Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


At York Harbor

They decided to spend the summer at York Harbor, Maine. They engaged a cottage, there, and about the end of June Mr. Rogers brought his yacht Kanawha to their water-front at Riverdale, and in perfect weather took them to Maine by sea. They landed at York Harbor and took possession of their cottage, The Pines, one of their many attractive summer lodges. Howells, at Kittery Point, was not far away, and everything promised a happy summer.

Mrs. Clemens wrote to Mrs. Crane:

We are in the midst of pines. They come up right about us, and the house is so high and the roots of the trees are so far below the veranda that we are right in the branches. We drove over to call on Mr. and Mrs. Howells. The drive was most beautiful, and never in my life have I seen such a variety of wild flowers in so short a space.

Howells tells us of the wide, low cottage in a pine grove overlooking York River, and how he used to sit with Clemens that summer at a corner of the veranda farthest away from Mrs. Clemens’s window, where they could read their manuscripts to each other, and tell their stories and laugh their hearts out without disturbing her.

Clemens, as was his habit, had taken a work-room in a separate cottage “in the house of a friend and neighbor, a fisherman and a boatman”:

There was a table where he could write, and a bed where he could lie down and read; and there, unless my memory has played me one of those constructive tricks that people’s memories indulge in, he read me the first chapters of an admirable story. The scene was laid in a Missouri town, and the characters such as he had known in boyhood; but often as I tried to make him own it, he denied having written any such story; it is possible that I dreamed it, but I hope the MS. will yet be found.

Howells did not dream it; but in one way his memory misled him. The story was one which Clemens had heard in Hannibal, and he doubtless related it in his vivid way. Howells, writing at a later time, quite naturally included it among the several manuscripts which Clemens read aloud to him. Clemens may have intended to write the tale, may even have begun it, though this is unlikely. The incidents were too well known and too notorious in his old home for fiction.

Among the stories that Clemens did show, or read, to Howells that summer was “The Belated Passport,” a strong, intensely interesting story with what Howells in a letter calls a “goat’s tail ending,” perhaps meaning that it stopped with a brief and sudden shake — with a joke, in fact, altogether unimportant, and on the whole disappointing to the reader. A far more notable literary work of that summer grew out of a true incident which Howells related to Clemens as they sat chatting together on the veranda overlooking the river one summer afternoon. It was a pathetic episode in the life of some former occupants of The Pines — the tale of a double illness in the household, where a righteous deception was carried on during several weeks for the benefit of a life that was about to slip away. Out of this grew the story, “Was it Heaven? or Hell?” a heartbreaking history which probes the very depths of the human soul. Next to “Hadleyburg,” it is Mark Twain’s greatest fictional sermon.

Clemens that summer wrote, or rather finished, his most pretentious poem. One day at Riverdale, when Mrs. Clemens had been with him on the lawn, they had remembered together the time when their family of little folks had filled their lives so full, conjuring up dream-like glimpses of them in the years of play and short frocks and hair-plaits down their backs. It was pathetic, heart-wringing fancying; and later in the day Clemens conceived and began the poem which now he brought to conclusion. It was built on the idea of a mother who imagines her dead child still living, and describes to any listener the pictures of her fancy. It is an impressive piece of work; but the author, for some reason, did not offer it for publication.160

160 [This poem was completed on the anniversary of Susy’s death and is of considerable length. Some selections from it will be found under Appendix U.]

Mrs. Clemens, whose health earlier in the year had been delicate, became very seriously ill at York Harbor. Howells writes:

At first she had been about the house, and there was one gentle afternoon when she made tea for us in the parlor, but that was the last time I spoke with her. After that it was really a question of how soonest and easiest she could be got back to Riverdale.

She had seemed to be in fairly good health and spirits for several weeks after the arrival at York. Then, early in August, there came a great celebration of some municipal anniversary, and for two or three days there were processions, mass-meetings, and so on by day, with fireworks at night. Mrs. Clemens, always young in spirit, was greatly interested. She went about more than her strength warranted, seeing and hearing and enjoying all that was going on. She was finally persuaded to forego the remaining ceremonies and rest quietly on the pleasant veranda at home; but she had overtaxed herself and a collapse was inevitable. Howells and two friends called one afternoon, and a friend of the Queen of Rumania, a Madame Hartwig, who had brought from that gracious sovereign a letter which closed in this simple and modest fashion:

I beg your pardon for being a bore to one I so deeply love and admire, to whom I owe days and days of forgetfulness of self and troubles, and the intensest of all joys-hero-worship! People don’t always realize what a happiness that is! God bless you for every beautiful thought you poured into my tired heart, and for every smile on a weary way. CARMEN SYLVA.

This was the occasion mentioned by Howells when Mrs. Clemens made tea for them in the parlor for the last time. Her social life may be said to have ended that afternoon. Next morning the break came. Clemens, in his notebook for that day, writes:

Tuesday, August 12, 1902. At 7 A.M. Livy taken violently ill. Telephoned and Dr. Lambert was here in 1/2 hour. She could not breathe — was likely to stifle. Also she had severe palpitation. She believed she was dying. I also believed it.

Nurses were summoned, and Mrs. Crane and others came from Elmira. Clara Clemens took charge of the household and matters generally, and the patient was secluded and guarded from every disturbing influence. Clemens slipped about with warnings of silence. A visitor found notices in Mark Twain’s writing pinned to the trees near Mrs. Clemens’s window warning the birds not to sing too loudly.

The patient rallied, but she remained very much debilitated. On September 3d the note-book says:

Always Mr. Rogers keeps his yacht Kanawha in commission & ready to fly here and take us to Riverdale on telegraphic notice.

But Mrs. Clemens was unable to return by sea. When it was decided at last, in October, that she could be removed to Riverdale, Clemens and Howells went to Boston and engaged an invalid car to make the journey from York Harbor to Riverdale without change. Howells tells us that Clemens gave his strictest personal attention to the arrangement of these details, and that they absorbed him.

There was no particular of the business which he did not scrutinize and master . . . . With the inertness that grows upon an aging man he had been used to delegate more and more things, but of that thing I perceived that he would not delegate the least detail.

They made the journey on the 16th, in nine and a half hours. With the exception of the natural weariness due to such a trip, the invalid was apparently no worse on their arrival. The stout English butler carried her to her room. It would be many months before she would leave it again. In one of his memoranda Clemens wrote:

Our dear prisoner is where she is through overwork-day & night devotion to the children & me. We did not know how to value it. We know now.

And in a notation, on a letter praising him for what he had done for the world’s enjoyment, and for his splendid triumph over debt, he said:

Livy never gets her share of these applauses, but it is because the people do not know. Yet she is entitled to the lion’s share.

He wrote Twichell at the end of October:

Livy drags along drearily. It must be hard times for that turbulent spirit. It will be a long time before she is on her feet again. It is a most pathetic case. I wish I could transfer it to myself. Between ripping & raging & smoking & reading I could get a good deal of holiday out of it. Clara runs the house smoothly & capitally.

Heavy as was the cloud of illness, he could not help pestering Twichell a little about a recent mishap — a sprained shoulder:

I should like to know how & where it happened. In the pulpit, as like as not, otherwise you would not be taking so much pains to conceal it. This is not a malicious suggestion, & not a personally invented one: you told me yourself once that you threw artificial power & impressiveness in your sermons where needed by “banging the Bible”—(your own words). You have reached a time of life when it is not wise to take these risks. You would better jump around. We all have to change our methods as the infirmities of age creep upon us. Jumping around will be impressive now, whereas before you were gray it would have excited remark.

Mrs. Clemens seemed to improve as the weeks passed, and they had great hopes of her complete recovery. Clemens took up some work — a new Huck Finn story, inspired by his trip to Hannibal. It was to have two parts — Huck and Tom in youth, and then their return in old age. He did some chapters quite in the old vein, and wrote to Howells of his plan. Howells answered:

It is a great lay-out: what I shall enjoy most will be the return of the old fellows to the scene and their tall lying. There is a matchless chance there. I suppose you will put in plenty of pegs in this prefatory part.

But the new story did not reach completion. Huck and Tom would not come back, even to go over the old scenes.

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