Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


New Hope in the Machine

If all human events had not been ordered in the first act of the primal atom, and so become inevitable, it would seem a pity now that he must abandon his work half-way, and make another hard, distracting trip to America.

But it was necessary for him to go. Even Hall was no longer optimistic. His letters provided only the barest shreds of hope. Times were hard and there was every reason to believe they would be worse. The World’s Fair year promised to be what it speedily became — one of the hardest financial periods this country has ever seen. Chicago could hardly have selected a more profitless time for her great exposition. Clemens wrote urging Hall to sell out all, or a portion, of the business — to do anything, indeed, that would avoid the necessity of further liability and increased dread. Every payment that could be spared from the sales of his manuscript was left in Hall’s hands, and such moneys as still came to Mrs. Clemens from her Elmira interests were flung into the general fund. The latter were no longer large, for Langdon & Co. were suffering heavily in the general depression, barely hoping to weather the financial storm.

It is interesting to note that age and misfortune and illness had a tempering influence on Mark Twain’s nature. Instead of becoming harsh and severe and bitter, he had become more gentle, more kindly. He wrote often to Hall, always considerately, even tenderly. Once, when something in Hall’s letter suggested that he had perhaps been severe, he wrote:

Mrs. Clemens is deeply distressed, for she thinks I have been blaming you or finding fault with you about something. But most assuredly that cannot be. I tell her that although I am prone to write hasty and regrettable things to other people I am not a bit likely to write such things to you. I can’t believe I have done anything so ungrateful. If I have, pile coals of fire upon my head for I deserve it. You have done magnificently with the business, & we must raise the money somehow to enable you to reap a reward for all that labor.

He was fond of Hall. He realized how honest and resolute and industrious he had been. In another letter he wrote him that it was wonderful he had been able to “keep the ship afloat in the storm that has seen fleets and fleets go down”; and he added: “Mrs. Clemens says I must tell you not to send us any money for a month or two, so that you may be afforded what little relief is in our power.”

The type-setter situation seemed to promise something. In fact, the machine once more had become the principal hope of financial salvation. The new company seemed really to begetting ahead in spite of the money stringency, and was said to have fifty machines well under way: About the middle of March Clemens packed up two of his shorter manuscripts which he had written at odd times and forwarded them to Hall, in the hope that they would be disposed of and the money waiting him on his arrival; and a week later, March 22, 1893, he sailed from Genoa on the Kaiser Wilhelm II, a fine, new boat. One of the manuscripts was ‘The Californian’s Tale’ and the other was ‘Adam’s Diary’.134

134 [It seems curious that neither of these tales should have found welcome with the magazines. “The Californian’s Tale” was published in the Liber Scriptorum, an Authors’ Club book, edited by Arthur Stedman. The ‘Diary’ was disposed of to the Niagara Book, a souvenir of Niagara Falls, which contained sketches by Howells, Clemens, and others. Harper’s Magazine republished both these stories in later years — the Diary especially with great success.]

Some joke was likely to be played on Mark Twain during these ocean journeys, and for this particular voyage an original one was planned. They knew how he would fume and swear if he should be discovered with dutiable goods and held up in the Custom House, and they planned for this effect. A few days before arriving in New York one passenger after another came to him, each with a box of expensive cigars, and some pleasant speech expressing friendship and appreciation and a hope that they would be remembered in absence, etc., until he had perhaps ten or a dozen very choice boxes of smoking material. He took them all with gratitude and innocence. He had never declared any dutiable baggage, entering New York alone, and it never occurred to him that he would need to do so now. His trunk and bags were full; he had the cigars made into a nice package, to be carried handily, and on his arrival at the North German Lloyd docks stood waiting among his things for the formality of Customs examination, his friends assembled for the explosion.

They had not calculated well; the Custom-House official came along presently with the usual “Open your baggage, please,” then suddenly recognizing the owner of it he said:

“Oh, Mr. Clemens, excuse me. We have orders to extend to you the courtesies of the port. No examination of your effects is necessary.”

It was the evening of Monday, April 3d, when he landed in New York and went to the Hotel Glenham. In his notes he tells of having a two-hour talk with Howells on the following night. They had not seen each other for two years, and their correspondence had been broken off. It was a happy, even if somewhat sad, reunion, for they were no longer young, and when they called the roll of friends there were many vacancies. They had reached an age where some one they loved died every year. Writing to Mrs. Crane, Clemens speaks of the ghosts of memory; then he says:

I dreamed I was born & grew up & was a pilot on the Mississippi & a miner & a journalist in Nevada & a pilgrim in the Quaker City & had a wife & children & went to live in a villa at Florence —& this dream goes on & on & sometimes seems so real that I almost believe it is real. I wonder if it is? But there is no way to tell, for if one applies tests they would be part of the dream, too, & so would simply aid the deceit. I wish I knew whether it is a dream or real.

He was made handsomely welcome in New York. His note-book says:

Wednesday. Dined with Mary Mapes Dodge, Howells, Rudyard Kipling & wife, Clarke, 135 Jamie Dodge & wife.

135 [ William Fayal Clarke, now editor of St. Nicholas Magazine.]

Thursday, 6th. Dined with Andrew Carnegie, Prof. Goldwin Smith, John Cameron, Mr. Glenn. Creation of league for absorbing Canada into our Union. Carnegie also wants to add Great Britain & Ireland.

It was on this occasion that Carnegie made his celebrated maxim about the basket and the eggs. Clemens was suggesting that Carnegie take an interest in the typesetter, and quoted the old adage that one should not put all of his eggs into one basket. Carnegie regarded him through half-closed lids, as was his custom, and answered:

“That’s a mistake; put all your eggs into one basket — and watch that basket.”

He had not come to America merely for entertainment. He was at the New York office of the type-setter company, acquiring there what seemed to be good news, for he was assured that his interests were being taken care of, and that within a year at most his royalty returns would place him far beyond the fear of want. He forwarded this good news to Italy, where it was sorely needed, for Mrs. Clemens found her courage not easy to sustain in his absence. That he had made his letter glowing enough, we may gather from her answer.

It does not seem credible that we are really again to have money to spend. I think I will jump around and spend money just for fun, and give a little away, if we really get some. What should we do and how should we feel if we had no bright prospects before us, and yet how many people are situated in that way?

He decided to make another trip to Chicago to verify, with his own eyes, the manufacturing reports, and to see Paige, who would appear to have become more elusive than ever as to contracts, written and implied. He took Hall with him, and wrote Orion to meet him at the Great Northern Hotel. This would give him a chance to see Orion and would give Orion a chance to see the great Fair. He was in Chicago eleven days, and in bed with a heavy cold almost the whole of that time. Paige came to see him at his rooms, and, as always, was rich in prospects and promises; full of protestations that, whatever came, when the tide of millions rolled in, they would share and share alike. The note-book says:

Paige shed even more tears than usual. What a talker he is! He could persuade a fish to come out and take a walk with him. When he is present I always believe him; I can’t help it.

Clemens returned to New York as soon as he was able to travel. Going down in the elevator a man stepped in from one of the floors swearing violently. Clemens, leaning over to Hall, with his hand to his mouth, and in a whisper audible to every one, said:

“Bishop of Chicago.”

The man, with a quick glance, recognized his fellow-passenger and subsided.

On May 13th Clemens took the Kaiser Wilhelm II. for Genoa. He had accomplished little, but he was in better spirits as to the machine. If only the strain of his publishing business had slackened even for a moment! Night and day it was always with him. Hall presently wrote that the condition of the money-market was “something beyond description. You cannot get money on anything short of government bonds.” The Mount Morris Bank would no longer handle their paper. The Clemens household resorted to economies hitherto undreamed of. Mrs. Clemens wrote to her sister that she really did not see sometimes where their next money would come from. She reported that her husband got up in the night and walked the floor in his distress.

He wrote again to Hall, urging him to sell and get rid of the debts and responsibilities at whatever sacrifice:

I am terribly tired of business. I am by nature and disposition unfit for it, & I want to get out of it. I am standing on the Mount Morris volcano with help from the machine a long, long way off —& doubtless a long way further off than the Connecticut company imagine.

Get me out of business!

He knew something of the delays of completing a typesetting machine, and he had little faith in any near relief from that source. He wrote again go Hall, urging him to sell some of his type-setter royalties. They should be worth something now since the manufacturing company was actually in operation; but with the terrible state of the money-market there was no sale for anything. Clemens attempted to work, but put in most of his time footing up on the margin of his manuscript the amount of his indebtedness, the expenses of his household, and the possibilities of his income. It was weary, hard, nerve-racking employment. About the muddle of June they closed Viviani. Susy Clemens went to Paris to cultivate her voice, a rare soprano, with a view to preparing for the operatic stage. Clemens took Mrs. Clemens, with little Jean, to Germany for the baths. Clara, who had graduated from Mrs. Willard’s school in Berlin, joined them in Munich, and somewhat later Susy also joined them, for Madame Marchesi, the great master of voice-culture, had told her that she must acquire physique to carry that voice of hers before she would undertake to teach her.

In spite of his disturbed state of mind Clemens must have completed some literary work during this period, for we find first mention, in a letter to Hall, of his immortal defense of Harriet Shelley, a piece of writing all the more marvelous when we consider the conditions of its performance. Characteristically, in the same letter, he suddenly develops a plan for a new enterprise — this time for a magazine which Arthur Stedman or his father will edit, and the Webster company will publish as soon as their present burdens are unloaded. But we hear no more of this project.

But by August he was half beside himself with anxiety. On the 6th he wrote Hall:

Here we never see a newspaper, but even if we did I could not come anywhere near appreciating or correctly estimating the tempest you have been buffeting your way through — only the man who is in it can do that — but I have tried not to burden you thoughtlessly or wantonly. I have been overwrought & unsettled in mind by apprehensions, & that is a thing that is not helpable when one is in a strange land & sees his resources melt down to a two months’ supply & can’t see any sure daylight beyond. The bloody machine offers but a doubtful outlook —& will still offer nothing much better for a long time to come; for when the “three weeks” are up, there will be three months’ tinkering to follow, I guess. That is unquestionably the boss machine of the world, but is the toughest one on prophets when it is in an incomplete state that has ever seen the light.

And three days later:

Great Scott, but it’s a long year — for you & me! I never knew the almanac to drag so. At least not since I was finishing that other machine.

I watch for your letters hungrily — just as I used to watch for the telegram saying the machine’s finished — but when “next week certainly” suddenly swelled into “three weeks sure” I recognized the old familiar tune I used to hear so much. W—— don’t know what sick-heartedness is — but he is in a way to find out.

And finally, on the 4th:

I am very glad indeed if you and Mr. Langdon are able to see any daylight ahead. To me none is visible. I strongly advise that every penny that comes in shall be applied to paying off debts. I may be in error about this, but it seems to me that we have no other course open. We can pay a part of the debts owing to outsiders — none to Clemenses. In very prosperous times we might regard our stock & copyrights as assets sufficient, with the money owing to us, to square up & quit even, but I suppose we may not hope for such luck in the present condition of things.

What I am mainly hoping for is to save my book royalties. If they come into danger I hope you will cable me so that I can come over & try to save them, for if they go I am a beggar.

I would sail to-day if I had anybody to take charge of my family & help them through the difficult journeys commanded by the doctors.

A few days later he could stand it no longer, and on August 29 (1893) sailed, the second time that year, for New York.

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