Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XX

Keokuk Days

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 wrote:

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 way.

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 me.”

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.”

Brownell laughed.

“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 apprentice music.

“There was an old guitar in the office and Sam taught Fritz a song beginning:

“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 scars remained.

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 confidence.

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 America.

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 company.

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 literary discount.

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.

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