Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CC

Mark Twain Pays His Debts

‘Following the Equator’ 144 had come from the press in November and had been well received. It was a large, elaborate subscription volume, more elaborate than artistic in appearance. Clemens, wishing to make some acknowledgment to his benefactor, tactfully dedicated it to young Harry Rogers:

144 [In England, More Tramps Abroad.]

“With recognition of what he is, and an apprehension of what he may become unless he form himself a little more closely upon the model of the author.”

Following the Equator was Mark Twain’s last book of travel, and it did not greatly resemble its predecessors. It was graver than the Innocents Abroad; it was less inclined to cynicism and burlesque than the Tramp. It was the thoughtful, contemplative observation and philosophizing of the soul-weary, world-weary pilgrim who has by no means lost interest, but only his eager, first enthusiasm. It is a gentler book than the Tramp Abroad, and for the most part a pleasanter one. It is better history and more informing. Its humor, too, is of a worthier sort, less likely to be forced and overdone. The holy Hindoo pilgrim’s “itinerary of salvation” is one of the richest of all Mark Twain’s fancies, and is about the best thing in the book. The revised philosophies of Pudd’nhead Wilson, that begin each chapter, have many of them passed into our daily speech. That some of Mark Twain’s admirers were disappointed with the new book is very likely, but there were others who could not praise it enough. James Whitcomb Riley wrote:

DEAR MR. CLEMENS — For a solid week-night sessions — I have been glorying in your last book-and if you’ve ever done anything better, stronger, or of wholesomer uplift I can’t recall it. So here’s my heart and here’s my hand with all the augmented faith and applause of your proudest countryman! It’s just a hail I’m sending you across the spaces — not to call you from your blessed work an instant, but simply to join my voice in the universal cheer that is steadfastly going up for you.

As gratefully as delightedly,

Your abiding friend, JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY.

Notwithstanding the belief that the sale of single subscription volumes had about ended, Bliss did well with the new book. Thirty or forty thousand copies were placed without much delay, and the accumulated royalties paid into Mr. Rogers’s hands. The burden of debt had become a nightmare. Clemens wrote:

Let us begin on those debts. I cannot bear the weight any longer. It totally unfits me for work.

This was November 10, 1897. December 29th he wrote:

Land, we are glad to see those debts diminishing. For the first time in my life I am getting more pleasure from paying money out than pulling it in.

To Howells, January 3d, Clemens wrote that they had “turned the corner,” and a month later:

We’ve lived close to the bone and saved every cent we could, & there’s no undisputed claim now that we can’t cash. There are only two claims which I dispute & which I mean to look into personally before I pay them. But they are small. Both together they amount to only $12,500. I hope you will never get the like of the load saddled onto you that was saddled onto me 3 years ago. And yet there is such a solid pleasure in paying the things that I reckon maybe it is worth while to get into that kind of a hobble after all. Mrs. Clemens gets millions of delight out of it; & the children have never uttered one complaint about the scrimping from the beginning.

By the end of January, 1898, Mark Twain had accumulated enough money to make the final payment to his creditors and stand clear of debt. At the time of his failure he said he had given himself five years in which to clear himself of the heavy obligation. He had achieved that result in less than three. The world heralded it as a splendid triumph.

Miss Katharine I. Harrison, Henry Rogers’s secretary, who had been in charge of the details, wrote in her letter announcing his freedom:

“I wish I could shout it across the water to you so that you would get it ten days ahead of this letter.”

Miss Harrison’s letter shows that something like thirteen thousand dollars would remain to his credit after the last accounts were wiped away.

Clemens had kept his financial progress from the press, but the payment of the final claims was distinctly a matter of news and the papers made the most of it. Head-lines shouted it, there were long editorials in which Mark Twain was heralded as a second Walter Scott, though it was hardly necessary that he should be compared with anybody; he had been in that — as in those peculiarities which had invited his disaster — just himself.

One might suppose now that he had had enough of inventions and commercial enterprises of every sort that is, one who did not know Mark Twain might suppose this; but it would not be true. Within a month after the debts were paid he had negotiated with the great Austrian inventor, Szczepanik, and his business manager for the American rights of a wonderful carpet-pattern machine, obtained an option for these rights at fifteen hundred thousand dollars, and, Sellers-like, was planning to organize a company with a capital of fifteen hundred million dollars to control carpet-weaving industries of the world. He records in his note-book that a certain Mr. Wood, representing the American carpet interests, called upon him and, in the course of their conversation, asked him at what price he would sell his option.

I declined, and got away from the subject. I was afraid he would offer me $500,000 for it. I should have been obliged to take it, but I was born with a speculative instinct & I did not want that temptation put in my way.

He wrote to Mr. Rogers about the great scheme, inviting the Standard Oil to furnish the capital for it — but it appears not to have borne the test of Mr. Rogers’s scrutiny, and is heard of no more.

Szczepanik had invented the ‘Fernseher’, or Telelectroscope, the machine by which one sees at a distance. Clemens would have invested heavily in this, too, for he had implicit faith in its future, but the ‘Fernseher’ was already controlled for the Paris Exposition; so he could only employ Szczepanik as literary material, which he did in two instances: “The Austrian Edison Keeping School Again” and “From the London Times of 1904”— magazine articles published in the Century later in the year. He was fond of Szczepanik and Szczepanik’s backer, Mr. Kleinburg. In one of his note-book entries he says:

Szczepanik is not a Paige. He is a gentleman; his backer, Mr. Kleinburg, is a gentleman, too, yet is not a Clemens — that is to say, he is not an ass.

Clemens did not always consult his financial adviser, Rogers, any more than he always consulted his spiritual adviser, Twichell, or his literary adviser, Howells, when he intended to commit heresies in their respective provinces. Somewhat later an opportunity came along to buy an interest in a preparation of skimmed milk, an invalid food by which the human race was going to be healed of most of its ills. When Clemens heard that Virchow had recommended this new restorative, the name of which was plasmon, he promptly provided MacAlister with five thousand pounds to invest in a company then organizing in London. It should be added that this particular investment was not an entire loss, for it paid very good dividends for several years. We shall hear of it again.

For the most part Clemens was content to let Henry Rogers do his financiering, and as the market was low with an upward incline, Rogers put the various accumulations into this thing and that, and presently had some fifty thousand dollars to Mark Twain’s credit, a very comfortable balance for a man who had been twice that amount in debt only a few years before. It has been asserted most strenuously, by those in a position to know least about the matter, that Henry Rogers lent, and even gave, Mark Twain large sums, and pointed out opportunities whereby he could make heavily by speculation. No one of these statements is true. Mr. Rogers neither lent nor gave Mark Twain money for investment, and he never allowed him to speculate when he could prevent it. He invested for him wisely, but he never bought for him a share of stock that he did not have the money in hand to pay for in full-money belonging to and earned by Clemens himself. What he did give to Mark Twain was his priceless counsel and time — gifts more precious than any mere sum of money — boons that Mark Twain could accept without humiliation. He did accept them and was unceasingly grateful.145

145 [Mark Twain never lost an opportunity for showing his gratitude to Henry Rogers. The reader is referred to Appendix T, for a brief tribute which Clemens prepared in 1902. Mr. Rogers would not consent to its publication.]

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