Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


The Book that was Never Written

The book on England, which he had prepared for so carefully, was never written. Hundreds of the stylographic pages were filled, and the duplicates sent home for the entertainment of Olivia Clemens, but the notes were not completed, and the actual writing was never begun. There was too much sociability in London for one thing, and then he found that he could not write entertainingly of England without introducing too many personalities, and running the risk of offending those who had taken him into their hearts and homes. In a word, he would have to write too seriously or not at all.

He began his memoranda industriously enough, and the volume might have been as charming and as valuable as any he has left behind. The reader will hardly fail to find a few of the entries interesting. They are offered here as examples of his daily observation during those early weeks of his stay, and to show somewhat of his purpose:


There was once an American thief who fled his country and took refuge in England. He dressed himself after the fashion of the Londoners, and taught his tongue the peculiarities of the London pronunciation and did his best in all ways to pass himself for a native. But he did two fatal things: he stopped at the Langham Hotel, and the first trip he took was to visit Stratford-on-Avon and the grave of Shakespeare. These things betrayed his nationality.


See the power a monarch wields! When I arrived here, two weeks ago, the papers and geographers were in a fair way to eat poor Stanley up without salt or sauce. The Queen says, “Come four hundred miles up into Scotland and sit at my luncheon-table fifteen minutes”; which, being translated, means, “Gentlemen, I believe in this man and take him under my protection”; and not another yelp is heard.


What a place it is!

Mention some very rare curiosity of a peculiar nature — a something which you have read about somewhere but never seen — they show you a dozen! They show you all the possible varieties of that thing! They show you curiously wrought jeweled necklaces of beaten gold, worn by the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Etruscans, Greeks, Britons — every people of the forgotten ages, indeed. They show you the ornaments of all the tribes and peoples that live or ever did live. Then they show you a cast taken from Cromwell’s face in death; then the venerable vase that once contained the ashes of Xerxes.

I am wonderfully thankful for the British Museum. Nobody comes bothering around me — nobody elbows me — all the room and all the light I want, under this huge dome — no disturbing noises — and people standing ready to bring me a copy of pretty much any book that ever was printed under the sun — and if I choose to go wandering about the long corridors and galleries of the great building the secrets of all the earth and all the ages axe laid open to me. I am not capable of expressing my gratitude for the British Museum — it seems as if I do not know any but little words and weak ones.


It was past eleven o’clock and I was just going to bed. But this friend of mine was as reliable as he was eccentric, and so there was not a doubt in my mind that his “expedition” had merit in it. I put on my coat and boots again, and we drove away.

“Where is it? Where are we going?”

“Don’t worry. You’ll see.”

He was not inclined to talk. So I thought this must be a weighty matter. My curiosity grew with the minutes, but I kept it manfully under the surface. I watched the lamps, the signs, the numbers as we thundered down the long street. I am always lost in London, day or night. It was very chilly, almost bleak. People leaned against the gusty blasts as if it were the dead of winter. The crowds grew thinner and thinner, and the noises waxed faint and seemed far away. The sky was overcast and threatening. We drove on, and still on, till I wondered if we were ever going to stop. At last we passed by a spacious bridge and a vast building, and presently entered a gateway, passed through a sort of tunnel, and stopped in a court surrounded by the black outlines of a great edifice. Then we alighted, walked a dozen steps or so, and waited. In a little while footsteps were heard, a man emerged from the darkness, and we dropped into his wake without saying anything. He led us under an archway of masonry, and from that into a roomy tunnel, through a tall iron gate, which he locked behind us. We followed him down this tunnel, guided more by his footsteps on the stone flagging than by anything we could very distinctly see. At the end of it we came to another iron gate, and our conductor stopped there and lit a bull’s-eye lantern. Then he unlocked the gate; and I wished he had oiled it first, it grated so dismally. The gate swung open and we stood on the threshold of what seemed a limitless domed and pillared cavern, carved out of the solid darkness. The conductor and my friend took off their hats reverently, and I did likewise. For the moment that we stood thus there was not a sound, and the stillness seemed to add to the solemnity of the gloom. I looked my inquiry!

“It is the tomb of the great dead of England-Westminster Abbey.” . . .

We were among the tombs; on every hand dull shapes of men, sitting, standing, or stooping, inspected us curiously out of the darkness — reached out their hands toward us — some appealing, some beckoning, some warning us away. Effigies they were — statues over the graves; but they looked human and natural in the murky shadows. Now a little half-grown black and white cat squeezed herself through the bars of the iron gate and came purring lovingly about us, unawed by the time or the place, unimpressed by the marble pomp that sepulchers a line of mighty dead that ends with a great author of yesterday and began with a sceptered monarch away back in the dawn of history, more than twelve hundred years ago . . . .

Mr. Wright flashed his lantern first upon this object and then upon that, and kept up a running commentary that showed there was nothing about the venerable Abbey that was trivial in his eyes or void of interest. He is a man in authority, being superintendent, and his daily business keeps him familiar with every nook and corner of the great pile. Casting a luminous ray now here, now yonder, he would say:

“Observe the height of the Abbey — one hundred and three feet to the base of the roof; I measured it myself the other day. Notice the base of this column — old, very old — hundreds and hundreds of years — and how well they knew how to build in those old days! Notice it — every stone is laid horizontally; that is to say, just as nature laid it originally in the quarry not set up edgewise; in our day some people set them on edge, and then wonder why they split and flake. Architects cannot teach nature anything. Let me remove this matting — it is put here to preserve the pavement; now there is a bit of pavement that is seven hundred years old; you can see by these scattering clusters of colored mosaics how beautiful it was before time and sacrilegious idlers marred it. Now there, in the border, was an inscription, once see, follow the circle-you can trace it by the ornaments that have been pulled out — here is an A and there is an O, and yonder another A— all beautiful Old English capitals; there is no telling what the inscription was — no record left now. Now move along in this direction, if you please. Yonder is where old King Sebert the Saxon lies his monument is the oldest one in the Abbey; Sebert died in 616, 76 and that’s as much, as twelve hundred and fifty years ago think of it! Twelve hundred and fifty years! Now yonder is the last one — Charles Dickens — there on the floor, with the brass letters on the slab — and to this day the people come and put flowers on it. . . . There is Garrick’s monument; and Addison’s, and Thackeray’s bust — and Macaulay lies there. And close to Dickens and Garrick lie Sheridan and Dr. Johnson — and here is old Parr. . . .

76 [Clemens probably misunderstood the name. It was Ethelbert who died in 616. The name Sebert does not appear in any Saxon annals accessible to the author.]

“That stone there covers Campbell the poet. Here are names you know pretty well — Milton, and Gray who wrote the Elegy, and Butler who wrote Hudibras; and Edmund Spenser, and Ben Jonson — there are three tablets to him scattered about the Abbey, and all got ‘O, Rare Ben Jonson’ cut on them. You were standing on one of them just now he is buried standing up. There used to be a tradition here that explains it. The story goes that he did not dare ask to be buried in the Abbey, so he asked King James if he would make him a present of eighteen inches of English ground, and the King said ‘yes,’ and asked him where he would have it, and he said in Westminster Abbey. Well, the King wouldn’t go back on his word, and so there he is, sure enough-stood up on end.”

The reader may regret that there are not more of these entries, and that the book itself was never written. Just when he gave up the project is not recorded. He was urged to lecture in London, but declined. To Mrs. Clemens, in September, he wrote:

Everybody says lecture, lecture, lecture, but I have not the least idea of doing it; certainly not at present. Mr. Dolby, who took Dickens to America, is coming to talk business tomorrow, though I have sent him word once before that I can’t be hired to talk here; because I have no time to spare. There is too much sociability; I do not get along fast enough with work.

In October he declared that he was very homesick, and proposed that Mrs. Clemens and Susie join him at once in London, unless she would prefer to have him come home for the winter and all of them return to London in the spring. So it is likely that the book was not then abandoned. He felt that his visit was by no means ended; that it was, in fact, only just begun, but he wanted the ones he loved most to share it with him. To his mother and sister, in November, he wrote:

I came here to take notes for a book, but I haven’t done much but attend dinners and make speeches. I have had a jolly good time, and I do hate to go away from these English folks; they make a stranger feel entirely at home, and they laugh so easily that it is a comfort to make after-dinner speeches here. I have made hundreds of friends; and last night, in the crush at the opening of the new Guild Hall Library and Museum, I was surprised to meet a familiar face every other step.

All his impressions of England had been happy ones. He could deliver a gentle satire now and then at certain British institutions — certain London localities and features — as in his speech at the Savage Club, 77 but taking the snug island as a whole, its people, its institutions, its fair, rural aspects, he had found in it only delight. To Mrs. Crane he wrote:

77 [September 28, 1872. This is probably the most characteristic speech made by Mark Twain during his first London visit; the reader will find it in full in Appendix L.]

If you and Theodore will come over in the spring with Livy and me, and spend the summer, you shall see a country that is so beautiful that you will be obliged to believe in fairy-land. There is nothing like it elsewhere on the globe. You should have a season ticket and travel up and down every day between London and Oxford and worship nature.

And Theodore can browse with me among dusty old dens that look now as they looked five hundred years ago; and puzzle over books in the British Museum that were made before Christ was born; and in the customs of their public dinners, and the ceremonies of every official act, and the dresses of a thousand dignitaries, trace the speech and manners of all the centuries that have dragged their lagging decades over England since the Heptarchy fell asunder. I would a good deal rather live here if I could get the rest of you over.

He sailed November 12th, on the Batavia, loaded with Christmas presents for everybody; jewelry, furs, laces; also a practical steam-engine for his namesake, Sam Moffett. Half-way across the Atlantic the Batavia ran into a hurricane and was badly damaged by heavy seas, and driven far out of her course. It was a lucky event on the whole, for she fell in with a water-logged lumber bark, a complete wreck, with nine surviving sailors clinging to her rigging. In the midst of the wild gale a lifeboat was launched and the perishing men were rescued. Clemens prepared a graphic report of the matter for the Royal Humane Society, asking that medals be conferred upon the brave rescuers, a document that was signed by his fellow-passengers and obtained for the men complete recognition and wide celebrity. Closing, the writer said:

As might have been anticipated, if I have been of any service toward rescuing these nine shipwrecked human beings by standing around the deck in a furious storm, without an umbrella, keeping an eye on things and seeing that they were done right, and yelling whenever a cheer seemed to be the important thing, I am glad and I am satisfied. I ask no reward. I would do it again under the same circumstances. But what I do plead for, earnestly and sincerely, is that the Royal Humane Society will remember our captain and our life-boat crew, and in so remembering them increase the high honor and esteem in which the society is held all over the civilized world.

The Batavia reached New York November 26, 1872. Mark Twain had been absent three months, during which he had been brought to at least a partial realization of what his work meant to him and to mankind.

An election had taken place during his absence — an election which gratified him deeply, for it had resulted in the second presidency of General Grant and in the defeat of Horace Greeley, whom he admired perhaps, but not as presidential material. To Thomas Nast, who had aided very effectually in Mr. Greeley’s overwhelming defeat, Clemens wrote:

Nast, you more than any other man have won a prodigious victory for Grant — I mean, rather, for civilization and progress. Those pictures were simply marvelous, and if any man in the land has a right to hold his head up and be honestly proud of his share in this year’s vast events that man is unquestionably yourself. We all do sincerely honor you, and are proud of you.

Horace Greeley’s peculiar abilities and eccentricities won celebrity for him, rather than voters. Mark Twain once said of him:

“He was a great man, an honest man, and served his, country well and was an honor to it. Also, he was a good-natured man, but abrupt with strangers if they annoyed him when he was busy. He was profane, but that is nothing; the best of us is that. I did not know him well, but only just casually, and by accident. I never met him but once. I called on him in the Tribune office, but I was not intending to. I was looking for Whitelaw Reid, and got into the wrong den. He was alone at his desk, writing, and we conversed — not long, but just a little. I asked him if he was well, and he said, ‘What the hell do you want?’ Well, I couldn’t remember what I wanted, so I said I would call again. But I didn’t.”

Clemens did not always tell the incident just in this way. Sometimes it was John Hay he was looking for instead of Reid, and the conversation with Greeley varied; but perhaps there was a germ of history under it somewhere, and at any rate it could have happened well enough, and not have been out of character with either of the men.

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