The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain
by Paine

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Public Domain Books

IX. The Open Road

Samuel Clemens went to visit his sister Pamela in St. Louis and was presently at work, setting type on the “Evening News.” He had no intention, however, of staying there. His purpose was to earn money enough to take him to New York City. The railroad had by this time reached St. Louis, and he meant to have the grand experience of a long journey “on the cars.” Also, there was a Crystal Palace in New York, where a world’s exposition was going on.

Trains were slow in 1853, and it required several days and nights to go from St. Louis to New York City, but to Sam Clemens it was a wonderful journey. All day he sat looking out of the window, eating when he chose from the food he carried, curling up in his seat at night to sleep. He arrived at last with a few dollars in his pocket and a ten-dollar bill sewed into the lining of his coat.

New York was rather larger than he expected. All of the lower end of Manhattan Island was covered by it. The Crystal Palace–some distance out–stood at Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue–the present site of Bryant Park. All the world’s newest wonders were to be seen there–a dazzling exhibition. A fragment of the letter which Sam Clemens wrote to his sister Pamela–the earliest piece of Mark Twain’s writing that has been preserved–expresses his appreciation of the big fair:

“From the gallery (second floor) you have a glorious sight–the flags of the different countries represented, the lofty dome, glittering jewelry, gaudy tapestry, etc., with the busy crowd passing to and fro–’tis a perfect fairy palace–beautiful beyond description.

“The machinery department is on the main floor, but I cannot enumerate any of it on account of the lateness of the hour (past one o’clock). It would take more than a week to examine everything on exhibition, and I was only in a little over two hours to-night. I only glanced at about one-third of the articles; and, having a poor memory, I have enumerated scarcely any of even the principal objects. The visitors to the Palace average 6,000 daily–double the population of Hannibal. The price of admission being fifty cents, they take in about $3,000.

“The Latting Observatory (height about 280 feet) is near the Palace. From it you can obtain a grand view of the city and the country around. The Croton Aqueduct, to supply the city with water, is the greatest wonder yet. Immense pipes are laid across the bed of the Harlem River, and pass through the country to Westchester County, where a whole river is turned from its course and brought to New York. From the reservoir in the city to Westchester County reservoir the distance is thirty-eight miles, and, if necessary, they could easily supply every family in New York with one hundred barrels of water a day!

“I am very sorry to learn that Henry has been sick. He ought to go to the country and take exercise, for he is not half so healthy as Ma thinks he is. If he had my walking to do, he would be another boy entirely. Four times every day I walk a little over a mile; and working hard all day and walking four miles is exercise. I am used to it now, though, and it is no trouble. Where is it Orion’s going to? Tell Ma my promises are faithfully kept; and if I have my health I will take her to Ky. in the spring. I shall save money for this.

“(It has just struck 2 A.M., and I always get up at six and am at work at 7.) You ask where I spend my evenings. Where would you suppose, with a free printers’ library containing more than 4,000 volumes within a quarter of a mile of me, and nobody at home to talk to?”

“I shall write to Ella soon. Write soon. “Truly your Brother,


“P.S.–I have written this by a light so dim that you nor Ma could not read by it.”

We get a fair idea of Samuel Clemens at seventeen from this letter. For one thing, he could write good, clear English, full of interesting facts. He is enthusiastic, but not lavish of words. He impresses us with his statement that the visitors to the Palace each day are in number double the population of Hannibal; a whole river is turned from its course to supply New York City with water; the water comes thirty-eight miles, and each family could use a hundred barrels a day! The letter reveals his personal side–his kindly interest in those left behind, his anxiety for Henry, his assurance that the promise to his mother was being kept, his memory of her longing to visit her old home. And the boy who hated school has become a reader–he is reveling in a printers’ library of thousands of volumes. We feel, somehow, that Samuel Clemens has suddenly become quite a serious-minded person, that he has left Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper and Huck Finn somewhere in a beautiful country a long way behind.

He found work with the firm of John A. Gray & Green, general printers, in Cliff Street. His pay was four dollars a week, in wild-cat money–that is, money issued by private banks–rather poor money, being generally at a discount and sometimes worth less. But if wages were low, living was cheap in those days, and Sam Clemens, lodging in a mechanics’ boarding- house in Duane Street, sometimes had fifty cents left on Saturday night when his board and washing were paid.

Luckily, he had not set out to seek his fortune, but only to see something of the world. He lingered in New York through the summer of 1853, never expecting to remain long. His letters of that period were few. In October he said, in a letter to Pamela, that he did not write to the family because he did not know their whereabouts, Orion having sold the paper and left Hannibal.

“I have been fooling myself with the idea that I was going to leave New York every day for the last two weeks,” he adds, which sounds like the Mark Twain of fifty years later. Farther along, he tells of going to see Edwin Forrest, then playing at the Broadway Theater:

“The play was the ’Gladiator.’ I did not like part of it much, but other portions were really splendid. In the latter part of the last act. . . the man’s whole soul seems absorbed in the part he is playing; and it is real startling to see him. I am sorry I did not see him play “Damon and Pythias,” the former character being the greatest. He appears in Philadelphia on Monday night.”

A little farther along he says:

“If my letters do not come often, you need not bother yourself about me; for if you have a brother nearly eighteen years old who is not able to take care of himself a few miles from home, such a brother is not worth one’s thoughts.”

Sam Clemens may have followed Forrest to Philadelphia. At any rate, he was there presently, “subbing” in the composing-rooms of the “Inquirer," setting ten thousand ems a day, and receiving pay accordingly. When there was no vacancy for him to fill, he put in the time visiting the Philadelphia libraries, art galleries, and historic landmarks. After all, his chief business was sight-seeing. Work was only a means to this end. Chilly evenings, when he returned to his boarding-house, his room- mate, an Englishman named Sumner, grilled a herring over their small open fire, and this was a great feast. He tried writing–obituary poetry, for the “Philadelphia Ledger"–but it was not accepted.

“My efforts were not received with approval” was his comment long after.

In the “Inquirer” office there was a printer named Frog, and sometimes, when he went out, the office “devils” would hang over his case a line with a hook on it baited with a piece of red flannel. They never got tired of this joke, and Frog never failed to get fighting mad when he saw that dangling string with the bit of red flannel at the end. No doubt Sam Clemens had his share in this mischief.

Sam found that he liked Philadelphia. He could save a little money and send something to his mother–small amounts, but welcome. Once he inclosed a gold dollar, “to serve as a specimen of the kind of stuff we are paid with in Philadelphia.” Better than doubtful “wild-cat," certainly. Of his work he writes:

“One man has engaged me to work for him every Sunday till the first of next April, when I shall return home to take Ma to Ky . . . . If I want to, I can get subbing every night of the week. I go to work at seven in the evening and work till three the next morning. . . . The type is mostly agate and minion, with some bourgeois, and when one gets a good agate “take,” he is sure to make money. I made $2.50 last Sunday.”

There is a long description of a trip on the Fairmount stage in this letter, well-written and interesting, but too long to have place here. In the same letter he speaks of the graves of Benjamin Franklin and his wife, which he had looked at through the iron railing of the locked inclosure. Probably it did not occur to him that there might be points of similarity between Franklin’s career and his own. Yet in time these would be rather striking: each learned the printer’s trade; each worked in his brother’s office and wrote for the paper; each left quietly and went to New York, and from New York to Philadelphia, as a journeyman printer; each in due season became a world figure, many-sided, human, and of incredible popularity.

Orion Clemens, meantime, had bought a paper in Muscatine, Iowa, and located the family there. Evidently by this time he had realized the value of his brother as a contributor, for Sam, in a letter to Orion, says, “I will try to write for the paper occasionally, but I fear my letters will be very uninteresting, for this incessant night work dulls one’s ideas amazingly.”

Meantime, he had passed his eighteenth birthday, winter was coming on, he had been away from home half a year, and the first attack of homesickness was due. “One only has to leave home to learn how to write interesting letters to an absent friend,” he wrote; and again. “I don’t like our present prospect for cold weather at all.”

He declared he only wanted to get back to avoid night work, which was injuring his eyes, but we may guess there was a stronger reason, which perhaps he did not entirely realize. The novelty of wandering had worn off, and he yearned for familiar faces, the comfort of those he loved.

But he did not go. He made a trip to Washington in January–a sight- seeing trip–returning to Philadelphia, where he worked for the “Ledger" and “North American.” Eventually he went back to New York, and from there took ticket to St. Louis. This was in the late summer of 1854; he had been fifteen months away from his people when he stepped aboard the train to return.

Sam was worn out when he reached St. Louis; but the Keokuk packet was leaving, and he stopped only long enough to see Pamela, then went aboard and, flinging himself into his berth, did not waken until the boat reached Muscatine, Iowa, thirty-six hours later.

It was very early when he arrived, too early to rouse the family. He sat down in the office of a little hotel to wait for morning, and picked up a small book that lay on the writing-table. It contained pictures of the English rulers with the brief facts of their reigns. Sam Clemens entertained himself learning these data by heart. He had a fine memory for such things, and in an hour or two had those details so perfectly committed that he never forgot one of them as long as he lived. The knowledge acquired in this stray fashion he found invaluable in later life. It was his groundwork for all English history.


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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