Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


Life at 21 Fifth Avenue

The house at 21 Fifth Avenue, built by the architect who had designed Grace Church, had a distinctly ecclesiastical suggestion about its windows, and was of fine and stately proportions within. It was a proper residence for a venerable author and a sage, and with the handsome Hartford furnishings distributed through it, made a distinctly suitable setting for Mark Twain. But it was lonely for him. It lacked soul. He added, presently, a great AEolian Orchestrelle, with a variety of music for his different moods. He believed that he would play it himself when he needed the comfort of harmony, and that Jean, who had not received musical training, or his secretary could also play to him. He had a passion for music, or at least for melody and stately rhythmic measures, though his ear was not attuned to what are termed the more classical compositions. For Wagner, for instance, he cared little, though in a letter to Mrs. Crane he said:

Certainly nothing in the world is so solemn and impressive and so divinely beautiful as “Tannhauser.” It ought to be used as a religious service.

Beethoven’s sonatas and symphonies also moved him deeply. Once, writing to Jean, he asked:

What is your favorite piece of music, dear? Mine is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I have found that out within a day or two.

It was the majestic movement and melodies of the second part that he found most satisfying; but he oftener inclined to the still tenderer themes of Chopin’s nocturnes and one of Schubert’s impromptus, while the “Lorelei” and the “Erlking” and the Scottish airs never wearied him. Music thus became a chief consolation during these lonely days — rich organ harmonies that filled the emptiness of his heart and beguiled from dull, material surroundings back into worlds and dreams that he had known and laid away.

He went out very little that winter — usually to the homes of old and intimate friends. Once he attended a small dinner given him by George Smalley at the Metropolitan Club; but it was a private affair, with only good friends present. Still, it formed the beginning of his return to social life, and it was not in his nature to retire from the brightness of human society, or to submerge himself in mourning. As the months wore on he appeared here and there, and took on something of his old-time habit. Then his annual bronchitis appeared, and he was confined a good deal to his home, where he wrote or planned new reforms and enterprises.

The improvement of railway service, through which fewer persons should be maimed and destroyed each year, interested him. He estimated that the railroads and electric lines killed and wounded more than all of the wars combined, and he accumulated statistics and prepared articles on the subject, though he appears to have offered little of such matter for publication. Once, however, when his sympathy was awakened by the victim of a frightful trolley and train collision in Newark, New Jersey, he wrote a letter which promptly found its way into print.

DEAR MISS MADELINE, Your good & admiring & affectionate brother has told me of your sorrowful share in the trolley disaster which brought unaccustomed tears to millions of eyes & fierce resentment against those whose criminal indifference to their responsibilities caused it, & the reminder has brought back to me a pang out of that bygone time. I wish I could take you sound & whole out of your bed & break the legs of those officials & put them in it — to stay there. For in my spirit I am merciful, and would not break their necks & backs also, as some would who have no feeling.

It is your brother who permits me to write this line —& so it is not an intrusion, you see.

May you get well-& soon! Sincerely yours, S. L. CLEMENS.

A very little later he was writing another letter on a similar subject to St. Clair McKelway, who had narrowly escaped injury in a railway accident.

DEAR McKELWAY, Your innumerable friends are grateful, most grateful.

As I understand the telegrams, the engineers of your train had never seen a locomotive before . . . . The government’s official report, showing that our railways killed twelve hundred persons last year & injured sixty thousand, convinces me that under present conditions one Providence is not enough properly & efficiently to take care of our railroad business. But it is characteristically American — always trying to get along short-handed & save wages.

A massacre of Jews in Moscow renewed his animosity for semi-barbaric Russia. Asked for a Christmas sentiment, he wrote:

It is my warm & world-embracing Christmas hope that all of us that deserve it may finally be gathered together in a heaven of rest & peace, & the others permitted to retire into the clutches of Satan, or the Emperor of Russia, according to preference — if they have a preference.

An article, “The Tsar’s Soliloquy,” written at this time, was published in the North American Review for March (1905). He wrote much more, but most of the other matter he put aside. On a subject like that he always discarded three times as much as he published, and it was usually about three times as terrific as that which found its way into type. “The Soliloquy,” however, is severe enough. It represents the Tsar as contemplating himself without his clothes, and reflecting on what a poor human specimen he presents:

Is it this that 140,000,000 Russians kiss the dust before and worship? — manifestly not! No one could worship this spectacle which is Me. Then who is it, what is it, that they worship? Privately, none knows better than I: it is my clothes! Without my clothes I should be as destitute of authority as any other naked person. No one could tell me from a parson and barber tutor. Then who is the real Emperor of Russia! My clothes! There is no other.

The emperor continues this fancy, and reflects on the fierce cruelties that are done in his name. It was a withering satire on Russian imperialism, and it stirred a wide response. This encouraged Clemens to something even more pretentious and effective in the same line. He wrote “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” the reflections of the fiendish sovereign who had maimed and slaughtered fifteen millions of African subjects in his greed — gentle, harmless blacks-men, women, and little children whom he had butchered and mutilated in his Congo rubber-fields. Seldom in the history of the world have there been such atrocious practices as those of King Leopold in the Congo, and Clemens spared nothing in his picture of them. The article was regarded as not quite suitable for magazine publication, and it was given to the Congo Reform Association and issued as a booklet for distribution, with no return to the author, who would gladly have written a hundred times as much if he could have saved that unhappy race and have sent Leopold to the electric chair.167

167 [The book was price-marked twenty-five cents, but the returns from such as were sold went to the cause. Thousands of them were distributed free. The Congo, a domain four times as large as the German empire, had been made the ward of Belgium at a convention in Berlin by the agreement of fourteen nations, America and thirteen European states. Leopold promptly seized the country for his personal advantage and the nations apparently found themselves powerless to depose him. No more terrible blunder was ever committed by an assemblage of civilized people.]

Various plans and movements were undertaken for Congo reform, and Clemens worked and wrote letters and gave his voice and his influence and exhausted his rage, at last, as one after another of the half-organized and altogether futile undertakings showed no results. His interest did not die, but it became inactive. Eventually he declared: “I have said all I can say on that terrible subject. I am heart and soul in any movement that will rescue the Congo and hang Leopold, but I cannot write any more.”

His fires were likely to burn themselves out, they raged so fiercely. His final paragraph on the subject was a proposed epitaph for Leopold when time should have claimed him. It ran:

Here under this gilded tomb lies rotting the body of one the smell of whose name will still offend the nostrils of men ages upon ages after all the Caesars and Washingtons & Napoleons shall have ceased to be praised or blamed & been forgotten — Leopold of Belgium.

Clemens had not yet lost interest in the American policy in the Philippines, and in his letters to Twichell he did not hesitate to criticize tile President’s attitude in this and related matters. Once, in a moment of irritation, he wrote:

DEAR JOE — I knew I had in me somewhere a definite feeling about the President. If I could only find the words to define it with! Here they are, to a hair — from Leonard Jerome:

“For twenty years I have loved Roosevelt the man, and hated Roosevelt the statesman and politician.”

It’s mighty good. Every time in twenty-five years that I have met Roosevelt the man a wave of welcome has streaked through me with the hand-grip; but whenever (as a rule) I meet Roosevelt the statesman & politician I find him destitute of morals & not respect-worthy. It is plain that where his political self & party self are concerned he has nothing resembling a conscience; that under those inspirations he is naively indifferent to the restraints of duty & even unaware of them; ready to kick the Constitution into the back yard whenever it gets in his way. . . .

But Roosevelt is excusable — I recognize it & (ought to) concede it. We are all insane, each in his own way, & with insanity goes irresponsibility. Theodore the man is sane; in fairness we ought to keep in mind that Theodore, as statesman & politician, is insane & irresponsible.

He wrote a great deal more from time to time on this subject; but that is the gist of his conclusions, and whether justified by time, or otherwise, it expresses today the deduction of a very large number of people. It is set down here, because it is a part of Mark Twain’s history, and also because a little while after his death there happened to creep into print an incomplete and misleading note (since often reprinted), which he once made in a moment of anger, when he was in a less judicial frame of mind. It seems proper that a man’s honest sentiments should be recorded concerning the nation’s servants.

Clemens wrote an article at this period which he called the “War Prayer.” It pictured the young recruits about to march away for war — the excitement and the celebration — the drum-beat and the heart-beat of patriotism — the final assembly in the church where the minister utters that tremendous invocation:

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder, Thy clarion, and lightning, Thy sword!

and the “long prayer” for victory to the nation’s armies. As the prayer closes a white-robed stranger enters, moves up the aisle, and takes the preacher’s place; then, after some moments of impressive silence, he begins:

“I come from the Throne-bearing a message from Almighty God!. . . . . He has heard the prayer of His servant, your shepherd, & will grant it if such shall be your desire after I His messenger shall have explained to you its import — that is to say its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause & think.

“God’s servant & yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused & taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken & the unspoken . . . .

“You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed, silently. And ignorantly & unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is completed into those pregnant words.

“Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe.

“O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended through wastes of their desolated land in rags & hunger & thirst, sport of the sun-flames of summer & the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave & denied it — for our sakes, who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask of one who is the Spirit of love & who is the ever-faithful refuge & friend of all that are sore beset, & seek His aid with humble & contrite hearts. Grant our prayer, O Lord; & Thine shall be the praise & honor & glory now & ever, Amen.”

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! — the messenger of the Most High waits.”

. . . . . . . . . . .  . . . .

It was believed, afterward, that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

To Dan Beard, who dropped in to see him, Clemens read the “War Prayer,” stating that he had read it to his daughter Jean, and others, who had told him he must not print it, for it would be regarded as sacrilege.

“Still you — are going to publish it, are you not?”

Clemens, pacing up and down the room in his dressing-gown and slippers, shook his head.

“No,” he said, “I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead.”

He did not care to invite the public verdict that he was a lunatic, or even a fanatic with a mission to destroy the illusions and traditions and conclusions of mankind. To Twichell he wrote, playfully but sincerely:

Am I honest? I give you my word of honor (privately) I am not. For seven years I have suppressed a book which my conscience tells me I ought to publish. I hold it a duty to publish it. There are other difficult duties which I am equal to, but I am not equal to that one. Yes, even I am dishonest. Not in many ways, but in some. Forty-one, I think it is. We are certainly all honest in one or several ways — every man in the world — though I have a reason to think I am the only one whose blacklist runs so light. Sometimes I feel lonely enough in this lofty solitude.

It was his Gospel he referred to as his unpublished book, his doctrine of Selfishness, and of Man the irresponsible Machine. To Twichell he pretended to favor war, which he declared, to his mind, was one of the very best methods known of diminishing the human race.

What a life it is! — this one! Everything we try to do, somebody intrudes & obstructs it. After years of thought & labor I have arrived within one little bit of a step of perfecting my invention for exhausting the oxygen in the globe’s air during a stretch of two minutes, & of course along comes an obstructor who is inventing something to protect human life. Damn such a world anyway.

He generally wrote Twichell when he had things to say that were outside of the pale of print. He was sure of an attentive audience of one, and the audience, whether it agreed with him or not, would at least understand him and be honored by his confidence. In one letter of that year he said:

I have written you to-day, not to do you a service, but to do myself one. There was bile in me. I had to empty it or lose my day to-morrow. If I tried to empty it into the North American Review — oh, well, I couldn’t afford the risk. No, the certainty! The certainty that I wouldn’t be satisfied with the result; so I would burn it, & try again to-morrow; burn that and try again the next day. It happens so nearly every time. I have a family to support, & I can’t afford this kind of dissipation. Last winter when I was sick I wrote a magazine article three times before I got it to suit me. I Put $500 worth of work on it every day for ten days, & at last when I got it to suit me it contained but 3,000 words — $900. I burned it & said I would reform.

And I have reformed. I have to work my bile off whenever it gets to where I can’t stand it, but I can work it off on you economically, because I don’t have to make it suit me. It may not suit you, but that isn’t any matter; I’m not writing it for that. I have used you as an equilibrium — restorer more than once in my time, & shall continue, I guess. I would like to use Mr. Rogers, & he is plenty good-natured enough, but it wouldn’t be fair to keep him rescuing me from my leather-headed business snarls & make him read interminable bile-irruptions besides; I can’t use Howells, he is busy & old & lazy, & won’t stand it; I dasn’t use Clara, there’s things I have to say which she wouldn’t put up with — a very dear little ashcat, but has claws. And so — you’re It.168

168 [See the preface to the “Autobiography of Mark Twain”: “I am writing from the grave. On these terms only can a man be approximately frank. He cannot be straitly and unqualifiedly frank either in the grave or out of it.” D.W.]

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