Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXXXII

A New Publisher

It was near the end of the year that Clemens wrote to his mother:

I have two stories, and by the verbal agreement they are both going into the same book; but Livy says they’re not, and by George! she ought to know. She says they’re going into separate books, and that one of them is going to be elegantly gotten up, even if the elegance of it eats up the publisher’s profits and mine too.

I anticipate that publisher’s melancholy surprise when he calls here Tuesday. However, let him suffer; it is his own fault. People who fix up agreements with me without first finding out what Livy’s plans are take their fate into their own hands.

I said two stories, but one of them is only half done; two or three months’ work on it yet. I shall tackle it Wednesday or Thursday; that is, if Livy yields and allows both stories to go in one book, which I hope she won’t.

The reader may surmise that the finished story — the highly regarded story — was ‘The Prince and the Pauper’. The other tale — the unfinished and less considered one was ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. Nobody appears to have been especially concerned about Huck, except, possibly, the publisher.

The publisher was not the American Company. Elisha Bliss, after long ill health, had died that fall, and this fact, in connection with a growing dissatisfaction over the earlier contracts, had induced Clemens to listen to offers from other makers of books. The revelation made by the “half-profit” returns from A Tramp Abroad meant to him, simply that the profits had not been fairly apportioned, and he was accordingly hostile. To Orion he wrote that, had Bliss lived, he would have remained with the company and made it reimburse him for his losses, but that as matters stood he would sever the long connection. It seemed a pity, later, that he did this, but the break was bound to come. Clemens was not a business man, and Bliss was not a philanthropist. He was, in fact, a shrewd, capable publisher, who made as good a contract as he could; yet he was square in his dealings, and the contract which Clemens held most bitterly against him — that of ‘Roughing It’— had been made in good faith and in accordance with the conditions, of that period. In most of the later contracts Clemens himself had named his royalties, and it was not in human nature — business human nature — for Bliss to encourage the size of these percentages. If one wished to draw a strictly moral conclusion from the situation, one might say that it would have been better for the American Publishing Company, knowing Mark Twain, voluntarily to have allowed him half profits, which was the spirit of his old understanding even if not the letter of it, rather than to have waited till he demanded it and then to lose him by the result. Perhaps that would be also a proper business deduction; only, as a rule, business morals are regulated by the contract, and the contract is regulated by the necessities and the urgency of demand.

Never mind. Mark Twain revised ‘The Prince and the Pauper’, sent it to Howells, who approved of it mightily (though with reservations as to certain chapters), and gave it to James R. Osgood, who was grateful and agreed to make it into a book upon which no expense for illustration or manufacture should be spared. It was to be a sort of partnership arrangement as between author and publisher, and large returns were anticipated.

Among the many letters which Clemens was just then writing to Howells one was dated “Xmas Eve.” It closes with the customary pleasantries and the final line:

“But it is growing dark. Merry Christmas to all of you!”

That last was a line of large significance. It meant that the air was filled with the whisper of hovering events and that he must mingle with the mystery of preparation. Christmas was an important season in the Clemens home. Almost the entire day before, Patrick was out with the sleigh, delivering food and other gifts in baskets to the poor, and the home preparations were no less busy. There was always a tree — a large one — and when all the gifts had been gathered in — when Elmira and Fredonia had delivered their contributions, and Orion and his wife in Keokuk had sent the annual sack of hickory-nuts (the big river-bottom nuts, big as a silver dollar almost, such nuts as few children of this later generation ever see) when all this happy revenue had been gathered, and the dusk of Christmas Eve had hurried the children off to bed, it was Mrs. Clemens who superintended the dressing of the tree, her husband assisting, with a willingness that was greater than his skill, and with a boy’s anticipation in the surprise of it next morning.

Then followed the holidays, with parties and dances and charades, and little plays, with the Warner and Twichell children. To the Clemens home the Christmas season brought all the old round of juvenile happiness — the spirit of kindly giving, the brightness and the merrymaking, the gladness and tenderness and mystery that belong to no other season, and have been handed down through all the ages since shepherds watched on the plains of Bethlehem.

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