Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXXXV

A Trip with Sherman and an Interview with Grant.

The Army of the Potomac gave a dinner in Hartford on the 8th of June, 1881. But little memory remains of it now beyond Mark Twain’s speech and a bill of fare containing original comments, ascribed to various revered authors, such as Johnson, Milton, and Carlyle. A pleasant incident followed, however, which Clemens himself used to relate. General Sherman attended the banquet, and Secretary of War, Robert Lincoln. Next morning Clemens and Twichell were leaving for West Point, where they were to address the military students, guests on the same special train on which Lincoln and Sherman had their private car. This car was at the end of the train, and when the two passengers reached the station, Sherman and Lincoln were out on the rear platform addressing the multitude. Clemens and Twichell went in and, taking seats, waited for them.

As the speakers finished the train started, but they still remained outside, bowing and waving to the assembled citizens, so that it was under good headway before they came in. Sherman came up to Clemens, who sat smoking unconcernedly.

“Well,” he said, “who told you you could go in this car?”

“Nobody,” said Clemens.

“Do you expect to pay extra fare?” asked Sherman.

“No,” said Clemens. “I don’t expect to pay any fare.”

“Oh, you don’t. Then you’ll work your way.”

Sherman took off his coat and military hat and made Clemens put them on.

“Now,” said he, “whenever the train stops you go out on the platform and represent me and make a speech.”

It was not long before the train stopped, and Clemens, according to orders, stepped out on the rear platform and bowed to the crowd. There was a cheer at the sight of his military uniform. Then the cheer waned, became a murmur of uncertainty, followed by an undertone of discussion. Presently somebody said:

“Say, that ain’t Sherman, that’s Mark Twain,” which brought another cheer.

Then Sherman had to come out too, and the result was that both spoke. They kept this up at the different stations, and sometimes Lincoln came out with them. When there was time all three spoke, much to the satisfaction of their audiences.

President Garfield was shot that summer — July 2, 1881. 109 He died September 19th, and Arthur came into power. There was a great feeling of uncertainty as to what he would do. He was regarded as “an excellent gentleman with a weakness for his friends.” Incumbents holding appointive offices were in a state of dread.

109 [On the day that President Garfield was shot Mrs. Clemens received from their friend Reginald Cholmondeley a letter of condolence on the death of her husband in Australia; startling enough, though in reality rather comforting than otherwise, for the reason that the “Mark Twain” who had died in Australia was a very persistent impostor. Clemens wrote Cholmondeley: “Being dead I might be excused from writing letters, but I am not that kind of a corpse. May I never be so dead as to neglect the hail of a friend from a far land.” Out of this incident grew a feature of an anecdote related in Following the Equator the joke played by the man from Bendigo.]

Howells’s father was consul at Toronto, and, believing his place to be in danger, he appealed to his son. In his book Howells tells how, in turn, he appealed to Clemens, remembering his friendship with Grant and Grant’s friendship with Arthur. He asked Clemens to write to Grant, but Clemens would hear of nothing less than a call on the General, during which the matter would be presented to him in person. Howells relates how the three of them lunched together, in a little room just out of the office, on baked beans and coffee, brought in from some near-by restaurant:

The baked beans and coffee were of about the railroad-refreshment quality; but eating them with Grant was like sitting down to baked beans and coffee with Julius Caesar, or Alexander, or some other great Plutarchan captain.

Clemens, also recalling the interview, once added some interesting details:

“I asked Grant if he wouldn’t write a word on a card which Howells could carry to Washington and hand to the President. But, as usual, General Grant was his natural self — that is to say, ready and determined to do a great deal more for you than you could possibly ask him to do. He said he was going to Washington in a couple of days to dine with the President, and he would speak to him himself on the subject and make it a personal matter. Grant was in the humor to talk — he was always in a humor to talk when no strangers were present — he forced us to stay and take luncheon in a private room, and continued to talk all the time. It was baked beans, but how ‘he sits and towers,’ Howells said, quoting Dame. Grant remembered ‘Squibob’ Derby (John Phoenix) at West Point very well. He said that Derby was always drawing caricatures of the professors and playing jokes on every body. He told a thing which I had heard before but had never seen in print. A professor questioning a class concerning certain particulars of a possible siege said, ‘Suppose a thousand men are besieging a fortress whose equipment of provisions is so-and-so; it is a military axiom that at the end of forty-five days the fort will surrender. Now, young men, if any of you were in command of such a fortress, how would you proceed?’

“Derby held up his hand in token that he had an answer for that question. He said, ‘I would march out, let the enemy in, and at the end of forty-five days I would change places with him.’

“I tried hard, during that interview, to get General Grant to agree to write his personal memoirs for publication, but he wouldn’t listen to the suggestion. His inborn diffidence made him shrink from voluntarily coming before the public and placing himself under criticism as an author. He had no confidence in his ability to write well; whereas we all know now that he possessed an admirable literary gift and style. He was also sure that the book would have no sale, and of course that would be a humility too. I argued that the book would have an enormous sale, and that out of my experience I could save him from making unwise contracts with publishers, and would have the contract arranged in such a way that they could not swindle him, but he said he had no necessity for any addition to his income. Of course he could not foresee that he was camping on a volcano; that as Ward’s partner he was a ruined man even then, and of course I had no suspicion that in four years from that time I would become his publisher. He would not agree to write his memoirs. He only said that some day he would make very full notes and leave them behind him, and then if his children chose to make them into a book they could do so. We came away then. He fulfilled his promise entirely concerning Howells’s father, who held his office until he resigned of his own accord.”

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