Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XVIII

The Beginning of a Literary Life

Orion’s paper continued to go downhill. Following some random counsel, he changed the name of it and advanced the price — two blunders. Then he was compelled to reduce the subscription, also the advertising rates. He was obliged to adopt a descending scale of charges and expenditures to keep pace with his declining circulation — a fatal sign. A publisher must lead his subscription list, not follow it.

“I was walking backward,” he said, “not seeing where I stepped.”

In desperation he broke away and made a trip to Tennessee to see if something could not be realized on the land, leaving his brother Sam in charge of the office. It was a journey without financial results; yet it bore fruit, for it marked the beginning of Mark Twain’s literary career.

Sam, in his brother’s absence, concluded to edit the paper in a way that would liven up the circulation. He had never done any writing — not for print — but he had the courage of his inclinations. His local items were of a kind known as “spicy”; his personals brought prompt demand for satisfaction. The editor of a rival paper had been in love, and was said to have gone to the river one night to drown himself. Sam gave a picturesque account of this, with all the names connected with the affair. Then he took a couple of big wooden block letters, turned them upside down, and engraved illustrations for it, showing the victim wading out into the river with a stick to test the depth of the water. When this issue of the paper came out the demand for it was very large. The press had to be kept running steadily to supply copies. The satirized editor at first swore that he would thrash the whole journal office, then he left town and did not come back any more. The embryo Mark Twain also wrote a poem. It was addressed “To Mary in Hannibal,” but the title was too long to be set in one column, so he left out all the letters in Hannibal, except the first and the last, and supplied their place with a dash, with a startling result. Such were the early flickerings of a smoldering genius. Orion returned, remonstrated, and apologized. He reduced Sam to the ranks. In later years he saw his mistake.

“I could have distanced all competitors even then,” he said, “if I had recognized Sam’s ability and let him go ahead, merely keeping him from offending worthy persons.”

Sam was subdued, but not done for. He never would be, now. He had got his first taste of print, and he liked it. He promptly wrote two anecdotes which he thought humorous and sent them to the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post. They were accepted — without payment, of course, in those days; and when the papers containing them appeared he felt suddenly lifted to a lofty plane of literature. This was in 1851.

“Seeing them in print was a joy which rather exceeded anything in that line I have ever experienced since,” he said, nearly sixty years later.

Yet he did not feel inspired to write anything further for the Post. Twice during the next two years he contributed to the Journal; once something about Jim Wolfe, though it was not the story of the cats, and another burlesque on a rival editor whom he pictured as hunting snipe with a cannon, the explosion of which was said to have blown the snipe out of the country. No contributions of this time have been preserved. High prices have been offered for copies of the Hannibal journal containing them, but without success. The Post sketches were unsigned and have not been identified. It is likely they were trivial enough. His earliest work showed no special individuality or merit, being mainly crude and imitative, as the work of a boy — even a precocious boy — is likely to be. He was not especially precocious — not in literature. His literary career would halt and hesitate and trifle along for many years yet, gathering impetus and equipment for the fuller, statelier swing which would bring a greater joy to the world at large, even if not to himself, than that first, far-off triumph.11

11 [In Mark Twain’s sketch “My First Literary Venture” he has set down with characteristic embroideries some account of this early authorship.]

Those were hard financial days. Orion could pay nothing on his mortgage — barely the interest. He had promised Sam three dollars and a half a week, but he could do no more than supply him with board and clothes — “poor, shabby clothes,” he says in his record.

“My mother and sister did the housekeeping. My mother was cook. She used the provisions I supplied her. We therefore had a regular diet of bacon, butter, bread, and coffee.”

Mrs. Clemens again took a few boarders; Pamela, who had given up teaching for a time, organized another music class. Orion became despondent. One night a cow got into the office, upset a typecase, and ate up two composition rollers. Orion felt that fate was dealing with a heavy hand. Another disaster quickly followed. Fire broke out in the office, and the loss was considerable. An insurance company paid one hundred and fifty dollars. With it Orion replaced such articles as were absolutely needed for work, and removed his plant into the front room of the Clemens dwelling. He raised the one-story part of the building to give them an added room up-stairs; and there for another two years, by hard work and pinching economies, the dying paper managed to drag along. It was the fire that furnished Sam Clemens with his Jim Wolfe sketch. In it he stated that Jim in his excitement had carried the office broom half a mile and had then come back after the wash-pan.

In the meantime Pamela Clemens married. Her husband was a well-to-do merchant, William A. Moffett, formerly of Hannibal, but then of St. Louis, where he had provided her with the comforts of a substantial home.

Orion tried the experiment of a serial story. He wrote to a number of well-known authors in the East, but was unable to find one who would supply a serial for the price he was willing to pay. Finally he obtained a translation of a French novel for the sum offered, which was five dollars. It did not save the sinking ship, however. He made the experiment of a tri-weekly, without success. He noticed that even his mother no longer read his editorials, but turned to the general news. This was a final blow.

“I sat down in the dark,” he says, “the moon glinting in at the open door. I sat with one leg over the chair and let my mind float.”

He had received an offer of five hundred dollars for his office — the amount of the mortgage — and in his moonlight reverie he decided to dispose of it on those terms. This was in 1853.

His brother Samuel was no longer with him. Several months before, in June, Sam decided he would go out into the world. He was in his eighteenth year now, a good workman, faithful and industrious, but he had grown restless in unrewarded service. Beyond his mastery of the trade he had little to show for six years of hard labor. Once when he had asked Orion for a few dollars to buy a second-hand gun, Orion, exasperated by desperate circumstances, fell into a passion and rated him for thinking of such extravagance. Soon afterward Sam confided to his mother that he was going away; that he believed Orion hated him; that there was no longer a place for him at home. He said he would go to St. Louis, where Pamela was. There would be work for him in St. Louis, and he could send money home. His intention was to go farther than St. Louis, but he dared not tell her. His mother put together sadly enough the few belongings of what she regarded as her one wayward boy; then she held up a little Testament:

“I want you to take hold of the other end of this, Sam,” she said, “and make me a promise.”

If one might have a true picture of that scene: the shin, wiry woman of forty-nine, her figure as straight as her deportment, gray-eyed, tender, and resolute, facing the fair-cheeked, auburn-haired youth of seventeen, his eyes as piercing and unwavering as her own. Mother and son, they were of the same metal and the same mold.

“I want you to repeat after me, Sam, these words,” Jane Clemens said. “I do solemnly swear that I will not throw a card or drink a drop of liquor while I am gone.”

He repeated the oath after her, and she kissed him.

“Remember that, Sam, and write to us,” she said.

“And so,” Orion records, “he went wandering in search of that comfort and that advancement and those rewards of industry which he had failed to find where I was — gloomy, taciturn, and selfish. I not only missed his labor; we all missed his bounding activity and merriment.”

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