Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter III

A Humble Birthplace

Florida, Missouri, was a small village in the early thirties — smaller than it is now, perhaps, though in that day it had more promise, even if less celebrity. The West was unassembled then, undigested, comparatively unknown. Two States, Louisiana and Missouri, with less than half a million white persons, were all that lay beyond the great river. St. Louis, with its boasted ten thousand inhabitants and its river trade with the South, was the single metropolis in all that vast uncharted region. There was no telegraph; there were no railroads, no stage lines of any consequence — scarcely any maps. For all that one could see or guess, one place was as promising as another, especially a settlement like Florida, located at the forks of a pretty stream, Salt River, which those early settlers believed might one day become navigable and carry the merchandise of that region down to the mighty Mississippi, thence to the world outside.

In those days came John A. Quarles, of Kentucky, with his wife, who had been Patsey Ann Lampton; also, later, Benjamin Lampton, her father, and others of the Lampton race. It was natural that they should want Jane Clemens and her husband to give up that disheartening east Tennessee venture and join them in this new and promising land. It was natural, too, for John Quarles — happy-hearted, generous, and optimistic — to write the letter. There were only twenty-one houses in Florida, but Quarles counted stables, out-buildings — everything with a roof on it — and set down the number at fifty-four.

Florida, with its iridescent promise and negligible future, was just the kind of a place that John Clemens with unerring instinct would be certain to select, and the Quarles letter could have but one answer. Yet there would be the longing for companionship, too, and Jane Clemens must have hungered for her people. In The Gilded Age, the Sellers letter ends:

“Come! — rush! — hurry! — don’t wait for anything!”

The Clemens family began immediately its preparation for getting away. The store was sold, and the farm; the last two wagon-loads of produce were sent to Louisville; and with the aid of the money realized, a few hundred dollars, John Clemens and his family “flitted out into the great mysterious blank that lay beyond the Knobs of Tennessee.” They had a two-horse barouche, which would seem to have been preserved out of their earlier fortunes. The barouche held the parents and the three younger children, Pamela, Margaret, anal the little boy, Benjamin. There were also two extra horses, which Orion, now ten, and Jennie, the house-girl, a slave, rode. This was early in the spring of 1835.

They traveled by the way of their old home at Columbia, and paid a visit to relatives. At Louisville they embarked on a steamer bound for St. Louis; thence overland once more through wilderness and solitude into what was then the Far West, the promised land.

They arrived one evening, and if Florida was not quite all in appearance that John Clemens had dreamed, it was at least a haven — with John Quarles, jovial, hospitable, and full of plans. The great Mississippi was less than fifty miles away. Salt River, with a system of locks and dams, would certainly become navigable to the Forks, with Florida as its head of navigation. It was a Sellers fancy, though perhaps it should be said here that John Quarles was not the chief original of that lovely character in The Gilded Age. That was another relative — James Lampton, a cousin — quite as lovable, and a builder of even more insubstantial dreams.

John Quarles was already established in merchandise in Florida, and was prospering in a small way. He had also acquired a good farm, which he worked with thirty slaves, and was probably the rich man and leading citizen of the community. He offered John Clemens a partnership in his store, and agreed to aid him in the selection of some land. Furthermore, he encouraged him to renew his practice of the law. Thus far, at least, the Florida venture was not a mistake, for, whatever came, matters could not be worse than they had been in Tennessee.

In a small frame building near the center of the village, John and Jane Clemens established their household. It was a humble one-story affair, with two main rooms and a lean-to kitchen, though comfortable enough for its size, and comparatively new. It is still standing and occupied when these lines are written, and it should be preserved and guarded as a shrine for the American people; for it was here that the foremost American-born author — the man most characteristically American in every thought and word and action of his life — drew his first fluttering breath, caught blinkingly the light of a world that in the years to come would rise up and in its wide realm of letters hail him as a king.

It was on a bleak day, November 30, 1835, that he entered feebly the domain he was to conquer. Long, afterward, one of those who knew him best said:

“He always seemed to me like some great being from another planet — never quite of this race or kind.”

He may have been, for a great comet was in the sky that year, and it would return no more until the day when he should be borne back into the far spaces of silence and undiscovered suns. But nobody thought of this, then.

The birthplace of Mark Twain

He was a seven-months child, and there was no fanfare of welcome at his coming. Perhaps it was even suggested that, in a house so small and so sufficiently filled, there was no real need of his coming at all. One Polly Ann Buchanan, who is said to have put the first garment of any sort on him, lived to boast of the fact,1 but she had no particular pride in that matter then. It was only a puny baby with a wavering promise of life. Still, John Clemens must have regarded with favor this first gift of fortune in a new land, for he named the little boy Samuel, after his father, and added the name of an old and dear Virginia friend, Langhorne. The family fortunes would seem to have been improving at this time, and he may have regarded the arrival of another son as a good omen.

1 [This honor has been claimed also for Mrs. Millie Upton and a Mrs. Damrell. Probably all were present and assisted.]

With a family of eight, now, including Jennie, the slavegirl, more room was badly needed, and he began building without delay. The result was not a mansion, by any means, being still of the one-story pattern, but it was more commodious than the tiny two-room affair. The rooms were larger, and there was at least one ell, or extension, for kitchen and dining-room uses. This house, completed in 1836, occupied by the Clemens family during the remainder of the years spent in Florida, was often in later days pointed out as Mark Twain’s birthplace. It missed that distinction by a few months, though its honor was sufficient in having sheltered his early childhood.2

2 [This house is no longer standing. When it was torn down several years ago, portions of it were carried off and manufactured into souvenirs. Mark Twain himself disclaimed it as his birthplace, and once wrote on a photograph of it: “No, it is too stylish, it is not my birthplace.”]

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