Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XIII

The Gentler Side

His associations were not all of that lawless breed. At his school (he had sampled several places of learning, and was now at Mr. Cross’s on the Square) were a number of less adventurous, even if not intrinsically better playmates. There was George Robards, the Latin scholar, and John, his brother, a handsome boy, who rode away at last with his father into the sunset, to California, his golden curls flying in the wind. And there was Jimmy McDaniel, a kind-hearted boy whose company was worth while, because his father was a confectioner, and he used to bring candy and cake to school. Also there was Buck Brown, a rival speller, and John Meredith, the doctor’s son, and John Garth, who was one day to marry little Helen Kercheval, and in the end would be remembered and honored with a beautiful memorial building not far from the site of the old school.

Furthermore, there were a good many girls. Tom Sawyer had an impressionable heart, and Sam Clemens no less so. There was Bettie Ormsley, and Artemisia Briggs, and Jennie Brady; also Mary Miller, who was nearly twice his age and gave him his first broken heart.

“I believe I was as miserable as a grown man could be,” he said once, remembering.

Tom Sawyer had heart sorrows too, and we may imagine that his emotions at such times were the emotions of Sam Clemens, say at the age of ten.

But, as Tom Sawyer had one faithful sweetheart, so did he. They were one and the same. Becky Thatcher in the book was Laura Hawkins in reality. The acquaintance of these two had begun when the Hawkins family moved into the Virginia house on the corner of Hill and Main streets.9 The Clemens family was then in the new home across the way, and the children were soon acquainted. The boy could be tender and kind, and was always gentle in his treatment of the other sex. They visited back and forth, especially around the new house, where there were nice pieces of boards and bricks for play-houses. So they played “keeping house,” and if they did not always agree well, since the beginning of the world sweethearts have not always agreed, even in Arcady. Once when they were building a house — and there may have been some difference of opinion as to its architecture — the boy happened to let a brick fall on the little girl’s finger. If there had been any disagreement it vanished instantly with that misfortune. He tried to comfort her and soothe the pain; then he wept with her and suffered most of the two, no doubt. So, you see, he was just a little boy, after all, even though he was already chief of a red-handed band, the “Black Avengers of the Spanish Main.”

9 [The Hawkins family in real life bore no resemblance to the family of that name in The Gilded Age. Judge Hawkins of The Gilded Age, as already noted, was John Clemens. Mark Twain used the name Hawkins, also the name of his boyhood sweetheart, Laura, merely for old times’ sake, and because in portraying the childhood of Laura Hawkins he had a picture of the real Laura in his mind.]

He was always a tender-hearted lad. He would never abuse an animal, unless, as in the Pain-killer incident, his tendency to pranking ran away with him. He had indeed a genuine passion for cats; summers when he went to the farm he never failed to take his cat in a basket. When he ate, it sat in a chair beside him at the table. His sympathy included inanimate things as well. He loved flowers — not as the embryo botanist or gardener, but as a personal friend. He pitied the dead leaf and the murmuring dried weed of November because their brief lives were ended, and they would never know the summer again, or grow glad with another spring. His heart went out to them; to the river and the sky, the sunlit meadow and the drifted hill. That his observation of all nature was minute and accurate is shown everywhere in his writing; but it was never the observation of a young naturalist it was the subconscious observation of sympathetic love.

We are wandering away from his school-days. They were brief enough and came rapidly to an end. They will not hold us long. Undoubtedly Tom Sawyer’s distaste for school and his excuses for staying at home — usually some pretended illness — have ample foundation in the boyhood of Sam Clemens. His mother punished him and pleaded with him, alternately. He detested school as he detested nothing else on earth, even going to church. “Church ain’t worth shucks,” said Tom Sawyer, but it was better than school.

As already noted, the school of Mr. Cross stood in or near what is now the Square in Hannibal. The Square was only a grove then, grown up with plum, hazel, and vine — a rare place for children. At recess and the noon hour the children climbed trees, gathered flowers, and swung in grape-vine swings. There was a spelling-bee every Friday afternoon, for Sam the only endurable event of the school exercises. He could hold the floor at spelling longer than Buck Brown. This was spectacular and showy; it invited compliments even from Mr. Cross, whose name must have been handed down by angels, it fitted him so well. One day Sam Clemens wrote on his slate:

Cross by name and cross by nature
Cross jumped over an Irish potato.

He showed this to John Briggs, who considered it a stroke of genius. He urged the author to write it on the board at noon, but the poet’s ambition did not go so far.

“Oh, pshaw!” said John. “I wouldn’t be afraid to do it.

“I dare you to do it,” said Sam.

John Briggs never took a dare, and at noon, when Mr. Cross was at home at dinner, he wrote flamingly the descriptive couplet. When the teacher returned and “books” were called he looked steadily at John Briggs. He had recognized the penmanship.

“Did you do that?” he asked, ominously.

It was a time for truth.

“Yes, sir,” said John.

“Come here!” And John came, and paid for his exploitation of genius heavily. Sam Clemens expected that the next call would be for “author,” but for some reason the investigation ended there. It was unusual for him to escape. His back generally kept fairly warm from one “frailing” to the next.

His rewards were not all of a punitive nature. There were two medals in the school, one for spelling, the other for amiability. They were awarded once a week, and the holders wore them about the neck conspicuously, and were envied accordingly. John Robards — he of the golden curls — wore almost continuously the medal for amiability, while Sam Clemens had a mortgage on the medal for spelling. Sometimes they traded, to see how it would seem, but the master discouraged this practice by taking the medals away from them for the remainder of the week. Once Sam Clemens lost the medal by leaving the first “r” out of February. He could have spelled it backward, if necessary; but Laura Hawkins was the only one on the floor against him, and he was a gallant boy.

The picture of that school as presented in the book written thirty years later is faithful, we may believe, and the central figure is a tender-hearted, romantic, devil-may-care lad, loathing application and longing only for freedom. It was a boon which would come to him sooner even than he had dreamed.

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