Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


Mark Twain’s Absent-Mindedness

A number of amusing incidents have been more or less accurately reported concerning Mark Twain’s dim perception of certain physical surroundings, and his vague resulting memories — his absent-mindedness, as we say.

It was not that he was inattentive — no man was ever less so if the subject interested him — but only that the casual, incidental thing seemed not to find a fixed place in his deeper consciousness.

By no means was Mark Twain’s absent-mindedness a development of old age. On the two occasions following he was in the very heyday of his mental strength. Especially was it, when he was engaged upon some absorbing or difficult piece of literature, that his mind seemed to fold up and shut most of the world away. Soon after his return from Europe, when he was still struggling with ‘A Tramp Abroad’, he wearily put the manuscript aside, one day, and set out to invite F. G. Whitmore over for a game of billiards. Whitmore lived only a little way down the street, and Clemens had been there time and again. It was such a brief distance that he started out in his slippers and with no hat. But when he reached the corner where the house, a stone’s-throw away, was in plain view he stopped. He did not recognize it. It was unchanged, but its outlines had left no impress upon his mind. He stood there uncertainly a little while, then returned and got the coachman, Patrick McAleer, to show him the way.

The second, and still more picturesque instance, belongs also to this period. One day, when he was playing billiards with Whitmore, George, the butler, came up with a card.

“Who is he, George?” Clemens asked, without looking at the card.

“I don’t know, suh, but he’s a gentleman, Mr. Clemens.”

“Now, George, how many times have I told you I don’t want to see strangers when I’m playing billiards! This is just some book agent, or insurance man, or somebody with something to sell. I don’t want to see him, and I’m not going to.”

“Oh, but this is a gentleman, I’m sure, Mr. Clemens. Just look at his card, suh.”

“Yes, of course, I see — nice engraved card — but I don’t know him, and if it was St. Peter himself I wouldn’t buy the key of salvation! You tell him so — tell him — oh, well, I suppose I’ve got to go and get rid of him myself. I’ll be back in a minute, Whitmore.”

He ran down the stairs, and as he got near the parlor door, which stood open, he saw a man sitting on a couch with what seemed to be some framed water-color pictures on the floor near his feet.

“Ah, ha!” he thought, “I see. A picture agent. I’ll soon get rid of him.”

He went in with his best, “Well, what can I do for you?” air, which he, as well as any man living, knew how to assume; a friendly air enough, but not encouraging. The gentleman rose and extended his hand.

“How are you, Mr. Clemens?” he said.

Of course this was the usual thing with men who had axes to grind or goods to sell. Clemens did not extend a very cordial hand. He merely raised a loose, indifferent hand — a discouraging hand.

“And how is Mrs. Clemens?” asked the uninvited guest.

So this was his game. He would show an interest in the family and ingratiate himself in that way; he would be asking after the children next.

“Well — Mrs. Clemens is about as usual — I believe.”

“And the children — Miss Susie and little Clara?”

This was a bit startling. He knew their names! Still, that was easy to find out. He was a smart agent, wonderfully smart. He must be got rid of.

“The children are well, quite well,” and (pointing down at the pictures)—“We’ve got plenty like these. We don’t want any more. No, we don’t care for any more,” skilfully working his visitor toward the door as he talked.

The man, looking non-plussed — a good deal puzzled — allowed himself to be talked into the hall and toward the front door. Here he paused a moment:

“Mr. Clemens, will you tell me where Mr. Charles Dudley Warner lives?”

This was the chance! He would work him off on Charlie Warner. Perhaps Warner needed pictures.

“Oh, certainly, certainly! Right across the yard. I’ll show you. There’s a walk right through. You don’t need to go around the front way at all. You’ll find him at home, too, I’m pretty sure”; all the time working his caller out and down the step and in the right direction.

The visitor again extended his hand.

“Please remember me to Mrs. Clemens and the children.”

“Oh, certainly, certainly, with pleasure. Good day. Yes, that’s the house Good-by.”

On the way back to the billiard-room Mrs. Clemens called to him. She was ill that day.


“Yes, Livy.” He went in for a word.

“George brought me Mr. B——‘s card. I hope you were very nice to him; the B——s were so nice to us, once last year, when you were gone.”,

“The B——s — Why, Livy ——”

“Yes, of course, and I asked him to be sure to call when he came to Hartford.”

He gazed at her helplessly.

“Well, he’s been here.”

“Oh, Youth, have you done anything?”

“Yes, of course I have. He seemed to have some pictures to sell, so I sent him over to Warner’s. I noticed he didn’t take them with him. Land sakes, Livy, what can I do?”

“Which way did he go, Youth?”

“Why, I sent him to Charlie Warner’s. I thought ——”

“Go right after him. Go quick! Tell him what you have done.”

He went without further delay, bareheaded and in his slippers, as usual. Warner and B—— were in cheerful and friendly converse. They had met before. Clemens entered gaily:

“Oh Yes, I see! You found him all right. Charlie, we met Mr. B—— and his wife in Europe last summer and they made things pleasant for us. I wanted to come over here with him, but was a good deal occupied just then. Livy isn’t very well, but she seems a good deal better, so I just followed along to have a good talk, all together.”

He stayed an hour, and whatever bad impression had formed in B——‘s mind faded long before the hour ended. Returning home Clemens noticed the pictures still on the parlor floor.

“George,” he said, “what pictures are those that gentleman left?”

“Why, Mr. Clemens, those are our own pictures. I’ve been straightening up the room a little, and Mrs. Clemens had me set them around to see how they would look in new places. The gentleman was looking at them while he was waiting for you to come down.”

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