He concluded to go to Cincinnati, which would be on the way either to New York or New Orleans (he expected to sail from one of these points), but first paid a brief visit to his mother in St. Louis, for he had a far journey and along absence in view. Jane Clemens made him renew his promise as to cards and liquor, and gave him her blessing. He had expected to go from St. Louis to Cincinnati, but a new idea — a literary idea — came to him, and he returned to Keokuk. The Saturday Post, a Keokuk weekly, was a prosperous sheet giving itself certain literary airs. He was in favor with the management, of which George Rees was the head, and it had occurred to him that he could send letters of his travels to the Post — for, a consideration. He may have had a still larger ambition; at least, the possibility of a book seems to have been in his consciousness. Rees agreed to take letters from him at five dollars each — good payment for that time and place. The young traveler, jubilant in the prospect of receiving money for literature, now made another start, this time by way of Quincy, Chicago, and Indianapolis according to his first letter in the Post.12
12 [Supplied by Thomas Rees, of the Springfield (Illinois) Register, son of George Rees named.]
This letter is dated Cincinnati, November 14, 1856, and it is not a promising literary production. It was written in the exaggerated dialect then regarded as humorous, and while here and there are flashes of the undoubted Mark Twain type, they are few and far between. The genius that a little more than ten years later would delight the world flickered feebly enough at twenty-one. The letter is a burlesque account of the trip to Cincinnati. A brief extract from it, as characteristic as any, will serve.
I went down one night to the railroad office there, purty close onto the Laclede House, and bought about a quire o’ yaller paper, cut up into tickets — one for each railroad in the United States, I thought, but I found out afterwards that the Alexandria and Boston Air-Line was left out — and then got a baggage feller to take my trunk down to the boat, where he spilled it out on the levee, bustin’ it open and shakin’ out the contents, consisting of “guides” to Chicago, and “guides” to Cincinnati, and travelers’ guides, and all kinds of sich books, not excepting a “guide to heaven,” which last aint much use to a Teller in Chicago, I kin tell you. Finally, that fast packet quit ringing her bell, and started down the river — but she hadn’t gone morn a mile, till she ran clean up on top of a sand-bar, whar she stuck till plum one o’clock, spite of the Captain’s swearin’— and they had to set the whole crew to cussin’ at last afore they got her off.
This is humor, we may concede, of that early American type which a little later would have its flower in Nasby and Artemus Ward. Only careful examination reveals in it a hint of the later Mark Twain. The letters were signed “Snodgrass,” and there are but two of them. The second, dated exactly four months after the first, is in the same assassinating dialect, and recounts among other things the scarcity of coal in Cincinnati and an absurd adventure in which Snodgrass has a baby left on his hands.
From the fewness of the letters we may assume that Snodgrass found them hard work, and it is said he raised on the price. At all events, the second concluded the series. They are mainly important in that they are the first of his contributions that have been preserved; also the first for which he received a cash return.
He secured work at his trade in Cincinnati at the printing-office of Wrightson & Co., and remained there until April, 1857. That winter in Cincinnati was eventless enough, but it was marked by one notable association — one that beyond doubt forwarded Samuel Clemens’s general interest in books, influenced his taste, and inspired in him certain views and philosophies which he never forgot.
He lodged at a cheap boarding-house filled with the usual commonplace people, with one exception. This exception was a long, lank, unsmiling Scotchman named Macfarlane, who was twice as old as Clemens and wholly unlike him — without humor or any comprehension of it. Yet meeting on the common plane of intellect, the two became friends. Clemens spent his evenings in Macfarlane’s room until the clock struck ten; then Macfarlane grilled a herring, just as the Englishman Sumner in Philadelphia had done two years before, and the evening ended.
Macfarlane had books, serious books: histories, philosophies, and scientific works; also a Bible and a dictionary. He had studied these and knew them by heart; he was a direct and diligent talker. He never talked of himself, and beyond the statement that he had acquired his knowledge from reading, and not at school, his personality was a mystery. He left the house at six in the morning and returned at the same hour in the evening. His hands were hardened from some sort of toil-mechanical labor, his companion thought, but he never knew. He would have liked to know, and he watched for some reference to slip out that would betray Macfarlane’s trade; but this never happened.
What he did learn was that Macfarlane was a veritable storehouse of abstruse knowledge; a living dictionary, and a thinker and philosopher besides. He had at least one vanity: the claim that he knew every word in the English dictionary, and he made it good. The younger man tried repeatedly to discover a word that Macfarlane could not define.
Perhaps Macfarlane was vain of his other mental attainments, for he never tired of discoursing upon deep and grave matters, and his companion never tired of listening. This Scotch philosopher did not always reflect the conclusions of others; he had speculated deeply and strikingly on his own account. That was a good while before Darwin and Wallace gave out — their conclusions on the Descent of Man; yet Macfarlane was already advancing a similar philosophy. He went even further: Life, he said, had been developed in the course of ages from a few microscopic seed-germs — from one, perhaps, planted by the Creator in the dawn of time, and that from this beginning development on an ascending scale had finally produced man. Macfarlane said that the scheme had stopped there, and failed; that man had retrograded; that man’s heart was the only bad one in the animal kingdom: that man was the only animal capable of malice, vindictiveness, drunkenness — almost the only animal that could endure personal uncleanliness. He said that man’s intellect was a depraving addition to him which, in the end, placed him in a rank far below the other beasts, though it enabled him to keep them in servitude and captivity, along with many members of his own race.
They were long, fermenting discourses that young Samuel Clemens listened to that winter in Macfarlane’s room, and those who knew the real Mark Twain and his philosophies will recognize that those evenings left their impress upon him for life.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00