Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCLV

Further Personalities

Like every person living, Mark Twain had some peculiar and petty economies. Such things in great men are noticeable. He lived extravagantly. His household expenses at the time amounted to more than fifty dollars a day. In the matter of food, the choicest, and most expensive the market could furnish was always served in lavish abundance. He had the best and highest-priced servants, ample as to number. His clothes he bought generously; he gave without stint to his children; his gratuities were always liberal. He never questioned pecuniary outgoes — seldom worried as to the state of his bank-account so long as there was plenty. He smoked cheap cigars because he preferred their flavor. Yet he had his economies. I have seen him, before leaving a room, go around and carefully lower the gas-jets, to provide against that waste. I have known him to examine into the cost of a cab, and object to an apparent overcharge of a few cents.

It seemed that his idea of economy might be expressed in these words: He abhorred extortion and visible waste.

Furthermore, he had exact ideas as to ownership. One evening, while we were playing billiards, I noticed a five-cent piece on the floor. I picked it up, saying:

“Here is five cents; I don’t know whose it is.”

He regarded the coin rather seriously, I thought, and said:

“I don’t know, either.”

I laid it on the top of the book-shelves which ran around the room. The play went on, and I forgot the circumstance. When the game ended that night I went into his room with him, as usual, for a good-night word. As he took his change and keys from the pocket of his trousers, he looked the assortment over and said:

“That five-cent piece you found was mine.”

I brought it to him at once, and he took it solemnly, laid it with the rest of his change, and neither of us referred to it again. It may have been one of his jokes, but I think it more likely that he remembered having had a five-cent piece, probably reserved for car fare, and that it was missing.

More than once, in Washington, he had said:

“Draw plenty of money for incidental expenses. Don’t bother to keep account of them.”

So it was not miserliness; it was just a peculiarity, a curious attention to a trifling detail.

He had a fondness for riding on the then newly completed Subway, which he called the Underground. Sometimes he would say:

“I’ll pay your fare on the Underground if you want to take a ride with me.” And he always insisted on paying the fare, and once when I rode far up-town with him to a place where he was going to luncheon, and had taken him to the door, he turned and said, gravely:

“Here is five cents to pay your way home.” And I took it in the same spirit in which it had been offered. It was probably this trait which caused some one occasionally to claim that Mark Twain was close in money matters. Perhaps there may have been times in his life when he was parsimonious; but, if so, I must believe that it was when he was sorely pressed and exercising the natural instinct of self-preservation. He wished to receive the full value (who does not?) of his labors and properties. He took a childish delight in piling up money; but it became greed only when he believed some one with whom he had dealings was trying to get an unfair division of profits. Then it became something besides greed. It became an indignation that amounted to malevolence. I was concerned in a number of dealings with Mark Twain, and at a period in his life when human traits are supposed to become exaggerated, which is to say old age, and if he had any natural tendency to be unfair, or small, or greedy in his money dealings I think I should have seen it. Personally, I found him liberal to excess, and I never observed in him anything less than generosity to those who were fair with him.

Once that winter, when a letter came from Steve Gillis saying that he was an invalid now, and would have plenty of tune to read Sam’s books if he owned them, Clemens ordered an expensive set from his publishers, and did what meant to him even more than the cost in money — he autographed each of those twenty-five volumes. Then he sent them, charges paid, to that far Californian retreat. It was hardly the act of a stingy man.

He had the human fondness for a compliment when it was genuine and from an authoritative source, and I remember how pleased he was that winter with Prof. William Lyon Phelps’s widely published opinion, which ranked Mark Twain as the greatest American novelist, and declared that his fame would outlive any American of his time. Phelps had placed him above Holmes, Howells, James, and even Hawthorne. He had declared him to be more American than any of these — more American even than Whitman. Professor Phelps’s position in Yale College gave this opinion a certain official weight; but I think the fact of Phelps himself being a writer of great force, with an American freshness of style, gave it a still greater value.

Among the pleasant things that winter was a meeting with Eugene F. Ware, of Kansas, with whose penname —“Ironquill”— Clemens had long been familiar.

Ware was a breezy Western genius of the finest type. If he had abandoned law for poetry, there is no telling how far his fame might have reached. There was in his work that same spirit of Americanism and humor and humanity that is found in Mark Twain’s writings, and he had the added faculty of rhyme and rhythm, which would have set him in a place apart. I had known Ware personally during a period of Western residence, and later, when he was Commissioner of Pensions under Roosevelt. I usually saw him when he came to New York, and it was a great pleasure now to bring together the two men whose work I so admired. They met at a small private luncheon at The Players, and Peter Dunne was there, and Robert Collier, and it was such an afternoon as Howells has told of when he and Aldrich and Bret Harte and those others talked until the day faded into twilight, and twilight deepened into evening. Clemens had put in most of the day before reading Ware’s book of poems, ‘The Rhymes of Ironquill’, and had declared his work to rank with the very greatest of American poetry — I think he called it the most truly American in flavor. I remember that at the luncheon he noted Ware’s big, splendid physique and his Western liberties of syntax with a curious intentness. I believe he regarded him as being nearer his own type in mind and expression than any one he had met before.

Among Ware’s poems he had been especially impressed with the “Fables,” and with some verses entitled “Whist,” which, though rather more optimistic, conformed to his own philosophy. They have a distinctly “Western” feeling.

Hour after hour the cards were fairly shuffled,
And fairly dealt, and still I got no hand;
The morning came; but I, with mind unruffled,
Did simply say, “I do not understand.”
Life is a game of whist. From unseen sources
The cards are shuffled, and the hands are dealt.
Blind are our efforts to control the forces
That, though unseen, are no less strongly felt.
I do not like the way the cards are shuffled,
But still I like the game and want to play;
And through the long, long night will I, unruffled,
Play what I get, until the break of day.

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