Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LXXXII

The Writing of “Roughing it”

The third book published by Mark Twain was not the Western book he was preparing for Bliss. It was a small volume, issued by Sheldon & Co., entitled Mark Twain’s Autobiography (Burlesque) and First Romance. The Romance was the “Awful, Terrible Medieval Romance” which had appeared in the Express at the beginning of 1870. The burlesque autobiography had not previously appeared. The two made a thin little book, which, in addition to its literary features, had running through it a series of full-page, irrelevant pictures —-cartoons of the Erie Railroad Ring, presented as illustrations of a slightly modified version of “The House That Jack Built.” The “House” was the Erie headquarters, the purpose being to illustrate the swindling methods of the Ring. The faces of Jay Gould, James Fisk, Jr., John T. Hoffman, and others of the combination, are chiefly conspicuous. The publication was not important, from any standpoint. Literary burlesque is rarely important, and it was far from Mark Twain’s best form of expression. A year or two later he realized the mistake of this book, bought in the plates and destroyed them.

Meantime the new Western book was at a standstill. To Orion, in March, he wrote:

I am still nursing Livy night and day. I am nearly worn out. We shall go to Elmira ten days hence (if Livy can travel on a mattress then), and stay there until I finish the California book, say three months. But I can’t begin work right away when I get there; must have a week’s rest, for I have been through thirty days’ terrific siege.

He promised to forward some of the manuscript soon.

Hold on four or five days and I will see if I can get a few chapters fixed to send to Bliss . . . .

I have offered this house and the Express for sale, and when we go to Elmira we leave here for good. I shall not select a new home till the book is finished, but we have little doubt that Hartford will be the place.

He disposed of his interest in the Express in April, at a sacrifice of $10,000 on the purchase price. Mrs. Clemens and the baby were able to travel, and without further delay he took them to Elmira, to Quarry Farm.

Quarry Farm, the home of Mrs. Clemens’s sister, Mrs. Theodore Crane, is a beautiful hilltop, with a wide green slope, overlooking the hazy city and the Chemung River, beyond which are the distant hills. It was bought quite incidentally by Mr. and Mrs. Langdon, who, driving by one evening, stopped to water the horses and decided that it would make a happy summer retreat, where the families could combine their housekeeping arrangements during vacation days. When the place had first been purchased, they had debated on a name for it. They had tried several, among them “Go-as-you-please Hall,” “Crane’s Nest,” and had finally agreed upon “Rest and Be Thankful.” But this was only its official name. There was an abandoned quarry up the hill, a little way from the house, and the title suggested by Thomas K. Beecher came more naturally to the tongue. The place became Quarry Farm, and so remains.

Clemens and his wife had fully made up their minds to live in Hartford. They had both conceived an affection for the place, Clemens mainly because of Twichell, while both of them yearned for the congenial literary and social atmosphere, and the welcome which they felt awaited them. Hartford was precisely what Buffalo in that day was not — a home for the literary man. It held a distinguished group of writers, most of whom the Clemenses already knew. Furthermore, with Bliss as publisher of the Mark Twain books, it held their chief business interests.

Their plans for going were not very definite as to time. Clemens found that his work went better at the farm, and that Mrs. Clemens and the delicate baby daily improved. They decided to remain at Quarry Farm for the summer, their first summer in that beautiful place which would mean so much to them in the years to come.

It was really Joe Goodman, as much as anything, that stirred a fresh enthusiasm in the new book. Goodman arrived just when the author’s spirits were at low ebb.

“Joe,” he said, “I guess I’m done for. I don’t appear to be able to get along at all with my work, and what I do write does not seem valuable. I’m afraid I’ll never be able to reach the standard of ‘The Innocents Abroad’ again. Here is what I have written, Joe. Read it, and see if that is your opinion.”

Goodman took the manuscript and seated himself in a chair, while Clemens went over to a table and pretended to work. Goodman read page after page, critically, and was presently absorbed in it. Clemens watched him furtively, till he could stand it no longer. Then he threw down his pen, exclaiming:

“I knew it! I knew it! I am writing nothing but rot. You have sat there all this time reading without a smile, and pitying the ass I am making of myself. But I am not wholly to blame. I am not strong enough to fight against fate. I have been trying to write a funny book, with dead people and sickness a verywhere. Mr. Langdon died first, then a young lady in our house, and now Mrs. Clemens and the baby have been at the point of death all winter! Oh, Joe, I wish to God I could die myself!”

“Mark,” said Joe, “I was reading critically, not for amusement, and so far as I have read, and can judge, this is one of the best things you have ever written. I have found it perfectly absorbing. You are doing a great book!”

Clemens knew that Goodman never spoke except from conviction, and the verdict was to him like a message of life handed down by an archangel. He was a changed man instantly. He was all enthusiasm, full of his subject, eager to go on. He proposed to pay Goodman a salary to stay there and keep him company and furnish him with inspiration — the Pacific coast atmosphere and vernacular, which he feared had slipped away from him. Goodman declined the salary, but extended his visit as long as his plans would permit, and the two had a happy time together, recalling old Comstock days. Every morning, for a month or more, they used to tramp over the farm. They fell into the habit of visiting the old quarry and pawing over the fragments in search of fossil specimens. Both of them had a poetic interest in geology, its infinite remotenesses and its testimonies. Without scientific knowledge, they took a deep pleasure in accumulating a collection, which they arranged on boards torn from an old fence, until they had enough specimens to fill a small museum. They imagined they could distinguish certain geological relations and families, and would talk about trilobites, the Old Red Sandstone period, and the azoic age, or follow random speculation to far-lying conclusions, developing vague humors of phrase and fancy, having altogether a joyful good time.

Another interest that developed during Goodman’s stay was in one Ruloff, who was under death sentence for a particularly atrocious murder. The papers were full of Ruloff’s prodigious learning. It was said that he had in preparation a work showing the unity of all languages. Goodman and Clemens agreed that Ruloff’s death would be a great loss to mankind, even though he was clearly a villain and deserved his sentence. They decided that justice would be served just as well if some stupid person were hung in his place, and following out this fancy Clemens one morning put aside his regular work and wrote an article to the Tribune, offering to supply a substitute for Ruloff. He signed it simply “Samuel Langhorne,” and it was published as a serious communication, without comment, so far as the Tribune was concerned. Other papers, however, took it up and it was widely copied and commented upon. Apparently no one ever identified, Mark Twain with the authorship of the letter, which, by the way, does not appear to have prolonged Ruloff’s earthly usefulness.72

72 [The reader will find the Ruloff letter in full under Appendix K.]

Life at the farm may have furnished agricultural inspiration, for Clemens wrote something about Horace Greeley’s farming, also a skit concerning Henry Ward Beecher’s efforts in that direction. Of Mr. Beecher’s farming he said:

“His strawberries would be a comfortable success if robins would eat turnips.”

The article amused Beecher, and perhaps Greeley was amused too, for he wrote:

MARK — You are mistaken as to my criticisms on your farming. I never publicly made any, while you have undertaken to tell the exact cost per pint of my potatoes and cabbages, truly enough the inspiration of genius. If you will really betake yourself to farming, or even to telling what you know about it, rather than what you don’t know about mine, I will not only refrain from disparaging criticism, but will give you my blessing.


The letter is in Mr. Greeley’s characteristic scrawl, and no doubt furnished inspiration for the turnip story in ‘Roughing It’, also the model for the pretended facsimile of Greeley’s writing.

Altogether that was a busy, enterprising summer at Quarry Farm. By the middle of May, Clemens wrote to Bliss that he had twelve hundred manuscript pages of the new book already written, and that he was turning out the remainder at the rate of from thirty to sixty-five per day. He was in high spirits by this time. The family health had improved, and prospects were bright.

I have enough manuscript on hand now to make (allowing for engravings) about four hundred pages of the book, consequently am two-thirds done. I intended to run up to Hartford about the middle of the week and take it along, but I find myself so thoroughly interested in my work now (a thing I have not experienced for months) that I can’t bear to lose a single moment of the inspiration. So I will stay here and peg away as long as it lasts. My present idea is to write as much more as I have already written, and then collect from the mass the very best chapters and discard the rest. When I get it done I want to see the man who will begin to read it and not finish it. Nothing grieves me now; nothing troubles me, nothing bothers me or gets my attention. I don’t think of anything but the book, and don’t have an hour’s unhappiness about anything, and don’t care two cents whether school keeps or not. The book will be done soon now. It will be a starchy book; the dedication will be worth the price of the volume. Thus:


not on account of respect for his memory, for it merits little respect; not on account of sympathy for him, for his bloody deed places him without the pale of sympathy, strictly speaking, but out of a mere humane commiseration for him, in that it was his misfortune to live in a dark age that knew not the beneficent insanity plea.

Probably Mrs. Clemens diverted this picturesque dedication in favor of the Higbie inscription, or perhaps the author never really intended the literary tribute to Cain. The impulse that inspired it, however, was characteristic.

In a postscript to this letter he adds:

My stock is looking up. I am getting the bulliest offers for books and almanacs; am flooded with lecture invitations, and one periodical offers me $6,000 cash for twelve articles of any length, and on any subject, treated humorously or otherwise.

He set in to make hay while the sun was shining. In addition to the California book, which was now fast nearing completion, he discussed a scheme with Goodman for a six-hundred-page work which they were to do jointly; he planned and wrote one or two scenes from a Western play, to be built from episodes in the new book (one of them was the “Arkansas” incident, related in Chapter XXXI); he perfected one of his several inventions — an automatically adjusting vest-strap; he wrote a number of sketches, made an occasional business trip to New York and Hartford; prospected the latter place for a new home. The shadow which had hung over the sojourn in Buffalo seemed to have lifted.

He had promised Bliss some contributions for his new paper, and in June he sent three sketches. In an accompanying letter he says:

Here are three articles which you may have if you will pay $125 for the lot. If you don’t want them I’ll sell them to the Galaxy, but not for a cent less than three times the money. . . . If you take them pay one-tenth of the $125 in weekly instalments to Orion till he has received it all.

He reconsidered his resolution not to lecture again, and closed with Redpath for the coming season. He found himself in a lecture-writing fever. He wrote three of them in succession: one on Artemus Ward, another on “Reminiscences of Some Pleasant Characters I Have Met,” and a third one based on chapters from the new book. Of the “Reminiscence” lecture he wrote Redpath:

“It covers my whole acquaintance; kings, lunatics, idiots, and all.” Immediately afterward he wrote that he had prepared still another lecture, “title to be announced later.”

“During July I’ll decide which one I like best,” he said. He instructed Redpath not to make engagements for him to lecture in churches. “I never made a success of a lecture in a church yet. People are afraid to laugh in a church.”

Redpath was having difficulties in arranging a circuit to suit him. Clemens had prejudices against certain towns and localities, prejudices that were likely to change overnight. In August he wrote:

DEAR RED — I am different from other women; my mind changes oftener. People who have no mind can easily be stead fast and firm, but when a man is loaded down to the guards with it, as I am, every heavy sea of foreboding or inclination, maybe of indolence, shifts the cargo. See? Therefore, if you will notice, one week I am likely to give rigid instructions to confine me to New England; the next week send me to Arizona; the next week withdraw my name; the next week give you full, untrammeled swing; and the week following modify it. You must try to keep the run of my mind, Redpath that is your business, being the agent, and it always was too many for me. . . . Now about the West this week, I am willing that you shall retain all the Western engagements. But what I shall want next week is still with God.
Yours, MARK.

He was in Hartford when this letter was written, arranging for residence there and the removal of his belongings. He finally leased the fine Hooker house on Ford Street, in that pleasant seclusion known as Nook Farm — the literary part of Hartford, which included the residence of Charles Dudley Warner and Harriet Beecher Stowe. He arranged for possession of the premises October 1st. So the new home was settled upon; then learning that Nasby was to be in Boston, he ran over to that city for a few days of recreation after his season’s labors.

Preparations for removal to Hartford were not delayed. The Buffalo property was disposed of, the furnishings were packed and shipped away. The house which as bride and groom they had entered so happily was left empty and deserted, never to be entered by them again. In the year and a half of their occupancy it had seen well-nigh all the human round, all that goes to make up the happiness and the sorrow of life.

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