Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


A Winter in Berlin

Clemens, meantime, had been trying to establish himself in his work, but his rheumatism racked him occasionally and was always a menace. Closing a letter to Hall, he said:

“I must stop-my arm is howling.”

He put in a good deal of time devising publishing schemes, principal among them being a plan for various cheap editions of his books, pamphlets, and such like, to sell for a few cents. These projects appear never to have been really undertaken, Hall very likely fearing that a flood of cheap issues would interfere with the more important trade. It seemed dangerous to trifle with an apparently increasing prosperity, and Clemens was willing enough to agree with this view.

Clemens had still another letter to write for Laffan and McClure, and he made a pretty careful study of Berlin with that end in view. But his arm kept him from any regular work. He made notes, however. Once he wrote:

The first gospel of all monarchies should be Rebellion; the second should be Rebellion; and the third and all gospels, and the only gospel of any monarchy, should be Rebellion — against Church and State.

And again:

I wrote a chapter on this language 13 years ago and tried my level best to improve it and simplify it for these people, and this is the result — a, word of thirty-nine letters. It merely concentrates the alphabet with a shovel. It hurts me to know that that chapter is not in any of their text-books and they don’t use it in the university.

Socially, that winter in Berlin was eventful enough. William Walter Phelps, of New Jersey (Clemens had known him in America), was United States minister at the German capital, while at the Emperor’s court there was a cousin, Frau von Versen, nee Clemens, one of the St. Louis family. She had married a young German officer who had risen to the rank of a full general. Mark Twain and his family were welcome guests at all the diplomatic events — often brilliant levees, gatherings of distinguished men and women from every circle of achievement. Labouchere of ‘Truth’ was there, De Blowitz of the ‘Times’, and authors, ambassadors, and scientists of rank. Clemens became immediately a distinguished figure at these assemblies. His popularity in Germany was openly manifested. At any gathering he was surrounded by a brilliant company, eager to do him honor. He was recognized whenever he appeared on the street, and saluted, though in his notes he says he was sometimes mistaken for the historian Mommsen, whom he resembled in hair and features. His books were displayed for sale everywhere, and a special cheap edition of them was issued at a few cents per copy.

Captain Bingham (later General Bingham, Commissioner of Police in New York City) and John Jackson were attaches of the legation, both of them popular with the public in general, and especially so with the Clemens family. Susy Clemens, writing to her father during a temporary absence, tells of a party at Mrs. Jackson’s, and especially refers to Captain Bingham in the most complimentary terms.

“He never left me sitting alone, nor in an awkward situation of any kind, but always came cordially to the rescue. My gratitude toward him was absolutely limitless.”

She adds that Mrs. Bingham was very handsome and decidedly the most attractive lady present. Berlin was Susy’s first real taste of society, and she was reveling in it. In her letter she refers to Minister Phelps by the rather disrespectful nickname of “Yaas,” a term conferred because of his pronounciation of that affirmative. The Clemens children were not entirely happy in the company of the minister. They were fond of him, but he was a great tease. They were quite young enough, but it seemed always to give him delight to make them appear much younger. In the letter above quoted Susy says:

When I saw Mr. Phelps I put out my hand enthusiastically and said, “Oh, Mr. Phelps, good evening,” whereat he drew back and said, so all could hear, “What, you here! why, you’re too young. Do you think you know how to behave?” As there were two or three young gentlemen near by to whom I hadn’t been introduced I wasn’t exactly overjoyed at this greeting.

We may imagine that the nickname “Yaas” had been invented by Susy in secret retaliation, though she was ready enough to forgive him, for he was kindness itself at heart.

In one of his later dictations Clemens related an anecdote concerning a dinner with Phelps, when he (Clemens) had been invited to meet Count S— — a cabinet minister of long and illustrious descent. Clemens, and Phelps too, it seems, felt overshadowed by this ancestry.

Of course I wanted to let out the fact that I had some ancestors, too; but I did not want to pull them out of their graves by the ears, and I never could seem to get the chance to work them in, in a way that would look sufficiently casual. I suppose Phelps was in the same difficulty. In fact he looked distraught now and then just as a person looks who wants to uncover an ancestor purely by accident and cannot think of a way that will seem accidental enough. But at last, after dinner, he made a try. He took us about his drawing-room, showing us the pictures, and finally stopped before a rude and ancient engraving. It was a picture of the court that tried Charles I. There was a pyramid of judges in Puritan slouch hats, and below them three bareheaded secretaries seated at a table. Mr. Phelps put his finger upon one of the three and said, with exulting indifference:

“An ancestor of mine.”

I put a finger on a judge and retorted with scathing languidness: “Ancestor of mine. But it is a small matter. I have others.”

Clemens was sincerely fond of Phelps and spent a good deal of time at the legation headquarters. Sometimes he wrote there. An American journalist, Henry W. Fischer, remembers seeing him there several times scribbling on such scraps of paper as came handy, and recalls that on one occasion he delivered an address to a German and English audience on the “Awful German Tongue.” This was probably the lecture that brought Clemens to bed with pneumonia. With Mrs. Clemens he had been down to Ilsenburg, in the Hartz Mountains, for a week of change. It was pleasant there, and they would have remained longer but for the Berlin lecture engagement. As it was, they found Berlin very cold and the lecture-room crowded and hot. When the lecture was over they stopped at General von Versen’s for a ball, arriving at home about two in the morning. Clemens awoke with a heavy cold and lung congestion. He remained in bed, a very sick man indeed, for the better part of a month. It was unpleasant enough at first, though he rather enjoyed the convalescent period. He could sit up in bed and read and receive occasional callers. Fischer brought him Memoirs of the Margravine of Bayreuth, always a favorite. 128 The Emperor sent Frau von Versen with an invitation for him to attend the consecration of some flags in the palace. When she returned, conveying thanks and excuses, his Majesty commanded her to prepare a dinner at her home for Mark Twain and himself and a few special guests, the date to be arranged when Clemens’s physician should pronounce him well enough to attend.

128 [Clemens was deeply interested in the Margravine, and at one time began a novel with her absorbing history as its theme. He gave it up, probably feeling that the romantic form could add nothing to the Margravine’s own story.]

Members of the Clemens household were impressed by this royal attention. Little Jean was especially awed. She said:

“I wish I could be in papa’s clothes”; then, after reflection, “but that wouldn’t be any use. I reckon the Emperor wouldn’t recognize me.” And a little later, when she had been considering all the notables and nobilities of her father’s recent association, she added:

“Why, papa, if it keeps on like this, pretty soon there won’t be anybody for you to get acquainted with but God,” which Mark Twain decided was not quite as much of a compliment as it had at first seemed.

It was during the period of his convalescence that Clemens prepared his sixth letter for the New York Sun and McClure’s syndicate, “The German Chicago,” a finely descriptive article on Berlin, and German customs and institutions generally. Perhaps the best part of it is where he describes the grand and prolonged celebration which had been given in honor of Professor Virchow’s seventieth birthday. 129 He tells how the demonstrations had continued in one form or another day after day, and merged at last into the seventieth birthday of Professor Helmholtz 130 also how these great affairs finally culminated in a mighty ‘commers’, or beer-fest, given in their honor by a thousand German students. This letter has been published in Mark Twain’s “Complete Works,” and is well worth reading to-day. His place had been at the table of the two heroes of the occasion, Virchow and Helmholtz, a place where he could see and hear all that went on; and he was immensely impressed at the honor which Germany paid to her men of science. The climax came when Mommsen unexpectedly entered the room.131

129 [Rudolph Virchow, an eminent German pathologist and anthropologist and scholar; then one of the most prominent figures of the German Reichstag. He died in 1902.]

130 [Herman von Helmholtz, an eminent German physicist, one of the most distinguished scientists of the nineteenth century. He died in 1894.]

131 [Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), an eminent German historian and archeologist, a powerful factor in all liberal movements. From 1874-1895 permanent secretary of the Berlin Royal Academy of Sciences.]

There seemed to be some signal whereby the students on the platform were made aware that a professor had arrived at the remote door of entrance, for you would see them suddenly rise to their feet, strike an erect military attitude, then draw their swords; the swords of all their brethren standing guard at the innumerable tables would flash from the scabbard and be held aloft — a handsome spectacle. Three clear bugle-notes would ring out, then all these swords would come down with a crash, twice repeated, on the tables and be uplifted and held aloft again; then in the distance you would see the gay uniforms and uplifted swords of a guard of honor clearing the way and conducting the guest down to his place. The songs were stirring, and the immense outpour from young life and young lungs, the crash of swords, and the thunder of the beer-mugs gradually worked a body up to what seemed the last possible summit of excitement. It surely seemed to me that I had reached that summit, that I had reached my limit, and that there was no higher lift devisable for me. When apparently the last eminent guest had long ago taken his place, again those three bugle-blasts rang out, and once more the swords leaped from their scabbards. Who might this late comer be? Nobody was interested to inquire. Still, indolent eyes were turned toward the distant entrance, and we saw the silken gleam and the lifted sword of a guard of honor plowing through the remote crowds. Then we saw that end of the house rising to its feet; saw it rise abreast the advancing guard all along like a wave. This supreme honor had been offered to no one before. There was an excited whisper at our table —“Mommsen!”— and the whole house rose — rose and shouted and stamped and clapped and banged the beer-mugs. Just simply a storm! Then the little man with his long hair and Emersonian face edged his way past us and took his seat. I could have touched him with my hand — Mommsen! — think of it!

This was one of those immense surprises that can happen only a few times in one’s life. I was not dreaming of him; he was to me only a giant myth, a world-shadowing specter, not a reality. The surprise of it all can be only comparable to a man’s suddenly coming upon Mont Blanc, with its awful form towering into the sky, when he didn’t suspect he was in its neighborhood. I would have walked a great many miles to get a sight of him, and here he was, without trouble, or tramp, or cost of any kind. Here he was, clothed in a titanic deceptive modesty which made him look like other men. Here he was, carrying the Roman world and all the Caesars in his hospitable skull, and doing it as easily as that other luminous vault, the skull of the universe, carries the Milky Way and the constellations.

During his convalescent days, Clemens had plenty of time to reflect and to look out of the window. His notebook preserves some of his reflections. In one place he says:

The Emperor passes in a modest open carnage. Next that happy 12-year-old butcher-boy, all in white apron and turban, standing up & so proud!

How fast they drive-nothing like it but in London. And the horses seem to be of very fine breed, though I am not an expert in horses & do not speak with assurance. I can always tell which is the front end of a horse, but beyond that my art is not above the ordinary.

The “Court Gazette” of a German paper can be covered with a playing-card. In an English paper the movements of titled people take up about three times that room. In the papers of Republican France from six to sixteen times as much. There, if a Duke’s dog should catch cold in the head they would stop the press to announce it and cry about it. In Germany they respect titles, in England they revere them, in France they adore them. That is, the French newspapers do.

Been taken for Mommsen twice. We have the same hair, but on examination it was found the brains were different.

On February 14th he records that Professor Helmholtz called, but unfortunately leaves no further memorandum of that visit. He was quite recovered by this time, but was still cautioned about going out in the severe weather. In the final entry he says:

Thirty days sick abed — full of interest — read the debates and get excited over them, though don’t ‘versteh’. By reading keep in a state of excited ignorance, like a blind man in a house afire; flounder around, immensely but unintelligently interested; don’t know how I got in and can’t find the way out, but I’m having a booming time all to myself.

Don’t know what a ‘Schelgesetzentwurf’ is, but I keep as excited over it and as worried about it as if it was my own child. I simply live on the Sch.; it is my daily bread. I wouldn’t have the question settled for anything in the world. Especially now that I’ve lost the ‘offentliche Militargericht circus’. I read all the debates on that question with a never-failing interest, but all at once they sprung a vote on me a couple of days ago & did something by a vote of 100 to 143, but I couldn’t find out what it was.

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