Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


An Eventful Year Ends

That summer (July, ’94.) the ‘North American Review’ published “In Defense of Harriet Shelley,” a rare piece of literary criticism and probably the most human and convincing plea ever made for that injured, ill-fated woman. An admirer of Shelley’s works, Clemens could not resist taking up the defense of Shelley’s abandoned wife. It had become the fashion to refer to her slightingly, and to suggest that she had not been without blame for Shelley’s behavior. A Shelley biography by Professor Dowden, Clemens had found particularly irritating. In the midst of his tangle of the previous year he had paused to give it attention. There were times when Mark Twain wrote without much sequence, digressing this way and that, as his fancy led him, charmingly and entertainingly enough, with no large, logical idea. He pursued no such method in this instance. The paper on Harriet Shelley is a brief as direct and compact and cumulative as could have been prepared by a trained legal mind of the highest order, and it has the added advantage of being the utterance of a human soul voicing an indignation inspired by human suffering and human wrong. By no means does it lack humor, searching and biting sarcasm. The characterization of Professor Dowden’s Life of Shelley as a “literary cake-walk” is a touch which only Mark Twain could have laid on. Indeed, the “Defense of Harriet Shelly,” with those early chapters of Joan at Florence, maybe counted as the beginning for Mark Twain of a genuine literary renaissance. It was to prove a remarkable period less voluminous than the first, but even more choice, containing, as it would, besides Joan and the Shelley article, the rest of that remarkable series collected now as Literary Essays; the Hadleyburg story; “Was it Heaven or Hell?”; those masterly articles on our national policies; closing at last with those exquisite memories, in his final days.

The summer of 1894 found Mark Twain in the proper frame of mind for literary work. He was no longer in a state of dread. At Etretat, a watering-place on the French coast, he returned eagerly to the long-neglected tale of Joan —“a book which writes itself,” he wrote Mr. Rogers”— a tale which tells itself; I merely have to hold the pen.” Etretat, originally a fishing-village, was less pretentious than to-day, and the family had taken a small furnished cottage a little way back from the coast — a charming place, and a cheap one — as became their means. Clemens worked steadily at Etretat for more than a month, finishing the second part of his story, then went over to Rouen to visit the hallowed precincts where Joan dragged out those weary months that brought her to the stake. Susy Clemens was taken ill at Rouen, and they lingered in that ancient city, wandering about its venerable steets, which have been changed but slowly by the centuries, and are still full of memories.

They returned to Paris at length — to the Brighton; their quarters of the previous winter — but presently engaged for the winter the studio home of the artist Pomroy at 169 rue de l’Universite, beyond the Seine. Mark Twain wrote of it once:

It was a lovely house; large, rambling, quaint, charmingly furnished and decorated, built upon no particular plan, delightfully uncertain and full of surprises. You were always getting lost in it, and finding nooks and corners which you did not know were there and whose presence you had not suspected before. It was built by a rich French artist, and he had also furnished it and decorated it himself. The studio was coziness itself. With us it served as a drawing-room, sitting-room, living-room, dancing-room — we used it for everything. We couldn’t get enough of it. It is odd that it should have been so cozy, for it was 40 feet long, 40 feet high, and 30 feet wide, with a vast fireplace on, each side, in the middle, and a musicians’ gallery at one end.

Mrs. Clemens had hoped to return to America, to their Hartford home. That was her heart’s desire — to go back once more to their old life and fireside, to forget all this period of exile and wandering. Her letters were full of her home-longing; her three years of absence seemed like an eternity.

In its way, the Pomroy house was the best substitute for home they had found. Its belongings were of the kind she loved. Susy had better health, and her husband was happy in his work. They had much delightful and distinguished company. Her letters tell of these attractive things, and of their economies to make their income reach.

It was near the end of the year that the other great interest — the machine — came finally to a conclusion. Reports from the test had been hopeful during the summer. Early in October Clemens, receiving a copy of the Times-Herald, partly set by the machine, wrote: “The Herald has just arrived, and that column is healing for sore eyes. It affects me like Columbus sighting land.” And again on the 28th:

It seems to me that things couldn’t well be going better at Chicago than they are. There’s no other machine that can set type eight hours with only seventeen minutes’ stoppage through cussedness. The others do rather more stopping than working. By and by our machines will be perfect; then they won’t stop at all.

But that was about the end of the good news. The stoppages became worse and worse. The type began to break — the machine had its old trouble: it was too delicately adjusted — too complicated.

“Great guns, what is the matter with it?” wrote Clemens in November when he received a detailed account of its misconduct.

Mr. Rogers and his son-in-law, Mr. Broughton, went out to Chicago to investigate. They went to the Times-Herald office to watch the type-setter in action. Mr. Rogers once told of this visit to the writer of these chapters. He said:

“Certainly it was a marvelous invention. It was the nearest approach to a human being in the wonderful things it could do of any machine I have ever known. But that was just the trouble; it was too much of a human being and not enough of a machine. It had all the complications of the human mechanism, all the liability of getting out of repair, and it could not be replaced with the ease and immediateness of the human being. It was too costly; too difficult of construction; too hard to set up. I took out my watch and timed its work and counted its mistakes. We watched it a long time, for it was most interesting, most fascinating, but it was not practical — that to me was clear.”

It had failed to stand the test. The Times-Herald would have no more of it. Mr. Rogers himself could see the uselessness of the endeavor. He instructed Mr. Broughton to close up the matter as best he could and himself undertook the harder task of breaking the news to Mark Twain. His letters seem not to have been preserved, but the replies to them tell the story.

169 rue de l’Universite,

PARIS, December 22, 1894.

DEAR MR. ROGERS — I seemed to be entirely expecting your letter, and also prepared and resigned; but Lord, it shows how little we know ourselves and how easily we can deceive ourselves. It hit me like a thunder-clap. It knocked every rag of sense out of my head, and I went flying here and there and yonder, not knowing what I was doing, and only one clearly defined thought standing up visible and substantial out of the crazy storm-drift — that my dream of ten years was in desperate peril and out of the 60,000 or 70,000 projects for its rescue that came flocking through my skull not one would hold still long enough for me to examine it and size it up. Have you ever been like that? Not so much, I reckon.

There was another clearly defined idea — I must be there and see it die. That is, if it must die; and maybe if I were there we might hatch up some next-to-impossible way to make it take up its bed and take a walk.

So, at the end of four hours I started, still whirling, and walked over to the rue Scribe — 4 p.m. — and asked a question or two and was told I should be running a big risk if I took the 9 p.m. train for London and Southampton; “better come right along at 6.52 per Havre special and step aboard the New York all easy and comfortable.” Very! and I about two miles from home and no packing done.

Then it occurred to me that none of these salvation notions that were whirlwinding through my head could be examined or made available unless at least a month’s time could be secured. So I cabled you, and said to myself that I would take the French steamer to-morrow (which will be Sunday).

By bedtime Mrs. Clemens had reasoned me into a fairly rational and contented state of mind; but of course it didn’t last long. So I went on thinking — mixing it with a smoke in the dressing-room once an hour — until dawn this morning. Result — a sane resolution; no matter what your answer to my cable might be I would hold still and not sail until I should get an answer to this present letter which I am now writing or a cable answer from you saying “Come” or “Remain.”

I have slept 6 hours, my pond has clarified, and I find the sediment of my 70,000 projects to be of this character:

He follows with a detailed plan for reconstructing the machine, using brass type, etc., and concludes:

Don’t say I’m wild. For really I’m sane again this morning.

I am going right along with Joan now, and wait untroubled till I hear from you. If you think I can be of the least use cable me “Come.” I can write Joan on board ship and lose no time. Also I could discuss my plan with the publisher for a de luxe Joan, time being an object, for some of the pictures could be made over here, cheaply and quickly, that would cost much more time and money in America.

The second letter followed five days later:

169 rue de l’Universite, PARIS, December 27, 1894.

DEAR MR. ROGERS — Notwithstanding your heart is “old and hard” you make a body choke up. I know you “mean every word you say” and I do take it “in the same spirit in which you tender it.” I shall keep your regard while we two live — that I know; for I shall always remember what you have done for me, and that will insure me against ever doing anything that could forfeit it or impair it.

It is six days or seven days ago that I lived through that despairing day, and then through a night without sleep; then settled down next day into my right mind (or thereabouts) and wrote you. I put in the rest of that day till 7 P.m. plenty comfortably enough writing a long chapter of my book; then went to a masked ball blacked up as Uncle Remus, taking Clara along, and we had a good time. I have lost no day since, and suffered no discomfort to speak of, but drove my troubles out of my mind and had good success in keeping them out — through watchfulness. I have done a good week’s work and put the book a good way ahead in the Great Trial [of Joan], which is the difficult part: the part which requires the most thought and carefulness. I cannot see the end of the Trial yet, but I am on the road. I am creeping surely toward it.

“Why not leave them all to me?” My business brothers? I take you by the hand! I jump at the chance!

I ought to be ashamed and I am trying my best to be ashamed — and yet I do jump at the chance in spite of it. I don’t want to write Irving and I don’t want to write Stoker. It doesn’t seem as if I could. But I can suggest something for you to write them; and then if you see that I am unwise you can write them something quite different. Now this is my idea:

1. To return Stoker’s $100 to him and keep his stock.

2. And tell Irving that when luck turns with me I will make good to him what the salvage from the dead Co. fails to pay him of his $500.

[P. S. Madam says No, I must face the music. So I inclose my effort — to be used if you approve, but not otherwise.]

We shall try to find a tenant for our Hartford house; not an easy matter, for it costs heavily to live in. We can never live in it again; though it would break the family’s hearts if they could believe it.

Nothing daunts Mrs. Clemens or makes the world look black to her — which is the reason I haven’t drowned myself.

I got the Xmas journals which you sent and I thank you for that Xmas remembrance.

We all send our deepest and warmest greetings to you and all of yours and a Happy New Year!


Bram Stoker and Sir Henry Irving had each taken a small interest in the machine. The inclosure for Stoker ran as follows:

MY DEAR STOKER — I am not dating this, because it is not to be mailed at present.

When it reaches you it will mean that there is a hitch in my machine enterprise — a, hitch so serious as to make it take to itself the aspect of a dissolved dream. This letter, then, will contain cheque for the $100 which you have paid. And will you tell Irving for me — I can’t get up courage enough to talk about this misfortune myself, except to you, whom by good luck I haven’t damaged yet — that when the wreckage presently floats ashore he will get a good deal of his $500 back; and a dab at a time I will make up to him the rest.

I’m not feeling as fine as I was when I saw you there in your home. Please remember me kindly to Mrs. Stoker. I gave up that London lecture-project entirely. Had to — there’s never been a chance since to find the time.

Sincerely yours, S. L. CLEMENS.

A week later he added what was about his final word on the subject:

Yours of December 21 has arrived, containing the circular to stockholders, and I guess the Co. will really quit — there doesn’t seem to be any other wise course.

There’s one thing which makes it difficult for me to soberly realize that my ten-year dream is actually dissolved; and that is that it reverses my horoscope. The proverb says, “Born lucky, always lucky.” It was usual for one or two of our lads (per annum) to get drowned in the Mississippi or in Bear Creek, but I was pulled out in a drowned condition 9 times before I learned to swim, and was considered to be a cat in disguise. When the Pennsylvania blew up and the telegraph reported my brother as fatally injured (with 60 others) but made no mention of me, my uncle said to my mother “it means that Sam was somewhere else, after being on that boat a year and a half — he was born lucky.” Yes, I was somewhere else. I am so superstitious that I have always been afraid to have business dealings with certain relatives and friends of mine because they were unlucky people. All my life I have stumbled upon lucky chances of large size, and whenever they were wasted it was because of my own stupidity and carelessness. And so I have felt entirely certain that the machine would turn up trumps eventually. It disappointed me lots of times, but I couldn’t shake off the confidence of a lifetime in my luck.

Well, whatever I get out of the wreckage will be due to good luck — the good luck of getting you into the scheme — for, but for that there wouldn’t be any wreckage; it would be total loss.

I wish you had been in at the beginning. Then we should have had the good luck to step promptly ashore.

So it was that the other great interest died and was put away forever. Clemens scarcely ever mentioned it again, even to members of his family. It was a dead issue; it was only a pity that it had ever seemed a live one. A combination known as the Regius Company took over Paige’s interest, but accomplished nothing. Eventually — irony of fate — the Mergenthaler Company, so long scorned and derided, for twenty thousand dollars bought out the rights and assets and presented that marvelous work of genius, the mechanical wonder of the age, to the Sibley College of Engineering, where it is shown as the costliest piece of machinery, for its size, ever constructed. Mark Twain once received a letter from an author who had written a book calculated to assist inventors and patentees, asking for his indorsement. He replied:

DEAR SIR — I have, as you say, been interested in patents and patentees. If your books tell how to exterminate inventors send me nine editions. Send them by express.

Very truly yours, S. L. CLEMENS.

The collapse of the “great hope” meant to the Clemens household that their struggle with debt was to continue, that their economies were to become more rigid. In a letter on her wedding anniversary, February a (1895), Mrs. Clemens wrote to her sister:

As I was starting down the stairs for my breakfast this morning Mr. Clemens called me back and took out a five-franc piece and gave it to me, saying: “It is our silver-wedding day, and so I give you a present.”

It was a symbol of their reduced circumstances — of the change that twenty-five years had brought.

Literary matters, however, prospered. The new book progressed amazingly. The worst had happened; other and distracting interests were dead. He was deep in the third part-the story of Joan’s trial and condemnation, and he forgot most other things in his determination to make that one a reality.

As at Viviani, Clemens read his chapters to the family circle. The story was drawing near the end now; tragedy was closing in on the frail martyr; the farce of her trial was wringing their hearts. Susy would say, “Wait, wait till I get a handkerchief,” and one night when the last pages had been written and read, and Joan had made the supreme expiation for devotion to a paltry king, Susy wrote in her diary, “To-night Joan of Arc was burned at the stake,” meaning that the book was finished.

Susy herself had literary taste and might have written had it not been that she desired to sing. There are fragments of her writing that show the true literary touch. Her father, in an unpublished article which he once wrote of her, quoted a paragraph, doubtless intended some day to take its place at the end of a story:

And now at last when they lie at rest they must go hence. It is always so. Completion; perfection, satisfaction attained — a human life has fulfilled its earthly destiny. Poor human life! It may not pause and rest, for it must hasten on to other realms and greater consummations.

She was a deep reader, and she had that wonderful gift of brilliant, flowing, scintillating speech. From her father she had inherited a rare faculty of oral expression, born of a superior depth of mind, swiftness and clearness of comprehension, combined with rapid, brilliant, and forceful phrasing. Her father wrote of her gift:

Sometimes in those days of swift development her speech was rocket-like for vividness and for the sense it carried of visibility. I seem to see it stream into the sky and burst full in a shower of colored fire.

We are dwelling here a moment on Susy, for she was at her best that winter.

She was more at home than the others. Her health did not permit her to go out so freely and her father had more of her companionship. They discussed many things — the problems of life and of those beyond life, philosophies of many kinds, and the subtleties of literary art. He recalled long after how once they lost themselves in trying to solve the mystery of the emotional effect of certain word-combinations — certain phrases and lines of verse — as, for instance, the wild, free breath of the open that one feels in “the days when we went gipsying a long time ago” and the tender, sunlit, grassy slope and mossy headstones suggested by the simple words, “departed this life.” Both Susy and her father cared more for Joan than any of the former books. To Mr. Rogers, Clemens wrote:

“Possibly the book may not sell, but that is nothing — it was written for love.” A memorandum which he made at the time, apparently for no one but himself, brings us very close to the personality behind it.

Do you know that shock? I mean when you come at your regular hour into the sick-room where you have watched for months and find the medicine-bottles all gone, the night-table removed, the bed stripped, the furniture set stiffly to rights, the windows up, the room cold, stark, vacant —& you catch your breath & realize what has happened.

Do you know that shock?

The man who has written a long book has that experience the morning after he has revised it for the last time & sent it away to the printer. He steps into his study at the hour established by the habit of months —& he gets that little shock. All the litter & confusion are gone. The piles of dusty reference-books are gone from the chairs, the maps from the floor; the chaos of letters, manuscripts, note-books, paper-knives, pipes, matches, photographs, tobacco-jars, & cigar-boxes is gone from the writing-table, the furniture is back where it used to be in the long-ago. The housemaid, forbidden the place for five months, has been there & tidied it up & scoured it clean & made it repellent & awful.

I stand here this morning contemplating this desolation, & I realize that if I would bring back the spirit that made this hospital home-like & pleasant to me I must restore the aids to lingering dissolution to their wonted places & nurse another patient through & send it forth for the last rites, With many or few to assist there, as may happen; & that I will do.

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