Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXXXVIII

The Writer Meets Mark Twain

We have reached a point in this history where the narrative becomes mainly personal, and where, at the risk of inviting the charge of egotism, the form of the telling must change.

It was at the end of 1901 that I first met Mark Twain — at The Players Club on the night when he made the Founder’s Address mentioned in an earlier chapter.

I was not able to arrive in time for the address, but as I reached the head of the stairs I saw him sitting on the couch at the dining-room entrance, talking earnestly to some one, who, as I remember it, did not enter into my consciousness at all. I saw only that crown of white hair, that familiar profile, and heard the slow modulations of his measured speech. I was surprised to see how frail and old he looked. From his pictures I had conceived him different. I did not realize that it was a temporary condition due to a period of poor health and a succession of social demands. I have no idea how long I stood there watching him. He had been my literary idol from childhood, as he had been of so many others; more than that, for the personality in his work had made him nothing less than a hero to his readers.

He rose presently to go, and came directly toward me. A year before I had done what new writers were always doing — I had sent him a book I had written, and he had done what he was always doing — acknowledged it with a kindly letter. I made my thanks now an excuse for addressing him. It warmed me to hear him say that he remembered the book, though at the time I confess I thought it doubtful. Then he was gone; but the mind and ear had photographed those vivid first impressions that remain always clear.

It was the following spring that I saw him again — at an afternoon gathering, and the memory of that occasion is chiefly important because I met Mrs. Clemens there for the only time, and like all who met her, however briefly, felt the gentleness and beauty of her spirit. I think I spoke with her at two or three different moments during the afternoon, and on each occasion was impressed with that feeling of acquaintanceship which we immediately experience with those rare beings whose souls are wells of human sympathy and free from guile. Bret Harte had just died, and during the afternoon Mr. Clemens asked me to obtain for him some item concerning the obsequies.

It was more than three years before I saw him again. Meantime, a sort of acquaintance had progressed. I had been engaged in writing the life of Thomas Nast, the cartoonist, and I had found among the material a number of letters to Nast from Mark Twain. I was naturally anxious to use those fine characteristic letters, and I wrote him for his consent. He wished to see the letters, and the permission that followed was kindness itself. His admiration of Nast was very great.

It was proper, under the circumstances, to send him a copy of the book when it appeared; but that was 1904, his year of sorrow and absence, and the matter was postponed. Then came the great night of his seventieth birthday dinner, with an opportunity to thank him in person for the use of the letters. There was only a brief exchange of words, and it was the next day, I think, that I sent him a copy of the book. It did not occur to me that I should hear of it again.

We step back a moment here. Something more than a year earlier, through a misunderstanding, Mark Twain’s long association with The Players had been severed. It was a sorrow to him, and a still greater sorrow to the club. There was a movement among what is generally known’ as the “Round Table Group”— because its members have long had a habit of lunching at a large, round table in a certain window — to bring him back again. David Munro, associate editor of the North American Review-” David,” a man well loved of men — and Robert Reid, the painter, prepared this simple document:

TO MARK TWAIN from THE CLANSMEN

Will ye no come back again? Will ye no come back again? Better lo’ed ye canna be, Will ye no come back again?

It was signed by Munro and by Reid and about thirty others, and it touched Mark Twain deeply. The lines had always moved him. He wrote:

TO ROBT. REID & THE OTHERS—

WELL-BELOVED — Surely those lovely verses went to Prince Charlie’s heart, if he had one, & certainly they have gone to mine. I shall be glad & proud to come back again after such a moving & beautiful compliment as this from comrades whom I have loved so long. I hope you can poll the necessary vote; I know you will try, at any rate. It will be many months before I can foregather with you, for this black border is not perfunctory, not a convention; it symbolizes the loss of one whose memory is the only thing I worship.

It is not necessary for me to thank you —& words could not deliver what I feel, anyway. I will put the contents of your envelope in the small casket where I keep the things which have become sacred to me. S. L. C.

So the matter was temporarily held in abeyance until he should return. to social life. At the completion of his seventieth year the club had taken action, and Mark Twain had been brought back, not in the regular order of things, but as an honorary life member without dues or duties. There was only one other member of this class, Sir Henry Irving.

The Players, as a club, does not give dinners. Whatever is done in that way is done by one or more of the members in the private dining-room, where there is a single large table that holds twenty-five, even thirty when expanded to its limit. That room and that table have mingled with much distinguished entertainment, also with history. Henry James made his first after-dinner speech there, for one thing — at least he claimed it was his first, though this is by the way.

A letter came to me which said that those who had signed the plea for the Prince’s return were going to welcome him in the private dining-room on the 5th of January. It was not an invitation, but a gracious privilege. I was in New York a day or two in advance of the date, and I think David Munro was the first person I met at The Players. As he greeted me his eyes were eager with something he knew I would wish to hear. He had been delegated to propose the dinner to Mark Twain, and had found him propped up in bed, and noticed on the table near him a copy of the Nast book. I suspect that Munro had led him to speak of it, and that the result had lost nothing filtered through that radiant benevolence of his.

The night of January 5, 1906, remains a memory apart from other dinners. Brander Matthews presided, and Gilder was there, and Frank Millet and Willard Metcalf and Robert Reid, and a score of others; some of them are dead now, David Munro among them. It so happened that my seat was nearly facing the guest of the evening, who, by custom of The Players, is placed at the side and not at the end of the long table. He was no longer frail and thin, as when I had first met him. He had a robust, rested look; his complexion had the tints of a miniature painting. Lit by the glow of the shaded candles, relieved against the dusk richness of the walls, he made a picture of striking beauty. One could not take his eyes from it, and to one guest at least it stirred the farthest memories. I suddenly saw the interior of a farm-house sitting-room in the Middle West, where I had first heard uttered the name of Mark Twain, and where night after night a group gathered around the evening lamp to hear the tale of the first pilgrimage, which, to a boy of eight, had seemed only a wonderful poem and fairy tale. To Charles Harvey Genung, who sat next to me, I whispered something of this, and how, during the thirty-six years since then, no other human being to me had meant quite what Mark Twain had meant — in literature, in life, in the ineffable thing which means more than either, and which we call “inspiration,” for lack of a truer word. Now here he was, just across the table. It was the fairy tale come true.

Genung said:

“You should write his life.”

His remark seemed a pleasant courtesy, and was put aside as such. When he persisted I attributed it to the general bloom of the occasion, and a little to the wine, maybe, for the dinner was in its sweetest stage just then — that happy, early stage when the first glass of champagne, or the second, has proved its quality. He urged, in support of his idea, the word that Munro had brought concerning the Nast book, but nothing of what he said kindled any spark of hope. I could not but believe that some one with a larger equipment of experience, personal friendship, and abilities had already been selected for the task. By and by the speaking began — delightful, intimate speaking in that restricted circle — and the matter went out of my mind.

When the dinner had ended, and we were drifting about the table in general talk, I found an opportunity to say a word to the guest of the evening about his Joan of Arc, which I had recently re-read. To my happiness, he detained me while he told me the long-ago incident which had led to his interest, not only in the martyred girl, but in all literature. I think we broke up soon after, and descended to the lower rooms. At any rate, I presently found the faithful Charles Genung privately reasserting to me the proposition that I should undertake the biography of Mark Twain. Perhaps it was the brief sympathy established by the name of Joan of Arc, perhaps it was only Genung’s insistent purpose — his faith, if I may be permitted the word. Whatever it was, there came an impulse, in the instant of bidding good-by to our guest of honor, which prompted me to say:

“May I call to see you, Mr. Clemens, some day?”

And something — dating from the primal atom, I suppose — prompted him to answer:

“Yes, come soon.”

This was on Wednesday night, or rather on Thursday morning, for it was past midnight, and a day later I made an appointment with his secretary to call on Saturday.

I can say truly that I set out with no more than the barest hope of success, and wondering if I should have the courage, when I saw him, even to suggest the thought in my mind. I know I did not have the courage to confide in Genung that I had made the appointment — I was so sure it would fail. I arrived at 21 Fifth Avenue and was shown into that long library and drawing-room combined, and found a curious and deep interest in the books and ornaments along the shelves as I waited. Then I was summoned, and I remember ascending the stairs, wondering why I had come on so futile an errand, and trying to think of an excuse to offer for having come at all.

He was propped up in bed — in that stately bed-sitting, as was his habit, with his pillows placed at the foot, so that he might have always before him the rich, carved beauty of its headboard. He was delving through a copy of Huckleberry Finn, in search of a paragraph concerning which some random correspondent had asked explanation. He was commenting unfavorably on this correspondent and on miscellaneous letter-writing in general. He pushed the cigars toward me, and the talk of these matters ran along and blended into others more or less personal. By and by I told him what so many thousands had told him before: what he had meant to me, recalling the childhood impressions of that large, black-and-gilt-covered book with its wonderful pictures and adventures — the Mediterranean pilgrimage. Very likely it bored him — he had heard it so often — and he was willing enough, I dare say, to let me change the subject and thank him for the kindly word which David Munro had brought. I do not remember what he said then, but I suddenly found myself suggesting that out of his encouragement had grown a hope — though certainly it was something less — that I might some day undertake a book about himself. I expected the chapter to end at this point, and his silence which followed seemed long and ominous.

He said, at last, that at various times through his life he had been preparing some autobiographical matter, but that he had tired of the undertaking, and had put it aside. He added that he had hoped his daughters would one day collect his letters; but that a biography — a detailed story of personality and performance, of success and failure — was of course another matter, and that for such a work no arrangement had been made. He may have added one or two other general remarks; then, turning those piercing agate-blue eyes directly upon me, he said:

“When would you like to begin?”

There was a dresser with a large mirror behind him. I happened to catch my reflection in it, and I vividly recollect saying to it mentally: “This is not true; it is only one of many similar dreams.” But even in a dream one must answer, and I said:

“Whenever you like. I can begin now.”

He was always eager in any new undertaking.

“Very good,” he said. “The sooner, then, the better. Let’s begin while we are in the humor. The longer you postpone a thing of this kind the less likely you are ever to get at it.”

This was on Saturday, as I have stated. I mentioned that my family was still in the country, and that it would require a day or two to get established in the city. I asked if Tuesday, January 9th, would be too soon to begin. He agreed that Tuesday would do, and inquired something about my plan of work. Of course I had formed nothing definite, but I said that in similar undertakings a part of the work had been done with a stenographer, who had made the notes while I prompted the subject to recall a procession of incidents and episodes, to be supplemented with every variety of material obtainable — letters and other documentary accumulations. Then he said:

“I think I should enjoy dictating to a stenographer, with some one to prompt me and to act as audience. The room adjoining this was fitted up for my study. My manuscripts and notes and private books and many of my letters are there, and there are a trunkful or two of such things in the attic. I seldom use the room myself. I do my writing and reading in bed. I will turn that room over to you for this work. Whatever you need will be brought to you. We can have the dictation here in the morning, and you can put in the rest of the day to suit yourself. You can have a key and come and go as you please.”

That was always his way. He did nothing by halves; nothing without unquestioning confidence and prodigality. He got up and showed me the lovely luxury of the study, with its treasures of material. I did not believe it true yet. It had all the atmosphere of a dream, and I have no distinct recollection of how I came away. When I returned to The Players and found Charles Harvey Genung there, and told him about it, it is quite certain that he perjured himself when he professed to believe it true and pretended that he was not surprised.

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