokuk. Brother Sam came up
from St. Louis, by and by, to visit them, and Orion offered him five
dollars a week and board to remain. He accepted. The office at this
time, or soon after, was located on the third floor of 52 Main Street, in
the building at present occupied by the Paterson Shoe Company. Henry
Clemens, now seventeen, was also in Orion's employ, and a lad by the name
of Dick Hingham. Henry and Sam slept in the office, and Dick came in for
social evenings. Also a young man named Edward Brownell, who clerked in
the book-store on the ground floor.
These were likely to be lively evenings. A music dealer and teacher,
Professor Isbell, occupied the floor just below, and did not care for
their diversions. He objected, but hardly in the right way. Had he gone
to Samuel Clemens gently, he undoubtedly would have found him willing to
make any concessions. Instead, he assailed him roughly, and the next
evening the boys set up a lot of empty wine-bottles, which they had found
in a barrel in a closet, and, with stones for balls, played tenpins on
the office floor. This was Dick and Sam; Henry declined to join the
game. Isbell rushed up-stairs and battered on the door, but they paid no
attention. Next morning he waited for the young men and denounced them
wildly. They merely ignored him, and that night organized a military
company, made up of themselves and a new German apprentice-boy, and
drilled up and down over the singing-class. Dick Hingham led these
military manoeuvers. He was a girlish sort of a fellow, but he had a
natural taste for soldiering. The others used to laugh at him. They
called him a disguised girl, and declared he would run if a gun were
really pointed in his direction. They were mistaken; seven years later
Dick died at Fort Donelson with a bullet in his forehead: this, by the
Isbell now adopted new tactics. He came up very pleasantly and said:
"I like your military practice better than your tenpin exercise, but on
the whole it seems to disturb the young ladies. You see how it is
yourself. You couldn't possibly teach music with a company of raw
recruits drilling overhead--now, could you? Won't you please stop it?
It bothers my pupils."
Sam Clemens regarded him with mild surprise.
"Does it?" he said, very deliberately. "Why didn't you mention it
before? To be sure we don't want to disturb the young ladies."
They gave up the horse-play, and not only stopped the disturbance, but
joined one of the singing--classes. Samuel Clemens had a pretty good
voice in those days and could drum fairly well on a piano and guitar.
He did not become a brilliant musician, but he was easily the most
popular member of the singing-class.
They liked his frank nature, his jokes, and his humor; his slow, quaint
fashion of speech. The young ladies called him openly and fondly a
"fool"--a term of endearment, as they applied it meaning only that he
kept them in a more or less constant state of wonder and merriment; and
indeed it would have been hard for them to say whether he was really
light-minded and frivolous or the wisest of them all. He was twenty now
and at the age for love-making; yet he remained, as in Hannibal, a beau
rather than a suitor, good friend and comrade to all, wooer of none.
Ella Creel, a cousin on the Lampton side, a great belle; also Ella
Patterson (related through Orion's wife and generally known as "Ick"),
and Belle Stotts were perhaps his favorite companions, but there were
many more. He was always ready to stop and be merry with them, full of
his pranks and pleasantries; though they noticed that he quite often
carried a book under his arm--a history or a volume of Dickens or the
tales of Edgar Allan Poe.
He read at odd moments; at night voluminously--until very late,
sometimes. Already in that early day it was his habit to smoke in bed,
and he had made him an Oriental pipe of the hubble-bubble variety,
because it would hold more and was more comfortable than the regular
short pipe of daytime use.
But it had its disadvantages. Sometimes it would go out, and that would
mean sitting up and reaching for a match and leaning over to light the
bowl which stood on the floor. Young Brownell from below was passing
upstairs to his room on the fourth floor one night when he heard Sam
Clemens call. The two were great chums by this time, and Brownell poked
his head in at the door.
"What will you have, Sam?" he asked.
"Come in, Ed; Henry's asleep, and I am in trouble. I want somebody to
light my pipe."
"Why don't you get up and light it yourself?" Brownell asked.
"I would, only I knew you'd be along in a few minutes and would do it for
Brownell scratched the necessary match, stooped down, and applied it.
"What are you reading, Sam?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing much--a so-called funny book--one of these days I'll write a
funnier book than that, myself."
"No, you won't, Sam," he said. "You are too lazy ever to write a book."
A good many years later when the name "Mark Twain" had begun to stand for
American humor the owner of it gave his "Sandwich Island" lecture in
Keokuk. Speaking of the unreliability of the islanders, he said: "The
king is, I believe, one of the greatest liars on the face of the earth,
except one; and I am very sorry to locate that one right here in the city
of Keokuk, in the person of Ed Brownell."
The Keokuk episode in Mark Twain's life was neither very long nor very
actively important. It extended over a period of less than two years--
two vital years, no doubt, if all the bearings could be known--but they
were not years of startling occurrence.
Yet he made at least one beginning there: at a printers' banquet he
delivered his first after-dinner speech; a hilarious speech--its humor of
a primitive kind. Whatever its shortcomings, it delighted his audience,
and raised him many points in the public regard. He had entered a field
of entertainment in which he would one day have no rival. They impressed
him into a debating society after that, and there was generally a stir of
attention when Sam Clemens was about to take the floor.
Orion Clemens records how his brother undertook to teach the German
"There was an old guitar in the office and Sam taught Fritz a song
"Grasshopper sitting on a sweet-potato vine,
Turkey came along and yanked him from behind."
The main point in the lesson was in giving to the word "yanked" the
proper expression and emphasis, accompanied by a sweep of the fingers
across the strings. With serious face and deep earnestness Fritz in his
broken English would attempt these lines, while his teacher would bend
over and hold his sides with laughter at each ridiculous effort. Without
intending it, Fritz had his revenge. One day his tormentor's hand was
caught in the press when the German boy was turning the wheel. Sam
called to him to stop, but the boy's mind was slow to grasp the
situation. The hand was badly wounded, though no bones were broken. In
due time it recovered, its power and dexterity, but the trace of the
Orion's printing-office was not a prosperous one; he had not the gift of
prosperity in any form. When he found it difficult to pay his brother's
wages, he took him into partnership, which meant that Sam got no wages at
all, barely a living, for the office could not keep its head above water.
The junior partner was not disturbed, however. He cared little for money
in those days, beyond his actual needs, and these were modest enough.
His mother, now with Pamela, was amply provided for. Orion himself tells
how his business dwindled away. He printed a Keokuk directory, but it
did not pay largely. He was always too eager for the work; too low in
his bid for it. Samuel Clemens in this directory is set down as "an
antiquarian" a joke, of course, though the point of it is now lost.
Only two of his Keokuk letters have been preserved. The first indicates
the general disorder of the office and a growing dissatisfaction. It is
addressed to his mother and sister and bears date of June 10, 1856.
I don't like to work at too many things at once. They take Henry
and Dick away from me, too. Before we commenced the Directory,--
[Orion printed two editions of the directory. This was probably the
second one.]--I could tell before breakfast just how much work
could be done during the day, and manage accordingly--but now, they
throw all my plans into disorder by taking my hands away from their
work.... I am not getting along well with the job-work. I can't
work blindly--without system. I gave Dick a job yesterday, which I
calculated he could set in two hours and I could work off on the
press in three, and therefore just finish it by supper-time, but he
was transferred to the Directory, and the job, promised this
morning, remains untouched. Through all the great pressure of job-
work lately, I never before failed in a promise of the kind . . .
The other letter is dated two months later, August 5th. It was written
to Henry, who was visiting in St. Louis or Hannibal at the time, and
introduces the first mention of the South American fever, which now
possessed the writer. Lynch and Herndon had completed their survey of
the upper Amazon, and Lieutenant Herndon's account of the exploration was
being widely read. Poring over the book nights, young Clemens had been
seized with a desire to go to the headwaters of the South American river,
there to collect coca and make a fortune. All his life he was subject to
such impulses as that, and ways and means were not always considered. It
did not occur to him that it would be difficult to get to the Amazon and
still more difficult to ascend the river. It was his nature to see
results with a dazzling largeness that blinded him to the detail of their
achievement. In the "Turning-point" article already mentioned he refers
to this. He says:
That was more than fifty years ago. In all that time my temperament
has not changed by even a shade. I have been punished many and many
a time, and bitterly, for doing things and reflecting afterward, but
these tortures have been of no value to me; I still do the thing
commanded by Circumstance and Temperament, and reflect afterward.
Always violently. When I am reflecting on these occasions, even
deaf persons can hear me think.
In the letter to Henry we see that his resolve was already made, his
plans matured; also that Orion had not as yet been taken into full
Ma knows my determination, but even she counsels me to keep it from
Orion. She says I can treat him as I did her when I started to St.
Louis and went to New York--I can start for New York and go to South
He adds that Orion had promised him fifty or one hundred dollars, but
that he does not depend upon it, and will make other arrangements. He
fears obstacles may be put in his way, and he will bring various
influences to bear.
I shall take care that Ma and Orion are plentifully supplied with
South American books: They have Herndon's report now. Ward and the
Dr. and myself will hold a grand consultation to-night at the
office. We have agreed that no more shall be admitted into our
He had enlisted those two adventurers in his enterprise: a Doctor Martin
and the young man, Ward. They were very much in earnest, but the start
was not made as planned, most likely for want of means.
Young Clemens, however, did not give up the idea. He made up his mind to
work in the direction of his desire, following his trade and laying by
money for the venture. But Fate or Providence or Accident--whatever we
may choose to call the unaccountable--stepped in just then, and laid
before him the means of turning another sharp corner in his career. One
of those things happened which we refuse to accept in fiction as
possible; but fact has a smaller regard for the credibilities.
As in the case of the Joan of Arc episode (and this adds to its marvel),
it was the wind that brought the talismanic gift. It was a day in early
November--bleak, bitter, and gusty, with curling snow; most persons were
indoors. Samuel Clemens, going down Main Street, saw a flying bit of
paper pass him and lodge against the side of a building. Something about
it attracted him and he captured it. It was a fifty-dollar bill. He had
never seen one before, but he recognized it. He thought he must be
having a pleasant dream.
The temptation came to pocket his good-fortune and say nothing. His need
of money was urgent, but he had also an urgent and troublesome
conscience; in the end he advertised his find.
"I didn't describe it very particularly, and I waited in daily fear that
the owner would turn up and take away my fortune. By and by I couldn't
stand it any longer. My conscience had gotten all that was coming to it.
I felt that I must take that money out of danger."
In the "Turning-point" article he says: "I advertised the find and left
for the Amazon the same day," a statement which we may accept with a
As a matter of fact, he remained ample time and nobody ever came for the
money. It may have been swept out of a bank or caught up by the wind
from some counting-room table. It may have materialized out of the
unseen--who knows? At all events it carried him the first stage of a
journey, the end of which he little dreamed.