Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LX

The Innocents at Sea


Steamer: Quaker City.

Captain C. C. Duncan.

Left New York at 2 P.m., June 8, 1867.

Rough weather — anchored within the harbor to lay all night.

That first note recorded an event momentous in Mark Twain’s career — an event of supreme importance; if we concede that any link in a chain regardless of size is of more importance than any other link. Undoubtedly it remains the most conspicuous event, as the world views it now, in retrospect.

The note further heads a new chapter of history in sea-voyaging. No such thing as the sailing of an ocean steamship with a pleasure-party on a long transatlantic cruise had ever occurred before. A similar project had been undertaken the previous year, but owing to a cholera scare in the East it had been abandoned. Now the dream had become a fact — a stupendous fact when we consider it. Such an important beginning as that now would in all likelihood furnish the chief news story of the day.

But they had different ideas of news in those days. There were no headlines announcing the departure of the Quaker City — only the barest mention of the ship’s sailing, though a prominent position was given to an account of a senatorial excursion-party which set out that same morning over the Union Pacific Railway, then under construction. Every name in that political party was set dawn, and not one of them except General Hancock will ever be heard of again. The New York Times, however, had some one on its editorial staff who thought it worth while to comment a little on the history-making Quaker City excursion. The writer was pleasantly complimentary to officers and passengers. He referred to Moses S. Beach, of the Sun, who was taking with him type and press, whereby he would “skilfully utilize the brains of the company for their mutual edification.” Mr. Beecher and General Sherman would find talent enough aboard to make the hours go pleasantly (evidently the writer had not interested himself sufficiently to know that these gentlemen were not along), and the paragraph closed by prophesying other such excursions, and wishing the travelers “good speed, a happy voyage, and a safe return.”

That was handsome, especially for those days; only now, some fine day, when an airship shall start with a band of happy argonauts to land beyond the sunrise for the first time in history, we shall feature it and emblazon it with pictures in the Sunday papers, and weeklies, and in the magazines.49

49 [The Quaker City idea was so unheard-of that in some of the foreign ports visited, the officials could not believe that the vessel was simply a pleasure-craft, and were suspicious of some dark, ulterior purpose.]

That Henry Ward Beecher and General Sherman had concluded not to go was a heavy disappointment at first; but it proved only a temporary disaster. The inevitable amalgamation of all ship companies took place. The sixty-seven travelers fell into congenial groups, or they mingled and devised amusements, and gossiped and became a big family, as happy and as free from contention as families of that size are likely to be.

The Quaker City was a good enough ship and sizable for her time. She was registered eighteen hundred tons — about one-tenth the size of Mediterranean excursion-steamers today — and when conditions were favorable she could make ten knots an hour under steam — or, at least, she could do it with the help of her auxiliary sails. Altogether she was a cozy, satisfactory ship, and they were a fortunate company who had her all to themselves and went out on her on that long-ago ocean gipsying. She has grown since then, even to the proportions of the Mayflower. It was necessary for her to grow to hold all of those who in later times claimed to have sailed in her on that voyage with Mark Twain.50

50 [The Quaker City passenger list will be found under Appendix F.]

They were not all ministers and deacons aboard the Quaker City. Clemens found other congenial spirits be sides his room-mate Dan Slote — among them the ship’s surgeon, Dr. A. Reeve Jackson (the guide-destroying “Doctor” of The Innocents); Jack Van Nostrand, of New Jersey (“Jack”); Julius Moulton, of St. Louis (“Moult”), and other care-free fellows, the smoking-room crowd which is likely to make comradeship its chief watchword. There were companionable people in the cabin crowd also — fine, intelligent men and women, especially one of the latter, a middle-aged, intellectual, motherly soul — Mrs. A. W. Fairbanks, of Cleveland, Ohio. Mrs. Fairbanks — herself a newspaper correspondent for her husband’s paper, the Cleveland Herald had a large influence on the character and general tone of those Quaker City letters which established Mark Twain’s larger fame. She was an able writer herself; her judgment was thoughtful, refined, unbiased — altogether of a superior sort. She understood Samuel Clemens, counseled him, encouraged him to read his letters aloud to her, became in reality “Mother Fairbanks,” as they termed her, to him and to others of that ship who needed her kindly offices.

In one of his home letters, later, he said of her:

She was the most refined, intelligent, cultivated lady in the ship, and altogether the kindest and best. She sewed my buttons on, kept my clothing in presentable trim, fed me on Egyptian jam (when I behaved), lectured me awfully on the quarter-deck on moonlit promenading evenings, and cured me of several bad habits. I am under lasting obligations to her. She looks young because she is so good, but she has a grown son and daughter at home.

In one of the early letters which Mrs. Fairbanks wrote to her paper she is scarcely less complimentary to him, even if in a different way.

We have D.D.‘s and M.D.‘s — we have men of wisdom and men of wit. There is one table from which is sure to come a peal of laughter, and all eyes are turned toward Mark Twain, whose face is, perfectly mirth-provoking. Sitting lazily at the table, scarcely genteel in his appearance, there is something, I know not what, that interests and attracts. I saw to-day at dinner venerable divines and sage-looking men convulsed with laughter at his drolleries and quaint, odd manners.

It requires only a few days on shipboard for acquaintances to form, and presently a little afternoon group was gathering to hear Mark Twain read his letters. Mrs. Fairbanks was there, of course, also Mr. and Mrs. S. L. Severance, likewise of Cleveland, and Moses S. Beach, of the Sun, with his daughter Emma, a girl of seventeen. Dan Slote was likely to be there, too, and Jack, and the Doctor, and Charles J. Langdon, of Elmira, New York, a boy of eighteen, who had conceived a deep admiration for the brilliant writer. They were fortunate ones who first gathered to hear those daring, wonderful letters.

But the benefit was a mutual one. He furnished a priceless entertainment, and he derived something equally priceless in return — the test of immediate audience and the boon of criticism. Mrs. Fairbanks especially was frankly sincere. Mr. Severance wrote afterward:

One afternoon I saw him tearing up a bunch of the soft, white paper — copy paper, I guess the newspapers call it — on which he had written something, and throwing the fragments into the Mediterranean. I inquired of him why he cast away the fruits of his labors in that manner.

“Well,” he drawled, “Mrs. Fairbanks thinks it oughtn’t to be printed, and, like as not, she is right.”

And Emma Beach (Mrs. Abbott Thayer) remembers hearing him say:

“Well, Mrs. Fairbanks has just destroyed another four hours’ work for me.”

Sometimes he played chess with Emma Beach, who thought him a great hero because, once when a crowd of men were tormenting a young lad, a passenger, Mark Twain took the boy’s part and made them desist.

“I am sure I was right, too,” she declares; “heroism came natural to him.”

Mr. Severance recalls another incident which, as he says, was trivial enough, but not easy to forget:

We were having a little celebration over the birthday anniversary of Mrs. Duncan, wife of our captain. Mark Twain got up and made a little speech, in which he said Mrs. Duncan was really older than Methuselah because she knew a lot of things that Methuselah never heard of. Then he mentioned a number of more or less modern inventions, and wound up by saying, “What did Methuselah know about a barbed-wire fence?”

Except Following the Equator, The Innocents Abroad comes nearer to being history than any other of Mark Twain’s travel-books. The notes for it were made on the spot, and there was plenty of fact, plenty of fresh, new experience, plenty of incident to set down. His idea of descriptive travel in those days was to tell the story as it happened; also, perhaps, he had not then acquired the courage of his inventions. We may believe that the adventures with Jack, Dan, and the Doctor are elaborated here and there; but even those happened substantially as recorded. There is little to add, then, to the story of that halcyon trip, and not much to elucidate.

The old note-books give a light here and there that is interesting. It is curious to be looking through them now, trying to realize that these penciled memoranda were the fresh, first impressions that would presently grow into the world’s most delightful book of travel; that they were set down in the very midst of that care-free little company that frolicked through Italy, climbed wearily the arid Syrian hills. They are all dead now; but to us they are as alive and young to-day as when they followed the footprints of the Son of Man through Palestine, and stood at last before the Sphinx, impressed and awed by its “five thousand slow-revolving years.”

Some of the items consist of no more than a few terse, suggestive words — serious, humorous, sometimes profane. Others are statistical, descriptive, elaborated. Also there are drawings —“not copied,” he marks them, with a pride not always justified by the result. The earlier notes are mainly comments on the “pilgrims,” the freak pilgrims: “the Frenchy-looking woman who owns a dog and keeps up an interminable biography of him to the passengers”; the “long-legged, simple, wide-mouthed, horse-laughing young fellow who once made a sea voyage to Fortress Monroe, and quotes eternally from his experiences”; also, there is reference to another young man, “good, accommodating, pleasant but fearfully green.” This young person would become the “Interrogation Point,” in due time, and have his picture on page 71 (old edition), while opposite him, on page 70, would appear the “oracle,” identified as one Doctor Andrews, who (the note-book says) had the habit of “smelling in guide-books for knowledge and then trying to play it for old information that has been festering in his brain.” Sometimes there are abstract notes such as:

How lucky Adam was. He knew when he said a good thing that no one had ever said it before.

Of the “character” notes, the most important and elaborated is that which presents the “Poet Lariat.” This is the entry, somewhat epitomized:


He is fifty years old, and small of his age. He dresses in homespun, and is a simple-minded, honest, old-fashioned farmer, with a strange proclivity for writing rhymes. He writes them on all possible subjects, and gets them printed on slips of paper, with his portrait at the head. These he will give to any man who comes along, whether he has anything against him or not . . . .

Dan said:

“It must be a great happiness to you to sit down at the close of day and put its events all down in rhymes and poetry, like Byron and Shakespeare and those fellows.”

“Oh yes, it is — it is — Why, many’s the time I’ve had to get up in the night when it comes on me:

Whether we’re on the sea or the land We’ve all got to go at the word of command —

“Hey! how’s that?”

A curious character was Cutter — a Long Island farmer with the obsession of rhyme. In his old age, in an interview, he said:

“Mark was generally writing and he was glum. He would write what we were doing, and I would write poetry, and Mark would say:

“‘For Heaven’s sake, Cutter, keep your poems to yourself.’

“Yes, Mark was pretty glum, and he was generally writing.”

Poor old Poet Lariat — dead now with so many others of that happy crew. We may believe that Mark learned to be “glum” when he saw the Lariat approaching with his sheaf of rhymes. We may believe, too, that he was “generally writing.” He contributed fifty-three letters to the Alta during that five months and six to the Tribune. They would average about two columns nonpareil each, which is to say four thousand words, or something like two hundred and fifty thousand words in all. To turn out an average of fifteen hundred words a day, with continuous sight-seeing besides, one must be generally writing during any odd intervals; those who are wont to regard Mark Twain as lazy may consider these statistics. That he detested manual labor is true enough, but at the work for which he was fitted and intended it may be set down here upon authority (and despite his own frequent assertions to the contrary) that to his last year he was the most industrious of men.

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