Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCLXXVII

“Is Shakespeare Dead?”

I set out on my long journey with much reluctance. However, a series of guests with various diversions had been planned, and it seemed a good time to go. Clemens gave me letters of introduction, and bade me Godspeed. It would be near the end of April before I should see him again.

Now and then on the ship, and in the course of my travels, I remembered the great news I was to hear concerning Shakespeare. In Cairo, at Shepheard’s, I looked eagerly through English newspapers, expecting any moment to come upon great head-lines; but I was always disappointed. Even on the return voyage there was no one I could find who had heard any particular Shakespeare news.

Arriving in New York, I found that Clemens himself had published his Shakespeare dictations in a little volume of his own, entitled, ‘Is Shakespeare Dead?’ The title certainly suggested spiritistic matters, and I got a volume at Harpers’, and read it going up on the train, hoping to find somewhere in it a solution of the great mystery. But it was only matter I had already known; the secret was still unrevealed.

At Redding I lost not much time in getting up to Stormfield. There had been changes in my absence. Clara Clemens had returned from her travels, and Jean, whose health seemed improved, was coming home to be her father’s secretary. He was greatly pleased with these things, and declared he was going to have a home once more with his children about him.

He was quite alone that day, and we walked up and down the great living-room for an hour, perhaps, while he discussed his new plans. For one thing, he had incorporated his pen-name, Mark Twain, in order that the protection of his copyrights and the conduct of his literary business in general should not require his personal attention. He seemed to find a relief in this, as he always did in dismissing any kind of responsibility. When we went in for billiards I spoke of his book, which I had read on the way up, and of the great Shakespearian secret which was to astonish the world. Then he told me that the matter had been delayed, but that he was no longer required to suppress it; that the revelation was in the form of a book — a book which revealed conclusively to any one who would take the trouble to follow the directions that the acrostic name of Francis Bacon in a great variety of forms ran through many — probably through all of the so-called Shakespeare plays. He said it was far and away beyond anything of the kind ever published; that Ignatius Donnelly and others had merely glimpsed the truth, but that the author of this book, William Stone Booth, had demonstrated, beyond any doubt or question, that the Bacon signatures were there. The book would be issued in a few days, he said. He had seen a set of proofs of it, and while it had not been published in the best way to clearly demonstrate its great revelation, it must settle the matter with every reasoning mind. He confessed that his faculties had been more or less defeated in, attempting to follow the ciphers, and he complained bitterly that the evidence had not been set forth so that he who merely skims a book might grasp it.

He had failed on the acrostics at first; but more recently he had understood the rule, and had been able to work out several Bacon signatures. He complimented me by saying that he felt sure that when the book came I would have no trouble with it.

Without going further with this matter, I may say here that the book arrived presently, and between us we did work out a considerable number of the claimed acrostics by following the rules laid down. It was certainly an interesting if not wholly convincing occupation, and it would be a difficult task for any one to prove that the ciphers are not there. Just why this pretentious volume created so little agitation it would be hard to say. Certainly it did not cause any great upheaval in the literary world, and the name of William Shakespeare still continues to be printed on the title-page of those marvelous dramas so long associated with his name.

Mark Twain’s own book on the subject —‘Is Shakespeare Dead?’— found a wide acceptance, and probably convinced as many readers. It contained no new arguments; but it gave a convincing touch to the old ones, and it was certainly readable.186

186 [Mark Twain had the fullest conviction as to the Bacon authorship of the Shakespeare plays. One evening, with Mr. Edward Loomis, we attended a fine performance of “Romeo and Juliet” given by Sothern and Marlowe. At the close of one splendid scene he said, quite earnestly, “That is about the best play that Lord Bacon ever wrote.”]

Among the visitors who had come to Stormfield was Howells. Clemens had called a meeting of the Human Race Club, but only Howells was able to attend. We will let him tell of his visit:

We got on very well without the absentees, after finding them in the wrong, as usual, and the visit was like those I used to have with him so many years before in Hartford, but there was not the old ferment of subjects. Many things had been discussed and put away for good, but we had our old fondness for nature and for each other, who were so differently parts of it. He showed his absolute content with his house, and that was the greater pleasure for me because it was my son who designed it. The architect had been so fortunate as to be able to plan it where a natural avenue of savins, the close-knit, slender, cypress-like cedars of New England, led away from the rear of the villa to the little level of a pergola, meant some day to be wreathed and roofed with vines. But in the early spring days all the landscape was in the beautiful nakedness of the Northern winter. It opened in the surpassing loveliness of wooded and meadowed uplands, under skies that were the first days blue, and the last gray over a rainy and then a snowy floor. We walked up and down, up and down, between the villa terrace and the pergola, and talked with the melancholy amusement, the sad tolerance of age for the sort of men and things that used to excite us or enrage us; now we were far past turbulence or anger. Once we took a walk together across the yellow pastures to a chasmal creek on his grounds, where the ice still knit the clayey banks together like crystal mosses; and the stream far down clashed through and over the stones and the shards of ice. Clemens pointed out the scenery he had bought to give himself elbowroom, and showed me the lot he was going to have me build on. The next day we came again with the geologist he had asked up to Stormfield to analyze its rocks. Truly he loved the place . . . .

My visit at Stormfield came to an end with tender relucting on his part and on mine. Every morning before I dressed I heard him sounding my name through the house for the fun of it and I know for the fondness, and if I looked out of my door there he was in his long nightgown swaying up and down the corridor, and wagging his great white head like a boy that leaves his bed and comes out in the hope of frolic with some one. The last morning a soft sugar-snow had fallen and was falling, and I drove through it down to the station in the carriage which had been given him by his wife’s father when they were first married, and had been kept all those intervening years in honorable retirement for this final use. 187 Its springs had not grown yielding with time, it had rather the stiffness and severity of age; but for him it must have swung low like the sweet chariot of the negro “spiritual” which I heard him sing with such fervor when those wonderful hymns of the slaves began to make their way northward.

187 [This carriage — a finely built coup — had been presented to Mrs. Crane when the Hartford house was closed. When Stormfield was built she returned it to its original owner.]

Howells’s visit resulted in a new inspiration. Clemens started to write him one night when he could not sleep, and had been reading the volume of letters of James Russell Lowell. Then, next morning, he was seized with the notion of writing a series of letters to such friends as Howells, Twichell, and Rogers — letters not to be mailed, but to be laid away for some future public. He wrote two of these immediately — to Howells and to Twichell. The Howells letter (or letters, for it was really double) is both pathetic and amusing. The first part ran:

3 in the morning, April 17, 1909.

My pen has gone dry and the ink is out of reach. Howells, did you write me day-before-day-before yesterday or did I dream it? In my mind’s eye I most vividly see your hand-write on a square blue envelope in the mail-pile. I have hunted the house over, but there is no such letter. Was it an illusion?

I am reading Lowell’s letters & smoking. I woke an hour ago & am reading to keep from wasting the time. On page 305, Vol. I, I have just margined a note:

“Young friend! I like that! You ought to see him now.”

It seemed startlingly strange to hear a person call you young. It was a brick out of a blue sky, & knocked me groggy for a moment. Ah me, the pathos of it is that we were young then. And he — why, so was he, but he didn’t know it. He didn’t even know it 9 years later, when we saw him approaching and you warned me, saying:

“Don’t say anything about age — he has just turned 50 & thinks he is old, & broods over it.”

Well, Clara did sing! And you wrote her a dear letter.

Time to go to sleep.

Yours ever, MARK

The second letter, begun at 10 A.M., outlines the plan by which he is to write on the subject uppermost in his mind without restraint, knowing that the letter is not to be mailed.

. . .The scheme furnishes a definite target for each letter, & you can choose the target that’s going to be the most sympathetic for what you are hungering & thirsting to say at that particular moment. And you can talk with a quite unallowable frankness & freedom because you are not going to send the letter. When you are on fire with theology you’ll not write it to Rogers, who wouldn’t be an inspiration; you’ll write it to Twichell, because it will make him writhe and squirm & break the furniture. When you are on fire with a good thing that’s indecent you won’t waste it on Twichell; you’ll save it for Howells, who will love it. As he will never see it you can make it really indecenter than he could stand; & so no harm is done, yet a vast advantage is gained.

The letter was not finished, and the scheme perished there. The Twichell letter concerned missionaries, and added nothing to what he had already said on the subject.

He wrote no letter to Mr. Rogers — perhaps never wrote to him again.

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