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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 2: 1866 - 1875|
LXV. A Contract With Elisha Bliss, Jr.
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|He returned to Washington without seeing Miss Langdon again, though he
would seem to have had permission to write--friendly letters. A little
later (it was on the evening of January 9th) he lectured in Washington--
on very brief notice indeed. The arrangement for his appearance had been
made by a friend during his absence--"a friend," Clemens declared
afterward, "not entirely sober at the time." To his mother he wrote:
I scared up a doorkeeper and was ready at the proper time, and by pure
good luck a tolerably good house assembled and I was saved. I hardly
knew what I was going to talk about, but it went off in splendid style.
The title of the lecture delivered was "The Frozen Truth"--"more truth in
the title than in the lecture," according to his own statement. What it
dealt with is not remembered now. It had to do with the Quaker City
trip, perhaps, and it seems to have brought a financial return which was
welcome enough. Subsequently he delivered it elsewhere; though just how
far the tour extended cannot be learned from the letters, and he had but
little memory of it in later years.
There was some further correspondence with Bliss, then about the 21st of
January (1868) Clemens made a trip to Hartford to settle the matter.
Bliss had been particularly anxious to meet him, personally and was a
trifle disappointed with his appearance. Mark Twain's traveling costume
was neither new nor neat, and he was smoking steadily a pipe of power.
His general make-up was hardly impressive.
Bliss's disturbance was momentary. Once he began to talk the rest did
not matter. He was the author of those letters, and Bliss decided that
personally he was even greater than they. The publisher, confined to his
home with illness, offered him the hospitality of his household. Also,
he made him two propositions: he would pay him ten thousand dollars cash
for his copyright, or he would pay five per cent. royalty, which was a
fourth more than Richardson had received. He advised the latter
Clemens had already taken advice and had discussed the project a good
deal with Richardson. The ten thousand dollars was a heavy temptation,
but he withstood it and closed on the royalty basis--"the best business
judgment I ever displayed," he was wont to declare. A letter written to
his mother and sister near the end of this Hartford stay is worth quoting
pretty fully here, for the information and "character" it contains. It
bears date of January 24th.
This is a good week for me. I stopped in the Herald office, as I
came through New York, to see the boys on the staff, and young James
Gordon Bennett asked me to write twice a week, impersonally, for the
Herald, and said if I would I might have full swing, and about
anybody and everything I wanted to. I said I must have the very
fullest possible swing, and he said, "All right." I said, "It's a
contract--" and that settled that matter.
I'll make it a point to write one letter a week anyhow. But the
best thing that has happened is here. This great American
Publishing Company kept on trying to bargain with me for a book till
I thought I would cut the matter short by coming up for a talk. I
met Henry Ward Beecher in Brooklyn, and with his usual whole-souled
way of dropping his own work to give other people a lift when he
gets a chance, he said: "Now, here, you are one of the talented men
of the age--nobody is going to deny that--but in matters of business
I don't suppose you know more than enough to come in when it rains.
I'll tell you what to do and how to do it." And he did.
And I listened well, and then came up here and made a splendid
contract for a Quaker City book of 5 or 600 large pages, with
illustrations, the manuscript to be placed in the publisher's hands
by the middle of July.--[The contract was not a formal one. There
was an exchange of letters agreeing to the terms, but no joint
document was drawn until October 16 (1868).]--My percentage is to
be a fourth more than they have ever paid any author except Greeley.
Beecher will be surprised, I guess, when he hears this.
These publishers get off the most tremendous editions of their books
you can imagine. I shall write to the Enterprise and Alta every
week, as usual, I guess, and to the Herald twice a week,
occasionally to the Tribune and the magazines (I have a stupid
article in the Galaxy, just issued), but I am not going to write to
this and that and the other paper any more.
I have had a tiptop time here for a few days (guest of Mr. Jno.
Hooker's family--Beecher's relatives--in a general way of Mr. Bliss
also, who is head of the publishing firm). Puritans are mighty
straight-laced, and they won't let me smoke in the parlor, but the
Almighty don't make any better people.
I have to make a speech at the annual Herald dinner on the 6th of
So the book, which would establish his claim to a peerage in the literary
land, was arranged for, and it remained only to prepare the manuscript, a
task which he regarded as not difficult. He had only to collate the Alta
and Tribune letters, edit them, and write such new matter as would be
required for completeness.
Returning to Washington, he plunged into work with his usual terrific
energy, preparing the copy--in the mean time writing newspaper
correspondence and sketches that would bring immediate return. In
addition to his regular contributions, he entered into a syndicate
arrangement with John Swinton (brother of William Swinton, the historian)
to supply letters to a list of newspapers.
"I have written seven long newspaper letters and a short magazine article
in less than two days," he wrote home, and by the end of January he had
also prepared several chapters of his book.
The San Francisco post-mastership was suggested to him again, but he put
the temptation behind him. He refers to this more than once in his home
letters, and it is clear that he wavered.
Judge Field said if I wanted the place he could pledge me the
President's appointment, and Senator Corners said he would guarantee
me the Senate's confirmation. It was a great temptation, but it
would render it impossible to fill my book contract, and I had to
drop the idea....
And besides I did not want the office.
He made this final decision when he heard that the chief editor of the
Alta wanted the place, and he now threw his influence in that quarter.
"I would not take ten thousand dollars out of a friend's pocket," he
But then suddenly came the news from Goodman that the Alta publishers had
copyrighted his Quaker City letters and proposed getting them out in a
book, to reimburse themselves still further on their investment. This
was sharper than a serpent's tooth. Clemens got confirmation of the
report by telegraph. By the same medium he protested, but to no purpose.
Then he wrote a letter and sat down to wait. He reported his troubles to
I have made a superb contract for a book, and have prepared the
first ten chapters of the sixty or eighty, but I will bet it never
sees the light. Don't you let the folks at home hear that. That
thieving Alta copyrighted the letters, and now shows no disposition
to let me use them. I have done all I can by telegraph, and now
await the final result by mail. I only charged them for 50 letters
what (even in) greenbacks would amount to less than two thousand
dollars, intending to write a good deal for high-priced Eastern
papers, and now they want to publish my letters in book form
themselves to get back that pitiful sum.
Orion was by this time back from Nevada, setting type in St. Louis. He
was full of schemes, as usual, and his brother counsels him freely. Then
We chase phantoms half the days of our lives. It is well if we
learn wisdom even then, and save the other half.
I am in for it. I must go on chasing them, until I marry, then I am
done with literature and all other bosh--that is, literature
wherewith to please the general public.
I shall write to please myself then.
He closes by saying that he rather expects to go with Anson Burlingame on
the Chinese embassy. Clearly he was pretty hopeless as to his book
His first meeting with General Grant occurred just at this time. In one
of his home letters he mentions, rather airily, that he will drop in
someday on the General for an interview; and at last, through Mrs. Grant,
an appointment was made for a Sunday evening when the General would be at
home. He was elated with the prospect of an interview; but when he
looked into the imperturbable, square, smileless face of the soldier he
found himself, for the first time in his life, without anything
particular to say. Grant nodded slightly and waited. His caller wished
something would happen. It did. His inspiration returned.
"General," he said, "I seem to be a little embarrassed. Are you?"
That broke the ice. There were no further difficulties.--[Mark Twain
has variously related this incident. It is given here in accordance with
the letters of the period.]