Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXLIV

A Summer Literary Harvest

Arriving at the farm in June, Clemens had a fresh crop of ideas for stories of many lengths and varieties. His note-book of that time is full of motifs and plots, most of them of that improbable and extravagant kind which tended to defeat any literary purpose, whether humorous or otherwise. It seems worth while setting down one or more of these here, for they are characteristic of the myriad conceptions that came and went, and beyond these written memoranda left no trace behind. Here is a fair example of many:

Two men starving on a raft. The pauper has a Boston cracker, resolves to keep it till the multimillionaire is beginning to starve, then make him pay $50,000 for it. Millionaire agrees. Pauper’s cupidity rises, resolves to wait and get more; twenty-four hours later asks him a million for the cracker. Millionaire agrees. Pauper has a wild dream of becoming enormously rich off his cracker; backs down; lies all night building castles in the air; next day raises his price higher and higher, till millionaire has offered $100,000,000, every cent he has in the world. Pauper accepts. Millionaire: “Now give it to me.”

Pauper: “No; it isn’t a trade until you sign documental history of the transaction and make an oath to pay.”

While pauper is finishing the document millionaire sees a ship. When pauper says, “Sign and take the cracker,” millionaire smiles a smile, declines, and points to the ship.

Yet this is hardly more extravagant than another idea that is mentioned repeatedly among the notes — that of an otherwise penniless man wandering about London with a single million-pound bank-note in his possession, a motif which developed into a very good story indeed.


In modern times the halls of heaven are warmed by registers connected with hell; and this is greatly applauded by Jonathan Edwards, Calvin, Baxter and Company, because it adds a new pang to the sinner’s sufferings to know that the very fire which tortures him is the means of making the righteous comfortable.

Then there was to be another story, in which the various characters were to have a weird, pestilential nomenclature; such as “Lockjaw Harris,” “Influenza Smith,” “Sinapism Davis,” and a dozen or two more, a perfect outbreak of disorders.

Another — probably the inspiration of some very hot afternoon — was to present life in the interior of an iceberg, where a colony would live for a generation or two, drifting about in a vast circular current year after year, subsisting on polar bears and other Arctic game.

An idea which he followed out and completed was the 1002d Arabian Night, in which Scheherazade continues her stories, until she finally talks the Sultan to death. That was a humorous idea, certainly; but when Howells came home and read it in the usual way he declared that, while the opening was killingly funny, when he got into the story itself it seemed to him that he was “made a fellow-sufferer with the Sultan from Scheherazade’s prolixity.”

“On the whole,” he said, “it is not your best, nor your second best; but all the way it skirts a certain kind of fun which you can’t afford to indulge in.”

And that was the truth. So the tale, neatly typewritten, retired to seclusion, and there remains to this day.

Clemens had one inspiration that summer which was not directly literary, but historical, due to his familiarity with English dates. He wrote Twichell:

Day before yesterday, feeling not in condition for writing, I left the study, but I couldn’t hold in — had to do something; so I spent eight hours in the sun with a yardstick, measuring off the reigns of the English kings on the roads in these grounds, from William the Conqueror to 1883, calculating to invent an open-air game which shall fill the children’s heads with dates without study. I give each king’s reign one foot of space to the year and drive one stake in the ground to mark the beginning of each reign, and I make the children call the stake by the king’s name. You can stand in the door and take a bird’s-eye view of English monarchy, from the Conqueror to Edward IV.; then you can turn and follow the road up the hill to the study and beyond with an opera-glass, and bird’s-eye view the rest of it to 1883.

You can mark the sharp difference in the length of reigns by the varying distances of the stakes apart. You can see Richard II., two feet; Oliver Cromwell, two feet; James II., three feet, and so on — and then big skips; pegs standing forty-five, forty-six, fifty, fifty-six, and sixty feet apart (Elizabeth, Victoria, Edward III., Henry III., and George III.). By the way, third’s a lucky number for length of days, isn’t it? Yes, sir; by my scheme you get a realizing notion of the time occupied by reigns.

The reason it took me eight hours was because, with little Jean’s interrupting assistance, I had to measure from the Conquest to the end of Henry VI. three times over, and besides I had to whittle out all those pegs.

I did a full day’s work and a third over, yesterday, but was full of my game after I went to bed trying to fit it for indoors. So I didn’t get to sleep till pretty late; but when I did go off I had contrived a new way to play my history game with cards and a board.

We may be sure the idea of the game would possess him, once it got a fair start like that. He decided to save the human race that year with a history game. When he had got the children fairly going and interested in playing it, he adapted it to a cribbage-board, and spent his days and nights working it out and perfecting it to a degree where the world at large might learn all the facts of all the histories, not only without effort, but with an actual hunger for chronology. He would have a game not only of the English kings, but of the kings of every other nation; likewise of great statesmen, vice-chancellors, churchmen, of celebrities in every line. He would prepare a book to accompany these games. Each game would contain one thousand facts, while the book would contain eight thousand; it would be a veritable encyclopedia. He would organize clubs throughout the United States for playing the game; prizes were to be given. Experts would take it up. He foresaw a department in every newspaper devoted to the game and its problems, instead of to chess and whist and other useless diversions. He wrote to Orion, and set him to work gathering facts and dates by the bushel. He wrote to Webster, sent him a plan, and ordered him to apply for the patent without delay. Patents must also be applied for abroad. With all nations playing this great game, very likely it would produce millions in royalties; and so, in the true Sellers fashion, the iridescent bubble was blown larger and larger, until finally it blew up. The game on paper had become so large, so elaborate, so intricate, that no one could play it. Yet the first idea was a good one: the king stakes driven along the driveway and up the hillside of Quarry Farm. The children enjoyed it, and played it through many sweet summer afternoons. Once, in the days when he had grown old, he wrote, remembering:

Among the principal merits of the games which we played by help of the pegs were these: that they had to be played in the open air, and that they compelled brisk exercise. The peg of William the Conqueror stood in front of the house; one could stand near the Conqueror and have all English history skeletonized and landmarked and mile-posted under his eye . . . . The eye has a good memory. Many years have gone by and the pegs have disappeared, but I still see them and each in its place; and no king’s name falls upon my ear without my seeing his pegs at once, and noticing just how many feet of space he takes up along the road.

It turned out an important literary year after all. In the Mississippi book he had used a chapter from the story he had been working at from time to time for a number of years, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. Reading over the manuscript now he found his interest in it sharp and fresh, his inspiration renewed. The trip down the river had revived it. The interest in the game became quiescent, and he set to work to finish the story at a dead heat.

To Howells, August 22 (1883), he wrote:

I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days; I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to. I used to restrict myself to four and five hours a day and five days in the week, but this time I have wrought from breakfast till 5.15 P.M. six days in the week, and once or twice I smouched a Sunday when the boss wasn’t looking. Nothing is half so good as literature hooked on Sunday, on the sly.

He refers to the game, though rather indifferently.

When I wrote you I thought I had it; whereas I was merely entering upon the initiatory difficulties of it. I might have known it wouldn’t be an easy job or somebody would have invented a decent historical game long ago — a thing which nobody has done.

Notwithstanding the fact that he was working at Huck with enthusiasm, he seems to have been in no hurry to revise it for publication, either as a serial or as a book. But the fact that he persevered until Huck Finn at last found complete utterance was of itself a sufficient matter for congratulation.

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