Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXLI

Gorky, Howells, and Mark Twain

Clemens was now fairly back again in the wash of banquets and speech-making that had claimed him on his return from England, five years before. He made no less than a dozen speeches altogether that winter, and he was continually at some feasting or other, where he was sure to be called upon for remarks. He fell out of the habit of preparing his addresses, relying upon the inspiration of the moment, merely following the procedure of his daily dictations, which had doubtless given him confidence for this departure from his earlier method. There was seldom an afternoon or an evening that he was not required, and seldom a morning that the papers did not have some report of his doings. Once more, and in a larger fashion than ever, he had become “the belle of New York.” But he was something further. An editorial in the Evening Mail said:

Mark Twain, in his “last and best of life for which the first was made,” seems to be advancing rapidly to a position which makes him a kind of joint Aristides, Solon, and Themistocles of the American metropolis — an Aristides for justness and boldness as well as incessancy of opinion, a Solon for wisdom and cogency, and a Themistocles for the democracy of his views and the popularity of his person.

Things have reached the point where, if Mark Twain is not at a public meeting or banquet, he is expected to console it with one of his inimitable letters of advice and encouragement. If he deigns to make a public appearance there is a throng at the doors which overtaxes the energy and ability of the police. We must be glad that we have a public commentator like Mark Twain always at hand and his wit and wisdom continually on tap. His sound, breezy Mississippi Valley Americanism is a corrective to all sorts of snobbery. He cultivates respect for human rights by always making sure that he has his own.

He talked one afternoon to the Barnard girls, and another afternoon to the Women’s University Club, illustrating his talk with what purported to be moral tales. He spoke at a dinner given to City Tax Commissioner Mr. Charles Putzel; and when he was introduced there as the man who had said, “When in doubt tell the truth,” he replied that he had invented that maxim for others, but that when in doubt himself, he used more sagacity.

The speeches he made kept his hearers always in good humor; but he made them think, too, for there was always substance and sound reason and searching satire in the body of what he said.

It was natural that there should be reporters calling frequently at Mark Twain’s home, and now and then the place became a veritable storm-center of news. Such a moment arrived when it became known that a public library in Brooklyn had banished Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer from the children’s room, presided over by a young woman of rather severe morals. The incident had begun in November of the previous year. One of the librarians, Asa Don Dickinson, who had vigorously voted against the decree, wrote privately of the matter. Clemens had replied:

DEAR SIR — I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distresses me when I find that boys & girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean, sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady — she will tell you so.

Most honestly do I wish that I could say a softening word or two in defense of Huck’s character since you wish it, but really, in my opinion, it is no better than those of Solomon, David, & the rest of the sacred brotherhood.

If there is an unexpurgated in the Children’s Department, won’t you please help that young woman remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours, S. L. CLEMENS.

I shall not show your letter to any one-it is safe with me.

Mr. Dickinson naturally kept this letter from the public, though he read it aloud to the assembled librarians, and the fact of its existence and its character eventually leaked out. 173 One of the librarians who had heard it mentioned it at a theater-party in hearing of an unrealized newspaper man. This was near the end of the following March.

173 [It has been supplied to the writer by Mr. Dickinson, and is published here with his consent.]

The “tip” was sufficient. Telephone-bells began to jingle, and groups of newspaper men gathered simultaneously on Mr. Dickinson’s and on Mark Twain’s door-steps. At a 21 Fifth Avenue you could hardly get in or out, for stepping on them. The evening papers surmised details, and Huck and Tom had a perfectly fresh crop of advertising, not only in America, but in distant lands. Dickinson wrote Clemens that he would not give out the letter without his authority, and Clemens replied:

Be wise as a serpent and wary as a dove! The newspaper boys want that letter — don’t you let them get hold of it. They say you refuse to allow them to see it without my consent. Keep on refusing, and I’ll take care of this end of the line.

In a recent letter to the writer Mr. Dickinson states that Mark Twain’s solicitude was for the librarian, whom he was unwilling to involve in difficulties with his official superiors, and he adds:

There may be some doubt as to whether Mark Twain was or was not a religious man, for there are many definitions of the word religion. He was certainly a hater of conventions, had no patience with sanctimony and bibliolatry, and was perhaps irreverent. But any one who reads carefully the description of the conflict in Huck’s soul, in regard to the betrayal of Jim, will credit the creator of the scene with deep and true moral feeling.

The reporters thinned out in the course of a few days when no result was forthcoming; but they were all back again presently when the Maxim Gorky fiasco came along. The distinguished revolutionist, Tchaykoffsky, as a sort of advance agent for Gorky, had already called upon Clemens to enlist his sympathy in their mission, which was to secure funds in the cause of Russian emancipation. Clemens gave his sympathy, and now promised his aid, though he did not hesitate to discourage the mission. He said that American enthusiasm in such matters stopped well above their pockets, and that this revolutionary errand would fail. Howells, too, was of this opinion. In his account of the episode he says:

I told a valued friend of his and mine that I did not believe he could get twenty-five hundred dollars, and I think now I set the figure too high.

Clemens’s interest, however, grew. He attended a dinner given to Gorky at the “A Club,” No. 3 Fifth Avenue, and introduced Gorky to the diners. Also he wrote a letter to be read by Tchaykoffsky at a meeting held at the Grand Central Palace, where three thousand people gathered to hear this great revolutionist recite the story of Russia’s wrongs. The letter ran:

DEAR MR. TCHAYKOFFSKY — My sympathies are with the Russian revolution, of course. It goes without saying. I hope it will succeed, and now that I have talked with you I take heart to believe it will. Government by falsified promises, by lies, by treachery, and by the butcher-knife, for the aggrandizement of a single family of drones and its idle and vicious kin has been borne quite long enough in Russia, I should think. And it is to be hoped that the roused nation, now rising in its strength, will presently put an end to it and set up the republic in its place. Some of us, even the white-headed, may live to see the blessed day when tsars and grand dukes will be as scarce there as I trust they are in heaven. Most sincerely yours, MARK TWAIN.

Clemens and Howells called on Gorky and agreed to figure prominently in a literary dinner to be given in his honor. The movement was really assuming considerable proportions, when suddenly something happened which caused it to flatten permanently, and rather ridiculously.

Arriving at 21 Fifth Avenue, one afternoon, I met Howells coming out. I thought he had an unhappy, hunted look. I went up to the study, and on opening the door I found the atmosphere semi-opaque with cigar smoke, and Clemens among the drifting blue wreaths and layers, pacing up and down rather fiercely. He turned, inquiringly, as I entered. I had clipped a cartoon from a morning paper, which pictured him as upsetting the Tsar’s throne — the kind of thing he was likely to enjoy. I said:

“Here is something perhaps you may wish to see, Mr. Clemens.”

He shook his head violently.

“No, I can’t see anything now,” and in another moment had disappeared into his own room. Something extraordinary had happened. I wondered if, after all their lifelong friendship, he and Howells had quarreled. I was naturally curious, but it was not a good time to investigate. By and by I went down on the street, where the newsboys were calling extras. When I had bought one, and glanced at the first page, I knew. Gorky had been expelled from his hotel for having brought to America, as his wife, a woman not so recognized by the American laws. Madame Andreieva, a Russian actress, was a leader in the cause of freedom, and by Russian custom her relation with Gorky was recognized and respected; but it was not sufficiently orthodox for American conventions, and it was certainly unfortunate that an apostle of high purpose should come handicapped in that way. Apparently the news had already reached Howells and Clemens, and they had been feverishly discussing what was best to do about the dinner.

Within a day or two Gorky and Madame Andreieva were evicted from a procession of hotels, and of course the papers rang with the head-lines. An army of reporters was chasing Clemens and Howells. The Russian revolution was entirely forgotten in this more lively, more intimate domestic interest. Howells came again, the reporters following and standing guard at the door below. In ‘My Mark Twain’ he says:

That was the moment of the great Vesuvian eruption, and we figured ourselves in easy reach of a volcano which was every now and then “blowing a cone off,” as the telegraphic phrase was. The roof of the great market in Naples had just broken in under its load of ashes and cinders, and crushed hundreds of people; and we asked each other if we were not sorry we had not been there, where the pressure would have been far less terrific than it was with us in Fifth Avenue. The forbidden butler came up with a message that there were some gentlemen below who wanted to see Clemens.

“How many?” he demanded.

“Five,” the butler faltered.


The butler feigned uncertainty.

“What would you do?” he asked me.

“I wouldn’t see them,” I said, and then Clemens went directly down to them. How or by what means he appeased their voracity I cannot say, but I fancy it was by the confession of the exact truth, which was harmless enough. They went away joyfully, and he came back in radiant satisfaction with having seen them.

It is not quite clear at this time just what word was sent to Gorky but the matter must have been settled that night, for Clemens was in a fine humor next morning. It was before dictation time, and he came drifting into the study and began at once to speak of the dinner and the impossibility of its being given now. Then he said:

“American public opinion is a delicate fabric. It shrivels like the webs of morning at the lightest touch.”

Later in the day he made this memorandum:

Laws can be evaded and punishment escaped, but an openly transgressed custom brings sure punishment. The penalty may be unfair, unrighteous, illogical, and a cruelty; no matter, it will be inflicted just the same. Certainly, then, there can be but one wise thing for a visiting stranger to do — find out what the country’s customs are and refrain from offending against them.

The efforts which have been made in Gorky’s justification are entitled to all respect because of the magnanimity of the motive back of them, but I think that the ink was wasted. Custom is custom: it is built of brass, boiler-iron, granite; facts, seasonings, arguments have no more effect upon it than the idle winds have upon Gibraltar.174

174 [To Dan Beard he said, “Gorky made an awful mistake, Dan. He might as well have come over here in his shirt-tail.”]

The Gorky disturbance had hardly begun to subside when there came another upheaval that snuffed it out completely. On the afternoon of the 18th of April I heard, at The Players, a wandering telephonic rumor that a great earthquake was going on in San Francisco. Half an hour later, perhaps, I met Clemens coming out of No. 21. He asked:

“Have you heard the news about San Francisco?”

I said I had heard a rumor of an earthquake; and had seen an extra with big scare-heads; but I supposed the matter was exaggerated.

“No,” he said, “I am afraid it isn’t. We have just had a telephone message that it is even worse than at first reported. A great fire is consuming the city. Come along to the news-stand and we’ll see if there is a later edition.”

We walked to Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street and got some fresh extras. The news was indeed worse, than at first reported. San Francisco was going to destruction. Clemens was moved deeply, and began to recall this old friend and that whose lives and property might be in danger. He spoke of Joe Goodman and the Gillis families, and pictured conditions in the perishing city.

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