Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCL

Philosophy and Pessimism

In a letter to MacAlister, written at this time, he said:

The doctors banished Jean to the country 5 weeks ago; they banished my secretary to the country for a fortnight last Saturday; they banished Clara to the country for a fortnight last Monday . . . . They banished me to Bermuda to sail next Wednesday, but I struck and sha’n’t go. My complaint is permanent bronchitis & is one of the very best assets I’ve got, for it excuses me from every public function this winter —& all other winters that may come.

If he had bronchitis when this letter was written, it must have been of a very mild form, for it did not interfere with billiard games, which were more protracted and strenuous than at almost any other period. I conclude, therefore, that it was a convenient bronchitis, useful on occasion.

For a full ten days we were alone in the big house with the servants. It was a holiday most of the time. We hurried through the mail in the morning and the telephone calls; then, while I answered such letters as required attention, he dictated for an hour or so to Miss Hobby, after which, billiards for the rest of the day and evening. When callers were reported by the butler, I went down and got rid of them. Clara Clemens, before her departure, had pinned up a sign, “NO BILLIARDS AFTER 10 P.M.,” which still hung on the wall, but it was outlawed. Clemens occasionally planned excursions to Bermuda and other places; but, remembering the billiard-table, which he could not handily take along, he abandoned these projects. He was a boy whose parents had been called away, left to his own devices, and bent on a good time.

There were likely to be irritations in his morning’s mail, and more often he did not wish to see it until it had been pretty carefully sifted. So many people wrote who wanted things, so many others who made the claim of more or less distant acquaintanceship the excuse for long and trivial letters.

“I have stirred up three generations,” he said; “first the grandparents, then the children, and now the grandchildren; the great-grandchildren will begin to arrive soon.”

His mail was always large; but often it did not look interesting. One could tell from the envelope and the superscription something of the contents. Going over one assortment he burst out:

“Look at them! Look how trivial they are! Every envelope looks as if it contained a trivial human soul.”

Many letters were filled with fulsome praise and compliment, usually of one pattern. He was sated with such things, and seldom found it possible to bear more than a line or two of them. Yet a fresh, well-expressed note of appreciation always pleased him.

“I can live for two months on a good compliment,” he once said. Certain persistent correspondents, too self-centered to realize their lack of consideration, or the futility of their purpose, followed him relentlessly. Of one such he remarked:

“That woman intends to pursue me to the grave. I wish something could be done to appease her.”

And again:

“Everybody in the world who wants something — something of no interest to me — writes to me to get it.”

These morning sessions were likely to be of great interest. Once a letter spoke of the desirability of being an optimist. “That word perfectly disgusts me,” he said, and his features materialized the disgust, “just as that other word, pessimist, does; and the idea that one can, by any effort of will, be one or the other, any more than he can change the color of his hair. The reason why a man is a pessimist or an optimist is not because he wants to be, but because he was born so; and this man [a minister of the Gospel who was going to explain life to him] is going to tell me why he isn’t a pessimist. Oh, he’ll do it, but he won’t tell the truth; he won’t make it short enough.”

Yet he was always patient with any one who came with spiritual messages, theological arguments, and consolations. He might have said to them: “Oh, dear friends, those things of which you speak are the toys that long ago I played with and set aside.” He could have said it and spoken the truth; but I believe he did not even think it. He listened to any one for whom he had respect, and was grateful for any effort in his behalf. One morning he read aloud a lecture given in London by George Bernard Shaw on religion, commenting as he read. He said:

“This letter is a frank breath of expression [and his comments were equally frank]. There is no such thing as morality; it is not immoral for the tiger to eat the wolf, or the wolf the cat, or the cat the bird, and so on down; that is their business. There is always enough for each one to live on. It is not immoral for one nation to seize another nation by force of arms, or for one man to seize another man’s property or life if he is strong enough and wants to take it. It is not immoral to create the human species — with or without ceremony; nature intended exactly these things.”

At one place in the lecture Shaw had said: “No one of good sense can accept any creed to-day without reservation.”

“Certainly not,” commented Clemens; “the reservation is that he is a d — d fool to accept it at all.”

He was in one of his somber moods that morning. I had received a print of a large picture of Thomas Nast — the last one taken. The face had a pathetic expression which told the tragedy of his last years. Clemens looked at the picture several moments without speaking. Then he broke out:

“Why can’t a man die when he’s had his tragedy? I ought to have died long ago.” And somewhat later: “Once Twichell heard me cussing the human race, and he said, ‘Why, Mark, you are the last person in the world to do that — one selected and set apart as you are.’ I said ‘Joe, you don’t know what you are talking about. I am not cussing altogether about my own little troubles. Any one can stand his own misfortunes; but when I read in the papers all about the rascalities and outrages going on I realize what a creature the human animal is. Don’t you care more about the wretchedness of others than anything that happens to you?’ Joe said he did, and shut up.”

It occurred to me to suggest that he should not read the daily papers. “No difference,” he said. “I read books printed two hundred years ago, and they hurt just the same.”

“Those people are all dead and gone,” I objected.

“They hurt just the same,” he maintained.

I sometimes thought of his inner consciousness as a pool darkened by his tragedies, its glassy surface, when calm, reflecting all the joy and sunlight and merriment of the world, but easily — so easily — troubled and stirred even to violence. Once following the dictation, when I came to the billiard-room he was shooting the balls about the table, apparently much depressed. He said:

“I have been thinking it out — if I live two years more I will put an end to it all. I will kill myself.”

“You have much to live for ——”

“But I am so tired of the eternal round,” he interrupted; “so tired.” And I knew he meant that he was ill of the great loneliness that had come to him that day in Florence, and would never pass away.

I referred to the pressure of social demands in the city, and the relief he would find in his country home. He shook his head.

“The country home I need,” he said, fiercely, “is a cemetery.”

Yet the mood changed quickly enough when the play began. He was gay and hilarious presently, full of the humors and complexities of the game. H. H. Rogers came in with a good deal of frequency, seldom making very long calls, but never seeming to have that air of being hurried which one might expect to find in a man whose day was only twenty-four hours long, and whose interests were so vast and innumerable. He would come in where we were playing, and sit down and watch the game, or perhaps would pick up a book and read, exchanging a remark now and then. More often, however, he sat in the bedroom, for his visits were likely to be in the morning. They were seldom business calls, or if they were, the business was quickly settled, and then followed gossip, humorous incident, or perhaps Clemens would read aloud something he had written. But once, after greetings, he began:

“Well, Rogers, I don’t know what you think of it, but I think I have had about enough of this world, and I wish I were out of it.”

Mr. Rogers replied, “I don’t say much about it, but that expresses my view.”

This from the foremost man of letters and one of the foremost financiers of the time was impressive. Each at the mountain-top of his career, they agreed that the journey was not worth while — that what the world had still to give was not attractive enough to tempt them to prevent a desire to experiment with the next stage. One could remember a thousand poor and obscure men who were perfectly willing to go on struggling and starving, postponing the day of settlement as long as possible; but perhaps, when one has had all the world has to give, when there are no new worlds in sight to conquer, one has a different feeling.

Well, the realization lay not so far ahead for either of them, though at that moment they both seemed full of life and vigor — full of youth. One could not imagine the day when for them it would all be over.

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