Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CVIII

Summer Labors at Quarry Farm

They went to Elmira, that summer of ’76, to be “hermits and eschew caves and live in the sun,” as Clemens wrote in a letter to Dr. Brown. They returned to the place as to Paradise: Clemens to his study and the books which he always called for, Mrs. Clemens to a blessed relief from social obligations, the children to the shady play-places, the green, sloping hill, where they could race and tumble, and to all their animal friends.

Susy was really growing up. She had had several birthdays, quite grand affairs, when she had been brought down in the morning, decked, and with proper ceremonies, with subsequent celebration. She was a strange, thoughtful child, much given to reflecting on the power and presence of infinity, for she was religiously taught. Down in the city, one night, there was a grand display of fireworks, and the hilltop was a good place from which to enjoy it; but it grew late after a little, and Susy was ordered to bed. She said, thoughtfully:

“I wish I could sit up all night, as God does.”

The baby, whom they still called “Bay,” was a tiny, brown creature who liked to romp in the sun and be rocked to sleep at night with a song. Clemens often took them for extended’ walks, pushing Bay in her carriage. Once, in a preoccupied moment, he let go of the little vehicle and it started downhill, gaining speed rapidly.

He awoke then, and set off in wild pursuit. Before he could overtake the runaway carriage it had turned to the roadside and upset. Bay was lying among the stones and her head was bleeding. Hastily binding the wound with a handkerchief he started full speed with her up the hill toward the house, calling for restoratives as he came. It was no serious matter. The little girl was strong and did not readily give way to affliction.

The children were unlike: Susy was all contemplation and nerves; Bay serene and practical. It was said, when a pet cat died — this was some years later — that Susy deeply reflected as to its life here and hereafter, while Bay was concerned only as to the style of its funeral. Susy showed early her father’s quaintness of remark. Once they bought her a heavier pair of shoes than she approved of. She was not in the best of humors during the day, and that night, when at prayer-time her mother said, “Now, Susy, put your thoughts on God,” she answered, “Mama, I can’t with those shoes.”

Clemens worked steadily that summer and did a variety of things. He had given up a novel, begun with much enthusiasm, but he had undertaken another long manuscript. By the middle of August he had written several hundred pages of a story which was to be a continuation of Tam Sawyer — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now, here is a curious phase of genius. The novel which for a time had filled him with enthusiasm and faith had no important literary value, whereas, concerning this new tale, he says:

“I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have gone, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the manuscript when it is done”— this of the story which, of his books of pure fiction, will perhaps longest survive. He did, in fact, give the story up, and without much regret, when it was about half completed, and let it lie unfinished for years.

He wrote one short tale, “The Canvasser’s Story,” a burlesque of no special distinction, and he projected for the Atlantic a scheme of “blindfold novelettes,” a series of stories to be written by well-known authors and others, each to be constructed on the same plot. One can easily imagine Clemens’s enthusiasm over a banal project like that; his impulses were always rainbow-hued, whether valuable or not; but it is curious that Howells should welcome and even encourage an enterprise so far removed from all the traditions of art. It fell to pieces, at last, of inherent misconstruction. The title was to be, “A Murder and a Marriage.” Clemens could not arrive at a logical climax that did not bring the marriage and the hanging on the same day.

The Atlantic started its “Contributors’ Club,” and Howells wrote to Clemens for a paragraph or more of personal opinion on any subject, assuring him that he could “spit his spite” out at somebody or something as if it were a passage from a letter. That was a fairly large permission to give Mark Twain. The paragraph he sent was the sort of thing he would write with glee, and hug himself over in the thought of Howells’s necessity of rejecting it. In the accompanying note he said:

Say, Boss, do you want this to lighten up your old freight-train with? I suppose you won’t, but then it won’t take long to say, so.

He was always sending impossible offerings to the magazines; innocently enough sometimes, but often out of pure mischievousness. Yet they were constantly after him, for they knew they were likely to get a first-water gem. Mary Mopes Dodge, of St. Nicholas, wrote time and again, and finally said:

“I know a man who was persecuted by an editor till he went distracted.”

In his reading that year at the farm he gave more than customary attention to one of his favorite books, Pepys’ Diary, that captivating old record which no one can follow continuously without catching the infection of its manner and the desire of imitation. He had been reading diligently one day, when he determined to try his hand on an imaginary record of conversation and court manners of a bygone day, written in the phrase of the period. The result was Fireside Conversation in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, or, as he later called it, 1601. The “conversation,” recorded by a supposed Pepys of that period, was written with all the outspoken coarseness and nakedness of that rank day, when fireside sociabilities were limited only by the range of loosened fancy, vocabulary, and physical performance, and not by any bounds of convention. Howells has spoken of Mark Twain’s “Elizabethan breadth of parlance,” and how he, Howells, was always hiding away in discreet holes and corners the letters in which Clemens had “loosed his bold fancy to stoop on rank suggestion.” “I could not bear to burn them,” he declares, “and I could not, after the first reading, quite bear to look at them.”

In the 1601 Mark Twain outdid himself in the Elizabethan field. It was written as a letter to that robust divine, Rev. Joseph Twichell, who had no special scruples concerning Shakespearian parlance and customs. Before it was mailed it was shown to David Gray, who was spending a Sunday at Elmira. Gray said:

“Print it and put your name to it, Mark. You have never done a greater piece of work than that.”

John Hay, whom it also reached in due time, pronounce it a classic — a “most exquisite bit of old English morality.” Hay surreptitiously permitted some proofs to be made of it, and it has been circulated privately, though sparingly, ever since. At one time a special font of antique type was made for it and one hundred copies were taken on hand-made paper. They would easily bring a hundred dollars each to-day.

1601 is a genuine classic, as classics of that sort go. It is better than the gross obscenities of Rabelais, and perhaps, in some day to come, the taste that justified Gargantua and the Decameron will give this literary refugee shelter and setting among the more conventional writings of Mark Twain. Human taste is a curious thing; delicacy is purely a matter of environment and point of view.

[In a note-book of a later period Clemens himself wrote: “It depends on who writes a thing whether it is coarse or not. I once wrote a conversation between Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Sir W. Raleigh, Lord Bacon, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, and a stupid old nobleman — this latter being cup-bearer to the queen and ostensible reporter of the talk.

“There were four maids of honor present and a sweet young girl two years younger than the boy Beaumont. I built a conversation which could have happened — I used words such as were used at that time — 1601. I sent it anonymously to a magazine, and how the editor abused it and the sender! But that man was a praiser of Rabelais, and had been saying, ‘O that we had a Rabelais!’ I judged that I could furnish him one.”]

Eighteen hundred and seventy-six was a Presidential year — the year of the Hayes-Tilden campaign. Clemens and Howells were both warm Republicans and actively interested in the outcome, Clemens, as he confessed, for the first time in his life. Before his return to Hartford he announced himself publicly as a Hayes man, made so by Governor Hayes’s letter of acceptance, which, he said, “expresses my own political convictions.” His politics had not been generally known up to that time, and a Tilden and Hendricks club in Jersey City had invited him to be present and give them some political counsel, at a flag-raising. He wrote, declining pleasantly enough, then added:

“You have asked me for some political counsel or advice: In view of Mr. Tilden’s Civil War record my advice is not to raise the flag.”

He wrote Howells: “If Tilden is elected I think the entire country will go pretty straight to — Mrs. Howells’s bad place.”

Howells was writing a campaign biography of Hayes, which he hoped would have a large sale, and Clemens urged him to get it out quickly and save the country. Howells, working like a beaver, in turn urged Clemens to take the field in the cause. Returning to Hartford, Clemens presided at a political rally and made a speech, the most widely quoted of the campaign. All papers, without distinction as to party, quoted it, and all readers, regardless of politics, read it with joy.

Yet conditions did not improve. When Howells’s book had been out a reasonable length of time he wrote that it had sold only two thousand copies.

“There’s success for you,” he said. “It makes me despair of the Republic, I can tell you.”

Clemens, however, did not lose faith, and went on shouting for Hayes and damning Tilden till the final vote was cast. In later life he changed his mind about Tilden (as did many others) through sympathy. Sympathy could make — Mark Twain change his mind any time. He stood for the right, but, above all, for justice. He stood for the wronged, regardless of all other things.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00