The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain
by Paine

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Public Domain Books

XLVIII. Business Difficulties. Pleasanter Things

For the time it would seem that Mark Twain had given up authorship for business. The success of the Grant book had filled his head with plans for others of a like nature. The memoirs of General McClellan and General Sheridan were arranged for. Almost any war-book was considered a good venture. And there was another plan afoot. Pope Leo XIII., in his old age, had given sanction to the preparation of his memoirs, and it was to be published, with his blessing, by Webster & Co., of Hartford. It was generally believed that such a book would have a tremendous sale, and Colonel Sellers himself could not have piled the figures higher than did his creator in counting his prospective returns. Every Catholic in the world must have a copy of the Pope’s book, and in America alone there were millions. Webster went to Rome to consult with the Pope in person, and was received in private audience. Mark Twain’s publishing firm seemed on the top wave of success.

The McClellan and Sheridan books were issued, and, in due time, the Life of Pope Leo XIII.–published simultaneously in six languages–issued from the press. A large advance sale had been guaranteed by the general canvassing agents–a fortunate thing, as it proved. For, strange as it may seem, the book did not prove a great success. It is hard to explain just why. Perhaps Catholics felt that there had been so many popes that the life of any particular one was no great matter. The book paid, but not largely. The McClellan and Sheridan books, likewise, were only partially successful. Perhaps the public was getting tired of war memoirs. Webster & Co. undertook books of a general sort–travel, fiction, poetry. Many of them did not pay. Their business from a march of triumph had become a battle. They undertook a “Library of American Literature,” a work of many volumes, costly to make and even more so to sell. To float this venture they were obliged to borrow large sums.

It seems unfortunate that Mark Twain should have been disturbed by these distracting things during what should have been his literary high-tide. As it was, his business interests and cares absorbed the energy that might otherwise have gone into books. He was not entirely idle. He did an occasional magazine article or story, and he began a book which he worked at from time to time the story of a Connecticut Yankee who suddenly finds himself back in the days of King Arthur’s reign. Webster was eager to publish another book by his great literary partner, but the work on it went slowly. Then Webster broke down from two years of overwork, and the business management fell into other hands. Though still recognized as a great publishing-house, those within the firm of Charles L. Webster & Co. knew that its prospects were not bright.

Furthermore, Mark Twain had finally invested in another patent, the type- setting machine mentioned in a former chapter, and the demands for cash to promote this venture were heavy. To his sister Pamela, about the end of 1887, he wrote: “The type-setter goes on forever at $3,000 a month.... We’ll be through with it in three or four months, I reckon"–a false hope, for the three or four months would lengthen into as many years.

But if there were clouds gathering in the business sky, they were not often allowed to cast a shadow in Mark Twain’s home. The beautiful house in Hartford was a place of welcome and merriment, of many guests and of happy children. Especially of happy children: during these years–the latter half of the ’eighties–when Mark Twain’s fortunes were on the decline, his children were at the age to have a good time, and certainly they had it. The dramatic stage which had been first set up at George Warner’s for the Christmas “Prince and Pauper” performance was brought over and set up in the Clemens schoolroom, and every Saturday there were plays or rehearsals, and every little while there would be a grand general performance in the great library downstairs, which would accommodate just eighty-four chairs, filled by parents of the performers and invited guests. In notes dictated many years later, Mark Twain said:

“We dined as we could, probably with a neighbor, and by quarter to eight in the evening the hickory fire in the hall was pouring a sheet of flame up the chimney, the house was in a drench of gas- light from the ground floor up, the guests were arriving, and there was a babble of hearty greetings, with not a voice in it that was not old and familiar and affectionate; and when the curtain went up, we looked out from the stage upon none but faces dear to us, none but faces that were lit up with welcome for us.”

He was one of the children himself, you see, and therefore on the stage with the others. Katy Leary, for thirty years in the family service, once said to the author: “The children were crazy about acting, and we all enjoyed it as much as they did, especially Mr. Clemens, who was the best actor of all. I have never known a happier household than theirs was during those years.”

The plays were not all given by the children. Mark Twain had kept up his German study, and a class met regularly in his home to struggle with the problems of der, die, and das. By and by he wrote a play for the class, “Meisterschaft,” a picturesque mixture of German and English, which they gave twice, with great success. It was unlike anything attempted before or since. No one but Mark Twain could have written it. Later (January, 1888), in modified form, it was published in the “Century Magazine.” It is his best work of this period.

Many pleasant and amusing things could be recalled from these days if one only had room. A visit with Robert Louis Stevenson was one of them. Stevenson was stopping at a small hotel near Washington Square, and he and Clemens sat on a bench in the sunshine and talked through at least one golden afternoon. What marvelous talk that must have been! “Huck Finn” was one of Stevenson’s favorites, and once he told how he had insisted on reading the book aloud to an artist who was painting his portrait. The painter had protested at first, but presently had fallen a complete victim to Huck’s story. Once, in a letter, Stevenson wrote:

“My father, an old man, has been prevailed upon to read ’Roughing It’ (his usual amusement being found in theology), and after one evening spent with the book he declared: ’I am frightened. It cannot be safe for a man at my time of life to laugh so much.’”

Mark Twain had been a “mugwump” during the Blame-Cleveland campaign in 1880, which means that he had supported the independent Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland. He was, therefore, in high favor at the White House during both Cleveland administrations, and called there informally whenever business took him to Washington. But on one occasion (it was his first visit after the President’s marriage) there was to be a party, and Mrs. Clemens, who could not attend, slipped a little note into the pocket of his evening waistcoat, where he would be sure to find it when dressing, warning him as to his deportment. Being presented to young Mrs. Cleveland, he handed her a card on which he had written, “He didn’t,” and asked her to sign her name below those words. Mrs. Cleveland protested that she must know first what it was that he hadn’t done, finally agreeing to sign if he would tell her immediately all about it, which he promised to do. She signed, and he handed her Mrs. Clemens’s note. It was very brief. It said, “Don’t wear your arctics in the White House.”

Mrs. Cleveland summoned a messenger and had the card mailed immediately to Mrs. Clemens.

Absent-mindedness was characteristic of Mark Twain. He lived so much in the world within that to him the material outer world was often vague and shadowy. Once when he was knocking the balls about in the billiard-room, George, the colored butler, a favorite and privileged household character, brought up a card. So many canvassers came to sell him one thing and another that Clemens promptly assumed this to be one of them. George insisted mildly, but firmly, that, though a stranger, the caller was certainly a gentleman, and Clemens grumblingly descended the stairs. As he entered the parlor the caller arose and extended his hand. Clemens took it rather limply, for he had noticed some water-colors and engravings leaning against the furniture as if for exhibition, and he was instantly convinced that the caller was a picture-canvasser. Inquiries by the stranger as to Mrs. Clemens and the children did not change Mark Twain’s conclusion. He was polite, but unresponsive, and gradually worked the visitor toward the front door. His inquiry as to the home of Charles Dudley Warner caused him to be shown eagerly in that direction.

Clemens, on his way back to the billiard-room, heard Mrs. Clemens call him–she was ill that day: “Youth!”

“Yes, Livy.” He went in for a word.

“George brought me Mr. B.’s card. I hope you were nice to him; the B’s were so nice to us, once, in Europe, while you were gone.”

“The B’s! Why, Livy!”

“Yes, of course; and I asked him to be sure to call when he came to Hartford.”

“Well, he’s been here.”

“Oh Youth, have you done anything?”

“Yes, of course I have. He seemed to have some pictures to sell, so I sent him over to Warner’s. I noticed he didn’t take them with him. Land sakes! Livy, what can I do?”

“Go right after him–go quick! Tell him what you have done.”

He went without further delay, bareheaded and in his slippers, as usual. Warner and B. were in cheerful conversation. They had met before. Clemens entered gaily.

“Oh, yes, I see! You found him all right. Charlie, we met Mr. B. and his wife in Europe, and they made things pleasant for us. I wanted to come over here with him, but I was a good deal occupied just then. Livy isn’t very well, but she seems now a good deal better; so I just followed along to have a good talk, all together.”

He stayed an hour, and whatever bad impression had formed in B.’s mind faded long before the hour ended. Returning home, Clemens noticed the pictures still on the parlor floor.

“George,” he said, “what pictures are these that gentleman left?”

“Why, Mr. Clemens, those are our own pictures! Mrs. Clemens had me set them around to see how they would look in new places. The gentleman was only looking at them while he waited for you to come down.”

It was in June, 1888, that Yale College conferred upon Mark Twain the degree of Master of Arts. He was proud of the honor, for it was recognition of a kind that had not come to him before–remarkable recognition, when we remember how as a child he had hated all schools and study, having ended his class-room days before he was twelve years old. He could not go to New Haven at the time, but later in the year made the students a delightful address. In his capacity of Master of Arts, he said, he had come down to New Haven to institute certain college reforms.

By advice, I turned my earliest attention to the Greek department. I told the Greek Professor I had concluded to drop the use of the Greek- written character, because it is so hard to spell with and so impossible to read after you get it spelt. Let us draw the curtain there. I saw by what followed that nothing but early neglect saved him from being a very profane man.

He said he had given advice to the mathematical department with about the same result. The astronomy department he had found in a bad way. He had decided to transfer the professor to the law department and to put a law- student in his place.

A boy will be more biddable, more tractable–also cheaper. It is true he cannot be entrusted with important work at first, but he can comb the skies for nebula till he gets his hand in.

It was hardly the sort of an address that the holder of a college degree is expected to make, but doctors and students alike welcomed it hilariously from Mark Twain.

Not many great things happened to Mark Twain during this long period of semi-literary inaction, but many interesting ones. When Bill Nye, the humorist, and James Whitcomb Riley joined themselves in an entertainment combination, Mark Twain introduced them to their first Boston audience–a great event to them, and to Boston. Clemens himself gave a reading now and then, but not for money. Once, when Col. Richard Malcolm Johnston and Thomas Nelson Page were to give a reading in Baltimore, Page’s wife fell ill, and Colonel Johnston wired to Charles Dudley Warner, asking him to come in Page’s stead. Warner, unable to go, handed the telegram to Clemens, who promptly answered that he would come. They read to a packed house, and when the audience had gone and the returns were counted, an equal amount was handed to each of the authors. Clemens pushed his share over to Johnston, saying:

“That’s yours, Colonel. I’m not reading for money these days.”

Colonel Johnston, to whom the sum was important, tried to thank him, but Clemens only said:

“Never mind, Colonel; it only gives me pleasure to do you that little favor. You can pass it along some day.”

As a matter of fact, Mark Twain himself was beginning to be hard pressed for funds at this time, but was strong in the faith that he would presently be a multi-millionaire. The typesetting machine was still costing a vast sum, but each week its inventor promised that a few more weeks or months would see it finished, and then a tide of wealth would come rolling in. Mark Twain felt that a man with ship-loads of money almost in port could not properly entertain the public for pay. He read for institutions, schools, benefits, and the like, without charge.


Preface  •  I. The Family of John Clemens  •  II. The New Home, and Uncle John Quarles’s Farm  •  IV. Education Out of School  •  V. Tom Sawyer and His Band  •  VI. Closing School-Days  •  VII. The Apprentice  •  VIII. Orion’s Paper  •  IX. The Open Road  •  X. A Wind of Chance  •  XI. The Long Way to the Amazon  •  XII. Renewing an Old Ambition  •  XIII. Learning the River  •  XIV. River Days  •  XV. The Wreck of the “Pennsylvania”  •  XVI. The Pilot  •  XVII. The End of Piloting  •  XVIII. The Soldier  •  XIX. The Pioneer  •  XX. The Miner  •  XXI. The Territorial Enterprise  •  XXII. “Mark Twain”  •  XXIII. Artemus Ward and Literary San Francisco  •  XXIV. The Discovery of “The Jumping Frog”  •  XXV. Hawaii and Anson Burlingame  •  XXVI. Mark Twain, Lecturer  •  XXVII. An Innocent Abroad, and Home Again  •  XXVIII. Olivia Langdon. Work on the “Innocents”  •  XXIX. The Visit to Elmira and Its Consequences  •  XXX. The New Book and a Wedding  •  XXXI. Mark Twain in Buffalo  •  XXXII. At Work on “Roughing It”  •  XXXIII. In England  •  XXXIV. A New Book and New English Triumphs  •  XXXV. Beginning “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVI. The New Home  •  XXXVII. “Old Times,” “Sketches,” And “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVIII. Home Pictures  •  XXXIX. Tramping Abroad  •  XL. “The Prince and the Pauper”  •  XLI. General Grant at Hartford  •  XLII. Many Investments  •  XLIII. Back to the River, With Bixby  •  XLIV. A Reading-Tour With Cable  •  XLV. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”  •  XLVI. Publisher to General Grant  •  XLVII. The High-Tide of Fortune  •  XLVIII. Business Difficulties. Pleasanter Things  •  XLIX. Kipling at Elmira. Elsie Leslie. The “Yankee”  •  L. The Machine. Good-By to Hartford. “Joan” Is Begun  •  LI. The Failure of Webster & Co. Around the World. Sorrow  •  LII. European Economies  •  LIII. Mark Twain Pays His Debts  •  LIV. Return After Exile  •  LV. A Prophet At Home  •  LVI. Honored by Missouri  •  LVII. The Close of a Beautiful Life  •  LVIII. Mark Twain at Seventy  •  LIX. Mark Twain Arranges for His Biography  •  LX. Working With Mark Twain  •  LXI. Dictations at Dublin, N. H.  •  LXII. A New Era of Billiards  •  LXIII. Living With Mark Twain  •  LXIV. A Degree From Oxford  •  LXV. The Removal to Redding  •  LXVI. Life at Stormfield  •  LXVII. The Death of Jean  •  LXVIII. Days in Bermuda  •  LXIX. The Return to Redding  •  LXX. The Close of a Great Life

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The boys' life of Mark Twain: The story of a man who made the world laugh and love him
By Albert Bigelow Paine
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