Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LXIII

In Washington — A Publishing Proposition

Clemens remained but one day in New York. Senator Stewart had written, about the time of the departure of the Quaker City, offering him the position of private secretary — a position which was to give him leisure for literary work, with a supporting salary as well. Stewart no doubt thought it would be considerably to his advantage to have the brilliant writer and lecturer attached to his political establishment, and Clemens likewise saw possibilities in the arrangement. From Naples, in August, he had written accepting Stewart’s offer; he lost no time now in discussing the matter in person.52

52 [In a letter home, August 9th, he referred to the arrangement: “I wrote to Bill Stewart to-day accepting his private secretaryship in Washington, next winter.”]

There seems to have been little difficulty in concluding the arrangement. When Clemens had been in Washington a week we find him writing:

DEAR FOLKS, Tired and sleepy — been in Congress all day and making newspaper acquaintances. Stewart is to look up a clerkship in the Patent Office for Orion. Things necessarily move slowly where there is so much business and such armies of office-seekers to be attended to. I guess it will be all right. I intend it shall be all right.

I have 18 invitations to lecture, at $100 each, in various parts of the Union — have declined them all. I am for business now.

Belong on the Tribune Staff, and shall write occasionally. Am offered the same berth to-day on the Herald by letter. Shall write Mr. Bennett and accept, as soon as I hear from Tribune that it will not interfere. Am pretty well known now — intend to be better known. Am hobnobbing with these old Generals and Senators and other humbugs for no good purpose. Don’t have any more trouble making friends than I did in California. All serene. Good-by. Shall continue on the Alta.
Yours affectionately,

P.S. — I room with Bill Stewart and board at Willard’s Hotel.

But the secretary arrangement was a brief matter. It is impossible to conceive of Mark Twain as anybody’s secretary, especially as the secretary of Senator Stewart.53

53 [In Senator Stewart’s memoirs he refers unpleasantly to Mark Twain, and after relating several incidents that bear only strained relations to the truth, states that when the writer returned from the Holy Land he (Stewart) offered him a secretaryship as a sort of charity. He adds that Mark Twain’s behavior on his premises was such that a threat of a thrashing was necessary. The reason for such statements becomes apparent, however, when he adds that in ‘Roughing It’ the author accuses him of cheating, prints a picture of him with a hatch over his eye, and claims to have given him a sound thrashing, none of which statements, save only the one concerning the picture (an apparently unforgivable offense to his dignity), is true, as the reader may easily ascertain for himself.]

Within a few weeks he was writing humorous accounts of “My Late Senatorial Secretaryship,” “Facts Concerning the Recent Resignation,” etc., all good-natured burlesque, but inspired, we. may believe, by the change: These articles appeared in the New York Tribune, the New York Citizen, and the Galaxy Magazine.

There appears to have been no ill-feeling at this time between Clemens and Stewart. If so, it is not discoverable in any of the former’s personal or newspaper correspondence. In fact, in his article relating to his “late senatorial secretaryship” he puts the joke, so far as it is a joke, on Senator James W. Nye, probably as an additional punishment for Nye’s failure to appear on the night of his lecture. He established headquarters with a brilliant newspaper correspondent named Riley. “One of the best men in Washington — or elsewhere,” he tells us in a brief sketch of that person. 54 He had known Riley in San Francisco; the two were congenial, and settled down to their several undertakings.

54 [See Riley, newspaper correspondent. Sketches New and Old.]

Clemens was chiefly concerned over two things: he wished to make money and he wished to secure a government appointment for Orion. He had used up the most of his lecture accumulations, and was moderately in debt. His work was in demand at good rates, for those days, and with working opportunity he could presently dispose of his financial problem. The Tribune was anxious for letters; the Enterprise and Alta were waiting for them; the Herald, the Chicago Tribune, the magazines — all had solicited contributions; the lecture bureaus pursued him. Personally his outlook was bright.

The appointment for Orion was a different matter. The powers were not especially interested in a brother; there were too many brothers and assorted relatives on the official waiting-list already. Clemens was offered appointments for himself — a consulship, a post-mastership; even that of San Francisco. From the Cabinet down, the Washington political contingent had read his travel-letters, and was ready to recognize officially the author of them in his own person and personality.

Also, socially: Mark Twain found himself all at once in the midst of receptions, dinners, and speech-making; all very exciting for a time at least, but not profitable, not conducive to work. At a dinner of the Washington Correspondents Club his response to the toast, “Women,” was pronounced by Schuyler Colfax to be “the best after dinner speech ever made.” Certainly it was a refreshing departure from the prosy or clumsy-witted efforts common to that period. He was coming altogether into his own.55

55 [This is the first of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speeches to be preserved. The reader will find it complete, as reported next day, in Appendix G.]

He was not immediately interested in the matter of book publication. The Jumping Frog book was popular, and in England had been issued by Routledge; but the royalty returns were modest enough and slow in arrival. His desire was for prompter results. His interest in book publication had never been an eager one, and related mainly to the advertising it would furnish, which he did not now need; or to the money return, in which he had no great faith. Yet at this very moment a letter for him was lying in the Tribune office in New York which would bring the book idea into first prominence and spell the beginning of his fortune.

Among those who had read and found delight in the Tribune letters was Elisha Bliss, Jr., of the American Publishing Company, of Hartford. Bliss was a shrewd and energetic man, with a keen appreciation for humor and the American fondness for that literary quality. He had recently undertaken the management of a Hartford concern, and had somewhat alarmed its conservative directorate by publishing books that furnished entertainment to the reader as well as moral instruction. Only his success in paying dividends justified this heresy and averted his downfall. Two days after the arrival of the Quaker City Bliss wrote the letter above mentioned. It ran as follows:

HARTFORD, CONN., November 21, 1867.

SAMUEL L. CLEMENS, ESQ., Tribune Office, New York.

DEAR SIR — We take the liberty to address you this, in place of a letter which we had recently written and were about to forward to you, not knowing your arrival home was expected so soon. We are desirous of obtaining from you a work of some kind, perhaps compiled from your letters from the past, etc., with such interesting additions as may be proper. We are the publishers of A. D. Richardson’s works, and flatter ourselves that we can give an author a favorable term and do as full justice to his productions as any other house in the country. We are perhaps the oldest subscription house in the country, and have never failed to give a book an immense circulation. We sold about 100,000 copies of Richardson’s F. D. and E. (‘Field, Dungeon and Escape’), and are now printing 41,000 of ‘Beyond the Mississippi’, and large orders ahead. If you have any thought of writing a book, or could be induced to do so, we should be pleased to see you, and will do so. Will you do us the favor of reply at once, at your earliest convenience.

Very truly etc.,


After ten days’ delay this letter was forwarded to the Tribune bureau in Washington, where Clemens received it. He replied promptly.

WASHINGTON, December 2, 1867.

E. BLISS, JR., ESQ., Secretary American Publishing Co.

DEAR SIR — I only received your favor of November 21st last night, at the rooms of the Tribune Bureau here. It was forwarded from the Tribune office, New York where it had lain eight or ten days. This will be a sufficient apology for the seeming discourtesy of my silence.

I wrote fifty-two letters for the San Francisco Alta California during the Quakes City excusion, about half of which number have been printed thus far. The Alta has few exchanges in the East, and I suppose scarcely any of these letters have been copied on this side of the Rocky Mountains. I could weed them of their chief faults of construction and inelegancies of expression, and make a volume that would be more acceptable in many respects than any I could now write. When those letters were written my impressions were fresh, but now they have lost that freshness; they were warm then, they are cold now. I could strike out certain letters, and write new ones wherewith to supply their places. If you think such a book would suit your purpose, please drop me a line, specifying the size and general style of the volume — when the matter ought to be ready; whether it should have pictures in it or not; and particularly what your terms with me would be, and what amount of money I might possibly make out of it. The latter clause has a degree of importance for me which is almost beyond my own comprehension. But you understand that, of course.

I have other propositions for a book, but have doubted the propriety of interfering with good newspaper engagements, except my way as an author could be demonstrated to be plain before me. But I know Richardson, and learned from him some months ago something of an idea of the subscription plan of publishing. If that is your plan invariably it looks safe.

I am on the New York Tribune staff here as an “occasional,” among other things, and a note from you addressed to

Very truly, etc.,
New York Tribune Bureau, Washington
will find me, without fail.

The exchange of those two letters marked the beginning of one of the most notable publishing connections in American literary history.

Consummation, however, was somewhat delayed. Bliss was ill when the reply came, and could not write again in detail until nearly a month later. In this letter he recited the profits made by Richardson and others through subscription publication, and named the royalties paid. Richardson had received four per cent. of the sale price, a small enough rate for these later days; but the cost of manufacture was larger then, and the sale and delivery of books through agents has ever been an expensive process. Even Horace Greeley had received but a fraction more on his Great American Conflict. Bliss especially suggested and emphasized a “humorous work — that is to say, a work humorously inclined.” He added that they had two arrangements for paying authors: outright purchase, and royalty. He invited a meeting in New York to arrange terms.

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