Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LXV

A Contract with Elisha Bliss, Jr.

He returned to Washington without seeing Miss Langdon again, though he would seem to have had permission to write — friendly letters. A little later (it was on the evening of January 9th) he lectured in Washington — on very brief notice indeed. The arrangement for his appearance had been made by a friend during his absence —“a friend,” Clemens declared afterward, “not entirely sober at the time.” To his mother he wrote:

I scared up a doorkeeper and was ready at the proper time, and by pure good luck a tolerably good house assembled and I was saved. I hardly knew what I was going to talk about, but it went off in splendid style.

The title of the lecture delivered was “The Frozen Truth”—“more truth in the title than in the lecture,” according to his own statement. What it dealt with is not remembered now. It had to do with the Quaker City trip, perhaps, and it seems to have brought a financial return which was welcome enough. Subsequently he delivered it elsewhere; though just how far the tour extended cannot be learned from the letters, and he had but little memory of it in later years.

There was some further correspondence with Bliss, then about the 21st of January (1868) Clemens made a trip to Hartford to settle the matter. Bliss had been particularly anxious to meet him, personally and was a trifle disappointed with his appearance. Mark Twain’s traveling costume was neither new nor neat, and he was smoking steadily a pipe of power. His general make-up was hardly impressive.

Bliss’s disturbance was momentary. Once he began to talk the rest did not matter. He was the author of those letters, and Bliss decided that personally he was even greater than they. The publisher, confined to his home with illness, offered him the hospitality of his household. Also, he made him two propositions: he would pay him ten thousand dollars cash for his copyright, or he would pay five per cent. royalty, which was a fourth more than Richardson had received. He advised the latter arrangement.

Clemens had already taken advice and had discussed the project a good deal with Richardson. The ten thousand dollars was a heavy temptation, but he withstood it and closed on the royalty basis —“the best business judgment I ever displayed,” he was wont to declare. A letter written to his mother and sister near the end of this Hartford stay is worth quoting pretty fully here, for the information and “character” it contains. It bears date of January 24th.

This is a good week for me. I stopped in the Herald office, as I came through New York, to see the boys on the staff, and young James Gordon Bennett asked me to write twice a week, impersonally, for the Herald, and said if I would I might have full swing, and about anybody and everything I wanted to. I said I must have the very fullest possible swing, and he said, “All right.” I said, “It’s a contract —” and that settled that matter.

I’ll make it a point to write one letter a week anyhow. But the best thing that has happened is here. This great American Publishing Company kept on trying to bargain with me for a book till I thought I would cut the matter short by coming up for a talk. I met Henry Ward Beecher in Brooklyn, and with his usual whole-souled way of dropping his own work to give other people a lift when he gets a chance, he said: “Now, here, you are one of the talented men of the age — nobody is going to deny that — but in matters of business I don’t suppose you know more than enough to come in when it rains. I’ll tell you what to do and how to do it.” And he did.

And I listened well, and then came up here and made a splendid contract for a Quaker City book of 5 or 600 large pages, with illustrations, the manuscript to be placed in the publisher’s hands by the middle of July. 56 My percentage is to be a fourth more than they have ever paid any author except Greeley. Beecher will be surprised, I guess, when he hears this.

56 [The contract was not a formal one. There was an exchange of letters agreeing to the terms, but no joint document was drawn until October 16 (1868).]

These publishers get off the most tremendous editions of their books you can imagine. I shall write to the Enterprise and Alta every week, as usual, I guess, and to the Herald twice a week, occasionally to the Tribune and the magazines (I have a stupid article in the Galaxy, just issued), but I am not going to write to this and that and the other paper any more.

I have had a tiptop time here for a few days (guest of Mr. Jno. Hooker’s family — Beecher’s relatives — in a general way of Mr. Bliss also, who is head of the publishing firm). Puritans are mighty straight-laced, and they won’t let me smoke in the parlor, but the Almighty don’t make any better people.

I have to make a speech at the annual Herald dinner on the 6th of May.

So the book, which would establish his claim to a peerage in the literary land, was arranged for, and it remained only to prepare the manuscript, a task which he regarded as not difficult. He had only to collate the Alta and Tribune letters, edit them, and write such new matter as would be required for completeness.

Returning to Washington, he plunged into work with his usual terrific energy, preparing the copy — in the mean time writing newspaper correspondence and sketches that would bring immediate return. In addition to his regular contributions, he entered into a syndicate arrangement with John Swinton (brother of William Swinton, the historian) to supply letters to a list of newspapers.

“I have written seven long newspaper letters and a short magazine article in less than two days,” he wrote home, and by the end of January he had also prepared several chapters of his book.

The San Francisco post-mastership was suggested to him again, but he put the temptation behind him. He refers to this more than once in his home letters, and it is clear that he wavered.

Judge Field said if I wanted the place he could pledge me the President’s appointment, and Senator Corners said he would guarantee me the Senate’s confirmation. It was a great temptation, but it would render it impossible to fill my book contract, and I had to drop the idea. . . .

And besides I did not want the office.

He made this final decision when he heard that the chief editor of the Alta wanted the place, and he now threw his influence in that quarter. “I would not take ten thousand dollars out of a friend’s pocket,” he said.

But then suddenly came the news from Goodman that the Alta publishers had copyrighted his Quaker City letters and proposed getting them out in a book, to reimburse themselves still further on their investment. This was sharper than a serpent’s tooth. Clemens got confirmation of the report by telegraph. By the same medium he protested, but to no purpose. Then he wrote a letter and sat down to wait. He reported his troubles to Orion:

I have made a superb contract for a book, and have prepared the first ten chapters of the sixty or eighty, but I will bet it never sees the light. Don’t you let the folks at home hear that. That thieving Alta copyrighted the letters, and now shows no disposition to let me use them. I have done all I can by telegraph, and now await the final result by mail. I only charged them for 50 letters what (even in) greenbacks would amount to less than two thousand dollars, intending to write a good deal for high-priced Eastern papers, and now they want to publish my letters in book form themselves to get back that pitiful sum.

Orion was by this time back from Nevada, setting type in St. Louis. He was full of schemes, as usual, and his brother counsels him freely. Then he says:

We chase phantoms half the days of our lives. It is well if we learn wisdom even then, and save the other half.

I am in for it. I must go on chasing them, until I marry, then I am done with literature and all other bosh — that is, literature wherewith to please the general public.

I shall write to please myself then.

He closes by saying that he rather expects to go with Anson Burlingame on the Chinese embassy. Clearly he was pretty hopeless as to his book prospects.

His first meeting with General Grant occurred just at this time. In one of his home letters he mentions, rather airily, that he will drop in someday on the General for an interview; and at last, through Mrs. Grant, an appointment was made for a Sunday evening when the General would be at home. He was elated with the prospect of an interview; but when he looked into the imperturbable, square, smileless face of the soldier he found himself, for the first time in his life, without anything particular to say. Grant nodded slightly and waited. His caller wished something would happen. It did. His inspiration returned.

“General,” he said, “I seem to be a little embarrassed. Are you?”

That broke the ice. There were no further difficulties.57

57 [Mark Twain has variously related this incident. It is given here in accordance with the letters of the period.]

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