Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXLVI

Dublin, Continued

In time Mark Twain became very lonely in Dublin. After the brilliant winter the contrast was too great. He was not yet ready for exile. In one of his dictations he said:

The skies are enchantingly blue. The world is a dazzle of sunshine. Monadnock is closer to us than usual by several hundred yards. The vast extent of spreading valley is intensely green — the lakes as intensely blue. And there is a new horizon, a remoter one than we have known before, for beyond the mighty half-circle of hazy mountains that form the usual frame of the picture rise certain shadowy great domes that are unfamiliar to our eyes . . . .

But there is a defect — only one, but it is a defect which almost entitles it to be spelled with a capital D. This is the defect of loneliness. We have not a single neighbor who is a neighbor. Nobody lives within two miles of us except Franklin MacVeagh, and he is the farthest off of any, because he is in Europe . . . .

I feel for Adam and Eve now, for I know how it was with them. I am existing, broken-hearted, in a Garden of Eden. . . . The Garden of Eden I now know was an unendurable solitude. I know that the advent of the serpent was a welcome change — anything for society . . . .

I never rose to the full appreciation of the utter solitude of this place until a symbol of it — a compact and visible allegory of it — furnished me the lacking lift three days ago. I was standing alone on this veranda, in the late afternoon, mourning over the stillness, the far-spreading, beautiful desolation, and the absence of visible life, when a couple of shapely and graceful deer came sauntering across the grounds and stopped, and at their leisure impudently looked me over, as if they had an idea of buying me as bric-a-brac. Then they seemed to conclude that they could do better for less money elsewhere, and they sauntered indolently away and disappeared among the trees. It sized up this solitude. It is so complete, so perfect, that even the wild animals are satisfied with it. Those dainty creatures were not in the least degree afraid of me.

This was no more than a mood — though real enough while it lasted — somber, and in its way regal. It was the loneliness of a king — King Lear. Yet he returned gladly enough to solitude after each absence.

It was just before one of his departures that I made another set of pictures of him, this time on the colonnaded veranda, where his figure had become so familiar. He had determined to have his hair cut when he reached New York, and I was anxious to get the pictures before this happened. When the proofs came seven of them — he arranged them as a series to illustrate what he called “The Progress of a Moral Purpose.” He ordered a number of sets of this series, and he wrote a legend on each photograph, numbering them from 1 to 7, laying each set in a sheet of letter-paper which formed a sort of wrapper, on which was written:

This series of q photographs registers with scientific precision, stage by stage, the progress of a moral purpose through the mind of the human race’s Oldest Friend. S. L. C.

He added a personal inscription, and sent one to each of his more intimate friends. One of the pictures amused him more than the others, because during the exposure a little kitten, unnoticed, had walked into it, and paused near his foot. He had never outgrown his love for cats, and he had rented this kitten and two others for the summer from a neighbor. He didn’t wish to own them, he said, for then he would have to leave them behind uncared for, so he preferred to rent them and pay sufficiently to insure their subsequent care. These kittens he called Sackcloth and Ashes — Ashes being the joint name of the two that looked exactly alike, and so did not need distinctive titles. Their gambols always amused him. He would stop any time in the midst of dictation to enjoy them. Once, as he was about to enter the screen-door that led into the hall, two of the kittens ran up in front of him and stood waiting. With grave politeness he opened the door, made a low bow, and stepped back and said: “Walk in, gentlemen. I always give precedence to royalty.” And the kittens marched in, tails in air. All summer long they played up and down the wide veranda, or chased grasshoppers and butterflies down the clover slope. It was a never-ending amusement to him to see them jump into the air after some insect, miss it and tumble back, and afterward jump up, with a surprised expression and a look of disappointment and disgust. I remember once, when he was walking up and down discussing some very serious subject — and one of the kittens was lying on the veranda asleep — a butterfly came drifting along three feet or so above the floor. The kitten must have got a glimpse of the insect out of the corner of its eye, and perhaps did not altogether realize its action. At all events, it suddenly shot straight up into the air, exactly like a bounding rubber ball, missed the butterfly, fell back on the porch floor with considerable force and with much surprise. Then it sprang to its feet, and, after spitting furiously once or twice, bounded away. Clemens had seen the performance, and it completely took his subject out of his mind. He laughed extravagantly, and evidently cared more for that moment’s entertainment than for many philosophies.

In that remote solitude there was one important advantage — there was no procession of human beings with axes to grind, and few curious callers. Occasionally an automobile would find its way out there and make a circuit of the drive, but this happened too seldom to annoy him. Even newspaper men rarely made the long trip from Boston or New York to secure his opinions, and when they came it was by permission and appointment. Newspaper telegrams arrived now and then, asking for a sentiment on some public condition or event, and these he generally answered willingly enough. When the British Premier, Campbell-Bannerman, celebrated his seventieth birthday, the London Tribune and the New York Herald requested a tribute. He furnished it, for Bannerman was a very old friend. He had known him first at Marienbad in ’91, and in Vienna in ’98, in daily intercourse, when they had lived at the same hotel. His tribute ran:

To HIS EXCELLENCY THE BRITISH PREMIER — Congratulations, not condolences. Before seventy we are merely respected, at best, and we have to behave all the time, or we lose that asset; but after seventy we are respected, esteemed, admired, revered, and don’t have to behave unless we want to. When I first knew you, Honored Sir, one of us was hardly even respected.


He had some misgivings concerning the telegram after it had gone, but he did not recall it.

Clemens became the victim of a very clever hoax that summer. One day a friend gave him two examples of the most deliciously illiterate letters, supposed to have been written by a woman who had contributed certain articles of clothing to the San Francisco sufferers, and later wished to recall them because of the protests of her household. He was so sure that the letters were genuine that he included them in his dictations, after reading them aloud with great effect. To tell the truth, they did seem the least bit too well done, too literary in their illiteracy; but his natural optimism refused to admit of any suspicion, and a little later he incorporated one of the Jennie Allen letters in a speech which he made at a Press Club dinner in New York on the subject of simplified spelling — offering it as an example of language with phonetic brevity exercising its supreme function, the direct conveyance of ideas. The letters, in the end, proved to be the clever work of Miss Grace Donworth, who has since published them serially and in book form. Clemens was not at all offended or disturbed by the exposure. He even agreed to aid the young author in securing a publisher, and wrote to Miss Stockbridge, through whom he had originally received the documents:

DEAR MISS STOCKBRIDGE (if she really exists),

257 Benefit Street (if there is any such place):

Yes, I should like a copy of that other letter. This whole fake is delightful; & I tremble with fear that you are a fake yourself & that I am your guileless prey. (But never mind, it isn’t any matter.)

Now as to publication ——

He set forth his views and promised his assistance when enough of the letters should be completed.

Clemens allowed his name to be included with the list of spelling reformers, but he never employed any of the reforms in his letters or writing. His interest was mainly theoretical, and when he wrote or spoke on the subject his remarks were not likely to be testimonials in its favor. His own theory was that the alphabet needed reform, first of all, so that each letter or character should have one sound, and one sound only; and he offered as a solution of this an adaptation of shorthand. He wrote and dictated in favor of this idea to the end of his life. Once he said:

“Our alphabet is pure insanity. It can hardly spell any large word in the English language with any degree of certainty. Its sillinesses are quite beyond enumeration. English orthography may need reforming and simplifying, but the English alphabet needs it a good many times as much.”

He would naturally favor simplicity in anything. I remember him reading, as an example of beautiful English, The Death of King Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, and his verdict:

“That is one of the most beautiful things ever written in English, and written when we had no vocabulary.”

“A vocabulary, then, is sometimes a handicap?”

“It is indeed.”

Still I think it was never a handicap with him, but rather the plumage of flight. Sometimes, when just the right word did not come, he would turn his head a little at different angles, as if looking about him for the precise term. He would find it directly, and it was invariably the word needed. Most writers employ, now and again, phrases that do not sharply present the idea — that blur the picture like a poor opera-glass. Mark Twain’s English always focused exactly.

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