Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXXVII

Letters, Tales, and Plans

The reader has not failed to remark the great number of letters which Samuel Clemens wrote to his friend William Dean Howells; yet comparatively few can even be mentioned. He was always writing to Howells, on every subject under the sun; whatever came into his mind — business, literature, personal affairs — he must write about it to Howells. Once, when nothing better occurred, he sent him a series of telegrams, each a stanza from an old hymn, possibly thinking they might carry comfort. 103 Whatever of picturesque happened in the household he immediately set it down for Howells’s entertainment. Some of these domestic incidents carry the flavor of his best humor. Once he wrote:

103 [“Clemens had then and for many years the habit of writing to me about what he was doing, and still more of what he was experiencing. Nothing struck his imagination, in or out of the daily routine, but he wished to write me of it, and he wrote with the greatest fullness and a lavish dramatization, sometimes to the length of twenty or forty pages:” (My Mark Twain, by W. D. Howells.)]

Last night, when I went to bed, Mrs. Clemens said, “George didn’t take the cat down to the cellar; Rosa says he has left it shut up in the conservatory.” So I went down to attend to Abner (the cat). About three in the morning Mrs. C. woke me and said, “I do believe I hear that cat in the drawing-room. What did you do with him?” I answered with the confidence of a man who has managed to do the right thing for once, and said, “I opened the conservatory doors, took the library off the alarm, and spread everything open, so that there wasn’t any obstruction between him and the cellar.” Language wasn’t capable of conveying this woman’s disgust. But the sense of what she said was, “He couldn’t have done any harm in the conservatory; so you must go and make the entire house free to him and the burglars, imagining that he will prefer the coal-bins to the drawing-room. If you had had Mr. Howells to help you I should have admired, but not have been astonished, because I should know that together you would be equal to it; but how you managed to contrive such a stately blunder all by yourself is what I cannot understand.”

So, you see, even she knows how to apprecaite our gifts. . . .

I knocked off during these stirring hours, and don’t intend to go to work again till we go away for the summer, four or six weeks hence. So I am writing to you, not because I have anything to say, but because you don’t have to answer and I need something to do this afternoon.

The rightful earl has ——

Friday, 7th.

Well, never mind about the rightful earl; he merely wanted to-borrow money. I never knew an American earl that didn’t.

After a trip to Boston, during which Mrs. Clemens did some bric-a-brac shopping, he wrote:

Mrs. Clemens has two imperishable topics now: the museum of andirons which she collected and your dinner. It is hard to tell which she admires the most. Sometimes she leans one way and sometimes the other; but I lean pretty steadily toward the dinner because I can appreciate that, whereas I am no prophet in andirons. There has been a procession of Adams Express wagons filing before the door all day delivering andirons.

In a more serious vein he refers to the aged violinist Ole Bull and his wife, whom they had met during their visit, and their enjoyment of that gentle-hearted pair.

Clemens did some shorter work that spring, most of which found its way into the Atlantic. “Edward Mills and George Benton,” one of the contributions of this time, is a moral sermon in its presentation of a pitiful human spectacle and misdirected human zeal.

It brought a pack of letters of approval, not only from laity, but the church, and in some measure may have helped to destroy the silly sentimentalism which manifested itself in making heroes of spectacular criminals. That fashion has gone out, largely. Mark Twain wrote frequently on the subject, though never more effectively than in this particular instance. “Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning” was another Atlantic story, a companion piece to “Mrs. McWilliams’s Experience with the Membranous Croup,” and in the same delightful vein — a vein in which Mark Twain was likely to be at his best — the transcription of a scene not so far removed in character from that in the “cat” letter just quoted: something which may or may not have happened, but might have happened, approximately as set down. Rose Terry Cooke wrote:

Horrid man, how did you know the way I behave in a thunderstorm? Have you been secreted in the closet or lurking on the shed roof? I hope you got thoroughly rained on; and worst of all is that you made me laugh at myself; my real terrors turned round and grimaced at me: they were sublime, and you have made them ridiculous just come out here another year and have four houses within a few rods of you struck and then see if you write an article of such exasperating levity. I really hate you, but you are funny.

In addition to his own work, he conceived a plan for Orion. Clemens himself had been attempting, from time to time, an absolutely faithful autobiography; a document in which his deeds and misdeeds, even his moods and inmost thoughts, should be truly set down. He had found it an impossible task. He confessed freely that he lacked the courage, even the actual ability, to pen the words that would lay his soul bare, but he believed Orion equal to the task. He knew how rigidly honest he was, how ready to confess his shortcomings, how eager to be employed at some literary occupation. It was Mark Twain’s belief that if Orion would record in detail his long, weary struggle, his succession of attempts and failures, his past dreams and disappointments, along with his sins of omission and commission, it would make one of those priceless human documents such as have been left by Benvenuto Cellini, Cazenova, and Rousseau.

“Simply tell your story to yourself,” he wrote, “laying all hideousness utterly bare, reserving nothing. Banish the idea of the audience and all hampering things.”

Orion, out in Keokuk, had long since abandoned the chicken farm and a variety of other enterprises. He had prospected insurance, mining, journalism, his old trade of printing, and had taken down and hung up his law shingle between each of these seizures. Aside from business, too, he had been having a rather spectacular experience. He had changed his politics three times (twice in one day), and his religion as many more. Once when he was delivering a political harangue in the street, at night, a parade of the opposition (he had but just abandoned them) marched by carrying certain flaming transparencies, which he himself had made for them the day before. Finally, after delivering a series of infidel lectures; he had been excommunicated and condemned to eternal flames by the Presbyterian Church. He was therefore ripe for any new diversion, and the Autobiography appealed to him. He set about it with splendid enthusiasm, wrote a hundred pages or so of his childhood with a startling minutia of detail and frankness, and mailed them to his brother for inspection.

They were all that Mark Twain had expected; more than he had expected. He forwarded them to Howells with great satisfaction, suggesting, with certain excisions, they be offered anonymously to the Atlantic readers.

But Howells’s taste for realism had its limitations. He found the story interesting — indeed, torturingly, heart-wringingly so — and, advising strongly against its publication, returned it.

Onion was steaming along at the rate of ten to twenty pages a day now, forwarding them as fast as written, while his courage was good and the fires warm. Clemens, receiving a package by every morning mail, soon lost interest, then developed a hunted feeling, becoming finally desperate. He wrote wildly to shut Orion off, urging him to let his manuscript accumulate, and to send it in one large consignment at the end. This Orion did, and it is fair to say that in this instance at least he stuck to his work faithfully to the bitter, disheartening end. And it would have been all that Mark Twain had dreamed it would be, had Orion maintained the simple narrative spirit of its early pages. But he drifted off into theological byways; into discussions of his excommunication and infidelities, which were frank enough, but lacked human interest.

In old age Mark Twain once referred to Orion’s autobiography in print and his own disappointment in it, which he attributed to Orion’s having departed from the idea of frank and unrestricted confession to exalt himself as a hero-a statement altogether unwarranted, and due to one of those curious confusions of memory and imagination that more than once resulted in a complete reversal of the facts. A quantity of Orion’s manuscript has been lost and destroyed, but enough fragments of it remain to show its fidelity to the original plan. It is just one long record of fleeting hope, futile effort, and humiliation. It is the story of a life of disappointment; of a man who has been defeated and beaten down and crushed by the world until he has nothing but confession left to surrender.104

104 [Howells, in his letter concerning the opening chapters, said that they would some day make good material. Fortunately the earliest of these chapters were preserved, and, as the reader may remember, furnished much of the childhood details for this biography.]

Whatever may have been Mark Twain’s later impression of his brother’s manuscript, its story of failure and disappointment moved him to definite action at the time.

Several years before, in Hartford, Orion had urged him to make his publishing contracts on a basis of half profits, instead of on the royalty plan. Clemens, remembering this, had insisted on such an arrangement for the publication of ‘A Tramp Abroad’, and when his first statement came in he realized that the new contract was very largely to his advantage. He remembered Orion’s anxiety in the matter, and made it now a valid excuse for placing his brother on a firm financial footing.

Out of the suspicions which you bred in me years ago has grown this result, to wit: that I shall within the twelve months get $40,000 out of this Tramp, instead of $20,000. $20,000, after taxes and other expenses are stripped away, is worth to the investor about $75 a month, so I shall tell Mr. Perkins [his lawyer and financial agent] to make your check that amount per month hereafter. . . . This ends the loan business, and hereafter you can reflect that you are living not on borrowed money, but on money which you have squarely earned, and which has no taint or savor of charity about it, and you can also reflect that the money which you have been receiving of me is charged against the heavy bill which the next publisher will have to stand who gets a book of mine.

From that time forward Orion Clemens was worth substantially twenty thousand dollars — till the day of his death, and, after him, his widow. Far better was it for him that the endowment be conferred in the form of an income, than had the capital amount been placed in his hands.

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