Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LXXVII

The “Galaxy”

Mark Twain’s work on the Express represented only a portion of his literary activities during his Buffalo residence. The Galaxy, an ambitious New York magazine of that day [published by Sheldon & Co. at 498 and 500 Broadway], proposed to him that he conduct for them a humorous department. They would pay $2,400 a year for the work, and allow him a free hand. There was some discussion as to book rights, but the arrangement was concluded, and his first instalment, under the general title of “Memoranda,” appeared in the May number, 1870. In his Introductory he outlined what the reader might expect, such as “exhaustive statistical tables,” “Patent Office reports,” and “complete instructions about farming, even from the grafting of the seed to the harrowing of the matured crops.” He declared that he would throw a pathos into the subject of agriculture that would surprise and delight the world. He added that the “Memoranda” was not necessarily a humorous department.

I would not conduct an exclusively and professedly humorous department for any one. I would always prefer to have the privilege of printing a serious and sensible remark, in case one occurred to me, without the reader’s feeling obliged to consider himself outraged. . . . Puns cannot be allowed a place in this department. . . . No circumstance, however dismal, will ever be considered a sufficient excuse for the admission of that last and saddest evidence of intellectual poverty, the pun.

The Galaxy was really a fine magazine, with the best contributors obtainable; among them Justin McCarthy, S. M. B. Piatt, Richard Grant White, and many others well known in that day, with names that still flicker here and there in its literary twilight. The new department appealed to Clemens, and very soon he was writing most of his sketches for it. They were better literature, as a rule, than those published in his own paper.

The first number of the “Memoranda” was fairly representative of those that followed it. “The Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract,” a manuscript which he had undertaken three years before and mislaid, was its initial contribution. Besides the “Beef Contract,” there was a tribute to George Wakeman, a well-known journalist of those days; a stricture on the Rev. T. DeWitt Talmage, who had delivered from the pulpit an argument against workingmen occupying pews in fashionable churches; a presentment of the Chinese situation in San Francisco, depicting the cruel treatment of the Celestial immigrant; a burlesque of the Sunday-school “good little boy” story, 67 and several shorter skits — and anecdotes, ten pages in all; a rather generous contract.

67 [“The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” and the “Beef Contract” are included in Sketches New and Old; also the Chinese sketch, under the title, “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy.”]

Mark Twain’s comment on Talmage was prompted by an article in which Talmage had assumed the premise that if workingmen attended the churches it would drive the better class of worshipers away. Among other things he said:

I have a good Christian friend who, if he sat in the front pew in church, and a workingman should enter the door at the other end, would smell him instantly. My friend is not to blame for the sensitiveness of his nose, any more than you would flog a pointer for being keener on the scent than a stupid watch-dog. The fact is, if you had all the churches free, by reason of the mixing of the common people with the uncommon, you would keep one-half of Christendom sick at their stomach. If you are going to kill the church thus with bad smells I will have nothing to do with this work of evangelization.

Commenting on this Mark Twain said — well, he said a good deal more than we have room for here, but a portion of his closing paragraphs is worth preserving. He compares the Reverend Mr. Talmage with the early disciples of Christ — Paul and Peter and the others; or, rather, he contrasts him with them.

They healed the very beggars, and held intercourse with people of a villainous odor every day. If the subject of these remarks had been chosen among the original Twelve Apostles he would not have associated with the rest, because he could not have stood the fishy smell of some of his comrades who came from around the Sea of Galilee. He would have resigned his commission with some such remark as he makes in the extract quoted above: “Master, if thou art going to kill the church thus with bad smells I will have nothing to do with this work of evangelization.” He is a disciple, and makes that remark to the Master; the only difference is that he makes it in the nineteenth instead of the first century.

Talmage was immensely popular at this time, and Mark Twain’s open attack on him must have shocked a good many Galaxy readers, as perhaps his article on the Chinese cruelties offended the citizens of San Francisco. It did not matter. He was not likely to worry over the friends he would lose because of any stand taken for human justice. Lamed said of him: “He was very far from being one who tried in any way to make himself popular.” Certainly he never made any such attempt at the expense of his convictions.

The first Galaxy instalment was a sort of platform of principles for the campaign that was to follow. Not that each month’s contribution contained personal criticism, or a defense of the Chinese (of whom he was always the champion as long as he lived), but a good many of them did. In the October number he began a series of letters under the general title of “Goldsmith’s Friend Abroad Again,” supposed to have been written by a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco, detailing his experience there. In a note the author says: “No experience is set down in the following letters which had to be invented. Fancy is not needed to give variety to the history of the Chinaman’s sojourn in America. Plain fact is amply sufficient.” The letters show how the supposed Chinese writer of them had set out for America, believing it to be a land whose government was based on the principle that all men are created equal, and treated accordingly; how, upon arriving in San Francisco, he was kicked and bruised and beaten, and set upon by dogs, flung into jail, tried and condemned without witnesses, his own race not being allowed to testify against Americans — Irish-Americans — in the San Francisco court. They are scathing, powerful letters, and one cannot read them, even in this day of improved conditions, without feeling the hot waves of resentment and indignation which Mark Twain must have felt when he penned them.

Reverend Mr. Talmage was not the only divine to receive attention in the “Memoranda.” The Reverend Mr. Sabine, of New York, who had declined to hold a church burial service for the old actor, George Holland, came in for the most caustic as well as the most artistic stricture of the entire series. It deserves preservation to-day, not only for its literary value, but because no finer defense of the drama, no more searching sermon on self-righteousness, has ever been put into concrete form.68

68 [“The Indignity Put Upon the Remains of Gorge Holland by the Rev. Mr. Sabine”; Galaxy for February, 1871. The reader will find it complete under Appendix J.]

The “Little Church Around the Corner” on Twenty-ninth Street received that happy title from this incident.

“There is a little church around the corner that will, perhaps, permit the service,” Mr. Sabine had said to Holland’s friends.

The little church did permit the service, and there was conferred upon it the new name, which it still bears. It has sheltered a long line of actor folk and their friends since then, earning thereby reverence, gratitude, and immortal memory.69

69 [Church of the Transfiguration. Memorial services were held there for Joseph Jefferson; and a memorial window, by John La Farge, has been placed there in memory of Edwin Booth.]

Of the Galaxy contributions a number are preserved in Sketches New and Old. “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper” is one of the best of these — an excellent example of Mark Twain’s more extravagant style of humor. It is perennially delightful; in France it has been dramatized, and is still played.

A successful Galaxy feature, also preserved in the Sketches, was the “Burlesque Map of Paris,” reprinted from the Express. The Franco-Prussian War was in progress, and this travesty was particularly timely. It creates only a smile of amusement to-day, but it was all fresh and delightful then. Schuyler Colfax, by this time Vice-President, wrote to him: “I have had the heartiest possible laugh over it, and so have all my family. You are a wicked, conscienceless wag, who ought to be punished severely.”

The “Official Commendations,” which accompany the map, are its chief charm. They are from Grant, Bismarck, Brigham Young, and others, the best one coming from one J. Smith, who says:

My wife was for years afflicted with freckles, and though everything was done for her relief that could be done, all was in vain. But, sir, since her first glance at your map they have entirely left her. She has nothing but convulsions now.

It is said that the “Map of Paris” found its way to Berlin, where the American students in the beer-halls used to pretend to quarrel over it until they attracted the attention of the German soldiers that might be present. Then they would wander away and leave it on the table and watch results. The soldiers would pounce upon it and lose their tempers over it; then finally abuse it and revile its author, to the satisfaction of everybody.

The larger number of “Memoranda” sketches have properly found oblivion to-day. They were all, or nearly all, collected by a Canadian pirate, C. A. Backas, in a volume bearing the title of Memoranda, 70 a book long ago suppressed. Only about twenty of the Galaxy contributions found place in Sketches New and Old, five years later, and some of these might have been spared as literature. “To Raise Poultry,” “John Chinaman in New York,” and “History Repeats Itself” are valuable only as examples of his work at that period. The reader may consult them for himself.

70 [Also by a harpy named John Camden Hotten (of London), of whom we shall hear again. Hotten had already pirated The Innocents, and had it on the market before Routledge could bring out the authorized edition. Routledge later published the “Memoranda” under the title of Sketches, including the contents of the Jumping Frog book.]

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