Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


The Second Riverdale Winter

Most of Mark Twain’s stories have been dramatized at one time or another, and with more or less success. He had two plays going that winter, one of them the little “Death Disk,” which — in story form had appeared a year before in Harper’s Magazine. It was put on at the Carnegie Lyceum with considerable effect, but it was not of sufficient importance to warrant a long continuance.

Another play of that year was a dramatization of Huckleberry Finn, by Lee Arthur. This was played with a good deal of success in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, the receipts ranging from three hundred to twenty-one hundred dollars per night, according to the weather and locality. Why the play was discontinued is not altogether apparent; certainly many a dramatic enterprise has gone further, faring worse.

Huck in book form also had been having adventures a little earlier, in being tabooed on account of his morals by certain librarians of Denver and Omaha. It was years since Huck had been in trouble of that sort, and he acquired a good deal of newspaper notoriety in consequence.

Certain entries in Mark Twain’s note-book reveal somewhat of his life and thought at this period. We find such entries as this:

Saturday, January 3, 1903. The offspring of riches: Pride, vanity, ostentation, arrogance, tyranny.

Sunday, January 4, 1903. The offspring of poverty: Greed, sordidness, envy, hate, malice, cruelty, meanness, lying, shirking, cheating, stealing, murder.

Monday, February 2, 1903. 33d wedding anniversary. I was allowed to see Livy 5 minutes this morning in honor of the day. She makes but little progress toward recovery, still there is certainly some, we are sure.

Sunday, March 1, 1903. We may not doubt that society in heaven consists mainly of undesirable persons.

Thursday, March 19, 1903. Susy’s birthday. She would be 31 now.

The family illnesses, which presently included an allotment for himself, his old bronchitis, made him rage more than ever at the imperfections of the species which could be subject to such a variety of ills. Once he wrote:

Man was made at the end of the week’s work when God was tired.

And again:

Adam, man’s benefactor — he gave him all that he has ever received that was worth having — death.

The Riverdale home was in reality little more than a hospital that spring. Jean had scarcely recovered her physical strength when she was attacked by measles, and Clara also fell a victim to the infection. Fortunately Mrs. Clemens’s health had somewhat improved.

It was during this period that Clemens formulated his eclectic therapeutic doctrine. Writing to Twichell April 4, 1903, he said:

Livy does make a little progress these past 3 or 4 days, progress which is visible to even the untrained eye. The physicians are doing good work for her, but my notion is, that no art of healing is the best for all ills. I should distribute the ailments around: surgery cases to the surgeon; lupus to the actinic-ray specialist; nervous prostration to the Christian Scientist; most ills to the allopath & the homeopath; & (in my own particular case) rheumatism, gout, & bronchial attack to the osteopathist.

He had plenty of time to think and to read during those weeks of confinement, and to rage, and to write when he felt the need of that expression, though he appears to have completed not much for print beyond his reply to Mrs. Eddy, already mentioned, and his burlesque, “Instructions in Art,” with pictures by himself, published in the Metropolitan for April and May.

Howells called his attention to some military outrages in the Philippines, citing a case where a certain lieutenant had tortured one of his men, a mild offender, to death out of pure deviltry, and had been tried but not punished for his fiendish crime.162

162 [The torture to death of Private Edward C. Richter, an American soldier, by orders of a commissioned officer of the United States army on the night of February 7, 1902. Private Richter was bound and gagged and the gag held in his mouth by means of a club while ice-water was slowly poured into his face, a dipper full at a time, for two hours and a half, until life became extinct.]

Clemens undertook to give expression to his feelings on this subject, but he boiled so when he touched pen to paper to write of it that it was simply impossible for him to say anything within the bounds of print. Then his only relief was to rise and walk the floor, and curse out his fury at the race that had produced such a specimen.

Mrs. Clemens, who perhaps got some drift or the echo of these tempests, now and then sent him a little admonitory, affectionate note.

Among the books that Clemens read, or tried to read, during his confinement were certain of the novels of Sir Walter Scott. He had never been able to admire Scott, and determined now to try to understand this author’s popularity and his standing with the critics; but after wading through the first volume of one novel, and beginning another one, he concluded to apply to one who could speak as having authority. He wrote to Brander Matthews:

DEAR BRANDER — I haven’t been out of my bed for 4 weeks, but-well, I have been reading a good deal, & it occurs to me to ask you to sit down, some time or other when you have 8 or 9 months to spare, & jot me down a certain few literary particulars for my help & elevation. Your time need not be thrown away, for at your further leisure you can make Columbian lectures out of the results & do your students a good turn.

1. Are there in Sir Walter’s novels passages done in good English — English which is neither slovenly nor involved?

2. Are there passages whose English is not poor & thin & commonplace, but is of a quality above that?

3. Are there passages which burn with real fire — not punk, fox-fire, make-believe?

4. Has he heroes & heroines who are not cads and cadesses?

5. Has he personages whose acts & talk correspond with their characters as described by him?

6. Has he heroes & heroines whom the reader admires — admires and knows why?

7. Has he funny characters that are funny, and humorous passages that are humorous?

8. Does he ever chain the reader’s interest & make him reluctant to lay the book down?

9. Are there pages where he ceases from posing, ceases from admiring the placid flood & flow of his own dilution, ceases from being artificial, & is for a time, long or short, recognizably sincere & in earnest?

10. Did he know how to write English, & didn’t do it because he didn’t want to?

11. Did he use the right word only when he couldn’t think of another one, or did he run so much to wrong words because he didn’t know the right one when he saw it?

12. Can you read him and keep your respect for him? Of course a person could in his day — an era of sentimentality & sloppy romantics — but land! can a body do it to-day?

Brander, I lie here dying; slowly dying, under the blight of Sir Walter. I have read the first volume of Rob Roy, & as far as Chapter XIX of Guy Mannering, & I can no longer hold my head up or take my nourishment. Lord, it’s all so juvenile! so artificial, so shoddy; & such wax figures & skeletons & specters. Interest? Why, it is impossible to feel an interest in these bloodless shams, these milk-&-water humbugs. And oh, the poverty of invention! Not poverty in inventing situations, but poverty in furnishing reasons for them. Sir Walter usually gives himself away when he arranges for a situation — elaborates & elaborates & elaborates till, if you live to get to it, you don’t believe in it when it happens.

I can’t find the rest of Rob Roy, I, can’t stand any more Mannering — I do not know just what to do, but I will reflect, & not quit this great study rashly . . . .

My, I wish I could see you & Leigh Hunt!

Sincerely yours,


But a few days later he experienced a revelation. It came when he perseveringly attacked still a third work of Scott — Quentin Durward. Hastily he wrote to Matthews again:

I’m still in bed, but the days have lost their dullness since I broke into Sir Walter & lost my temper. I finished Guy Mannering that curious, curious book, with its mob of squalid shadows gibbering around a single flesh-&-blood being — Dinmont; a book crazily put together out of the very refuse of the romance artist’s stage properties — finished it & took up Quentin Durward & finished that.

It was like leaving the dead to mingle with the living; it was like withdrawing from the infant class in the college of journalism to sit under the lectures in English literature in Columbia University.

I wonder who wrote Quentin Durward?163

163 [This letter, enveloped, addressed, and stamped, was evidently mislaid. It was found and mailed seven years later, June, 1910 message from the dead.]

Among other books which he read that winter and spring was Helen Keller’s ‘The Story of My Life’, then recently published. That he finished it in a mood of sweet gentleness we gather from a long, lovely letter which he wrote her — a letter in which he said:

I am charmed with your book — enchanted. You are a wonderful creature, the most wonderful in the world — you and your other half together — Miss Sullivan, I mean — for it took the pair of you to make a complete & perfect whole. How she stands out in her letters! her brilliancy, penetration, originality, wisdom, character, & the fine literary competencies of her pen — they are all there.

When reading and writing failed as diversion, Mark Twain often turned to mathematics. With no special talent for accuracy in the matter of figures, he had a curious fondness for calculations, scientific and financial, and he used to cover pages, ciphering at one thing and another, arriving pretty inevitably at the wrong results. When the problem was financial, and had to do with his own fortunes, his figures were as likely as not to leave him in a state of panic. The expenditures were naturally heavy that spring; and one night, when he had nothing better to do, he figured the relative proportion to his income. The result showed that they were headed straight for financial ruin. He put in the rest of the night fearfully rolling and tossing, and reconstructing his figures that grew always worse, and next morning summoned Jean and Clara and petrified them with the announcement that the cost of living was one hundred and twenty-five per cent. more than the money-supply.

Writing to MacAlister three days later he said:

It was a mistake. When I came down in the morning, a gray and aged wreck, I found that in some unaccountable way (unaccountable to a business man, but not to me) I had multiplied the totals by two. By God, I dropped seventy-five years on the floor where I stood!

Do you know it affected me as one is affected when one wakes out of a hideous dream & finds it was only a dream. It was a great comfort & satisfaction to me to call the daughters to a private meeting of the board again. Certainly there is a blistering & awful reality about a well-arranged unreality. It is quite within the possibilities that two or three nights like that of mine would drive a man to suicide. He would refuse to examine the figures, they would revolt him so, & he would go to his death unaware that there was nothing serious about them. I cannot get that night out of my head, it was so vivid, so real, so ghastly: In any other year of these thirty-three the relief would have been simple: go where you can, cut your cloth to fit your income. You can’t do that when your wife can’t be moved, even from one room to the next.

The doctor & a specialist met in conspiracy five days ago, & in their belief she will by and by come out of this as good as new, substantially. They ordered her to Italy for next winter — which seems to indicate that by autumn she will be able to undertake the voyage. So Clara is writing to a Florence friend to take a look around among the villas for us in the regions near that city.

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