Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


The Primrose Path

But we are losing sight of more important things. From the very beginning Mark Twain’s home meant always more to him than his work. The life at 472 Delaware Avenue had begun with as fair a promise as any matrimonial journey ever undertaken: There seemed nothing lacking: a beautiful home, sufficient income, bright prospects — these things, with health and love; constitute married happiness. Mrs. Clemens wrote to her sister, Mrs. Crane, at the end of February: “Sue, we are two as happy people as you ever saw. Our days seem to be made up of only bright sunlight, with no shadow in them.” In the same letter the husband added: “Livy pines and pines every day for you, and I pine and pine every day for you, and when we both of us are pining at once you would think it was a whole pine forest let loose.”

To Redpath, who was urging lecture engagements for the coming season, he wrote:

DEAR RED — I am not going to lecture any more forever. I have got things ciphered down to a fraction now. I know just about what it will cost to live, and I can make the money without lecturing. Therefore, old man, count me out.

And still later, in May:

I guess I am out of the field permanently. Have got a lovely wife, a lovely house, bewitchingly furnished, a lovely carriage, and a coachman whose style and dignity are simply awe-in-spiring, nothing less; and I am making more money than necessary, by considerable, and therefore why crucify myself nightly on the platform? The subscriber will have to be excused for the present season at least.

So they were very happy during those early months, acquiring pleasantly the education which any matrimonial experience is sure to furnish, accustoming themselves to the uses of housekeeping, to life in partnership, with all the discoveries and mental and spiritual adaptations that belong to the close association of marriage. They were far, very far, apart on many subjects. He was unpolished, untrained, impulsive, sometimes violent. Twichell remembers that in the earlier days of their acquaintance he wore a slouch hat pulled down in front, and smoked a cigar that sometimes tilted up and touched the brim of it. The atmosphere and customs of frontier life, the Westernisms of that day, still clung to him. Mrs. Clemens, on the other hand, was conservative, dainty, cultured, spiritual. He adored her as little less than a saint, and she became, indeed, his saving grace. She had all the personal refinement which he lacked, and she undertook the work of polishing and purifying her life companion. She had no wish to destroy his personality, to make him over, but only to preserve his best, and she set about it in the right way — gently, and with a tender gratitude in each achievement.

She did not entirely approve of certain lines of his reading; or, rather, she did not understand them in those days. That he should be fond of history and the sciences was natural enough, but when the Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself, appeared, and he sat up nights to absorb it, and woke early and lighted the lamp to follow the career of the great showman, she was at a loss to comprehend this particular literary passion, and indeed was rather jealous of it. She did not realize then his vast interest in the study of human nature, or that such a book contained what Mr. Howells calls “the root of the human matter,” the inner revelation of the human being at first hand.

Concerning his religious observances her task in the beginning was easy enough. Clemens had not at that time formulated any particular doctrines of his own. His natural kindness of heart, and especially his love for his wife, inclined him toward the teachings and customs of her Christian faith — unorthodox but sincere, as Christianity in the Langdon family was likely to be. It took very little persuasion on his wife’s part to establish family prayers in their home, grace before meals, and the morning reading of a Bible chapter. Joe Goodman, who made a trip East, and visited them during the early days of their married life, was dumfounded to see Mark Twain ask a blessing and join in family worship. Just how long these forms continued cannot be known to-day; the time of their abandonment has perished from the recollection of any one now living.

It would seem to have been the Bible-reading that wrought the change. The prayer and the blessing were to him sincere and gracious; but as the readings continued he realized that he had never before considered the Bible from a doctrinal point of view, as a guide to spiritual salvation. To his logical reasoning mind, a large portion of it seemed absurd: a mass of fables and traditions, mere mythology. From such material humanity had built its mightiest edifice of hope, the doctrines of its faith. After a little while he could stand it no longer.

“Livy,” he said one day, “you may keep this up if you want to, but I must ask you to excuse me from it. It is making me a hypocrite. I don’t believe in this Bible. It contradicts my reason. I can’t sit here and listen to it, letting you believe that I regard it, as you do, in the light of gospel, the word of God.”

He was moved to write an article on the human idea of God, ancient and modern. It contained these paragraphs:

The difference in importance, between the God of the Bible and the God of the present day, cannot be described, it can only be vaguely and inadequately figured to the mind . . . . If you make figures to represent the earth and moon, and allow a space of one inch between them, to represent the four hundred thousand miles of distance which lies between the two bodies, the map will have to be eleven miles long in order to bring in the nearest fixed star. — [His figures were far too small. A map drawn on the scale of 400,000 miles to the inch would need to be 1,100 miles long to take in both the earth and the nearest fixed star. On such a map the earth would be one-fiftieth of an inch in diameter — the size of a small grain of sand.]— So one cannot put the modern heavens on a map, nor the modern God; but the Bible God and the Bible heavens can be set down on a slate and yet not be discommoded . . . .

The difference between that universe and the modern one revealed by science is as the difference between a dust-flecked ray in a barn and the sublime arch of the Milky Way in the skies. Its God was strictly proportioned to its dimensions. His sole solicitude was about a handful of truculent nomads. He worried and fretted over them in a peculiarly and distractingly human way. One day he coaxed and petted them beyond their due, the next he harried and lashed them beyond their deserts. He sulked, he cursed, he raged, he grieved, according to his mood and the circumstances, but all to no purpose; his efforts were all vain, he could not govern them. When the fury was on him he was blind to all reason — he not only slaughtered the offender, but even his harmless little children and dumb cattle. . . .

To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master; to trust the true God is to trust a Being who has uttered no promises, but whose beneficent, exact, and changeless ordering of the machinery of his colossal universe is proof that he is at least steadfast to his purposes; whose unwritten laws, so far as they affect man, being equal and impartial, show that he is just and fair; these things, taken together, suggest that if he shall ordain us to live hereafter, he will still be steadfast, just, and fair toward us. We shall not need to require anything more.

It seems mild enough, obvious, even orthodox, now — so far have we traveled in forty years. But such a declaration then would have shocked a great number of sincerely devout persons. His wife prevailed upon him not to print it. She respected his honesty — even his reasoning, but his doubts were a long grief to her, nevertheless. In time she saw more clearly with his vision, but this was long after, when she had lived more with the world, had become more familiar with its larger needs, and the proportions of created things.

They did not mingle much or long with the social life of Buffalo. They received and returned calls, attended an occasional reception; but neither of them found such things especially attractive in those days, so they remained more and more in their own environment. There is an anecdote which seems to belong here.

One Sunday morning Clemens noticed smoke pouring from the upper window of the house across the street. The owner and his wife, comparatively newcomers, were seated upon the veranda, evidently not aware of impending danger. The Clemens household thus far had delayed calling on them, but Clemens himself now stepped briskly across the street. Bowing with leisurely politeness, he said:

“My name is Clemens; we ought to have called on you before, and I beg your pardon for intruding now in this informal way, but your house is on fire.”

Almost the only intimate friends they had in Buffalo were in the family of David Gray, the poet-editor of the Courier. Gray was a gentle, lovable man. “The gentlest spirit and the loveliest that ever went clothed in clay, since Sir Galahad laid him to rest,” Mark Twain once said of him. Both Gray and Clemens were friends of John Hay, and their families soon became intimate. Perhaps, in time, the Clemens household would have found other as good friends in the Buffalo circles; but heavy clouds that had lain unseen just beyond the horizon during those earlier months of marriage rose suddenly into view, and the social life, whatever it might have become, was no longer a consideration.

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