Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXV

Summer at “The Lair”

In June Clemens took the family to Saranac Lake, to Ampersand. They occupied a log cabin which he called “The Lair,” on the south shore, near the water’s edge, a remote and beautiful place where, as had happened before, they were so comfortable and satisfied that they hoped to return another summer. There were swimming and boating and long walks in the woods; the worry and noise of the world were far away. They gave little enough attention to the mails. They took only a weekly paper, and were likely to allow it to lie in the postoffice uncalled for. Clemens, especially, loved the place, and wrote to Twichell:

I am on the front porch (lower one-main deck) of our little bijou of a dwelling-house. The lake edge (Lower Saranac) is so nearly under me that I can’t see the shore, but only the water, small-poxed with rain splashes — for there is a heavy down pour. It is charmingly like sitting snuggled up on a ship’s deck with the stretching sea all around but very much more satisfactory, for at sea a rainstorm is depressing, while here of course the effect engendered is just a deep sense of comfort & contentment. The heavy forest shuts us solidly in on three sides — there are no neighbors. There are beautiful little tan-colored impudent squirrels about. They take tea 5 P.M. (not invited) at the table in the woods where Jean does my typewriting, & one of them has been brave enough to sit upon Jean’s knee with his tail curved over his back & munch his food. They come to dinner 7 P.M. on the front porch (not invited), but Clara drives them away. It is an occupation which requires some industry & attention to business. They all have the one name — Blennerhasset, from Burr’s friend —& none of them answers to it except when hungry.

Clemens could work at “The Lair,” often writing in shady seclusions along the shore, and he finished there the two-part serial, 156 “The Double-Barrelled Detective Story,” intended originally as a burlesque on Sherlock Holmes. It did not altogether fulfil its purpose, and is hardly to be ranked as one of Mark Twain’s successes. It contains, however, one paragraph at least by which it is likely to be remembered, a hoax — his last one — on the reader. It runs as follows:

156 [ Published in Harper’s Magazine for January and February, 1902.]

It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind nature for the wingless wild things that have their home in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of woodland, the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere, far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.

The warm light and luxury of this paragraph are factitious. The careful reader will, note that its various accessories are ridiculously associated, and only the most careless reader will accept the oesophagus as a bird. But it disturbed a great many admirers, and numerous letters of inquiry came wanting to know what it was all about. Some suspected the joke and taunted him with it; one such correspondent wrote:

MY DEAR MARK TWAIN — Reading your “Double-Barrelled Detective Story” in the January Harper’s late one night I came to the paragraph where you so beautifully describe “a crisp and spicy morning in early October.” I read along down the paragraph, conscious only of its woozy sound, until I brought up with a start against your oesophagus in the empty sky. Then I read the paragraph again. Oh, Mark Twain! Mark Twain! How could you do it? Put a trap like that into the midst of a tragical story? Do serenity and peace brood over you after you have done such a thing?

Who lit the lilacs, and which end up do they hang? When did larches begin to flame, and who set out the pomegranates in that canyon? What are deciduous flowers, and do they always “bloom in the fall, tra la”?

I have been making myself obnoxious to various people by demanding their opinion of that paragraph without telling them the name of the author. They say, “Very well done.” “The alliteration is so pretty.” “What’s an oesophagus, a bird?” “What’s it all mean, anyway?” I tell them it means Mark Twain, and that an oesophagus is a kind of swallow. Am I right? Or is it a gull? Or a gullet?

Hereafter if you must write such things won’t you please be so kind as to label them? Very sincerely yours, ALLETTA F. DEAN.

Mark Twain to Miss Dean:

Don’t you give that oesophagus away again or I’ll never trust you with another privacy!

So many wrote, that Clemens finally felt called upon to make public confession, and as one searching letter had been mailed from Springfield, Massachusetts, he made his reply through the Republican of that city. After some opening comment he said:

I published a short story lately & it was in that that I put the oesophagus. I will say privately that I expected it to bother some people — in fact, that was the intention — but the harvest has been larger than I was calculating upon. The oesophagus has gathered in the guilty and the innocent alike, whereas I was only fishing for the innocent — the innocent and confiding.

He quoted a letter from a schoolmaster in the Philippines who thought the passage beautiful with the exception of the curious creature which “slept upon motionless wings.” Said Clemens:

Do you notice? Nothing in the paragraph disturbed him but that one word. It shows that that paragraph was most ably constructed for the deception it was intended to put upon the reader. It was my intention that it should read plausibly, and it is now plain that it does; it was my intention that it should be emotional and touching, and you see yourself that it fetched this public instructor. Alas! if I had but left that one treacherous word out I should have scored, scored everywhere, and the paragraph would have slidden through every reader’s sensibilities like oil and left not a suspicion behind.

The other sample inquiry is from a professor in a New England university. It contains one naughty word (which I cannot bear to suppress), but he is not in the theological department, so it is no harm:

“DEAR MR. CLEMENS — ‘Far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing.’

“It is not often I get a chance to read much periodical literature, but I have just gone through at this belated period, with much gratification and edification, your ‘Double-Barrelled Detective Story.’

“But what in hell is an oesophagus? I keep one myself, but it never sleeps in the air or anywhere else. My profession is to deal with words, and oesophagus interested me the moment I lighted upon it. But, as a companion of my youth used to say, ‘I’ll be eternally, co-eternally cussed’ if I can make it out. Is it a joke or am I an ignoramus?”

Between you and me, I was almost ashamed of having fooled that man, but for pride’s sake I was not going to say so. I wrote and told him it was a joke — and that is what I am now saying to my Springfield inquirer. And I told him to carefully read the whole paragraph and he would find not a vestige of sense in any detail of it. This also I recommend to my Springfield inquirer.

I have confessed. I am sorry — partially. I will not do so any more — for the present. Don’t ask me any more questions; let the oesophagus have a rest — on his same old motionless wing.

He wrote Twichell that the story had been a six-day ‘tour de force’, twenty-five thousand words, and he adds:

How long it takes a literary seed to sprout sometimes! This seed was planted in your house many years ago when you sent me to bed with a book not heard of by me until then — Sherlock Holmes . . . . I’ve done a grist of writing here this summer, but not for publication soon, if ever. I did write two satisfactory articles for early print, but I’ve burned one of them & have buried the other in my large box of posthumous stuff. I’ve got stacks of literary remains piled up there.

Early in August Clemens went with H. H. Rogers in his yacht Kanawha on a cruise to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Rogers had made up a party, including ex-Speaker Reed, Dr. Rice, and Col. A. G. Paine. Young Harry Rogers also made one of the party. Clemens kept a log of the cruise, certain entries of which convey something of its spirit. On the 11th, at Yarmouth, he wrote:

Fog-bound. The garrison went ashore. Officers visited the yacht in the evening & said an anvil had been missed. Mr. Rogers paid for the anvil.

August 13th. There is a fine picture-gallery here; the sheriff photographed the garrison, with the exception of Harry (Rogers) and Mr. Clemens.

August 14th. Upon complaint of Mr. Reed another dog was procured. He said he had been a sailor all his life, and considered it dangerous to trust a ship to a dog-watch with only one dog in it.

Poker, for a change.

August 15th. To Rockland, Maine, in the afternoon, arriving about 6 P.M. In the night Dr. Rice baited the anchor with his winnings & caught a whale 90 feet long. He said so himself. It is thought that if there had been another witness like Dr. Rice the whale would have been longer.

August 16th. We could have had a happy time in Bath but for the interruptions caused by people who wanted Mr. Reed to explain votes of the olden time or give back the money. Mr. Rogers recouped them.

Another anvil missed. The descendant of Captain Kidd is the only person who does not blush for these incidents. Harry and Mr. Clemens blush continually. It is believed that if the rest of the garrison were like these two the yacht would be welcome everywhere instead of being quarantined by the police in all the ports. Mr. Clemens & Harry have attracted a great deal of attention, & men have expressed a resolve to turn over a new leaf & copy after them from this out.

Evening. Judge Cohen came over from another yacht to pay his respects to Harry and Mr. Clemens, he having heard of their reputation from the clergy of these coasts. He was invited by the gang to play poker apparently as a courtesy & in a spirit of seeming hospitality, he not knowing them & taking it all at par. Mr. Rogers lent him clothes to go home in.

August 17th. The Reformed Statesman growling and complaining again — not in a frank, straightforward way, but talking at the Commodore, while letting on to be talking to himself. This time he was dissatisfied about the anchor watch; said it was out of date, untrustworthy, & for real efficiency didn’t begin with the Waterbury, & was going on to reiterate, as usual, that he had been a pilot all his life & blamed if he ever saw, etc., etc., etc.

But he was not allowed to finish. We put him ashore at Portland.

That is to say, Reed landed at Portland, the rest of the party returning with the yacht.

“We had a noble good time in the yacht,” Clemens wrote Twichell on their return. “We caught a Chinee missionary and drowned him.”

Twichell had been invited to make one of the party, and this letter was to make him feel sorry he had not accepted.

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