Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXV

Hartford and Billiards

Clemens was never much inclined to work, away from his Elmira study. “Magnanimous Incident Literature” (for the Atlantic) was about his only completed work of the winter of 1877-78. He was always tinkering with the “Visit to Heaven,” and after one reconstruction Howells suggested that he bring it out as a book, in England, with Dean Stanley’s indorsement, though this may have been only semi-serious counsel. The story continued to lie in seclusion.

Clemens had one new book in the field — a small book, but profitable. Dan Slote’s firm issued for him the Mark Twain Scrap-book, and at the end of the first royalty period rendered a statement of twenty-five thousand copies sold, which was well enough for a book that did not contain a single word that critics could praise or condemn. Slote issued another little book for him soon after Punch, Brothers, Punch! — which, besides that lively sketch, contained the “Random Notes” and seven other selections.

Mark Twain was tempted to go into the lecture field that winter, not by any of the offers, though these were numerous enough, but by the idea of a combination which he thought night be not only profitable but pleasant. Thomas Nast had made a great success of his caricature lectures, and Clemens, recalling Nast’s long-ago proposal, found it newly attractive. He wrote characteristically:

MY DEAR NAST — I did not think I should ever stand on a platform again until the time was come for me to say, “I die innocent.” But the same old offers keep arriving. I have declined them all, just as usual, though sorely tempted, as usual.

Now, I do not decline because I mind talking to an audience, but because (1) traveling alone is so heartbreakingly dreary, and (2) shouldering the whole show is such a cheer-killing responsibility.

Therefore, I now propose to you what you proposed to me in 1867, ten years ago (when I was unknown)— viz., that you stand on the platform and make pictures, and I stand by you and blackguard the audience. I should enormously enjoy meandering around (to big towns — don’t want to go to the little ones), with you for company.

My idea is not to fatten the lecture agents and lyceums on the spoils, but to put all the ducats religiously into two equal piles, and say to the artist and lecturer, “absorb these.”

For instance, [here follows a plan and a possible list of the cities to be visited]. The letter continues:

Call the gross receipts $100,00 for four months and a half, and the profit from $60,000 to $75,000 (I try to make the figures large enough, and leave it to the public to reduce them).

I did not put in Philadelphia because Pugh owns that town, and last winter, when I made a little reading-trip, he only paid me $300, and pretended his concert (I read fifteen minutes in the midst of a concert) cost him a vast sum, and so he couldn’t afford any more. I could get up a better concert with a barrel of cats.

I have imagined two or three pictures and concocted the accompanying remarks, to see how the thing would go. I was charmed.

Well, you think it over, Nast, and drop me a line. We should have some fun.

The new hourse in Hartford

Undoubtedly this would have been a profitable combination, but Nast had a distaste for platforming — had given it up, as he thought, for life. So Clemens settled down to the fireside days, that afforded him always the larger comfort. The children were at an age “to be entertaining, and to be entertained.” In either case they furnished him plenty of diversion when he did not care to write. They had learned his gift as a romancer, and with this audience he might be as extravagant as he liked. They sometimes assisted by furnishing subjects. They would bring him a picture, requiring him to invent a story for it without a moment’s delay. Sometimes they suggested the names of certain animals or objects, and demanded that these be made into a fairy tale. If they heard the name of any new creature or occupation they were likely to offer them as impromptu inspiration. Once he was suddenly required to make a story out of a plumber and a “bawgunstrictor,” but he was equal to it. On one side of the library, along the book-shelves that joined the mantelpiece, were numerous ornaments and pictures. At one end was the head of a girl, that they called “Emeline,” and at the other was an oil-painting of a cat. When other subjects failed, the romancer was obliged to build a story impromptu, and without preparation, beginning with the cat, working along through the bric-a-brac, and ending with “Emeline.” This was the unvarying program. He was not allowed to begin with “Emeline” and end with the cat, and he was not permitted to introduce an ornament from any other portion of the room. He could vary the story as much as he liked. In fact, he was required to do that. The trend of its chapters, from the cat to “Emeline,” was a well-trodden and ever-entertaining way.

He gave up his luxurious study to the children as a sort of nursery and playroom, and took up his writing-quarters, first in a room over the stables, then in the billiard-room, which, on the whole, he preferred to any other place, for it was a third-story remoteness, and he could knock the balls about for inspiration.

The billiard-room became his headquarters. He received his callers there and impressed them into the game. If they could play, well and good; if they could not play, so much the better — he could beat them extravagantly, and he took a huge delight in such conquests. Every Friday evening, or oftener, a small party of billiard-lovers gathered, and played until a late hour, told stories, and smoked till the room was blue, comforting themselves with hot Scotch and general good-fellowship. Mark Twain always had a genuine passion for billiards. He was never tired of the game. He could play all night. He would stay till the last man gave out from sheer weariness; then he would go on knocking the balls about alone. He liked to invent new games and new rules for old games, often inventing a rule on the spur of the moment to fit some particular shot or position on the table. It amused him highly to do this, to make the rule advantage his own play, and to pretend a deep indignation when his opponents disqualified his rulings and rode him down. S. C. Dunham was among those who belonged to the “Friday Evening Club,” as they called it, and Henry C. Robinson, long dead, and rare Ned Bunce, and F. G. Whitmore; and the old room there at the top of the house, with its little outside balcony, rang with their voices and their laughter in that day when life and the world for them was young. Clemens quoted to them sometimes:

Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of spring Your winter garment of repentance fling; The bird of time has but a little way To flutter, and the bird is on the wing.

Omar was new then on this side of the Atlantic, and to his serene “eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy, in Fitzgerald’s rhyme, these were early converts. Mark Twain had an impressive, musical delivery of verse; the players were willing at any moment to listen as he recited:

For some we loved, the loveliest and best That from his vintage rolling time has prest, Have drunk their cup a round or two before, And one by one crept silently to rest. Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, Before we too into the dust descend; Dust unto dust, and under dust to lie, Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and — sans End.’94

94 [The ‘Rubaiyat’ had made its first appearance, in Hartford, a little before in a column of extracts published in the Courant.]

Twichell immediately wrote Clemens a card:

“Read (if you haven’t) the extracts from Oman Khayyam, on the first page of this morning’s Courant. I think we’ll have to get the book. I never yet came across anything that uttered certain thoughts of mine so. adequately. And it’s only a translation. Read it, and we’ll talk it over. There is something in it very like the passage of Emerson you read me last night, in fact identical with it in thought.

“Surely this Omar was a great poet. Anyhow, he has given me an immense revelation this morning.

“Hoping that you are better,

J. H. T.”

Twichell’s “only a translation” has acquired a certain humor with time.

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