Life, In Purgatory (A Twainiac Quarantine Diary)


Mark Twain’s parable of social distancing is called “Was It Heaven? Or Hell?” (1902). At the center of the tale are a pair of amateur nurses pressed into service by tragic circumstances. Hannah and Hester Gray must care for their sister and niece, each stricken with typhoid fever. The local doctor tasks them not only with carrying out his treatment, but, more importantly, preventing each patient from learning the progress of the disease in the other, as the stress caused thereby might overwhelm their already compromised immune systems.

Twain fashions a premise in which truth and transparency are directly correlated to the transmission of disease. The Grays have lived their whole lives in a household religiously committed to honesty: “In it speech was restricted to absolute truth, iron-bound truth, implacable and uncompromising truth, let the resulting consequences be what they might.” In the name of their dogma, they forced their niece, Helen Lester, to confess a minor transgression to her bedridden mother, Margaret, who cannot resist embracing the remorseful child. 

Walking in on this brazen violation of social distancing, the doctor scolds the Grays for lacking “sense enough to discriminate between lies.” Recognizing that Helen has now, most likely, been infected, he exclaims, “Reform! From this mean and sordid and selfish devotion to the saving of your shabby little souls, and hunt up something to do that’s got some dignity to it! Risk your souls!” 

The Grays follow this advice quite literally, constructing increasingly elaborate fictions of recovery in hopes of healing Helen and/or her mother, though they also continue to believe these lies, regardless of benevolent intention, may bring them closer to damnation. Eventually, both Lesters die anyway, but they die peacefully, each comforted by the belief that the other is recuperating.

Twain always insisted that “Was it Heaven? Or Hell?” was based upon real events. And it was. Though not necessarily when he wrote it. And he never could quite keep straight exactly which real events it was based upon. 

Sometimes he testified that it was inspired by the death of his own daughter, Susy Clemens. Near the end of her life, blind and delirious from spinal meningitis, Susy “rapturously embraced” her nurse and “died happy, thinking it was her mother.” 

Other times he claimed he was reporting sensational events which had transpired in York Harbor just before the Clemens family rented a cottage there in the Summer of 1902. Twain began composing “Was it Heaven?” that July.

Later he suggested that the story was privately a homage to Winifried Howells, the daughter of his friend and sometimes collaborator, William Dean Howells. Susy and Winifried were exactly the same age, 26, when they died. The Howells family’s summer retreat was less than ten miles from York Harbor and the bereaved fathers took comfort in each other’s company.

Twain’s inconsistency in describing the story’s origin is typical. The author was often shifty on questions of his method and materials. But it also captures the extent to which he succeeded in composing a story whose content would be broadly familiar to readers of his time. After “Was it Heaven? Or Hell?” was published in the popular Christmas issue of Harper’s, the magazine received a stream of letters from grief-stricken survivors convinced that Twain was reproducing scenes from their own family tragedies.

By the time the Harper’s issue was available to the public, it was a story more true than when Twain had written it. By cruel serendipity, the author found himself, on Christmas Eve, listening helplessly at the door as his eldest living daughter, Clara, lied expertly to her prostrate mother about the health of her younger sister, Jean, who had contracted pneumonia two days earlier. He wrote to Howells, “Every day, from the first, Clara has been persecuted and worried and distressed by superstitions born of my Xmas story ‘Heaven – or hell?’ and darkly divining prophecy in it.”


In my early twenties, I moved from St. Louis to suburban Chicago, into a basement apartment in the house owned by my step-sister and her husband, who had two adolescent children. Each of us brought to this slapdash domestic unit a recent history of calamity and grief.

In the coming years, when I needed to account for this gap on my resume, I would say I was a personal chef. And that was true enough, I suppose. Home-cooked meals were the daily service I most reliably supplied. But, more importantly, I was an extra set of hands, eyes, ears, and keys. Fred Kaplan describes Katy Leary, ostensibly the Clemens family’s servant, as “comforting as a familiar piece of old furniture and slavishly useful.” My tenure was a fraction of Leary’s, but I can sympathize with this characterization. 

I was somebody who could troubleshoot the WiFi. I was somebody who could shag flyballs. I was somebody who could chaperone a Green Day concert, sparing teenagers and their parents mutual mortification. I knew the beats of a basketball game well enough to make small talk between them. I made sure there was scotch in the house, and that nobody ever had to drink alone. 

Slavishly useful. 

My brother-in-law, John, had been an Asian Studies major and a power forward at University of North Carolina before going on to Harvard Law and eventually a career in informatics. He remained an inveterate reader. Not unlike Katy Leary, while I was part of his household I pillaged his library. His books sustained me while I pondered “going back to school,” prepping for the exams I would be required to take if I did, and finally writing an application essay on Henry James and magic realism. 

John and I spent many an evening talking geopolitics and metafiction between pitches. One Sunday afternoon our conversation swerved, like a Jose Contreras slider, into corporate finance, a realm where I was out of my depths, but largely oblivious to the fact. I forged ahead. John justifiably dismissed my knee-jerk second-hand anti-corporate arguments while also becoming, as he did every Sunday, increasingly restless and agitated by the encroaching workweek. He was steeling himself for the cruelties of corporatism even as he was debating them with me. 

This weekly ritual, my vibrant, cosmopolitan, and mildly bohemian friend painfully metamorphosizing into organization man, didn’t increase the allure of the white-collar world. He would spend 60+ hours over the next five days doing a job he hated for a poorly-run firm which nevertheless managed to profitably skim along on the froth and scum of the system he was half-heartedly defending. 

At dusk he disappeared briefly into the library. Just before he climbed the stairs to bed, appearing suddenly as exhausted as he had been three days earlier, he handed me a slim paperback, John Kenneth Galbraith’s A Short History of Financial Euphoria (1990). Though I didn’t recognize it for more than a decade, this moment would shape my professional identity.

I read Galbraith’s anatomy of economic crisis that night. In the coming weeks I would borrow from the branch library down the street his postmortem of the 1929 stock market crash, one of his memoirs, and the middle volume of his trilogy on American corporatism. Though I had taken economics courses, it never occurred to me that economists were authors, much less that they might be authors who I would electively and energetically read. 

At the end of the fourth chapter of The Great Crash (1954), Galbraith reports that on the morning of Black Monday in 1929, the worst day of the financial panic which inaugurated the Great Depression, the Wall Street Journal chose as its “Thought of the Day” an aphorism from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar (1897): “Don’t part with your illusions; when they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.”

What did the WSJ editors intend to signal with their “Thought of the Day”? Were they desperately clinging to the irrational confidence which fueled the Twenties boom? Or did they recognize the underlying irony of this nugget of Twainian wisdom, which first appeared within the chronicle of the worldwide lecture tour he undertook to pay off his creditors. When he wrote it, Twain was living through the worst depression in U.S. history…before 1929.

Meditating upon the selection Galbraith wrote, “The end had come, but it was not yet in sight.” What made Galbraith’s work formative for me were moments like this. He insists that for our understanding of the causes and consequences of fiscal crises interpretations of the newspaper masthead, the presidential address, even anonymous verse written by helpless investors, are as relevant economic knowledge as the audit of Goldman Sachs or the Federal Reserve stimulus. Negotiating this nexus between the cultural and the financial became, and remains, my daily obsession.


In the decades since I left them for graduate school, Kim and John continued to build their nest egg. A few years ago they relocated to Indianapolis, to be surrounded by extended family, and began easing gradually into semi-retirement. They were enjoying one of those pleasures long deferred – a warm-weather winter vacation – when the first wave of travel restrictions began rolling out. During the long drive home, John developed an ominous cough. By mid-March they had both been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The progress of their illness dovetails with the now familiar media accounts. The cough developed into a fever and then, over the course of several days, into an almost crippling fatigue. Kim, somewhat younger, conformed perfectly with her demographic. Within a week she was well on her way to recovery and by the end of two would’ve been the picture of health again, were it not for the stress. 

John did not fair so well. When it spread to his lungs he was hospitalized, and a day later he went on a ventilator, where he remained, days turning into weeks. All of us counting each of them, reminded by public health professionals, government spokespeople, and news anchors that after three weeks of machine-assisted breathing, the possibility of recovery dropped rapidly towards zero.

I waited anxiously for daily third- and fourth-hand reports. He was barely conscious. Doctors spoke to nurses, who called Kim, who, even as she herself processed it, was disseminating information through her network of family and friends, all of us frantically googling medications, dosages, ventilator settings and readings, symptoms and side effects. My mom would sometimes cut-and-paste portions of Kim’s text messages into her own, creating a collage of misspelled medical terminology, family vernaculars, and ambiguous pronouns. 

I regretted living so far away, then realized family members living a few blocks over were equally helpless. Nobody can go to the hospital. They dare not run to Kim’s side for fear of bringing the virus back to their own households, all of which include somebody over 65 or with compromised immunity. My mom drops tupperware in the yard while Kim stands behind the storm door, crying and waving. Sending care packages via Amazon Now, I realize, actually spared us such torture.

All we knew depended upon what healthcare workers at Community Health North chose to tell Kim, and this we clung to, dressed up in optimism or pessimism depending upon temperament and mood. Most of the plaudits for healthcare workers during this crisis have been drawn from military metaphors. They are “risking their lives” on the “front lines” to “fight the disease.” But war is an insufficient analogue, and a misleading one I think (though I have clearly indulged it myself). In particular, it lacks any accounting of the communicative and humanitarian burden which nurses and doctors have had thrust upon them. 

Twice daily, and without fail, somebody from the ICU called my stepsister, relating John’s progress, which was often no progress at all. But this was her only remaining connection to her husband. Anxious and isolated, these phonecalls were her lifeline, however tenuous. The trickle of information they provided, consistent though not robust, fueled her hope and, as important, gave her opportunity to tell somebody how she loved him, how his kids loved him – somebody who she knew sometime thereafter would stand in the same room with him, knowing for whom he labored to breath. She had no way of knowing whether her messages would be delivered or, when they were, how they would be received. But the voices of strangers on the other end of the line were what she had, and so she trusted them.

These are not soldiers. They are conduits of love. They are the amanuensis of our grief. Their duty has been to save, but also to mourn those who could not be saved, to bear witness and give testimony. How many have stood bedside these last weeks knowing that their eyes and ears were all that was left to mediate between the dying and the bereaved?


“Life is purgatory at all times, and a swindle and a crime,” Twain wrote to Howells on September 24th, 1902, adding, “yesterday it was hell.” 

Six weeks earlier, his wife, Livy Clemens, had suffered shortness of breath so debilitating they both became convinced she would die. She never really recovered. For the next 22 months, the Clemens household would include a series of doctors and nurses, and would search the globe for a climate which would ease Livy’s recuperation. 

 From the start, the expensive specialists Sam summoned from Boston and New York failed to make sense of Livy’s symptoms. “It has been one continual guess, guess, guess, change, change, change, from one incompetent drug to another, and from one indigestible food to another,” he wrote to Henry Rogers, “It seems stupid to keep a student four years in medical college to merely learn how to guess – and guess wrong.”

Lacking any more reliably diagnosis, the doctors were increasingly intent on prescribing the “rest cure,” as was customary, particularly when the patient was a woman. To their credit, both Livy and her family resisted. Sam, Clara, and Livy’s sister, Susan Crane, took turns firing the doctors and nurses who tried to bar the family from the sickroom. They eventually agreed to visit one at a time, and then, like the characters in “Was it Heaven? Or Hell?”, not to talk about anything that was likely to excite the patient, a list of topics which was constantly expanding. He reported to Howells, bitterly, “We guard her against feeling and thinking all we can.”

Sam, grasping for some hope, began making complicated arrangements for transporting Livy to the Crane house in Elmira. “There is but one place where she will be entirely at home, and that is Quarry Farm,” he told Rogers, begging him to bring his yacht to York Harbor and ferry the family to the port at Hoboken, where Livy’s brother, a railroad director, would have a private car waiting to carry them into Elmira. Rogers was prepared to hold the yacht indefinitely, but in mid-September the doctors concluded that travel, especially by sea, was too risky. 

“She is only a shadow now,” he told Rogers and the same day withdrew a sketch titled “Amended Obituaries” from the publication schedule at Harper’s, fearing that the jokes in it about his own demise might be published just as real obituaries for his wife were going to press. It was no trivial decision. The Clemens family’s wealth, though sizable, was not particularly liquid. They owned three expensive properties and were renting a fourth. “The newspapers are trying to make me out a rich man,” Twain wrote, “but the continued discrepancy between my income and my outgo convinces me that they are not succeeding.” 

Yet they would spare no expense when it came to Livy’s care, so, despite his sorrow, he continued to churn out content for multiple magazines. When payment for one of his pieces was delayed, he responded angrily, “Oh, come, now, it is irreligious, the way you accept articles and postpone the payment. When you keep four doctors and two trained nurses all summer, with a war-price specialist from Boston now and then as an additional strain on your bank balance you will reform.”

In September, Clara hired and fired another set of doctors and nurses. The replacements were even more emphatically committed to the rest cure. With Livy worsening, the family’s will to resist was failing. A compromise was reached. Clara and Susan would be allowed to come and go, as long as they promised to remain calm when in Livy’s presence and never discuss matters unrelated to her health and comfort. All agreed that Sam could not be trusted to adhere to such conditions and, moreover, he was most prone to excite his wife with his notoriously boisterous personality, no matter how their discourse was constrained. There was no subject that Mark Twain could not riff on for hours. He was to be “banished.”

Sam felt betrayed, but when even Livy agreed to these conditions, he relented and entered his self-described purgatory, where he would remain for most of the next four months. He pitied himself for being excluded from Livy’s company when any day could be her last, but reconciled himself by trying to believe that by obeying doctor’s orders he could protect her from the sickness of his self, which he’d always regarded as diseased anyway.

But he could not bear depending solely on second-hard reports which were “like watching a thermometer…a degree up, a degree down – repeat indefinitely.” So Sam took up residence in an adjoining room, from which he could slip notes under the door at his liberty. After more than three decades of marriage, they became pen pals again. Livy, even when enfeebled, “put her daily message of love in trembling characters upon little scraps of paper.”

Sam adhered to the prescriptions of “Was it Heaven? Or Hell?”, never sending Livy any bad news, even as several of their friends fell ill and died. “Mrs. Clemens lives in a world where no sorrows come from without,” he wrote on one such occasion, “a blessed ignorance which sometimes seems a compensation for her captivity.” The whole household had been developing their capacity for withholding, misleading, and outright lying. Sam said of Clara, “She has been lying for five months, and has long ago lost anything like compunctions. To save her mother a dangerous emotion she would stop at no kind of falsehood.”  

But their talents would be tested when Jean fell ill. The youngest Clemens had also been banished from Livy’s bedside. Her mother, even in the best of times, was prone to worry over Jean’s epilepsy, searching for signs of seizure in every expression and gesture. The doctors had promised a Christmas reunion if Livy’s condition stayed stable. But, as Sam put it, “We could never explain how it was safe for her to see me and not safe for her to see Jean.” So he listened alone at the door as Livy and Clara exchanged abbreviated holiday greetings. They seemed to him empty banalities under the circumstances. “There isn’t going to be any merry Christmas here,” he wrote.   

Clara and one nurse, Margaret Sherry, continued their now months-long sentry at Livy’s side while another nurse, Maria Tobin, Katy Leary, and Sam stood watch over Jean, who looked “like the survivor of a forest-fire.” During his shift, Twain composed a series of long, dismal letters, ending one to Howells by saying, “Pious maniacs are in the habit of regarding life as a ‘boon,’ and of trying to be grateful for it.”

How many households around the world are simultaneously gripped by some variation of this vigil? How many more will be before our watch is lifted? Like Twain, I don’t know who to pity more, the severely ill or those who wait on them, those who are deciding how and when their families should be separated and those who, standing at the threshold, tell fathers, brothers, daughters, you can go no further, we’ll call you. Maybe, as Twain says, “The dead are the only human beings who are really well off.”   


Twelve days after he was admitted to the hospital, John’s temperature broke. Two days later he was off the ventilator, and though he couldn’t speak, the nurses used the iPads the hospital had purchased to allow him to videoconference with Kim and his kids. It’ll still be an indeterminate amount of time before he can return home, but he is out of the ICU and Kim’s reports of slow and steady progress have become the highlight of my self-quarantined days. 

 Jean Clemens’s fever broke on December 30th, 1902 and though she would be bedridden for another week, the doctors were sure she would have a full recovery. On the eve of the 35th anniversary of their first date, Sam was allowed to spend five minutes with Livy. The next day he reported “3 minutes and 50 seconds.” On New Year’s day she slipped a greeting under the door between their bedrooms and when they saw each other that evening, for four minutes, he found her “in great spirits – like 35 years ago.” 

He wrote in his notebook, “Only he who has seen better days and lives to see better days again knows their full value.”

Life, In Arbitrage (A Twainiac Quarantine Diary)

Samuel Clemens spent almost the entirety of Secession Winter aboard the Alonzo Child, a steamboat traversing the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans. Reading Benjamin Griffin’s account of this period in Mark Twain’s Civil War (2019), I imagine the pilot feeling trapped inside his vessel, surviving for months in a state of vigilance interrupted by bouts of panic, noticing subtle changes to the traffic on the river and the behavior of port authorities, kept abreast of the unfolding crisis by news and rumor brought aboard just often enough to feed his fear and make those solitary nights in the pilothouse more unbearable. 

Perhaps I’m projecting.

I woke up thinking about the Civil War. I wish I could say this was a side effect of self-quarantining, but it happens often enough under normal circumstances. Specifically, I was thinking about the longterm effects of mass carnage upon the survivors. Ever since reading Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering (2008), I have been persuaded these effects explain more than anything else why the Civil War remains the central event in U.S. history as it is narrated in schools, museums, and popular culture.

The intersectional conflict took more American lives than all other U.S. wars combined: a piece of trivia that fails to become mundane to me no matter how many times I’ve repeated it. No community was unaffected. Nearly everybody endured a grievous loss. If not of an immediate family member, a neighbor, a cousin, or a schoolmate. It’s easy to represent this is a classroom. Just have students look around. Somewhere between 1-in-3 and 1-in-4 men of military age were killed. How many empty seats is that?

How do I make this point in a remote learning environment? I don’t. 

Faust argues that the federal government was permanently changed by mortality and mourning in the 1860s. Just to deal with the overwhelming numbers of dead, the U.S. had to painfully reimagine its infrastructure: healthcare, sanitation, veteran affairs, national cemeteries, social services. It was the initial, insufficient birth of an American welfare state. 

For decades, as Twain occasionally satired, political leaders made a grand show of providing entitlements to the widows and orphans of first Union and then all Civil War veterans. Twain believed these packages were intended to cynically curry partisan favor in advance of elections. Another interpretation is that each wave of relief was always already not enough.    

David Blight and Robert Penn Warren are among the many who make the case that the psychic toll of death on such a scale, though it dims with time, never really goes away. It is a permanent scar on our collective conscience.

There’s ongoing debate about the final fatality and casualty figures, but probably somewhere between 650,000 and 750,000 Americans died as a direct result of the Civil War. The population of the U.S. in 1860 was roughly 31 Million people. 

So, at the extreme end, the mortality rate of the U.S. Civil War was about 2.4%.

How do we make sense of that number? Is it small?

Its consequences were not. 

When the Civil War began, the crude mortality rate in the U.S. (an annual measure of death from all causes) was somewhere around 2.5-3.0%. As of 2017, the last year for which we have complete statistics, it is 0.8%. We are three times less likely to die than the average antebellum American. And three times less familiar with death. For how long?

This week the nation started negotiating the price for life. We got here rather quickly. In six weeks the Dow Jones Industrial Average has dropped about 38%. On March 23rd we reached a symbolic point. For the first time the index which many, including the President himself, have used as a shorthand for macroeconomic vitality fell to where it was the week of the 2016 election. 

A historic spike in unemployment will follow. On March 16th, one of the worst days in U.S. financial history, 50,000 people filed for unemployment…in Pennsylvania alone. A single day increase of 16% in that state, presumably preceded and followed by many more bad days. By the end of the week 3.3 Million (1% of the U.S. population) had filed for unemployment, almost five times the previous weekly high. We’re about to shatter every unemployment record in our history. 

Those who preside over economic crises rarely get reelected. The Republicans were swept out of office in a wave in 2008. History is likely to repeat itself unless there are strong signs of recovery in the next seven months. That’s as tall order, and only minimal progress can be made towards their goal until the nation is released from quarantine. The President issued his party their marching orders, as usual, via Twitter.

The comical botching of an already tired cliche aside, this is not necessarily faulty reasoning. Among the unintended consequences of social distancing and self-quarantining will be additional deaths. Already gaping holes in our social safety net grow larger with each layoff and each overdrawn account, but also with each hospital filled to capacity and each implicit license to abuse both the homeless and the involuntarily homebound.

Every comparison of disease to cure, of public health to economic stability, is purely speculative. Economists have a famously inconsistent and inaccurate record of prognostication. They may have found their equals amongst epidemiologists. Two hastily-assembled papers have been circulating widely since Black Monday. One predicts that the upper bound for COVID-19 deaths in the United States is 2.2 million people. That would nearly double our crude mortality rate. There is no precedent for that kind of carnage. Not even the Civil War.

Another paper, popular in the White House, put that upper bound at only 500. It’s author has been aggressively walking back that prediction. But many other doctors and scientists have weighed in somewhere between these extremes. Notably, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a popular spokesperson for the White House Coronavirus Task Force closed the week projecting between 100,000 and 200,000 U.S. deaths

With such a wide range of expert opinions, it’s no surprise Trump feels free to pick whichever numbers suit him best, or make them up as he goes. As Twain says of the relative upon whom he based Colonel Sellers in The Gilded Age (1873), “A man who goes around with a prophecy-gun ought never to get discouraged: if he will keep up his heart and fire at everything he sees, he is bound to hit something by and by.”

Samuel Clemens came to know too well the difficulty and the danger of arbitraging health and wealth. He spent much of the 1890s separated from his wife and daughters, working tirelessly, past his 60th birthday, first to save his publishing company from the Panic of 1893, then to repay his creditors when Charles Webster & Co. went bankrupt, and finally to return his family to prosperity. He and Livy both developed health problems during this period which they would carry with them for the remainder of their lives and, most tragically, their eldest daughter, Susy, died of spinal meningitis, alone in Hartford, a grief from which they never really recovered. 

Writing to his best friend Clemens chastises himself by conflating Susy’s life with the financial assets to which he had dedicated so much of his attention in the years before her death.

I did not know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away; I did not know what she was. To me, she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weight it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper. How am I to conprehend this? How am I to have it? Why am I robbed, and who is benefitted?

Samuel Clemens to Joseph Twichell, January 17, 1897

For me, these have become some of the most powerful lines in Twain’s entire corpus of writings, heavy with emotion and prophetic of the dehumanizing economization – the biopolitics, if you prefer – which grew increasingly socially acceptable over the course of the coming century.

Twain learned the hard way how futile it is to integrate life into economic rationality – into cost-benefit analysis – which, in his ambition as an entrepreneur and business-man, he became temporarily convinced was the only rationality.

He closes his letter with an aphorism which may be wiser than any of his many found in Bartlett’s or on Twitter:

“We pay as we can, in love; and in this coin practicing no economy.” 

The Apocryphal Twain: “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.”

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms has increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

Mark Twain is a favorite source of political cynicism, and justifiably so. With alleged “irregularities” in recent Democratic primaries and renewed concern about potential foreign interference in the 2020 election cycle, the following apocryphal aphorism has again been making the rounds.

QuoteFancy offers nineteen variations of the above meme for users to post to their pages and accounts, all claiming Twain as the source.

The use of this quote surges during election season. Iterations of it were tweeted well over a hundred times in the week following the Iowa caucus, most often crediting Mark Twain. And while proper attribution predictably eludes the usual cast of partisan pundits, motivational speakers, and other social media influencers, it has also eluded sources one might expect to know better. The following tweet appeared on Election Day 2016:

Twain was not cynical about elections because he believed they couldn’t make a difference, but because he believed his countrymen failed to appreciate the difference they could make.

Troublingly, versions of Twain’s most famous defense of enfranchisement have appeared only 22 times in the history of Twitter. His apocryphal degradation of voting often gets retweeted that many times in a single day.

Several fact-checking services have already debunked the attribution to Twain, notably Snopes and the Australian Associated Press (with impeccable sourcing, by the way). So I will move quickly to the more difficult questions. Where did this aphorism actually come from? How did it get wrongly attributed to Twain? And why is the misattribution so pervasive?

The Twain attribution, as usual, appears to be a product of the social media era. While the aphorism itself circulated widely during the late 20th century, I found no instance of it being associated with Twain prior to this relatively innocuous tweet on Election Day 2008:

The misattribution resurfaced only two dozen times over the next eleven months, rarely retweeted, until an unlikely trio of accounts started recycling it daily in October of 2009: a self-described “radical right-wing super villain,” “a mild-mannered…crossword puzzler;” and a “tenor singer.”

Commitment to this type of repetitive barrage has proven a reliable way of amplifying misinformation on Twitter. It is one way accounts with relatively small followings can have outsized influence. The aphorism spread more widely in 2010, picked up by users with increasingly large followings, though no verified user took the bait until 2012:

It has since become a staple on Twitter, recycled ceaselessly, and sometimes by accounts with several million followers.

So, if Twitter was the vehicle for misattributing the quote to Mark Twain, where did it actually originate? One presumed source, not quite as popular as Twain, is Emma Goldman.

But it turns out the attribution to Goldman is just as specious. Like Twain, she died many decades before any version of this aphorism was attributed to her and it is not present in her many published writings and recorded speeches. That said, Goldman’s anarchist politics do seem to conform with later invocations of the quote.

Charles Umney, in his Class Matters (2018), calls it “an old anarchist slogan, frequently found as lamp-post graffiti in university cities.” Umney’s claim is corroborated by several sources. Journalists Harry Goldman, Matt Ridley, and Patrick Traub all reported seeing the slogan tagged on bridges, buildings, and other graffiti sites in Boston, Indianapolis, New York, and Washington D.C. from 1988 and 1992.

The slogan seems likely to have originated in 1960s activism. Two stories in the Reno Gazette-Journal, separated by a decade, report that it was a “typical motto” of the broadcaster and gonzo journalist, Travus T. Hipp. The revised edition of And I Quote (2003) attributes it to Bob Avakian. And in a 2008 interview with The Nation, Father Daniel Berrigan gives the sources as his brother, Father Phillip Berrigan.

Hipp (born Chandler Laughlin III) and Avakian belonged to the same generation of Berkeley radicals, active in socialist, anti-war, and Civil Rights protests throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Hipp continued to appear on California’s KPIG station, critiquing mainstream media and politics, until his death in 2012. In 1979 Avakian became Chairman of the US Revolutionary Communist Party, and so he remains.

Certainly, Avakian’s published work, like Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (1984), confirms his distaste for electoral politics. But I have not be able to find either Hipp or Avakian using the disputed aphorism in their accessible writings. While there are large repositories of their work – for instance, Hipp’s broadcast back to 2005 in Internet Archive – they also produced a lot of work that evades traditional historical records. Both were active pamphleteers and spontaneous speechmakers. It’s very possible that either or both were part of the popularization and circulation of the slogan in activist communities, further explaining its popularity as a tag decades later.

Father Berrigan was also a prominent antiwar protester in the ’60s and ’70s, associated with multiple plots to disrupt the Vietnam draft. He was, most famously, arrested alongside his brother as part of the so-called Cantonville Nine, who succeeded in stealing and publicly destroying Maryland Draft Board records in 1968. After their case was argued before the Supreme Court, the Berrigan Brothers served three years in federal prison.

By the mid-’80s, the sentiment was ingrained enough in the British Labour Party, than Ken Livingstone gave the book associated with his first campaign for Parliament the ironic title, If Voting Made A Difference, They’d Abolish It (1987).

These attributions, though conflicting and inconclusive, do make a compelling connection between the aphorism and socialist sloganeering operations of the mid 20th century. Within these activist communities, messaging was often collaborative, decentralized, and privileged anonymity. It would not be surprising if a motto coined in Berkeley in the 1960s remained unverifiable.

There has clearly been a resurgence in usage over the last decade, during the same period that the attribution to Twain has become commonplace. This is yet another example of how Twain somehow remains a desirable object of political ventriloquism. This aphorism and its misattribution is as likely to be appropriated by individuals and institutions espousing libertarianism or fascism as by those supporting anarchism or communism. Yet somehow these diverse radicalisms all want to associate their politics with Mark Twain. Why?

Silent Work in Elmira: Letters from the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection


Embedded within this post, you will find letters written by two important Elmirans – Susan Crane and John W. Jones – reflecting upon the history of the Underground Railroad. Crane was the sister-in-law of Mark Twain. She commissioned the octagonal study where Twain wrote his most famous works, and hosted the Clemens family’s annual Summer pilgrimage to her dairy farm. Crane was also the eldest daughter of Jervis Langdon, who actively aided fugitive slaves from at least 1844 onward.

Susan Crane

Jones was among those Langdon harbored. Together they expanded the Underground Railroad operations in the region and Jones personally assisted more than 800 enslaved persons. He was also the first caretaker of Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, directly responsible for the work which led to it being designated a National Cemetery.

The Center for Mark Twain Studies is pleased to reproduced these letters with permission from the Ohio History Connection, where they are part of the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection. This resource is also made possible by the Chemung County Historical Society, especially archivist Rachel Dworkin, and local historian J. D. Iles, host of Hidden Landmarks on WETM.

I’m going to offer some brief contextualization of these documents. If you prefer to merely read them for yourself, simply scroll down.


Wilbur H. Siebert

In 1892, having recently been hired into the Department of European History at Ohio State University, Wilbur H. Siebert began research on what would become The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898). As Siebert acknowledges in his preface, his subject was “in an extraordinary sense a hidden one.” The covert operation of the Underground Railroad was in danger of passing out of living memory. Even the youngest conductors and stationmasters were more than fifty years old. Life expectancy in the U.S. was around 43 years, and was significantly lower for African-Americans, who, of course, participated disproportionately in the Underground Railroad. Siebert’s challenge was to identify and interview surviving participants in remote locations before their stories were lost.

As part of this process, in August of 1896, Siebert contacted Susan Crane. Though her father, Jervis Langdon, was long dead, Siebert hoped Crane, born in 1836, might have some memory of her family’s activities. In her first reply, Crane says, “The work was so silent, and I was so young that my personal knowledge is slight.” But, she promises to consult some of the “older citizens” of Elmira, including John W. Jones.

That Crane volunteered to work on Siebert’s exemplifies the generosity for which she was renowned, particularly given the circumstances. When Siebert’s request arrived, Crane’s sister, Olivia Langdon Clemens, was in residence at Quarry Farm. Unfortunately, it was not as part of her family’s usual Summer visit. On the Sunday before Crane’s first reply they had buried Olvia’s eldest daughter at Woodlawn Cemetery. Susy Clemens, named after her aunt, had succumbed to spinal meningitis. That Crane answered Siebert’s letter at all, while her family was in mourning, suggests how important his project was to her.

Jervis Langdon
Jervis Langdon

A few weeks later, Crane sends her second, more substantive, reply. Unfortunately, Siebert’s side of the correspondence has not survived, so we don’t know exactly what he asked during their ongoing exchange, but readers will be able make educated guesses. The account Crane offers seems to be primarily based upon conversations with Jones, though she acknowledge speaking with others as well.

As far as Twain Studies is concerned, the final page of her September 14, 1896 letter includes a significant revelation, as Crane reports that “about eight years ago” she had introduced Jones to Twain expressly for the purpose of “making some record of Mr. Jones’s story.” To my knowledge, this is the only record we have that Twain and Jones were directly acquainted.

If Crane’s memory is correct, the meeting between Jones and Twain probably took place during the Summer of 1888, when the Clemens family was in Elmira from late June until September 24th. That Twain declines to attempt to tell Jones’s story, despite finding it “so interesting,” represents a change in his philosophy. In 1874 he had transcribed, allegedly “word for word,” the account of Mary Ann Cord, the cook at Quarry Farm, and sold it to The Atlantic Monthly as “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It.” Twain’s experiments with black dialect continued with “Sociable Jimmy,” also published in 1874, and, most famously, climaxed with the character of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). That Twain insists Jones’s story “should only be told in [his] language” represents a conspicuous change of heart.

Rachel & Silas Gleasons

Crane’s letters also reference an S. O. Gleason as having participated in some fashion during the 1850s, though she reports the Gleason claims not to remember anything. Dr. Silas Oresmus Gleason and his wife, Dr. Rachel Brooks Gleason, ran the Elmira Water Cure, a highly-regarded therapeutic spa located up the road from Quarry Farm, which they opened in 1852.

William Still

These documents corroborate and supplement our developing account of the operation of the Underground Railroad in Elmira and, particularly, the Langdon family’s involvement. Crane claims that when she asked Jones how involved her father had been, he replied, “He was all of it, giving me at one his last dollar, when he did not know where another would come from.”

Crane also refers to a William Still. Still was another conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well a prominent antislavery activist. Still also produced a history of the Underground Railroad, published in 1872 and expanded in 1878. Siebert draws liberally from Still’s account. Following the letters, I have included links to both Siebert and Still’s history, which are now in the public domain.

Our most comprehensive telling of this story, so far, is the “Gospel of Revolt” episode of the C19: American In The Nineteenth Century podcast, which you can listen to on iTunes or SoundCloud.

Selection from a map of Underground Railroad networks in New York State, created by Wilbur H. Siebert for his book. The full map available here, courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

The following letters are reproduced with the permission of the Ohio History Connection (formerly Ohio Historical Society).

Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (August 27, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 14, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 23, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 26, 1896)

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See the two photographs of John W. Jones to which Crane refers beneath the letters, courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society.


John W. Jones to Wilbur H. Siebert (December 17, 1896)

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John W. Jones to Wilbur H. Siebert (January 16, 1897)

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John W. Jones, circa 1850 (courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society)
John W. Jones, 1896 (courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society)

The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Wilbur H. Siebert (Macmillan Company, 1898)

The Underground Railroad: A Record, Revised Edition by William Still (People’s Publishing Co., 1878)

A Loving & Clairvoyant Parasite: George Steiner in "The Archives of Eden"

It would be grossly inaccurate to call George Steiner, who passed away earlier this week, an Americanist. His reading was cosmopolitan, certainly, and though it included the literature of the nation where he spent the plurality of his life, he was also famously dismissive of that tradition. Nearly every obituary published this week has mentioned that he once characterized Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, possibly the most revered novel in the U.S. canon, as “trivial.”

It can thus justly be characterized as a “stretch” for me to eulogize him on a site dedicated to Mark Twain Studies. Steiner made occasional, passing references to Twain’s works, enough to make evident he had read them (what hadn’t he read?), but he would have no doubt bristled at the very phrase “Twain Scholar,” not applied it to himself.

But I am taking the occasion of Steiner’s death to revisit one of the rare essays in which he not only glances at U.S. authors and artists, but searches for a definition of American culture. “The Archives of Eden” was published in Salmagundi in 1980 and later collected in Steiner’s No Passion Spent (1996). 

While he does not mention them all by name, Steiner’s most transparent objective in the essay is to discredit and replace the “Adamic” definition of American culture developed by the midcentury Americanist critics R.W.B. Lewis, Leo Marx, Perry Miller, and Henry Nash Smith. Far from being an organic, virgin, youthful, or Arcadian culture (all tropes of the “Adamic” school), Steiner insists, “American culture has stood, from its outset, on giant shoulders” and “is ‘very old’ precisely because it has been heir to so much.” 

The word heir is important here, for it acknowledges that American Adam did not spring, unprecedented, from the Virgin Land, but inheritance also denotes the passing of property. American culture specializes, Steiner argues, in the accumulation of cultural properties, whether those be the Strativarian instruments in the vaults of the Library of Congress or the fruits of intellect which Diasporic physicists traded to the Manhattan Project for visas. 

“The dominant apparatus of American high culture is that of custody,” Steiner writes. Superior museums, superior libraries, superior concert halls, and superior universities comprise the “rummage-room of western civilization.” The British have to visit Washington D.C. to study Shakespeare. Russians come to New York City to study their revolution. The French journey to the Bay Area to study theirs. But, according to Steiner, our capacity for appropriating, cataloguing, curating, and, most importantly, arbitraging, the cultural artifacts of Europe masks the poverty of Americans own cultural productivity.

Summarized as such, Steiner’s argument may appear, up to this point, to be stereotypically Eurocentric, equal parts envy and elitism – the longform version of calling Moby-Dick “trivial.” I assure you, couched as it is in Steiner’s humility and dialectical reasoning, it does not read so dismissively. That said, it is really the second half of the essay which keeps me up at night. Steiner posits that by treating world culture with the same reverence as a pawnbroker and our own culture as purely disposable, Americans actually approach something virtuous. 

“The correlations between classic literacy and political justice, between the civic institutionalization of intellectual excellence and the general tenor of social decency, between a meritocracy of the mind and the overall chances for common progress, are indirect and, it may well be, negative.

Not even Americans orchestras want to play Aaron Copland. Our major metropolitan museums hang their Hudson River School paintings in the galleries furthest from the entrance. One suspect Emerson’s inclusion in the Norton Anthology of Western Philosophy is primarily an act of pity which only service to make the paucity of U.S. philosophers more apparent. But, Steiner’s comforting question to his U.S. colleagues: “Who cares?” Who needs to pursue the sensual transcendence of the arts and humanities when they are free to pursue happiness? “High culture, far from arresting barbarism, can give to barbarism a peculiar zest and veneer,” Steiner writes, “If a choice is to be made, let humane mediocrity prevail.”

Is “humane mediocrity” what we get when accept that the proper measures of culture are the the auction block, the domestic gross, the bestseller list, and the tuition price? 

Standing beside the fiction produced under Stalinism, Steiner says, “this month’s ‘great American novel’ is merely embarrassing,” but “Who cares?” Neither its author nor its readers were, as Joyce put it, “squeezed like olives” in the vice grip of a totalitarian regime. 

“The fundamental, if subconscious strategy of American culture is that of an immaculate astrodome enveloping, making transparent to a mass audience, preserving from corruption and misuse, the cancerous and daemonic pressures of antique, of European, of Russian invention.”

To choose Judd Apatow over Samuel Beckett – that is, to choose the “general dignity” of mass culture over the exclusive status of high culture – is, as Steiner puts it, “a thoroughly justifiable choice,” though not one he is constitutionally able to make for himself. Nor, and this is the rhetorical cruelty of his argument, are we. On the penultimate page of his essay, he points out, for those who have gotten so far, “by virtue of the simple fact that you are reading this essay, that you possess the vocabulary, codes of reference, leisure and interest needed to read it” you have already marked yourself as elite, as Eurocentric, as resistant to “the American way of life,” as potentially containing within your person and your tastes “the motor forces of social crisis.”

What I find haunting about this essay is not the trivialization of U.S. literature. (As Twain says, “My book are like water. Everybody drinks water.”) Nor is it Steiner’s characterization of the institutions of my profession (the university, library, and archive) as implicitly at odds with my person. What I really find haunting is that it was written four decades ago. It describes a “contagion of history” that Americans still carry with them, yet offers no account of what to do when the “immaculate astrodome” is no longer so immaculate. What happens when authoritarianism succeeds in raiding the archives of Eden? It is an essay in desperate need of a sequel. One which now we’ll never get.  

An Interview With Virgie Hoban About Six Degrees of Mark Twain

Virgie Hoban, in collaboration with the Mark Twain Project and it’s General Editor and Curator, Robert H. Hirst, has created a unique introduction to Twain’s social network. 6 Degrees of Mark Twain combines images and primary sources from the Mark Twain Papers with video interviews with Dr. Hirst and Hoban’s explanatory narrative to explore Twain’s relationships with a diverse sextet of his contemporaries, all of whom were celebrities in their own right. In addition to being a welcome resource for Twainiacs of all stripes, this interactive, multimedia experience would make a great resource for classrooms.

Virgie Hoban is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley (where the Mark Twain Project resides) and now works as a writer for the communications office at the Berkeley library, covering exhibits, collections, events, and the library’s digitization and open access initiatives. She kindly took time to answer a few questions about how 6 Degrees of Mark Twain came together.

1.) How did you become interested in Twain? Have you worked with the Mark Twain Project before?

My father gave me Tom Sawyer to read as a kid, and I loved it. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, studying English, I read Huck Finn for a class and was blown away by its heart and humor. At some point, I took a tour of the Library for an English class and saw treasures from the Mark Twain Project. This “6 degrees” project was my first time working with or writing about the Mark Twain Project — a dream of mine since I applied for this position. 

2.) What surprised you most as you pursued this research? Was there a particular relationship that you found most intriguing? Why?

I have been endlessly amazed at how infinite Twain seems, in his relationships with people and in his opinions on everything in the world. He speaks in such great hyperbole, too, with so much conviction that it feels almost impossible. I loved exploring those sides of him with this very tangible guide: the people he called friends.

There were a couple favorite moments. P.T. Barnum was a quirky one that was weirdly enlightening. I loved the bit about Twain collecting strange letters from Barnum just to learn more about humankind. That was a sort of light-bulb moment that made me feel like I was starting to get to know Twain a bit more. I was also intrigued by Twain’s fascination with Barnum. The guy is this shameless showman — I read articles comparing Barnum to Trump — and yet Twain can’t help but admire him, because he’s got that love for theatrics too. But Twain does sort of keep Barnum at a distance, declining to write ads for the circus, etc. As Bob Hirst told me, it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly is going on between them.

I think my favorite relationship was probably Twain and Helen Keller. It was astounding to see this larger-than-life person shrink in comparison to this woman, in the way Twain praises her. Like I said, I think Twain likes to exaggerate, but when he calls Keller the “8th wonder of the world,” you believe it. Also, I was floored by the way Keller sees right through Twain’s cynicism and old-man griping. There was love and understanding and encouragement in that friendship, which was very sweet to witness.

3.) As you point out, Twain’s life intersected with lots of public figures. How did you narrow it down to this particular half dozen? Were there particular demographics, issues, events, etc. that you wanted to highlight?

Haha, well I joke with my colleagues that I will do a sequel featuring Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Edison, Charles Dickens, Teddy Roosevelt, and hopefully more women. I picked these people with the guidance of Bob Hirst, who brainstormed with me about all the possible candidates. I chose Harriet Beecher Stowe over Dickens because I wanted another woman. Tesla seemed a little wonkier than Edison, and Twain was closer to Grant than Roosevelt. The other relationships were just who I found most interesting, I suppose. 


Please check out 6 Degrees of Mark Twain, as well as all the great digital resources available from the Mark Twain Project.

You Could Get Bookings: A Review of Holbrook/Twain

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, a documentary about the six-decade run of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!, will be released on Tuesday, November 19th. As of today, the film is available for pre-order from iTunes.

The majority of the film, directed by Scott Teems, was shot a few years ago. It centers on a performance Holbrook gave on his 90th birthday, in 2015, to a sold-out crowd in Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain was a long-time resident.

But while Holbrook/Twain does feature numerous, elegantly-framed excerpts from that performance and others, it’s primary focus is not the show, but the showman. Teems previously directed Holbrook in the 2009 independent film, That Evening Sun, which won eleven festival prizes, including two at SXSW. It is clear that what interests him is Holbrook’s mastery of his craft and the costs of pursuing that mastery. We understand Holbrook foremost as a actor, albeit one who has been indelibly shaped by the unique experience of playing one of America’s most iconic historical figures, continuously, for his entire adult life.

Holbrook began staging Twain’s “An Encounter with an Interviewer” as part of a variety show which he and his first wife toured straight out of college at Denison. The show was seen by James “Bim” Pond, then editor of Program magazine. Pond’s father was one of Twain’s booking agents and, having inherited the family business upon his father’s death in 1903, Bim would certainly have been familiar with the public clamor for all things Twain, even deep into the 20th century. When the Holbrooks settled in New York City, looking for more stable employment to support their family, it was Pond who suggested a solo show as Twain. When Holbrook flinched, the editor said, simply, “I think you could get bookings.” The Hartford show from Holbrook/Twain was the 2,301st staging of Mark Twain Tonight!

Holbrook’s commercial success was not without sacrifices, from getting assaulted in the South by those who saw his interpretation of Twain as implicitly sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement to estranging himself from wives and children. Teems approaches his subject without caution, drawing poignantly, for instance, from an unvarnished interview with Holbrook’s son. Nor is Holbrook himself guarded when talking about the costs of his choices. The result is an unexpectedly intimate portrait. We see Holbrook’s life mimicing Twain’s, as his personal losses are weighted with the continual expectation to make people laugh as they have never laughed before. But we also see Hal Holbrook without the white suit and wig, an artistic force entirely distinct from his most famous role, who has earned the highest esteem of his peers, both actors like Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch, and scholars like Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Barbara Snedecor.

It’s hard to imagine there will ever be anything remotely like Mark Twain Tonight!, a show that was born amidst the last vestiges of vaudeville and somehow remains relevant to students born after 9/11. It’s cheap to say this is a testament to Twain. Twain’s burlesque jokes are greeted to scornful silence when I read them in my classrooms. Nearly half-a-century after his death, Twain caught another break when Holbrook crossed paths with Bim Pond. One cannot overestimate how different each of their legacies might have been without the other.

View of trailer for Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey above and Pre-Order from iTunes before November 19th.

Drinking With Twain: A Rare Manuscript

In her recent salute to Mad Magazine, Barbara Schmidt alluded to the rare pamphlet, Drinking With Twain, self-published by Frank E. Kelsey. The Center for Mark Twain Studies is in possession of one of the five hundred copies which Kelsey printed in 1936. As the copyright has not been renewed, we are pleased to make it available to the public. You may read the complete text, embedded below.

Beneath the digital edition of Drinking With Twain, I have provided some commentary about Kelsey and his co-author, Laurel O’Connor. Whether or not you are inclined to read such commentary, I warn you that this pamphlet, though certainly worthy of the curiosity of Twainiacs and local historians, should not be regarded as an especially reliable source of biographical information about Samuel Clemens or his associates. There are a few outright falsities, as well as numerous claims which are difficult, if not impossible, to corroborate. This does not prevent Kelsey’s memoir from being entertaining, or relevant to scholars. But it should be treated with healthy skepticism. It is one resident’s reflection, after a span of nearly forty years, upon the social climate of Elmira in the later stages of Clemen’s residency here.


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EDITOR’S NOTE: For best reading, launch full-screen mode from the toolbar at the bottom of the reader. This reader only allows for documents of up to 30 pages. The final four pages of the manuscript can be found in another reader at the bottom of this post.


Frank Edward Kelsey was, much like Samuel Clemens, endowed with the entrepreneurial energy of the Gilded Age. He moved freely between trades and across territories, seemingly motivated as much by cosmopolitan curiosity as by fortune-seeking. He died not far from where he had been born, in Battle Creek, Michigan, but in the interim he resided for extended periods in at least four other states and periodically worked as a salesman and promotor, exploring the entirety of the U.S. by train and later by car.

Kelsey moved to Elmira from Goshen, Indiana sometime between early 1890 and the middle of 1892. He was still a young man, not yet 30. His furniture factory, The Elmira Table Company, was incorporated on November 15, 1892, but he had clearly been in town for some time prior making preparations and overseeing construction. The Elmira Table Company remained in continuous operation until 1913, when it was purchased by a rival. The factory shuttered soon thereafter. Kelsey had presumably sold his position many years earlier. His family left the Elmira area sometime between 1898 and 1900. During his relatively brief residency, he managed to get himself elected, in 1896, as the first mayor of the village of Elmira Heights, a hard-fought election that was decided by only ten votes. Clearly an active member of the New York Republican Party, that same year he was sent as a delegate to the RNC convention in St. Louis.

Kelsey’s residency in Elmira had only minimal overlap with Clemens’s. In 1890, for the first time since 1873, the Clemenes did not spend the whole summer at Quarry Farm. They did not arrive until mid-August and then only because Olivia Lewis Langdon had fallen ill. They returned in November, and Livy remainder until after her mother’s death, but Sam spent only a few days before returning to Hartford. The Clemenses did not return for another visit to Elmira until the Summer of 1892, and even then, Sam was only in residence at Quarry Farm for a couple weeks before embarking to Europe. The following Summer they planned to resume their usual long residency. Livy and the girls arrived in late March or early April, and Sam followed them at the beginning of May, but business, namely the Panic of 1893, again interfered with his plans. Sam left for New York City after only a week at the Farm and did not return until October, and then for only a weekend. Sam made two more weekend trips to Elmira, mainly on business, in 1894.

For the first time in six years, Sam Clemens and his family did have an extended residency at Quarry Farm from mid-May to mid-July 1895, though this was still nothing like the six or seven month stretches they routinely stayed during the 1870s and 1880s. As Clemens would not return until after Kelsey moved away, this seems to be the last time he could have spent any considerable amount of time “drinking with Twain.”

Given these dates, Kelsey may have met Samuel Clemens on no more than a small handful of occasions. His pamphlet is likely far more dependent upon the second-hand stories he heard from those who frequented places like Klapproth’s tavern when Clemens was really a “regular” during the preceding decades. There are several places in the narrative where Kelsey reveals his ignorance about the man he claims to know well. Perhaps most glaringly, he claims that Clemens brought “colored servants” with him from Missouri. It is a ridiculous claim. Clemens had not lived in Missouri for well over a decade before he set foot in Elmira. The idea that he was followed around by doting African-Americans, presumably former slaves, is part of a broader pattern of casual racist fantasy in Drinking With Twain.

But while I think we should have grave doubts about Kelsey’s personal relationship to Clemens, his contention that aspects of the social culture in Elmira reflected the enduring influence of Clemens and his circle is easier to swallow. Most of the people and places Kelsey describes are part of the historical record. In some cases, like Lew Shilden’s, Kelsey provides a more detailed account which usefully supplements other sources, like the Elmira Star-Gazette, which, in 1902, wrote the following:

Kelsey’s reflections also provide a tentative answer to a minor mystery of Samuel Clemens’s biography. There is strong evidence that well into his thirties, Clemens had a drinking problem. He was arrested for public drunkenness at least once and many of his Western friends and acquaintances testified that he “got drunk oftener than was necessary.” He never succeeded in getting himself fully “on the wagon,” but after his engagement to Livy, there is sparse evidence that his drinking interfered with his domestic or professional life. It seems reasonable to speculate that something changed in Sam Clemens’s relationship to liquor after 1867. Kelsey’s outline of Twain’s supposed “philosophy of drinking,” as well as the expectations for behavior at Klapproth’s and other Elmira establishments, is a substantive and persuasive explanation of this change. The rules Kelsey alleges Clemens and his associates followed are in keeping with many of Twain’s public and private writings on drinking, including humorous aphorisms, like, “Temperate temperance is best. Intemperate temperance injures the cause of temperance.”

The co-author and so-called “raconteuse” (gifted female storyteller) of Drinking With Twain, the pseudonymous Laurel O’Connor, is, according to Barbara Schmidt, an actress and writer from Battle Creek, Laurabell Reed Connor Stones.

Mrs. Stones became familiar with Mr. Kelsey when she was still Mrs. Connor, specifically during her brother, Jimmy Reed’s, prolonged battle with tuberculosis, which he succumbed to in March 1935. O’Connor reports that both she and her brother, each of whom also worked for local newspapers, took “little odd jobs of writing for [Kelsey].” It’s unclear why exactly Kelsey was employing freelance writers, aside from the composition of Drinking With Twain, which did not begin until after Reed’s death. Kelsey was the business manager of both the Battle Creek Journal and Kalamazoo Telegraph-Press from 1911 to 1915, but his direct involvement in the newspaper business seems to have ended long before his friendship with the Reeds began.

It seems possible that some of the awkward Confederate romanticism, including overt racism, which runs through Drinking With Twain could have come from O’Connor/Stones. In her introduction, she alludes with pride to a great-grandfather, who was an “admirable drinker” and “the first Attorney General from the State of Mississippi.” She is referring, presumably, to Thomas Buck Reed, who was actually the third Attorney General from Mississippi, from 1821 to 1826, as well as a U.S. Senator from 1826 to 1829.

O’Connor also mentions another great grandfather, who she describes as “a glorious rogue who rode a white charger with magnificent dignity and doffed his tall black hat to every pretty petticoat.” This is probably Thomas Hurst, the Virginian plantation owner whose daughter, Elizabeth Lee Hurst, married John Hampton Reed. Their son (and Laurabell’s father) James Hall Reed migrated to Battle Creek after serving as a doctor for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. There he met and married Josephine Norton. O’Connor shows much more pride in the Southern side of her family than in the Nortons, who could trace their ancestry back to the original settlement of Battle Creek. At the time of her mother’s death, in 1962, Laurabell Stones was reported living with her second husband, Frank Stones, in Des Plaines, Illinois.

Frank Kelsey with his great-grandchildren, from Battle Creek Enquirer, in 1952, the year of his death.

There are two more things worth mentioning about Frank Kelsey’s career, which had many twists and turns. In the early years of the 20th century, Kelsey left the furniture business and became a full-time promoter, first for the Battle Creek Breakfast Food Co., which would produce several of the most popular cereal brands of the era and eventually be acquired by Kellogg’s. Battle Creek Breakfast Food had facilities in Buffalo (NY), Chicago (IL), Dayton (OH), and Quincy (IL), in addition to Battle Creek, and Kelsey was a frequent visitor to these cities.

He claimed to have invented Battle Creek Breakfast Food’s signature product, Egg-o-See, the most popular cereal of the first decade of the 20th century and the brandname which became Kellogg’s Eggo‘s toaster pastries. His foundational role in the company was reported in, among other papers, the Elmira Star-Gazette.

Over the next several decades, Kelsey would work as a promotor for several more companies, both large and small, including the Royal Fireless Cooker Co., Chevrolet, and, as he acknowledges in Drinking With Twain, Paris, Allen, & Co., the distributors of Old Crow Bourbon Whiskey. Kelsey’s professional relationship with Paris, Allen, & Co. throws into question his claim that Old Crow was Mark Twain’s preferred American whiskey, a claim which has not been corroborated elsewhere.

Kelsey clearly went through periods of boom and bust. Like Clemens, his fortunes were once swept away by a financial crisis. In 1929, he declared bankruptcy in Detroit. During the same year, the Star-Gazette wrongly reported that he had died. However, Kelsey recovered, living another 20+ years, and building a successful tax consulting firm in Battle Creek.

If you have more information about Frank E. Kelsey, Laurabell Reed Connor Stones, or Drinking With Twain, the Center for Mark Twain Studies would love to hear from you ([email protected]).

Thanks are due to both Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com and Nathaniel Ball, Elmira College archivist, for their help in researching and preparing this manuscript.

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CFP: Panel on “Afterlives of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” at NeMLA 2020 in Boston, MA (March 5-8, 2020)

Michael Torregrossa will chair a panel on the “Afterlives of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” at the 51st Annual Convention of the Northeast Modern Language Association in Boston from March 5-8, 2020.

Writer Mark Twain and illustrator Daniel Carter Beard’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) has had a long history of adaptation in popular culture, but the full scope of its reception remains untold. There are, of course, the obvious texts, both in print and on film, that merely retell the story. Of these, more work is needed on the illustrative tradition. Along with retellings, there are also a small number of works that continue Connecticut Yankee. These appear entirely unknown to Twainians but offer a unique approach to the author’s legacy. More importantly, Connecticut Yankee itself or its story as mediated through one of its many retellings has also stimulated new narratives detached from Twain and Beard’s telling that recast characters and restage events. Also relatively unknown by scholars of the novel, these materials can be found throughout modern popular culture, and, although Elizabeth S. Sklar somewhat derisibly labels these as “spinoffs and ripoffs” of the novel, they are of value (as she suggests) and perhaps more so than the retellings because such items serve as the base for an extensive corpus of transformations of the novel that send various protagonists, all characters more familiar to contemporary readers and viewers than Twain’s Hank Morgan, into the medieval past and set a common pattern for time travel stories. In the end, this session will offer a broad view of adaptations of the Connecticut Yankee story to situate both retellings and the lesser known and/or hitherto unknown continuations and recastings into a new continuum to offer a more complete picture of the novel’s effect on popular culture and provide fresh insight into the various ways that the producers responsible for these re-imaginings have appropriated the story and its time-travel motif for their own purposes.

This session will offer a broad view of adaptations of the Connecticut Yankee story to situate both retellings and the lesser known and/or hitherto unknown continuations and recastings of the story into a new continuum to offer a more complete picture of the novel’s effect on popular culture.

More information about NeMLA and the convention can be found here. Abstracts should be submitted here.

“Buy It, Laugh, & Grow Fat”: The 1869 Reviews of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad

At the Center for Mark Twain Studies we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s first book. Sales of The Innocents Abroad began on August 10, 1869 and soon thereafter reviews started appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive. Twain was already a well-known writer and lecturer who many journalists regarded as one of their own. This affinity, as well as the aggressive and innovative marketing strategies of the American Publishing Company, may have help secure good press for the book. Many editors expressed their appreciation at being sent gratis copies and many of the same papers which reviewed it also had advertising contracts with the publisher and/or local book agents. That said, the work was clearly capable of living up to the effusion. Many editors chose simply to reprint excerpts from the text.

Below I have collected a series of blurbs from the first wave of reviews which appeared during the remaining months of 1869. This is not a comprehensive collection, but the selections I have made, I hope, demonstrate something of the critical consensus that developed around what many characterized as a groundbreaking travel narrative. I have tried to include excerpts from both metropolitan and small-town papers, and from various regions of the country.

“The propriety of filling a book of six hundred odd pages with mere jokes may be questioned. But it is not questionable that, if this be granted, ‘Mark Twain’ has produced a very laughable and enterprising book. No American book of travels, except Ross Browne’s ‘Yusef,’ is written with the same humorous spirit, and certainly none contains so much genuine fun…The book does not profess to instruct, and it does not. It aims to entertain, and it does. There is a genuine American tone about it which is refreshing to see after the snobberies of some other American travellers.” – Buffalo Morning Express (August 18, 1869)

“Certainly, Mark Twain succeeds is dispelling many of the old traditions which travelers have so long inflicted upon a confiding and long-suffering public. He has gone over the ground with a genuine Yankee spirit; determining to see everything that is to be seen, to see it thoroughly and like a man of sense. To go into ecstasies over but few things, and to speak the plain, unvarnished truth under all circumstances. And this truth is told to us in such a winsome form that we cannot but listen to it with agreeable sensations. Throughout runs an undercurrent of genuine native humor. Not what we are so apt to accept as such, and which is principally remarkable for its vulgarity and insipidity, but a real, crisp, tangible wit, that speaks in every line of the vitality, the vigorous honesty of the man, and of how fully he is imbued with all the better of the national characteristics.” – New York Express (August 20, 1869)

“If any one, troubled with hifaluten notions, contemplates a trip to the old world, he had better read this book before he makes the trip. It will greatly improve his self-respect and make him appear better than if he went and put on the unnecessary airs that many do.” – Rutland Daily Herald (August 23, 1869)

“Mr. Clemens has an abominable irreverence for tradition and authority, – which sometimes unfortunately degenerates into an offensive irreverence for things which other men hold sacred, – and makes not the slightest hesitation at expressing his opinions in the very plainest possible language, no matter how unorthodox they may be. There is nothing he fears to laugh at, and though some people may wish that he had been a little more tender of the romance of travel, it is certainly refreshing to find a tourist who does not care what other tourists have said before him.” – The New York Tribune (August 27, 1869)

“Unlike the majority of American humorists, Mark Twain never indulges in bad spelling and worse grammar, which vulgarities most frequently comprise the joke. He uses nothing but good Anglo-Saxon, and when the readers laugh, as they will many time over and over, merriment arises solely from the subject written of, not from the manner in which it is written, and is therefore all the more enjoyable. ‘The Innocents Abroad’ is undoubtedly an oasis in the desert of works on foreign travel with which we are deluged at the present day. We have read it throughout with great pleasure, and if Mark Twain will do no worse in future efforts at bookmaking we’ll always heartily welcome him to our desk.” – New York Herald (August 31, 1869)

“The volume abounds in pleasant incident, racy description, and incongruous scenes, which, depicted by the pen of one who has so keen a perception of the ridiculous and so bold a purpose to expose it, gives a book unusually readable, and with burlesque enough in it to satisfy the veriest lover of the grotesque in Christendom.” – St. Louis Globe Democrat (September 6, 1869)

“Mark Twain always interesting, in this book has outrivaled himself. It is instructive, humorous, racy, full of quaint expressions that make you laugh unexpectedly, and before you are quite ready; critical, sometimes caustic, but always good natured; never prosy or wearisome. You begin the book and do not want to leave it till the last line is reached. Mark never describes a place or sees a sight as others do. His is intensely original; and for us there is where the charm lies.” – New Jersey Standard (September 24, 1869)

“There is no writer of the present day who can begin with Mark Twain in weaving into a story fact and fiction, philosophy and humor, so as to excite the risibles beyond control, and at the same time without violating the rules of good taste, in either the orthography or syntax of our language. Mark is a trump, and his book is a gem of the first water. – Buy it – laugh and grow fat.” – Wyndette Commercial Gazette (September 25, 1869)

“We must truthfully say that we had no idea so much humor, wit, geniality, fine description and good sense, could be contained within the covers of any one book…Our sides ache, and we lay aside the book to rest, and to advise our friends and readers, one and all, to buy the book at the first opportunity, and read it through.” – Monmouth Inquirer (September 30, 1869)

“Criticism of the work is almost impossible; as sufficient gravity of countenance for the purpose can hardly be maintained over the volume. To think of, or look at it, is to smile, but to read it is to overwhelm all criticism with uncontrollable laughter.” – Public Weekly Opinion (October 5, 1869)

“The standard shams of travel which everybody sees through suffer possibly more than they ought, but not so much as they might; and on readily forgives the harsh treatment of them in consideration of the novel piece of justice done on such a traveller as suffers under the pseudonym of Grimes. It is impossible also that the quality of the humor should not sometimes be strained in the course of so long a narrative; but the wonder is rather in the fact that it is strained so seldom.” – William Dean Howells, Atlantic Monthly (December, 1869)