Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LIX

The First Book

With the shadow of the Cooper Institute so happily dispelled, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and his following of Other Sketches, became a matter of more interest. The book was a neat blue-and-gold volume printed by John A. Gray & Green, the old firm for which the boy, Sam Clemens, had set type thirteen years before. The title-page bore Webb’s name as publisher, with the American News Company as selling agents. It further stated that the book was edited by “John Paul,” that is to say by Webb himself. The dedication was in keeping with the general irresponsible character of the venture. It was as follows:


It is said that the man to whom a volume is dedicated always buys a copy. If this prove true in the present instance, a princely affluence is about to burst upon


The “advertisement” stated that the author had “scaled the heights of popularity at a single jump, and won for himself the sobriquet of the ‘Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope’; furthermore, that he was known to fame as the ‘Moralist of the Main,’” and that as such he would be likely to go down to posterity, adding that it was in his secondary character, as humorist, rather than in his primal one of moralist, that the volume aimed to present him.47

47 [The advertisement complete, with extracts from the book, may be found under Appendix E.]

Every little while, during the forty years or more that have elapsed since then, some one has come forward announcing Mark Twain to be as much a philosopher as a humorist, as if this were a new discovery. But it was a discovery chiefly to the person making the announcement. Every one who ever knew Mark Twain at any period of his life made the same discovery. Every one who ever took the trouble to familiarize himself with his work made it. Those who did not make it have known his work only by hearsay and quotation, or they have read it very casually, or have been very dull. It would be much more of a discovery to find a book in which he has not been serious — a philosopher, a moralist, and a poet. Even in the Jumping Frog sketches, selected particularly for their inconsequence, the under-vein of reflection and purpose is not lacking. The answer to Moral Statistician 48 is fairly alive with human wisdom and righteous wrath. The “Strange Dream,” though ending in a joke, is aglow with poetry. Webb’s “advertisement” was playfully written, but it was earnestly intended, and he writes Mark Twain down a moralist — not as a discovery, but as a matter of course. The discoveries came along later, when the author’s fame as a humorist had dazzled the nations.

48 [In “Answers to Correspondents,” included now in Sketches New and Old. An extract from it, and from “A Strange Dream,” will be found in Appendix E.]

It is as well to say it here as anywhere, perhaps, that one reason why Mark Twain found it difficult to be accepted seriously was the fact that his personality was in itself so essentially humorous. His physiognomy, his manner of speech, this movement, his mental attitude toward events — all these were distinctly diverting. When we add to this that his medium of expression was nearly always full of the quaint phrasing and those surprising appositions which we recognize as amusing, it is not so astonishing that his deeper, wiser, more serious purpose should be overlooked. On the whole these unabated discoverers serve a purpose, if only to make the rest of their species look somewhat deeper than the comic phrase.

The little blue-and-gold volume which presented the Frog story and twenty-six other sketches in covers is chiefly important to-day as being Mark Twain’s first book. The selections in it were made for a public that had been too busy with a great war to learn discrimination, and most of them have properly found oblivion. Fewer than a dozen of them were included in his collected Sketches issued eight years later, and some even of those might have been spared; also some that were added, for that matter; but detailed literary criticism is not the province of this work. The reader may investigate and judge for himself.

Clemens was pleased with the appearance of his book. To Bret Harte he wrote:

The book is out and it is handsome. It is full of damnable errors of grammar and deadly inconsistencies of spelling in the Frog sketch, because I was away and did not read proofs; but be a friend and say nothing about these things. When my hurry is over, I will send you a copy to pisen the children with.

That he had no exaggerated opinion of the book’s contents or prospects we may gather from his letter home:

As for the Frog book, I don’t believe it will ever pay anything worth a cent. I published it simply to advertise myself, and not with the hope of making anything out of it.

He had grown more lenient in his opinion of the merits of the Frog story itself since it had made friends in high places, especially since James Russell Lowell had pronounced it “the finest piece of humorous writing yet produced in America”; but compared with his lecture triumph, and his prospective journey to foreign seas, his book venture, at best, claimed no more than a casual regard. A Sandwich Island book (he had collected his Union letters with the idea of a volume) he gave up altogether after one unsuccessful offer of it to Dick & Fitzgerald.

Frank Fuller’s statement, that the fame had arrived, had in it some measure of truth. Lecture propositions came from various directions. Thomas Nast, then in the early day of his great popularity, proposed a joint tour, in which Clemens would lecture, while he, Nast, illustrated the remarks with lightning caricatures. But the time was too short; the Quaker City would sail on the 8th of June, and in the mean time the Alta correspondent was far behind with his New York letters. On May 29th he wrote:

I am 18 Alta letters behind, and I must catch up or bust. I have refused all invitations to lecture. Don’t know how my book is coming on.

He worked like a slave for a week or so, almost night and day, to clean up matters before his departure. Then came days of idleness and reaction-days of waiting, during which his natural restlessness and the old-time regret for things done and undone, beset him.

My passage is paid, and if the ship sails I sail on her; but I make no calculations, have bought no cigars, no sea-going clothing — have made no preparations whatever — shall not pack my trunk till the morning we sail.

All I do know or feel is that I am wild with impatience to move — move — move! Curse the endless delays! They always kill me — they make me neglect every duty, and then I have a conscience that tears me like a wild beast. I wish I never had to stop anywhere a month. I do more mean things the moment I get a chance to fold my hands and sit down than ever I get forgiveness for.

Yes, we are to meet at Mr. Beach’s next Thursday night, and I suppose we shall have to be gotten up regardless of expense, in swallow-tails, white kids and everything ‘en regle’.

I am resigned to Rev. Mr. Hutchinson’s or anybody else’s supervision. I don’t mind it. I am fixed. I have got a splendid, immoral, tobacco-smoking, wine-drinking, godless roommate who is as good and true and right-minded a man as ever lived — a man whose blameless conduct and example will always be an eloquent sermon to all who shall come within their influence. But send on the professional preachers — there are none I like better to converse with; if they’re not narrowminded and bigoted they make good companions.

The “splendid immoral room-mate” was Dan Slote —“Dan,” of The Innocents, a lovable character — all as set down. Samuel Clemens wrote one more letter to his mother and sister — a conscience-stricken, pessimistic letter of good-by written the night before sailing. Referring to the Alta letters he says:

I think they are the stupidest letters ever written from New York. Corresponding has been a perfect drag ever since I got to the States. If it continues abroad, I don’t know what the Tribune and Alta folk will think.

He remembers Orion, who had been officially eliminated when Nevada had received statehood.

I often wonder if his law business is going satisfactorily. I wish I had gone to Washington in the winter instead of going West. I could have gouged an office out of Bill Stewart for him, and that would have atoned for the loss of my home visit. But I am so worthless that it seems to me I never do anything or accomplish anything that lingers in my mind as a pleasant memory. My mind is stored full of unworthy conduct toward Orion and toward you all, and an accusing conscience gives me peace only in excitement and restless moving from place to place. If I could only say I had done one thing for any of you that entitled me to your good opinions (I say nothing of your love, for I am sure of that, no matter how unworthy of it I may make myself — from Orion down, you have always given me that; all the days of my life, when God Almighty knows I have seldom deserved it), I believe I could go home and stay there — and I know I would care little for the world’s praise or blame. There is no satisfaction in the world’s praise anyhow, and it has no worth to me save in the way of business. I tried to gather up its compliments to send you, but the work was distasteful and I dropped it.

You observe that under a cheerful exterior I have got a spirit that is angry with me and gives me freely its contempt. I can get away from that at sea, and be tranquil and satisfied; and so, with my parting love and benediction for Orion and all of you, I say good-by and God bless you all-and welcome the wind that wafts a weary soul to the sunny lands of the Mediterranean!

Yrs. forever,

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