Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


Proffered Honors

Mark Twain had been at home well on toward three years; but his popularity showed no signs of diminishing. So far from having waned, it had surged to a higher point than ever before. His crusade against public and private abuses had stirred readers, and had set them to thinking; the news of illness in his household; a report that he was contemplating another residence abroad — these things moved deeply the public heart, and a tide of letters flowed in, letters of every sort — of sympathy, of love, or hearty endorsement, whatever his attitude of reform.

When a writer in a New York newspaper said, “Let us go outside the realm of practical politics next time in choosing our candidates for the Presidency,” and asked, “Who is our ablest and most conspicuous private citizen?” another editorial writer, Joseph Hollister, replied that Mark Twain was “the greatest man of his day in private life, and entitled to the fullest measure of recognition.”

But Clemens was without political ambitions. He knew the way of such things too well. When Hollister sent him the editorial he replied only with a word of thanks, and did not, even in jest, encourage that tiny seed of a Presidential boom. One would like to publish many of the beautiful letters received during this period, for they are beautiful, most of them, however illiterate in form, however discouraging in length — beautiful in that they overflow with the writers’ sincerity and gratitude.

So many of them came from children, usually without the hope of a reply, some signed only with initials, that the writers might not be open to the suspicion of being seekers for his autograph. Almost more than any other reward, Mark Twain valued this love of the children.

A department in the St. Nicholas Magazine offered a prize for a caricature drawing of some well-known man. There were one or two of certain prominent politicians and capitalists, and there was literally a wheelbarrow load of Mark Twain. When he was informed of this he wrote: “No tribute could have pleased me more than that — the friendship of the children.”

Tributes came to him in many forms. In his native State it was proposed to form a Mark Twain Association, with headquarters at Hannibal, with the immediate purpose of having a week set apart at the St. Louis World’s Fair, to be called the Mark Twain week, with a special Mark Twain day, on which a national literary convention would be held. But when his consent was asked, and his co-operation invited, he wrote characteristically:

It is indeed a high compliment which you offer me, in naming an association after me and in proposing the setting apart of a Mark Twain day at the great St. Louis Fair, but such compliments are not proper for the living; they are proper and safe for the dead only. I value the impulse which moves you to tender me these honors. I value it as highly as any one can, and am grateful for it, but I should stand in a sort of terror of the honors themselves. So long as we remain alive we are not safe from doing things which, however righteously and honorably intended, can wreck our repute and extinguish our friendships.

I hope that no society will be named for me while I am still alive, for I might at some time or other do something which would cause its members to regret having done me that honor. After I shall have joined the dead I shall follow the custom of those people, and be guilty of no conduct that can wound any friend; but until that time shall come I shall be a doubtful quantity, like the rest of our race.

The committee, still hoping for his consent, again appealed to him. But again he wrote:

While I am deeply touched by the desire of my friends of Hannibal to confer these great honors upon me I must still forbear to accept them. Spontaneous and unpremeditated honors, like those which came to me at Hannibal, Columbia, St. Louis, and at the village stations all down the line, are beyond all price and are a treasure for life in the memory, for they are a free gift out of the heart and they come without solicitation; but I am a Missourian, and so I shrink from distinctions which have to be arranged beforehand and with my privity, for I then become a party to my own exalting. I am humanly fond of honors that happen, but chary of those that come by canvass and intention.

Somewhat later he suggested a different feature for the fair; one that was not practical, perhaps, but which certainly would have aroused interest — that is to say, an old-fashioned six-day steamboat-race from New Orleans to St. Louis, with the old-fashioned accessories, such as torch-baskets, forecastle crowds of negro singers, with a negro on the safety-valve. In his letter to President Francis he said:

As to particulars, I think that the race should be a genuine reproduction of the old-time race, not just an imitation of it, and that it should cover the whole course. I think the boats should begin the trip at New Orleans, and side by side (not an interval between), and end it at North St. Louis, a mile or two above the Big Mound.

In a subsequent letter to Governor Francis he wrote:

It has been a dear wish of mine to exhibit myself at the great Fair & get a prize, but circumstances beyond my control have interfered . . . .

I suppose you will get a prize, because you have created the most prodigious Fair the planet has ever seen. Very well, you have indeed earned it, and with it the gratitude of the State and the nation.

Newspaper men used every inducement to get interviews from him. They invited him to name a price for any time he could give them, long or short. One reporter offered him five hundred dollars for a two-hour talk. Another proposed to pay him one hundred dollars a week for a quarter of a day each week, allowing him to discuss any subject he pleased. One wrote asking him two questions: the first, “Your favorite method of escaping from Indians”; the second, “Your favorite method of escaping capture by the Indians when they were in pursuit of you.” They inquired as to his favorite copy-book maxim; as to what he considered most important to a young man’s success; his definition of a gentleman. They wished to know his plan for the settlement of labor troubles. But they did not awaken his interest, or his cupidity. To one applicant he wrote:

No, there are temptations against which we are fire-proof. Your proposition is one which comes to me with considerable frequency, but it never tempts me. The price isn’t the objection; you offer plenty. It is the nature of the work that is the objection — a kind of work which I could not do well enough to satisfy me. To multiply the price by twenty would not enable me to do the work to my satisfaction, & by consequence would make no impression upon me.

Once he allowed himself to be interviewed for the Herald, when from Mr. Rogers’s yacht he had watched Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock go down to defeat; but this was a subject which appealed to him — a kind of hotweather subject — and he could be as light-minded about it as he chose.

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