Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CLVIII

Mark Twain at Fifty

Mark Twain’s fiftieth birthday was one of the pleasantly observed events of that year. There was no special celebration, but friends sent kindly messages, and The Critic, then conducted by Jeannette and Joseph Gilder, made a feature of it. Miss Gilder wrote to Oliver Wendell Holmes and invited some verses, which with his never-failing kindliness he sent, though in his accompanying note he said:

“I had twenty-three letters spread out on my table for answering, all marked immediate, when your note came.”

Dr. Holmes’s stanzas are full of his gentle spirit:


(On his fiftieth birthday)

Ah, Clemens, when I saw thee last, We both of us were younger; How fondly mumbling o’er the past Is Memory’s toothless hunger!

So fifty years have fled, they say, Since first you took to drinking; I mean in Nature’s milky way Of course no ill I’m thinking.

But while on life’s uneven road Your track you’ve been pursuing, What fountains from your wit have flowed What drinks you have been brewing!

I know whence all your magic came, Your secret I’ve discovered, The source that fed your inward flame, The dreams that round you hovered.

Before you learned to bite or munch, Still kicking in your cradle, The Muses mixed a bowl of punch And Hebe seized the ladle.

Dear babe, whose fiftieth year to-day Your ripe half-century rounded, Your books the precious draught betray The laughing Nine compounded.

So mixed the sweet, the sharp, the strong, Each finds its faults amended, The virtues that to each belong In happiest union blended.

And what the flavor can surpass Of sugar, spirit, lemons? So while one health fills every glass Mark Twain for Baby Clemens!


Frank R. Stockton, Charles Dudley Warner, and Joel Chandler Harris sent pleasing letters. Warner said:

You may think it an easy thing to be fifty years old, but you will find it’s not so easy to stay there, and your next fifty years will slip away much faster than those just accomplished.

Many wrote letters privately, of course, and Andrew Lang, like Holmes, sent a poem that has a special charm.


To brave Mark Twain, across the sea, The years have brought his jubilee. One hears it, half in pain, That fifty years have passed and gone Since danced the merry star that shone Above the babe Mark Twain.

We turn his pages and we see The Mississippi flowing free; We turn again and grin O’er all Tom Sawyer did and planned With him of the ensanguined hand, With Huckleberry Finn!

Spirit of Mirth, whose chime of bells Shakes on his cap, and sweetly swells Across the Atlantic main, Grant that Mark’s laughter never die, That men through many a century May chuckle o’er Mark Twain!

Assuredly Mark Twain was made happy by these attentions; to Dr. Holmes he wrote:

DEAR DR. HOLMES — I shall never be able to tell you the half of how proud you have made me. If I could you would say you were nearly paid for the trouble you took. And then the family: If I could convey the electrical surprise and gratitude and exaltation of the wife and the children last night, when they happened upon that Critic where I had, with artful artlessness, spread it open and retired out of view to see what would happen — well, it was great and fine and beautiful to see, and made me feel as the victor feels when the shouting hosts march by: and if you also could have seen it you would have said the account was squared. For I have brought them up in your company, as in the company of a warm and friendly and beneficent but far-distant sun; and so, for you to do this thing was for the sun to send down out of the skies the miracle of a special ray and transfigure me before their faces. I knew what that poem would be to them; I knew it would raise me up to remote and shining heights in their eyes, to very fellowship with the chambered Nautilus itself, and that from that fellowship they could never more dissociate me while they should live; and so I made sure to be by when the surprise should come.

Charles Dudley Warner is charmed with the poem for its own felicitous sake; and so indeed am I, but more because it has drawn the sting of my fiftieth year; taken away the pain of it, the grief of it, the somehow shame of it, and made me glad and proud it happened.

With reverence and affection, Sincerely yours, S. L. CLEMENS.

So Samuel Clemens had reached the half-century mark; reached it in what seemed the fullness of success from every viewpoint. If he was not yet the foremost American man of letters, he was at least the most widely known he sat upon the highest mountain-top. Furthermore, it seemed to him that fortune was showering her gifts into his lap. His unfortunate investments were now only as the necessary experiments that had led him to larger successes. As a publisher, he was already the most conspicuous in the world, and he contemplated still larger ventures: a type-setting machine patent, in which he had invested, and now largely controlled, he regarded as the chief invention of the age, absolutely certain to yield incalculable wealth. His connection with the Grant family had associated him with an enterprise looking to the building of a railway from Constantinople to the Persian Gulf. Charles A. Dana, of the Sun, had put him in the way of obtaining for publication the life of the Pope, Leo XIII, officially authorized by the Pope himself, and this he regarded as a certain fortune.

Now that the tide had turned he felt no hesitancy in reckoning a fortune from almost any venture. The Grant book, even on the liberal terms allowed to the author, would yield a net profit of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to its publishers. Huck Finn would yield fifty thousand dollars more. The sales of his other books had considerably increased. Certainly, at fifty, Mark Twain’s fortunes were at flood-tide; buoyant and jubilant, he was floating on the topmost wave. If there were undercurrents and undertow they were down somewhere out of sight. If there were breakers ahead, they were too far distant to be heard. So sure was he of the triumphant consummation of every venture that to a friend at his home one night he said:

“I am frightened at the proportions of my prosperity. It seems to me that whatever I touch turns to gold.”

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