Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXLIX

Mark Twain in Business

Samuel Clemens by this time was definitely engaged in the publishing business. Webster had a complete office with assistants at 658 Broadway, and had acquired a pretty thorough and practical knowledge of subscription publishing. He was a busy, industrious young man, tirelessly energetic, and with a good deal of confidence, by no means unnecessary to commercial success. He placed this mental and physical capital against Mark Twain’s inspiration and financial backing, and the combination of Charles L. Webster & Co. seemed likely to be a strong one.

Already, in the spring of 1884., Webster had the new Mark Twain book, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, well in hand, and was on the watch for promising subscription books by other authors. Clemens, with his usual business vision and eye for results, with a generous disregard of detail, was supervising the larger preliminaries, and fulminating at the petty distractions and difficulties as they came along. Certain plays he was trying to place were enough to keep him pretty thoroughly upset during this period, and proof-reading never added to his happiness. To Howells he wrote:

My days are given up to cursings, both loud and deep, for I am reading the ‘Huck Finn’ proofs. They don’t make a very great many mistakes, but those that do occur are of a nature that make a man swear his teeth loose.

Whereupon Howells promptly wrote him that he would help him out with the Huck Finn proofs for the pleasure of reading the story. Clemens, among other things, was trying to place a patent grape-scissors, invented by Howells’s father, so that there was, in some degree, an equivalent for the heavy obligation. That it was a heavy one we gather from his fervent acknowledgment:

It took my breath away, and I haven’t recovered it yet, entirely — I mean the generosity of your proposal to read the proofs of Huck Finn.

Now, if you mean it, old man — if you are in earnest-proceed, in God’s name, and be by me forever blessed. I can’t conceive of a rational man deliberately piling such an atrocious job upon himself. But if there be such a man, and you be that man, pile it on. The proof-reading of ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ cost me the last rags of my religion.

Clemens decided to have the Huckleberry Finn book illustrated after his own ideas. He looked through the various comic papers to see if he could find the work of some new man that appealed to his fancy. In the pages of Life he discovered some comic pictures illustrating the possibility of applying electrical burners to messenger boys, waiters, etc. The style and the spirit of these things amused him. He instructed Webster to look up the artist, who proved to be a young man, E. W. Kemble by name, later one of our foremost cartoonists. Webster engaged Kemble and put the manuscript in his hands. Through the publication of certain chapters of Huck Finn in the Century Magazine, Kemble was brought to the notice of its editors, who wrote Clemens that they were profoundly indebted to him for unearthing “such a gem of an illustrator.”

Clemens, encouraged and full of enthusiasm, now endeavored to interest himself in the practical details of manufacture, but his stock of patience was light and the details were many. His early business period resembles, in some of its features, his mining experience in Esmeralda, his letters to Webster being not unlike those to Orion in that former day. They are much oftener gentle, considerate, even apologetic, but they are occasionally terse, arbitrary, and profane. It required effort for him to be entirely calm in his business correspondence. A criticism of one of Webster’s assistants will serve as an example of his less quiet method:

Charley, your proof-reader, is an idiot; and not only an idiot, but blind; and not only blind, but partly dead.

Of course, one must regard many of Mark Twain’s business aspects humorously. To consider them otherwise is to place him in a false light altogether. He wore himself out with his anxieties and irritations; but that even he, in the midst of his furies, saw the humor of it all is sufficiently evidenced by the form of his savage phrasing. There were few things that did not amuse him, and certainly nothing amused more, or oftener, than himself.

It is proper to add a detail in evidence of a business soundness which he sometimes manifested. He had observed the methods of Bliss and Osgood, and had drawn his conclusions. In the beginning of the Huck Finn canvass he wrote Webster:

Keep it diligently in mind that we don’t issue till we have made a big sale.

Get at your canvassing early and drive it with all your might, with an intent and purpose of issuing on the 1oth or 15th of next December (the best time in the year to tumble a big pile into the trade); but if we haven’t 40,000 subscriptions we simply postpone publication till we’ve got them. It is a plain, simple policy, and would have saved both of my last books if it had been followed. [That is to say, ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ and the Mississippi book, neither of which had sold up to his expectations on the, initial canvass.]

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