Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXCVII

Finishing the Book of Travel

One reading the Equator book to-day, and knowing the circumstances under which it was written, might be puzzled to reconcile the secluded household and its atmosphere of sorrow with certain gaieties of the subject matter. The author himself wondered at it, and to Howells wrote:

I don’t mean that I am miserable; no-worse than that — indifferent. Indifferent to nearly everything but work. I like that; I enjoy it, & stick to it. I do it without purpose & without ambition; merely for the love of it. Indeed, I am a mud-image; & it puzzles me to know what it is in me that writes & has comedy fancies & finds pleasure in phrasing them. It is the law of our nature, of course, or it wouldn’t happen; the thing in me forgets the presence of the mud-image, goes its own way wholly unconscious of it & apparently of no kinship with it.

He saw little company. Now and, then a good friend, J.Y.W. MacAlister, came in for a smoke with him. Once Clemens sent this line:

You speak a language which I understand. I would like to see you. Could you come and smoke some manilas; I would, of course, say dine, but my family are hermits & cannot see any one, but I would have a fire in my study, & if you came at any time after your dinner that might be most convenient for you you would find me & a welcome.

Clemens occasionally went out to dinner, but very privately. He dined with Bram Stoker, who invited Anthony Hope and one or two others, and with the Chattos and Mr. Percy Spalding; also with Andrew Lang, who wrote, “Your old friend, Lord Lome, wants to see you again”; with the Henry M. Stanleys and Poultney Bigelow, and with Francis H. Skrine, a government official he had met in India. But in all such affairs he was protected from strangers and his address was kept a secret from the public. Finally, the new-found cousin, Dr. Jim Clemens, fell ill, and the newspapers had it presently that Mark Twain was lying at the point of death. A reporter ferreted him out and appeared at Tedworth Square with cabled instructions from his paper. He was a young man, and innocently enough exhibited his credentials. His orders read:

“If Mark Twain very ill, five hundred words. If dead, send one thousand.”

Clemens smiled grimly as he handed back the cable.

“You don’t need as much as that,” he said. “Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”

The young man went away quite seriously, and it was not until he was nearly to his office that he saw the joke. Then, of course, it was flashed all over the world.

Clemens kept grinding steadily at the book, for it was to be a very large volume — larger than he had ever written before. To MacAlister, April 6, 1897, he wrote, replying to some invitation:

Ah, but I mustn’t stir from my desk before night now when the publisher is hurrying me & I am almost through. I am up at work now — 4 o’clock in the morning-and a few more spurts will pull me through. You come down here & smoke; that is better than tempting a working-man to strike & go to tea.

And it would move me too deeply to see Miss Corelli. When I saw her last it was on the street in Homburg, & Susy was walking with me.

On April 13th he makes a note-book entry: “I finished my book to-day,” and on the 15th he wrote MacAlister, inclosing some bits of manuscript:

I finished my book yesterday, and the madam edited this stuff out of it — on the ground that the first part is not delicate & the last part is indelicate. Now, there’s a nice distinction for you —& correctly stated, too, & perfectly true.

It may interest the reader to consider briefly the manner in which Mark Twain’s “editor” dealt with his manuscript, and a few pages of this particular book remain as examples. That he was not always entirely tractable, or at least submissive, but that he did yield, and graciously, is clearly shown.

In one of her comments Mrs. Clemens wrote:

Page 597. I hate to say it, but it seems to me that you go too minutely into particulars in describing the feats of the aboriginals. I felt it in the boomerang-throwing.

And Clemens just below has written:

Boomerang has been furnished with a special train — that is, I’ve turned it into “Appendix.” Will that answer?

Page 1002. I don’t like the “shady-principled cat that has a family in every port.”

Then I’ll modify him just a little.

Page 1020. 9th line from the top. I think some other word would be better than “stench.” You have used that pretty often.

But can’t I get it in anywhere? You’ve knocked it out every time. Out it goes again. And yet “stench” is a noble, good word.

Page 1038. I hate to have your father pictured as lashing a slave boy.

It’s out, and my father is whitewashed.

Page 1050. 2d line from the bottom. Change breech-clout. It’s a word that you love and I abominate. I would take that and “offal” out of the language.

You are steadily weakening the English tongue, Livy.

Page 1095. Perhaps you don’t care, but whoever told you that the Prince’s green stones were rubies told an untruth. They were superb emeralds. Those strings of pearls and emeralds were famous all over Bombay.

All right, I’ll make them emeralds, but it loses force. Green rubies is a fresh thing. And besides it was one of the Prince’s own staff liars that told me.

That the book was not quite done, even after the triumphant entry of April 13th, is shown by another note which followed something more than a month later:

May 18, 1897. Finished the book again — addition of 30,000 words.

And to MacAlister he wrote:

I have finished the book at last — and finished it for good this time. Now I am ready for dissipation with a good conscience. What night will you come down & smoke?

His book finished, Clemens went out rather more freely, and one evening allowed MacAlister to take him around to the Savage Club. There happened to be a majority of the club committee present, and on motion Mark Twain was elected an honorary life member. There were but three others on whom this distinction had been conferred — Stanley, Nansen, and the Prince of Wales. When they told Mark Twain this he said:

“Well, it must make the Prince feel mighty fine.”141

141 [In a volume of Savage Club anecdotes the date of Mark Twain’s election to honorary membership is given as 1899. Clemens’s notebook gives it in 1897.]

He did not intend to rest; in another entry we find:

May 23, 1897. Wrote first chapter of above story to-day.

The “above story” is a synopsis of a tale which he tried then and later in various forms — a tale based on a scientific idea that one may dream an episode covering a period of years in minute detail in what, by our reckoning, may be no more than a few brief seconds. In this particular form of the story a man sits down to write some memories and falls into a doze. The smell of his cigarette smoke causes him to dream of the burning of his home, the destruction of his family, and of a long period of years following. Awakening a few seconds later, and confronted by his wife and children, he refuses to believe in their reality, maintaining that this condition, and not the other, is the dream. Clemens tried the psychological literary experiment in as many as three different ways during the next two or three years, and each at considerable length; but he developed none of them to his satisfaction, or at least he brought none of them to conclusion. Perhaps the most weird of these attempts, and the most intensely interesting, so long as the verisimilitude is maintained, is a dream adventure in a drop of water which, through an incredible human reduction to microbic, even atomic, proportions, has become a vast tempestuous sea. Mark Twain had the imagination for these undertakings and the literary workmanship, lacking only a definite plan for development of his tale — a lack which had brought so many of his literary ventures to the rocks.

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