Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XLIV

Governor of the “Third House”

With Artemus Ward’s encouragement, Clemens began to think of extending his audience eastward. The New York Sunday Mercury published literary matter. Ward had urged him to try this market, and promised to write a special letter to the editors, introducing Mark Twain and his work. Clemens prepared a sketch of the Comstock variety, scarcely refined in character and full of personal allusion, a humor not suited to the present-day reader. Its general subject was children; it contained some absurd remedies, supposedly sent to his old pilot friend Zeb Leavenworth, and was written as much for a joke on that good-natured soul as for profit or reputation.

“I wrote it especially for Beck Jolly’s use,” the author declares, in a letter to his mother, “so he could pester Zeb with it.”

We cannot know to-day whether Zeb was pestered or not. A faded clipping is all that remains of the incident. As literature the article, properly enough, is lost to the world at large. It is only worth remembering as his metropolitan beginning. Yet he must have thought rather highly of it (his estimation of his own work was always unsafe), for in the letter above quoted he adds:

I cannot write regularly for the Mercury, of course, I sha’n’t have time. But sometimes I throw off a pearl (there is no self-conceit about that, I beg you to observe) which ought for the eternal welfare of my race to have a more extensive circulation than is afforded by a local daily paper.

And if Fitzhugh Ludlow (author of the ‘Hasheesh Eater’) comes your way, treat him well. He published a high encomium upon Mark Twain (the same being eminently just and truthful, I beseech you to believe) in a San Francisco paper. Artemus Ward said that when my gorgeous talents were publicly acknowledged by such high authority I ought to appreciate them myself, leave sage-brush obscurity, and journey to New York with him, as he wanted me to do. But I preferred not to burst upon the New York public too suddenly and brilliantly, so I concluded to remain here.

He was in Carson City when this was written, preparing for the opening of the next legislature. He was beyond question now the most conspicuous figure of the capital; also the most wholesomely respected, for his influence had become very large. It was said that he could control more votes than any legislative member, and with his friends, Simmons and Clagget, could pass or defeat any bill offered. The Enterprise was a powerful organ — to be courted and dreaded — and Mark Twain had become its chief tribune. That he was fearless, merciless, and incorruptible, without doubt had a salutary influence on that legislative session. He reveled in his power; but it is not recorded that he ever abused it. He got a bill passed, largely increasing Orion’s official fees, but this was a crying need and was so recognized. He made no secret promises, none at all that he did not intend to fulfill. “Sam’s word was as fixed as fate,” Orion records, and it may be added that he was morally as fearless.

The two Houses of the last territorial legislature of Nevada assembled January 12, 1864.32

A few days later a “Third House” was organized — an institution quite in keeping with the happy atmosphere of that day and locality, for it was a burlesque organization, and Mark Twain was selected as its “Governor.”

32 [Nevada became a State October 31, 1864.]

The new House prepared to make a public occasion of this first session, and its Governor was required to furnish a message. Then it was decided to make it a church benefit. The letters exchanged concerning this proposition still exist; they explain themselves:

CARSON CITY, January 23, 1864.

GOV. MARK TWAIN, Understanding from certain members of the Third House of the territorial Legislature that that body will have effected a permanent organization within a day or two, and be ready for the reception of your Third Annual Message33, we desire to ask your permission, and that of the Third House, to turn the affair to the benefit of the Church by charging toll-roads, franchises, and other persons a dollar apiece for the privilege of listening to your communication.

33 [There had been no former message. This was regarded as a great joke.]

CARSON CITY, January 23, 1864.

GENTLEMEN — Certainly. If the public can find anything in a grave state paper worth paying a dollar for, I am willing they should pay that amount, or any other; and although I am not a very dusty Christian myself, I take an absorbing interest in religious affairs, and would willingly inflict my annual message upon the Church itself if it might derive benefit thereby. You can charge what you please; I promise the public no amusement, but I do promise a reasonable amount of instruction. I am responsible to the Third House only, and I hope to be permitted to make it exceedingly warm for that body, without caring whether the sympathies of the public and the Church be enlisted in their favor, and against myself, or not.

Mark Twain’s reply is closely related to his later style in phrase and thought. It might have been written by him at almost any subsequent period. Perhaps his association with Artemus Ward had awakened a new perception of the humorous idea — a humor of repression, of understatement. He forgot this often enough, then and afterward, and gave his riotous fancy free rein; but on the whole the simpler, less florid form seemingly began to attract him more and more.

His address as Governor of the Third House has not been preserved, but those who attended always afterward referred to it as the “greatest effort of his life.” Perhaps for that audience and that time this verdict was justified.

It was his first great public opportunity. On the stage about him sat the membership of the Third House; the building itself was packed, the aisles full. He knew he could let himself go in burlesque and satire, and he did. He was unsparing in his ridicule of the Governor, the officials in general, the legislative members, and of individual citizens. From the beginning to the end of his address the audience was in a storm of laughter and applause. With the exception of the dinner speech made to the printers in Keokuk, it was his first public utterance — the beginning of a lifelong series of triumphs.

Only one thing marred his success. Little Carrie Pixley, daughter of one of the “trustees,” had promised to be present and sit in a box next the stage. It was like him to be fond of the child, and he had promised to send a carriage for her. Often during his address he glanced toward the box; but it remained empty. When the affair was ended, he drove home with her father to inquire the reason. They found the little girl, in all her finery, weeping on the bed. Then he remembered he had forgotten to send the carriage; and that was like him, too.

For his Third House address Judge A. W. (Sandy) Baldwin and Theodore Winters presented him with a gold watch inscribed to “Governor Mark Twain.” He was more in demand now than ever; no social occasion was regarded as complete without him. His doings were related daily and his sayings repeated on the streets. Most of these things have passed away now, but a few are still recalled with smiles. Once, when conundrums were being asked at a party, he was urged to make one.

“Well,” he sand, “why am I like the Pacific Ocean?”

Several guesses were made, but none satisfied him. Finally all gave it up.

“Tell us, Mark, why are you like the Pacific Ocean?”

“I don’t know,” he drawled. “I was just asking for information.”

At another time, when a young man insisted on singing a song of eternal length, the chorus of which was, “I’m going home, I’m going home, I’m going home tomorrow,” Mark Twain put his head in the window and said, pleadingly:

“For God’s sake go to-night.”

But he was also fond of quieter society. Sometimes, after the turmoil of a legislative morning, he would drop in to Miss Keziah Clapp’s school and listen to the exercises, or would call on Colonel Curry —“old Curry, old Abe Curry”— and if the colonel happened to be away, he would talk with Mrs. Curry, a motherly soul (still alive at ninety-three, in 1910), and tell her of his Hannibal boyhood or his river and his mining adventures, and keep her laughing until the tears ran.

He was a great pedestrian in those days. Sometimes he walked from Virginia to Carson, stopping at Colonel Curry’s as he came in for rest and refreshment.

“Mrs. Curry,” he said once, “I have seen tireder men than I am, and lazier men, but they were dead men.” He liked the home feeling there — the peace and motherly interest. Deep down, he was lonely and homesick; he was always so away from his own kindred.

Clemens returned now to Virginia City, and, like all other men who ever met her, became briefly fascinated by the charms of Adah Isaacs Menken, who was playing Mazeppa at the Virginia Opera House. All men — kings, poets, priests, prize-fighters — fell under Menken’s spell. Dan de Quille and Mark Twain entered into a daily contest as to who could lavish the most fervid praise on her in the Enterprise. The latter carried her his literary work to criticize. He confesses this in one of his home letters, perhaps with a sort of pride.

I took it over to show to Miss Menken the actress, Orpheus C. Ken’s wife. She is a literary cuss herself.

She has a beautiful white hand, but her handwriting is infamous; she writes fast and her chirography is of the door-plate order — her letters are immense. I gave her a conundrum, thus:

“My dear madam, why ought your hand to retain its present grace and beauty always? Because you fool away devilish little of it on your manuscript.”

But Menken was gone presently, and when he saw her again, somewhat later, in San Francisco, his “madness” would have seemed to have been allayed.

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