Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CV

Mark Twain at Forty

In conversation with John Hay, Hay said to Clemens:

“A man reaches the zenith at forty, the top of the hill. From that time forward he begins to descend. If you have any great undertaking ahead, begin it now. You will never be so capable again.”

Of course this was only a theory of Hay’s, a rule where rules do not apply, where in the end the problem resolves itself into a question of individualities. John Hay did as great work after forty as ever before, so did Mark Twain, and both of them gained in intellectual strength and public honor to the very end.

Yet it must have seemed to many who knew him, and to himself, like enough, that Mark Twain at forty had reached the pinnacle of his fame and achievement. His name was on every lip; in whatever environment observation and argument were likely to be pointed with some saying or anecdote attributed, rightly or otherwise, to Mark Twain. “As Mark Twain says,” or, “You know that story of Mark Twain’s,” were universal and daily commonplaces. It was dazzling, towering fame, not of the best or most enduring kind as yet, but holding somewhere within it the structure of immortality.

He was in a constant state of siege, besought by all varieties and conditions of humanity for favors such as only human need and abnormal ingenuity can invent. His ever-increasing mail presented a marvelous exhibition of the human species on undress parade. True, there were hundreds of appreciative tributes from readers who spoke only out of a heart’s gratitude; but there were nearly as great a number who came with a compliment, and added a petition, or a demand, or a suggestion, usually unwarranted, often impertinent. Politicians, public speakers, aspiring writers, actors, elocutionists, singers, inventors (most of them he had never seen or heard of) cheerfully asked him for a recommendation as to their abilities and projects.

Young men wrote requesting verses or sentiments to be inscribed in young ladies’ autograph albums; young girls wrote asking him to write the story of his life, to be used as a school composition; men starting obscure papers coolly invited him to lend them his name as editor, assuring him that he would be put to no trouble, and that it would help advertise his books; a fruitful humorist wrote that he had invented some five thousand puns, and invited Mark Twain to father this terrific progeny in book form for a share of the returns. But the list is endless. He said once:

“The symbol of the race ought to be a human being carrying an ax, for every human being has one concealed about him somewhere, and is always seeking the opportunity to grind it.”

Even P. T. Barnum had an ax, the large ax of advertising, and he was perpetually trying to grind it on Mark Twain’s reputation; in other words, trying to get him to write something that would help to popularize “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

There were a good many curious letters-letters from humorists, would-be and genuine. A bright man in Duluth sent him an old Allen “pepper-box” revolver with the statement that it had been found among a pile of bones under a tree, from the limb of which was suspended a lasso and a buffalo skull; this as evidence that the weapon was the genuine Allen which Bemis had lost on that memorable Overland buffalo-hunt. Mark Twain enjoyed that, and kept the old pepper-box as long as he lived. There were letters from people with fads; letters from cranks of every description; curious letters even from friends. Reginald Cholmondeley, that lovely eccentric of Condover Hall, where Mr. and Mrs. Clemens had spent some halcyon days in 1873, wrote him invitations to be at his castle on a certain day, naming the hour, and adding that he had asked friends to meet him. Cholmondeley had a fancy for birds, and spared nothing to improve his collection. Once he wrote Clemens asking him to collect for him two hundred and five American specimens, naming the varieties and the amount which he was to pay for each. Clemens was to catch these birds and bring them over to England, arriving at Condover on a certain day, when there would be friends to meet him, of course.

Then there was a report which came now and then from another English castle — the minutes of a certain “Mark Twain Club,” all neatly and elaborately written out, with the speech of each member and the discussions which had followed — the work, he found out later, of another eccentric; for there was no Mark Twain Club, the reports being just the mental diversion of a rich young man, with nothing else to do.89

89 [In Following the Equator Clemens combined these two pleasant characters in one story, with elaborations.]

Letters came queerly addressed. There is one envelope still in existence which bears Clemens’s name in elaborate design and a very good silhouette likeness, the work of some talented artist. “Mark Twain, United States,” was a common address; “Mark Twain, The World,” was also used; “Mark Twain, Somewhere,” mailed in a foreign country, reached him promptly, and “Mark Twain, Anywhere,” found its way to Hartford in due season. Then there was a letter (though this was later; he was abroad at the time), mailed by Brander Matthews and Francis Wilson, addressed, “Mark Twain, God Knows Where.” It found him after traveling half around the world on its errand, and in his answer he said, “He did.” Then some one sent a letter addressed, “The Devil Knows Where.” Which also reached him, and he answered, “He did, too.”

Surely this was the farthest horizon of fame.

Countless Mark Twain anecdotes are told of this period, of every period, and will be told and personally vouched for so long as the last soul of his generation remains alive. For seventy years longer, perhaps, there will be those who will relate “personal recollections” of Mark Twain. Many of them will be interesting; some of them will be true; most of them will become history at last. It is too soon to make history of much of this drift now. It is only safe to admit a few authenticated examples.

It happens that one of the oftenest-told anecdotes has been the least elaborated. It is the one about his call on Mrs. Stowe. Twichell’s journal entry, set down at the time, verifies it:

Mrs. Stowe was leaving for Florida one morning, and Clemens ran over early to say good-by. On his return Mrs. Clemens regarded him disapprovingly:

“Why, Youth,” she said, “you haven’t on any collar and tie.”

He said nothing, but went up to his room, did up these items in a neat package, and sent it over by a servant, with a line:

“Herewith receive a call from the rest of me.”

Mrs. Stowe returned a witty note, in which she said that he had discovered a new principle, the principle of making calls by instalments, and asked whether, in extreme cases, a man might not send his hat, coat, and boots and be otherwise excused.

Col. Henry Watterson tells the story of an after-theater supper at the Brevoort House, where Murat Halstead, Mark Twain, and himself were present. A reporter sent in a card for Colonel Watterson, who was about to deny himself when Clemens said:

“Give it to me; I’ll fix it.” And left the table. He came back in a moment and beckoned to Watterson.

“He is young and as innocent as a lamb,” he said. “I represented myself as your secretary. I said that you were not here, but if Mr. Halstead would do as well I would fetch him out. I’ll introduce you as Halstead, and we’ll have some fun.”

Now, while Watterson and Halstead were always good friends, they were political enemies. It was a political season and the reporter wanted that kind of an interview. Watterson gave it to him, repudiating every principle that Halstead stood for, reversing him in every expressed opinion. Halstead was for hard money and given to flying the “bloody shirt” of sectional prejudice; Watterson lowered the bloody shirt and declared for greenbacks in Halstead’s name. Then he and Clemens returned to the table and told frankly what they had done. Of course, nobody believed it. The report passed the World night-editor, and appeared, next morning. Halstead woke up, then, and wrote a note to the World, denying the interview throughout. The World printed his note with the added line:

“When Mr. Halstead saw our reporter he had dined.”

It required John Hay (then on the Tribune) to place the joke where it belonged.

There is a Lotos Club anecdote of Mark Twain that carries the internal evidence of truth. Saturday evening at the Lotos always brought a gathering of the “wits,” and on certain evenings —“Hens and chickens” nights — each man had to tell a story, make a speech, or sing a song. On one evening a young man, an invited guest, was called upon and recited a very long poem.

One by one those who sat within easy reach of the various exits melted away, until no one remained but Mark Twain. Perhaps he saw the earnestness of the young man, and sympathized with it. He may have remembered a time when he would have been grateful for one such attentive auditor. At all events, he sat perfectly still, never taking his eyes from the reader, never showing the least inclination toward discomfort or impatience, but listening, as with rapt attention, to the very last line. Douglas Taylor, one of the faithful Saturday-night members, said to him later:

“Mark, how did you manage to sit through that dreary, interminable poem?”

“Well,” he said, “that young man thought he had a divine message to deliver, and I thought he was entitled to at least one auditor, so I stayed with him.”

We may believe that for that one auditor the young author was willing to sacrifice all the others.

One might continue these anecdotes for as long as the young man’s poem lasted, and perhaps hold as large an audience. But anecdotes are not all of history. These are set down because they reflect a phase of the man and an aspect of his life at this period. For at the most we can only present an angle here and there, and tell a little of the story, letting each reader from his fancy construct the rest.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05