Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LXXVI

On the Buffalo “Express”

With the beginning of life in Buffalo, Mark Twain had become already a world character — a man of large consequence and events. He had no proper realization of this, no real sense of the size of his conquest; he still regarded himself merely as a lecturer and journalist, temporarily popular, but with no warrant to a permanent seat in the world’s literary congress. He thought his success something of an accident. The fact that he was prepared to settle down as an editorial contributor to a newspaper in what was then only a big village is the best evidence of a modest estimate of his talents.

He “worked like a horse,” is the verdict of those who were closely associated with him on the Express. His hours were not regular, but they were long. Often he was at his desk at eight in the morning, and remained there until ten or eleven at night.

His working costume was suited to comfort rather than show. With coat, vest, collar, and tie usually removed (sometimes even his shoes), he lounged in his chair, in any attitude that afforded the larger ease, pulling over the exchanges; scribbling paragraphs, editorials, humorous skits, and what not, as the notion came upon him. J. L. Lamed, his co-worker (he sat on the opposite side of the same table), remembers that Mark Twain enjoyed his work as he went along — the humor of it — and that he frequently laughed as some whimsicality or new absurdity came into his mind.

“I doubt,” writes Lamed, “if he ever enjoyed anything more than the jackknife engraving that he did on a piece of board of a military map of the siege of Paris, which was printed in the Express from his original plate, with accompanying explanations and comments. His half-day of whittling and laughter that went with it are something that I find pleasant to remember. Indeed, my whole experience of association with him is a happy memory, which I am fortunate in having. . . . What one saw of him was always the actual Mark Twain, acting out of his own nature simply, frankly, without pretense, and almost without reserve. It was that simplicity and naturalness in the man which carried his greatest charm.”

Lamed, like many others, likens Mark Twain to Lincoln in various of his characteristics. The two worked harmoniously together: Lamed attending to the political direction of the journal, Clemens to the literary, and what might be termed the sentimental side. There was no friction in the division of labor, never anything but good feeling between them. Clemens had a poor opinion of his own comprehension of politics, and perhaps as little regard for Lamed’s conception of humor. Once when the latter attempted something in the way of pleasantry his associate said:

“Better leave the humor on this paper to me, Lamed”; and once when Lamed was away attending the Republican State Convention at Saratoga, and some editorial comment seemed necessary, Clemens thought it best to sign the utterance, and to make humor of his shortcomings.

I do not know much about politics, and am not sitting up nights to learn . . . .

I am satisfied that these nominations are all right and sound, and that they are the only ones that can bring peace to our distracted country (the only political phrase I am perfectly familiar with and competent to hurl at the public with fearless confidence — the other editor is full of them), but being merely satisfied is not enough. I always like to know before I shout. But I go for Mr. Curtis with all my strength! Being certain of him, I hereby shout all I know how. But the others may be a split ticket, or a scratched ticket, or whatever you call it.

I will let it alone for the present. It will keep. The other young man will be back to-morrow, and he will shout for it, split or no split, rest assured of that. He will prance into this political ring with his tomahawk and his war-whoop, and then you will hear a crash and see the scalps fly. He has none of my diffidence. He knows all about these nominees, and if he don’t he will let on to in such a natural way as to deceive the most critical. He knows everything — he knows more than Webster’s Unabridged and the American Encyclopedia — but whether he knows anything about a subject or not he is perfectly willing to discuss it. When he gets back he will tell you all about these candidates as serenely as if he had been acquainted with them a hundred years, though, speaking confidentially, I doubt if he ever heard of any of them till to-day. I am right well satisfied it is a good, sound, sensible ticket, and a ticket to win; but wait till he comes.

In the mean time I go for George William Curtis and take the chances.

He had become what Mr. Howells calls entirely “desouthernized” by this time. From having been of slaveholding stock, and a Confederate soldier, he had become a most positive Republican, a rampant abolitionist — had there been anything left to abolish. His sympathy had been always with the oppressed, and he had now become their defender. His work on the paper revealed this more and more. He wrote fewer sketches and more editorials, and the editorials were likely to be either savage assaults upon some human abuse, or fierce espousals of the weak. They were fearless, scathing, terrific. Of some farmers of Cohocton, who had taken the law into their own hands to punish a couple whom they believed to be a detriment to the community, he wrote:

“The men who did that deed are capable of doing any low, sneaking, cowardly villainy that could be invented in perdition. They are the very bastards of the devil.”

He appended a full list of their names, and added:

“If the farmers of Cohocton are of this complexion, what on earth must a Cohocton rough be like?”

But all this happened a long time ago, and we need not detail those various old interests and labors here. It is enough to say that Mark Twain on the Express was what he had been from the beginning, and would be to the end — the zealous champion of justice and liberty; violent and sometimes wrong in his viewpoint, but never less than fearless and sincere. Invariably he was for the oppressed. He had a natural instinct for the right, but, right or wrong, he was for the under dog.

Among the best of his editorial contributions is a tribute to Anson Burlingame, who died February 23, 1870, at St. Petersburg, on his trip around the world as special ambassador for the Chinese Empire. In this editorial Clemens endeavored to pay something of his debt to the noble statesman. He reviewed Burlingame’s astonishing career — the career which had closed at forty-seven, and read like a fairy-tale-and he dwelt lovingly on his hero’s nobility of character. At the close he said:

“He was a good man, and a very, very great man. America, lost a son, and all the world a servant, when he died.”

Among those early contributions to the Express is a series called “Around the World,” an attempt at collaboration with Prof. D. R. Ford, who did the actual traveling, while Mark Twain, writing in the first person, gave the letters his literary stamp. At least some of the contributions were written in this way, such as “Adventures in Hayti,” “The Pacific,” and “Japan.” These letters exist to-day only in the old files of the Express, and indeed this is the case with most of Clemens’s work for that paper. It was mainly ephemeral or timely work, and its larger value has disappeared. Here and there is a sentence worth remembering. Of two practical jokers who sent in a marriage notice of persons not even contemplating matrimony, he said: “This deceit has been practised maliciously by a couple of men whose small souls will escape through their pores some day if they do not varnish their hides.”

Some of the sketches have been preserved. “Journalism in Tennessee,” one of the best of his wilder burlesques, is as enjoyable to-day as when written. “A Curious Dream” made a lasting impression on his Buffalo readers, and you are pretty certain to hear of it when you mention Mark Twain in that city to-day. It vividly called attention to the neglect of the old North Street graveyard. The gruesome vision of the ancestors deserting with their coffins on their backs was even more humiliating than amusing, and inspired a movement for reform. It has been effective elsewhere since then, and may still be read with profit — or satisfaction — for in a note at the end the reader is assured that if the cemeteries of his town are kept in good order the dream is not leveled at his town at all, but “particularly and venomously at the next town.”

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