Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


Certain Attacks and Reprisals

Beyond the publication of The Prince and the Pauper Clemens was sparingly represented in print in ’81. A chapter originally intended for the book, the “Whipping Boy’s Story,” he gave to the Bazaar Budget, a little special-edition sheet printed in Hartford. It was the story of the ‘Bull and the Bees’ which he later adapted for use in Joan of Arc, the episode in which Joan’s father rides a bull to a funeral. Howells found that it interfered with the action in the story of the Prince, and we might have spared it from the story of Joan, though hardly without regret.

The military story “A Curious Episode” was published in the Century Magazine for November. The fact that Clemens had heard, and not invented, the story was set forth quite definitely and fully in his opening paragraphs. Nevertheless, a “Captious Reader” thought it necessary to write to a New York publication concerning its origin:

I am an admirer of the writings of Mr. Mark Twain, and consequently, when I saw the table of contents of the November number of the Century, I bought it and turned at once to the article bearing his name, and entitled, “A Curious Episode.” When I began to read it, it struck me as strangely familiar, and I soon recognized the story as a true one, told me in the summer of 1878 by an officer of the United States artillery. Query: Did Mr. Twain expect the public to credit this narrative to his clever brain?

The editor, seeing a chance for Mark Twain “copy,” forwarded a clipping to Clemens and asked him if he had anything to say in the matter. Clemens happened to know the editor very well, and he did have something to say, not for print, but for the editor’s private ear.

The newspaper custom of shooting a man in the back and then calling upon him to come out in a card and prove that he was not engaged in any infamy at the time is a good enough custom for those who think it justifiable. Your correspondent is not stupid, I judge, but purely and simply malicious. He knew there was not the shadow of a suggestion, from the beginning to the end of “A Curious Episode,” that the story was an invention; he knew he had no warrant for trying to persuade the public that I had stolen the narrative and was endeavoring to palm it off as a piece of literary invention; he also knew that he was asking his closing question with a base motive, else he would have asked it of me by letter, not spread it before the public.

I have never wronged you in any way, and I think you had no right to print that communication; no right, neither any excuse. As to publicly answering that correspondent, I would as soon think of bandying words in public with any other prostitute.

The editor replied in a manly, frank acknowledgment of error. He had not looked up the article itself in the Century before printing the communication.

“Your letter has taught me a lesson,” he said. “The blame belongs to me for not hunting up the proofs. Please accept my apology.”

Mark Twain was likely to be peculiarly sensitive to printed innuendos. Not always. Sometimes he would only laugh at them or be wholly indifferent. Indeed, in his later years, he seldom cared to read anything about himself, one way or the other, but at the time of which we are now writing — the period of the early eighties — he was alive to any comment of the press. His strong sense of humor, and still stronger sense of human weakness, caused him to overlook many things which another might regard as an affront; but if the thing printed were merely an uncalled-for slur, an inexcusable imputation, he was inclined to rage and plan violence. Sometimes he conceived retribution in the form of libel suits with heavy damages. Sometimes he wrote blasting answers, which Mrs. Clemens would not let him print.

At one time he planned a biography of a certain editor who seemed to be making a deliberate personal campaign against his happiness. Clemens had heard that offending items were being printed in this man’s paper; friends, reporting with customary exaggeration, declared that these sneers and brutalities appeared almost daily, so often as to cause general remark.

This was enough. He promptly began to collect data — damaging data — relating to that editor’s past history. He even set a man to work in England collecting information concerning his victim. One of his notebooks contains the memoranda; a few items will show how terrific was to be the onslaught.

When the naturalist finds a new kind of animal, he writes him up in the interest of science. No matter if it is an unpleasant animal. This is a new kind of animal, and in the cause of society must be written up. He is the polecat of our species . . . . He is purely and simply a Guiteau with the courage left out . . . .

Steel portraits of him as a sort of idiot, from infancy up — to a dozen scattered through the book — all should resemble him.

But never mind the rest. When he had got thoroughly interested in his project Mrs. Clemens, who had allowed the cyclone to wear itself out a little with its own vehemence, suggested that perhaps it would be well to have some one make an examination of the files of the paper and see just what had been said of him. So he subscribed for the paper himself and set a man to work on the back numbers. We will let him tell the conclusion of the matter himself, in his report of it to Howells:

The result arrived from my New York man this morning. Oh, what a pitiable wreck of high hopes! The “almost daily” assaults for two months consist of (1) adverse criticism of P. & P. from an enraged idiot in the London Athenaeum, (2) paragraphs from some indignant Englishman in the Pall Mall Gazette, who pays me the vast compliment of gravely rebuking some imaginary ass who has set me up in the neighborhood of Rabelais, (3) a remark about the Montreal dinner, touched with an almost invisible satire, and, (4) a remark about refusal of Canadian copyright, not complimentary, but not necessarily malicious; and of course adverse criticism which is not malicious is a thing which none but fools irritate themselves about.

There, that is the prodigious bugaboo in its entirety! Can you conceive of a man’s getting himself into a sweat over so diminutive a provocation? I am sure I can’t. What the devil can those friends of mine have been thinking about to spread those three or four harmless things out into two months of daily sneers and affronts?

Boiled down, this vast outpouring of malice amounts to simply this: one jest (one can make nothing more serious than that out of it). One jest, and that is all; for foreign criticisms do not count, they being matters of news, and proper for publication in anybody’s newspaper . . . .

Well, my mountain has brought forth its mouse, and a sufficiently small mouse it is, God knows. And my three weeks’ hard work has got to go into the ignominious pigeonhole. Confound it, I could have earned ten thousand dollars with infinitely less trouble.

Howells refers to this episode, and concludes:

So the paper was acquitted and the editor’s life was spared. The wretch never, never knew how near he was to losing it, with incredible preliminaries of obloquy, and a subsequent devotion to lasting infamy.

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