Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCLXII

From Mark Twain’s Mail

If the reader has any curiosity as to some of the less usual letters which a man of wide public note may inspire, perhaps he will find a certain interest in a few selected from the thousands which yearly came to Mark Twain.

For one thing, he was constantly receiving prescriptions and remedies whenever the papers reported one of his bronchial or rheumatic attacks. It is hardly necessary to quote examples of these, but only a form of his occasional reply, which was likely to be in this wise:

DEAR SIR [or MADAM] — I try every remedy sent to me. I am now on No. 87. Yours is 2,653. I am looking forward to its beneficial results.

Of course a large number of the nostrums and palliatives offered were preparations made by the wildest and longest-haired medical cranks. One of these sent an advertisement of a certain Elixir of Life, which was guaranteed to cure everything — to “wash and cleanse the human molecules, and so restore youth and preserve life everlasting.”

Anonymous letters are not usually popular or to be encouraged, but Mark Twain had an especial weakness for compliments that came in that way. They were not mercenary compliments. The writer had nothing to gain. Two such letters follow — both written in England just at the time of his return.

MARK TWAIN.

DEAR SIR — Please accept a poor widow’s good-by and kindest wishes. I have had some of your books sent to me; have enjoyed them very much — only wish I could afford to buy some.

I should very much like to have seen you. I have many photos of you which I have cut from several papers which I read. I have one where you are writing in bed, which I cut from the Daily News. Like myself, you believe in lots of sleep and rest. I am 70 and I find I need plenty. Please forgive the liberty I have taken in writing to you. If I can’t come to your funeral may we meet beyond the river.

May God guard you, is the wish of a lonely old widow. Yours sincerely,

The other letter also tells its own story:

DEAR, KIND MARK TWAIN — For years I have wanted to write and thank you for the comfort you were to me once, only I never quite knew where you were, and besides I did not want to bother you; but to-day I was told by some one who saw you going into the lift at the Savoy that you looked sad and I thought it might cheer you a little tiny bit to hear how you kept a poor lonely girl from ruining her eyes with crying every night for long months.

Ten years ago I had to leave home and earn my living as a governess and Fate sent me to spend a winter with a very dull old country family in the depths of Staffordshire. According to the genial English custom, after my five charges had gone to bed, I took my evening meal alone in the school-room, where “Henry Tudor had supped the night before Bosworth,” and there I had to stay without a soul to speak to till I went to bed. At first I used to cry every night, but a friend sent me a copy of your Huckleberry Finn and I never cried any more. I kept him handy under the copy-books and maps, and when Henry Tudor commenced to stretch out his chilly hands toward me I grabbed my dear Huck and he never once failed me; I opened him at random and in two minutes I was in another world. That’s why I am so grateful to you and so fond of you, and I thought you might like to know; for it is yourself that has the kind heart, as is easily seen from the way you wrote about the poor old nigger. I am a stenographer now and live at home, but I shall never forget how you helped me. God bless you and spare you long to those you are dear to.

A letter which came to him soon after his return from England contained a clipping which reported the good work done by Christian missionaries in the Congo, especially among natives afflicted by the terrible sleeping sickness. The letter itself consisted merely of a line, which said:

Won’t you give your friends, the missionaries, a good mark for this?

The writer’s name was signed, and Mark Twain answered:

In China the missionaries are not wanted, & so they ought to be decent & go away. But I have not heard that in the Congo the missionary servants of God are unwelcome to the native.

Evidently those missionaries axe pitying, compassionate, kind. How it would improve God to take a lesson from them! He invented & distributed the germ of that awful disease among those helpless, poor savages, & now He sits with His elbows on the balusters & looks down & enjoys this wanton crime. Confidently, & between you & me — well, never mind, I might get struck by lightning if I said it.

Those are good and kindly men, those missionaries, but they are a measureless satire upon their Master.

To which the writer answered:

O wicked Mr. Clemens! I have to ask Saint Joan of Arc to pray for you; then one of these days, when we all stand before the Golden Gates and we no longer “see through a glass darkly and know only in part,” there will be a struggle at the heavenly portals between Joan of Arc and St. Peter, but your blessed Joan will conquer and she’ll lead Mr. Clemens through the gates of pearl and apologize and plead for him.

Of the letters that irritated him, perhaps the following is as fair a sample as any, and it has additional interest in its sequel.

DEAR SIR — I have written a book — naturally — which fact, however, since I am not your enemy, need give you no occasion to rejoice. Nor need you grieve, though I am sending you a copy. If I knew of any way of compelling you to read it I would do so, but unless the first few pages have that effect I can do nothing. Try the first few pages. I have done a great deal more than that with your books, so perhaps you owe me some thing — say ten pages. If after that attempt you put it aside I shall be sorry — for you.

I am afraid that the above looks flippant — but think of the twitterings of the soul of him who brings in his hand an unbidden book, written by himself. To such a one much is due in the way of indulgence. Will you remember that? Have you forgotten early twitterings of your own?

In a memorandum made on this letter Mark Twain wrote:

Another one of those peculiarly depressing letters — a letter cast in artificially humorous form, whilst no art could make the subject humorous — to me.

Commenting further, he said:

As I have remarked before about one thousand times the coat of arms of the human race ought to consist of a man with an ax on his shoulder proceeding toward a grindstone, or it ought to represent the several members of the human race holding out the hat to one another; for we are all beggars, each in his own way. One beggar is too proud to beg for pennies, but will beg for an introduction into society; another does not care for society, but he wants a postmastership; another will inveigle a lawyer into conversation and then sponge on him for free advice. The man who wouldn’t do any of these things will beg for the Presidency. Each admires his own dignity and greatly guards it, but in his opinion the others haven’t any.

Mendicancy is a matter of taste and temperament, no doubt, but no human being is without some form of it. I know my own form, you know yours. Let us conceal them from view and abuse the others. There is no man so poor but what at intervals some man comes to him with an ax to grind. By and by the ax’s aspect becomes familiar to the proprietor of the grindstone. He perceives that it is the same old ax. If you are a governor you know that the stranger wants an office. The first time he arrives you are deceived; he pours out such noble praises of you and your political record that you are moved to tears; there’s a lump in your throat and you are thankful that you have lived for this happiness. Then the stranger discloses his ax, and you are ashamed of yourself and your race. Six repetitions will cure you. After that you interrupt the compliments and say, “Yes, yes, that’s all right; never mind about that. What is it you want?”

But you and I are in the business ourselves. Every now and then we carry our ax to somebody and ask a whet. I don’t carry mine to strangers — I draw the line there; perhaps that is your way. This is bound to set us up on a high and holy pinnacle and make us look down in cold rebuke on persons who carry their axes to strangers.

I do not know how to answer that stranger’s letter. I wish he had spared me. Never mind about him — I am thinking about myself. I wish he had spared me. The book has not arrived yet; but no matter, I am prejudiced against it.

It was a few days later that he added:

I wrote to that man. I fell back upon the old Overworked, polite lie, and thanked him for his book and said I was promising myself the pleasure of reading it. Of course that set me free; I was not obliged to read it now at all, and, being free, my prejudice was gone, and as soon as the book came I opened it to see what it was like. I was not able to put it down until I had finished. It was an embarrassing thing to have to write to that man and confess that fact, but I had to do it. That first letter was merely a lie. Do you think I wrote the second one to give that man pleasure? Well, I did, but it was second-hand pleasure. I wrote it first to give myself comfort, to make myself forget the original lie.

Mark Twain’s interest was once aroused by the following:

DEAR SIR — I have had more or less of your works on my shelves for years, and believe I have practically a complete set now. This is nothing unusual, of course, but I presume it will seem to you unusual for any one to keep books constantly in sight which the owner regrets ever having read.

Every time my glance rests on the books I do regret having read them, and do not hesitate to tell you so to your face, and care not who may know my feelings. You, who must be kept busy attending to your correspondence, will probably pay little or no attention to this small fraction of it, yet my reasons, I believe, are sound and are probably shared by more people than you are aware of.

Probably you will not read far enough through this to see who has signed it, but if you do, and care to know why I wish I had left your work unread, I will tell you as briefly as possible if you will ask me. GEORGE B. LAUDER.

Clemens did not answer the letter, but put it in his pocket, perhaps intending to do so, and a few days later, in Boston, when a reporter called, he happened to remember it. The reporter asked permission to print the queer document, and it appeared in his Mark Twain interview next morning. A few days later the writer of it sent a second letter, this time explaining:

MY DEAR SIR — I saw in to-day’s paper a copy of the letter which I wrote you October 26th.

I have read and re-read your works until I can almost recall some of them word for word. My familiarity with them is a constant source of pleasure which I would not have missed, and therefore the regret which I have expressed is more than offset by thankfulness.

Believe me, the regret which I feel for having read your works is entirely due to the unalterable fact that I can never again have the pleasure of reading them for the first time.

Your sincere admirer, GEORGE B. LADDER.

Mark Twain promptly replied this time:

DEAR SIR, You fooled me completely; I didn’t divine what the letter was concealing, neither did the newspaper men, so you are a very competent deceiver. Truly yours, S. L. CLEMENS.

It was about the end of 1907 that the new St. Louis Harbor boat, was completed. The editor of the St. Louis Republic reported that it has been christened “Mark Twain,” and asked for a word of comment. Clemens sent this line:

May my namesake follow in my righteous footsteps, then neither of us will need any fire insurance.

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