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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XLIII. Artemus Ward
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Madame Caprell's warning concerning Mark Twain's health at twenty-eight
would seem to have been justified. High-strung and neurotic, the strain
of newspaper work and the tumult of the Comstock had told on him. As in
later life, he was subject to bronchial colds, and more than once that
year he found it necessary to drop all work and rest for a time at
Steamboat Springs, a place near Virginia City, where there were boiling
springs and steaming fissures in the mountain-side, and a comfortable
hotel. He contributed from there sketches somewhat more literary in form
than any of his previous work. "Curing a Cold" is a more or less
exaggerated account of his ills.
[Included in Sketches New and Old. "Information for the Million,"
and "Advice to Good Little Girls," included in the "Jumping Frog"
Collection, 1867, but omitted from the Sketches, are also believed
to belong to this period.]
A portion of a playful letter to his mother, written from the springs,
You have given my vanity a deadly thrust. Behold, I am prone to
boast of having the widest reputation as a local editor of any man
on the Pacific coast, and you gravely come forward and tell me "if I
work hard and attend closely to my business, I may aspire to a place
on a big San Francisco daily some day." There's a comment on human
vanity for you! Why, blast it, I was under the impression that I
could get such a situation as that any time I asked for it. But I
don't want it. No paper in the United States can afford to pay me
what my place on the Enterprise is worth. If I were not naturally a
lazy, idle, good-for-nothing vagabond, I could make it pay me
$20,000 a year. But I don't suppose I shall ever be any account. I
lead an easy life, though, and I don't care a cent whether school
keeps or not. Everybody knows me, and I fare like a prince wherever
I go, be it on this side of the mountain or the other. And I am
proud to say I am the most conceited ass in the Territory.
You think that picture looks old? Well, I can't help it--in reality
I'm not as old as I was when I was eighteen.
Which was a true statement, so far as his general attitude was concerned.
At eighteen, in New York and Philadelphia, his letters had been grave,
reflective, advisory. Now they were mostly banter and froth, lightly
indifferent to the serious side of things, though perhaps only
pretendedly so, for the picture did look old. From the shock and
circumstance of his brother's death he--had never recovered. He was
barely twenty-eight. From the picture he might have been a man of forty.
It was that year that Artemus Ward (Charles F. Browne) came to Virginia
City. There was a fine opera-house in Virginia, and any attraction that
billed San Francisco did not fail to play to the Comstock. Ward intended
staying only a few days to deliver his lectures, but the whirl of the
Comstock caught him like a maelstrom, and he remained three weeks.
He made the Enterprise office his headquarters, and fairly reveled in the
company he found there. He and Mark Twain became boon companions. Each
recognized in the other a kindred spirit. With Goodman, De Quille, and
McCarthy, also E. E. Hingston--Ward's agent, a companionable fellow--they
usually dined at Chaumond's, Virginia's high-toned French restaurant.
Those were three memorable weeks in Mark Twain's life. Artemus Ward was
in the height of his fame, and he encouraged his new-found brother-
humorist and prophesied great things of him. Clemens, on his side,
measured himself by this man who had achieved fame, and perhaps with good
reason concluded that Ward's estimate was correct, that he too could win
fame and honor, once he got a start. If he had lacked ambition before
Ward's visit, the latter's unqualified approval inspired him with that
priceless article of equipment. He put his soul into entertaining the
visitor during those three weeks; and it was apparent to their associates
that he was at least Ward's equal in mental stature and originality.
Goodman and the others began to realize that for Mark Twain the rewards
of the future were to be measured only by his resolution and ability to
hold out. On Christmas eve Artemus lectured in Silver City and afterward
came to the Enterprise office to give the boys a farewell dinner. The
Enterprise always published a Christmas carol, and Goodman sat at his
desk writing it. He was just finishing as Ward came in:
"Slave, slave," said Artemus. "Come out and let me banish care from
They got the boys and all went over to Chaumond's, where Ward commanded
Goodman to order the dinner. When the cocktails came on, Artemus lifted
his glass and said:
"I give you Upper Canada."
The company rose, drank the toast in serious silence; then Goodman said:
"Of course, Artemus, it's all right, but why did you give us Upper
"Because I don't want it myself," said Ward, gravely.
Then began a rising tide of humor that could hardly be matched in the
world to-day. Mark Twain had awakened to a fuller power; Artemus Ward
was in his prime. They were giants of a race that became extinct when
Mark Twain died. The youth, the wine, the whirl of lights and life, the
tumult of the shouting street-it was as if an electric stream of
inspiration poured into those two human dynamos and sent them into a
dazzling, scintillating whirl. All gone--as evanescent, as forgotten, as
the lightnings of that vanished time; out of that vast feasting and
entertainment only a trifling morsel remains. Ward now and then asked
Goodman why he did not join in the banter. Goodman said:
"I'm preparing a joke, Artemus, but I'm keeping it for the present."
It was near daybreak when Ward at last called for the bill. It was two
hundred and thirty-seven dollars.
"What"' exclaimed Artemus.
"That's my joke." said Goodman.
"But I was only exclaiming because it was not twice as much," returned
He paid it amid laughter, and they went out into the early morning air.
It was fresh and fine outside, not yet light enough to see clearly.
Artemus threw his face up to the sky and said:
"I feel glorious. I feel like walking on the roofs."
Virginia was built on the steep hillside, and the eaves of some of the
houses almost touched the ground behind them.
"There is your chance, Artemus," Goodman said, pointing to a row of these
houses all about of a height.
Artemus grabbed Mark Twain, and they stepped out upon the long string of
roofs and walked their full length, arm in arm. Presently the others
noticed a lonely policeman cocking his revolver and getting ready to aim
in their direction. Goodman called to him:
"Wait a minute. What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to shoot those burglars," he said.
"Don't for your life. Those are not burglars. That's Mark Twain and
The roof-walkers returned, and the party went down the street to a corner
across from the International Hotel. A saloon was there with a barrel
lying in front, used, perhaps for a sort of sign. Artemus climbed
astride the barrel, and somebody brought a beer-glass and put it in his
hand. Virginia City looks out over the Eastward Desert. Morning was
just breaking upon the distant range-the scene as beautiful as when the
sunrise beams across the plain of Memnon. The city was not yet awake.
The only living creatures in sight were the group of belated diners, with
Artemus Ward, as King Gambrinus, pouring a libation to the sunrise.
That was the beginning of a week of glory. The farewell dinner became a
series. At the close of one convivial session Artemus went to a concert-
hall, the "Melodeon," blacked his face, and delivered a speech. He got
away from Virginia about the close of the year.
A day or two later he wrote from Austin, Nevada, to his new-found comrade
as "My dearest Love," recalling the happiness of his stay:
"I shall always remember Virginia as a bright spot in my existence, as
all others must or rather cannot be, as it were."
Then reflectively he adds:
"Some of the finest intellects in the world have been blunted by liquor."
Rare Artemus Ward and rare Mark Twain! If there lies somewhere a place
of meeting and remembrance, they have not failed to recall there those
closing days of '63.