In 1907 Oxford University deigned to give Mark Twain an honorary degree. Twain had received such plaudits before, including from esteemed American institutions such as Yale University, but the 71-year-old product of Hannibal, Missouri, who had no formal education past grammar school, was particularly flattered by the attentions of the oldest collegiate institution in the Anglophone world. As Ron Powers puts it, “[Twain] cherished the red Oxford gown he was given, and wore it whenever he felt like it, which was often.”
I like to think that on a patio, somewhere in Vermont, Dr. Powers is enjoying this early summer evening decked out in his own cherished gown, this one two shades of purple with some gold trim. Perhaps he has worn it to the grocery, or the nursery, or the bank this past week.
A hair older than Twain was when he matriculated from Oxford, Powers is, likewise, a product of Hannibal, Missouri who found a way to make his living first as a journalist and thereafter as a professional writer across genres and mediums. He spent more years in school than Twain did, but judging by his own account of his time at University of Missouri, he accumulated roughly as many honors.
Twain scholars and friends of CMTS know Powers best as a biographer and memoirist, who both explored Twain’s life as a scholar and kept the mythical figure with whom he shared some autobiographical affinities constantly on his shoulder while he was writing about television, mental illness, sports, small towns, Americana, and more. Twain is primogenitor of the idiosyncratic lineage of reporters and chroniclers to whom Powers repeatedly turns for words of wisdom, sure, but also as models for a brand of American writing which for most of his career Powers has worried is endangered. As early as 1988, long before #FakeNews, alternative facts, or filter bubbles, he wrote,
“Propelled by mass media, the tendency to frame everyday issues in the rhetoric of life and death has inflated the commonplace and deflated the significant. A saturation of cheap public rhetoric has numbed us both to the authentically spiritual and the authentically profane. Truth and falsehood have been mostly relieved of their oppositional qualities.”
from “Don’t Think of It As Art” (1988), collected in The Cruel Radiance (1994)
Ron Powers’s commencement address to the Elmira College class of 2019 was certainly foremost about their moment of “lift off,” but it also draws attention to the divisive political climate and volatile media environment which make those 1988 words seem familiar and prophetic.
Kudos, congratulations, and also gratitude to Ron. We hope you enjoy listening to a few more of his words.
Teachers at all levels may be intrigued by this recent episode of the C19 podcast featuring (and produced by) Koritha Mitchell of Ohio State University. The episode is not exclusively about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mitchell considers a range of texts by authors from various historical periods and with various racial identities. But Twain’s novel is prominent and she also alludes to the NewSouth edition of the novel which replaced the n-word with slave. Mitchell says, “The Huck Finn example is important because C19 scholars likely believe its more directly related to their work than the aforementioned books by [Randall] Kennedy and [Jabari] Asim. But what makes it even more important is that people working on the 19th century also seem to view the debate in terms of whether Twain is being censored, rather than considering how they might hold themselves to a higher standard as teachers and scholars.”
Central to Dr. Mitchell’s pedagogical perspective is her classroom covenant, portions of which she discusses in detail. This document, along with further commentary, can be viewed in full at her website: KorithaMitchell.com
You can subscribe to the C19 podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, and other popular platforms. Check out other projects from C19: The Society of 19th-Century Americanists at their website: C19Society.org
Among the most common and resilient myths in Mark Twain Studies is that Samuel Clemens was economically illiterate and financially incompetent. This myth was born during his lifetime, specifically during the widely publicized bankruptcy of his publishing house following the Panic of 1893. Clemens made little effort to defend his reputation as a businessman, even as he became, by his own accounting, wealthier in the final decade of his life than he had been at any time before. Though the exact size of Clemens’s estate was disputed following his death in 1910, all agreed that it was enviably large. Still, the first several generations of Twain scholars placed far more emphasis on the fortune Twain lost than upon the fact that he made that fortune in the first place, or that he remade it. A few scholars have attempted to complicate the standard account of Twain’s fiscal foolishness, but many more treat it as established fact.
In “Mark Twain’s Portfolio,” I am going to take a closer look at Clemens’s investments. While I am, as I expect readers to be, curious as to whether these investments were profitable, in most cases I will not be able to reduce their returns to a reliable dollar figure because the exact dates of purchase and sale by Clemens or his heirs are rarely part of the public record. But we do have a fairly comprehensive record of what Clemens’s portfolio looked like at the time of his death, as well as discussions of investing in public and private writings during his life. Beyond evaluating whether these specific investments were “good” or “bad,” I will be attentive to whether and how they reflected the worldview expressed in Twain’s published works and public discourse.
Clemens’s investing practices intersect with his politics in complicated and sometimes conflicting ways. This is probably nowhere more evident than in his ownership, at the time of his death, of at least 165 shares of United Fruit Company. This was, in purely pecuniary terms, a great investment. Two weeks before Clemens’s death, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Fruit was trading at $174 per share, making Clemens’s block worth, adjusted for inflation, more than $740,000. The share price was up over 40% in the preceding year and United Fruit was reliably paying a 2% quarterly dividend to shareholders. Clemens’s United Fruit stock was generating passive income as well as appreciating exchange value.
United Fruit stock had by no means peaked by the time of Clemens’s death. Indeed, the share price would rise 12% in the next four months alone and the company would pay an additional 10% dividend before the end of the calendar year. The Wall Street Journal reported that United Fruit’s capitalization had increased by more than 400% in less than a decade. A market reporter for the Boston Globe wrote in September that “holders of United Fruit will not sell the stock at any reasonable price.” By 1920, United Fruit would report $44.6 million in earnings ($569.9 million in 2019 dollars). Even after adjusting for inflation, that was at least ten times the profits the company made in the final year of Clemens’s life. Presuming the administrators of Twain’s estate held on to his shares, they would’ve contributed to rapid growth in the 1910s and 1920s, and United Fruit would remain a reliable asset through most of the 20th century.
Of course, behind every great fortune lies a great crime. United Fruit was and would remain one of the most notorious corporations of the 20th century. Their commercial and political machination in Guatemala, Honduras, and throughout Central America and the Caribbean are presumed to have inspired O. Henry to coin the term “banana republic” in 1904 and to be the basis for the rapacious corporate monster in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. United Fruit’s sordid history includes too many violent labor disputes, political scandals, and cruel exploitations for me to catalog here, but numerous books have been written on the subject, notably Bitter Fruit (1982) by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bananas (2008) by Peter Chapman, and Banana Cowboys (2018) by James W. Martin.
In his contribution to Banana Wars (2003), Philippe Bourgois describes United Fruit as “the quintessential model for the institutional form of the multinational corporation that changed the face of the world during the twentieth century.” It was a “government sponsored international trade monopoly” which “was buttressed by the political, military, and economic might of the U.S. government.” In other words, United Fruit’s spectacular performance as an investment was subsidized by U.S. taxpayers through the intermediary of the proudly imperialist Republican administrations of the early 20th century.
Mark Twain was an outspoken and aggressive critic of U.S. imperialist adventuring throughout the final decade of his life. In 1900 he famously stated “I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle puts its talons on any other land.” By his own account, he came to this position by observing U.S. actions in the Philippines, which he wrote about at length. He would also publicly critique imperialism in Cuba, China, and the Belgian Congo, explicitly attacking how the moral, religious, and democratic justifications for American and European interventions in sovereign states were always masks for programmatic economic exploitation. “There must be two Americas,” he wrote, “one that sets the captive free, and one that takes that once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” As these words were being written, United Fruit was in the early stages of becoming one of the largest landholders in the world, eventually amassing 3.5 million acres of real estate across a dozen countries. These annexations and appropriations frequently met with resistance and resulted in violence.
So far as I surmised, Twain never spoke publicly of the United Fruit Company and made only passing comments about U.S. involvement in the countries where United Fruit’s operations were already becoming notorious. However, Sam Clemens and his close friend, Henry H. Rogers, who also happened to be his primary financial advisor from 1893 forward, did visit and tour a United Fruit Company outpost in Portland, Jamaica in March of 1902. The visit does not seem to have been planned. Rather, as the log of Rogers’s yacht (quoted in this section of David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day) reports, the pleasure cruisers “took refuge” from a “wild and tumbly” sea in the harbor at Port Antonio, described as “a deep & smooth little blue-water bay whose hilly shores were densely clothed in cocoa-palms.” Clemens, Rogers, and their fellow yachters visited what they called the “company’s hotel,” which was located on Titchfield Hill, a cliff with ocean views on all sides. There they met “some Bostonians” and became “guests of the company,” enjoying a rail tour of the plantations, including a ruined sugar mill at Golden Grove. This rail system had only recently been installed and helped to make Port Antonio “one of the wealthiest communities on the island” according to the 1903 “Handbook of Jamaica” produced by the British consul.
While Sam makes no mention of the fruit company in his letters to Livy during the cruise, he does corroborate some of these events. From the yacht on March 29 he wrote:
“We got no further than this place (40 miles [from Kingston]) when the barometer presaged a storm and we came in and anchored. It is a deep and sheltered bay, and the water is delicate green in color and limpid and brilliant. The shores and hills and mountain sides are solid with coca-groves. We spent the whole afternoon until after dark in a drive behind fast mules, through the great hills, the most prodigal and marvelous exhibition of tropical vegetation imaginable. It realized the most frantic dreams of the travel-books. The mere multitudinous names of the rare plants and trees was enough to bewilder the mind…It was a grand day, and makes all the other days of the trip poor and commonplace by comparison.”
Letter to Olivia Clemens, 29 March 1902, part of the Mark Twain Papers at Bancroft Library, UC-Berkeley
Clearly, the excursion through United Fruit Company real estate in Portland, Jamaica left an impression upon Mr. Clemens, yet he does not allude to the company, its properties, or its influence over the region, even to his wife. If it was soon after this chance encounter with the operations of United Fruit that Clemens and Rogers chose to invest in the company, that investment surely paid off, but so far as I can tell, they never discussed it, as they did many of their other mutual ventures.
The ethics of the banana and sugar trades, and of the government intervention on behalf of U.S.-based corporations, were heartily debated in many of the publications Clemens regularly read, including the North American Review, where several of his anti-imperialist polemics were published. Given the consistency and vehemence of Twain’s anti-imperialism, I feel safe speculating that he knew United Fruit’s dividend payments were tainted and that he did not receive them with unalloyed delight, even though they may have reminded him of a happy day in the tropics.
“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist or an old optimist.” – Mark Twain
Twain’s increasing cynicism about mankind generally, and 20th-century America in particular, is reflected in his portfolio. As I will discuss in future installments, there were investments which Twain was enthusiastic about because he believed the business would prove a boon to society. But he also practiced what we might call “existential hedging,” taking a personal stake in companies he likely believed were complicit in making the world a worse place, but which he nevertheless expected to flourish, expressly because they adopted a business model he found morally reprehensible. By owning a piece of publicly-traded corporations like United Fruit, he could, at least, reap monetary reward from the geopolitical agenda which enraged him.
One can see Twain’s investment in United Fruit as both an acknowledgment of his own futility – an admission that his anti-imperialist writings weren’t making a damn bit of difference – and a clever way of contriving to make his political enemies subsidize his dissent. Perhaps in part because he could count on the equivalent of $50,000-$60,000 a year from his United Fruit shares (among many other investments), Twain was finally free, in the final decade of his life, from having to publish and lecture in order to sustain himself and his household. This meant that he lectured and published less frequently. It also meant he was more overtly political and polemical. He could afford to be booed, as he was in 1901 after saying that U.S. soldiers defending economic exploitation abroad were dying under a “polluted flag.”
Closely examining Mark Twain’s portfolio forces one to consider more carefully what makes an investment “good.” If returns are the only metric, than shares in United Fruit were among the best assets an investor could hold in the early decades of the 20th century. From another perspective, Twain’s sizable stake in United Fruit reveals the utmost hypocrisy, as he privately profits from Roosevelt-ian imperialism even as he berates it in public. This contradiction is characteristically Twainian.
This piece of Twain’s portfolio also leaves open a third interpretation of good investing practice. “Activist investing” has become something of a misnomer, as contemporary “activist investors” frequently use their shareholding simply to lobby for better returns. But the original ideal of “activist investing,” as articulated in the The Ethical Investor (1972), was to use shareholding to pressure publicly-traded corporations to adopt more progressive policies, including improving labor conditions, increasing employee profit-sharing, and embracing consumer protections. Was Clemens’s block of United Fruit stock part of an attempt to circumvent the government entirely and exert direct influence on a company whose interests were increasingly intertwined with U.S. foreign policy? Perhaps Clemens simply saw every share he held as one which would not fall into the hands of the war hawks he hated.
In a dialogue he wrote in 1902, “The Dervish & The Offensive Stranger,” which touches on both the history of colonialism and the contemporaneous Boer Wars, Twain demonstrates the difficulty of judging goodness. The stranger says, “England has succeeded in her good purpose of lifting up the unwilling Boers and making them better and purer and happier than they could have become by their own devices…But there are only eleven Boers left, now.” He uses this to ironically support his thesis that, “Half of the results of good intention are evil; half the results of evil intention are good.” This is about as compelling a rationalization as I can come up with for owning United Fruit Company stock.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post did not include discussion of Clemens and Rogers visiting the United Fruit Company outpost in Jamaica. Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com drew my attention to the passage in Mark Twain Day By Day which referenced the trip.
The Center for Mark Twain Studies, in association with the Elmira College Office of Continuing Education & Graduate Studies and the Greater Souther Tier Teacher Center, will once again host a two-day institute for primary and secondary school educators this July. As in the past, participants will, for a relatively small fee, subsidized by our partner organizations, get to spend time intensively studying the life and works of Mark Twain in the historic environs of Elmira College and Quarry Farm.
This year, in addition to myself (Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College and resident scholar at the Center for Mark Twain Studies), the institute will be led by Jocelyn Chadwick. Dr. Chadwick recently finished a term as President of the National Council For Teachers of English, during which she paid particular attention to how 21st-century students responded to sensitive texts, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In addition to her many years as a secondary-school teacher and an education professor, currently at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr. Chadwick has a lengthy track record of scholarship on Mark Twain’s works in U.S. classrooms, notably her book, The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, as well as numerous articles (for instance, in this special section of English Journalfrom 2017) and presentations.
In March of 2018, Dr. Chadwick used MarkTwainStudies.com as a vehicle for her response to a decision by Duluth Public Schools to drop Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculums. This remains one of the most popular pages on our site, as is the follow-up, in which she shared excerpts from interviews with teachers and students which she had conducted during her nationwide travels for NCTE. In these posts and her ongoing work, Dr. Chadwick focuses on the importance of reframing these texts for this generation of readers, as well as putting Mark Twain into conversation with other writers and utilizing additional primary sources which both situate students in the historical contexts of the novels and put those novels in conversation with contemporary culture.
During this year’s institute, “Mark Twain & Generation Z,” Dr. Chadwick is eager to both share the perspective she has gained from visiting classrooms around the country and engage with the unique perspectives of faculty from our region.
As has always been the case, participants in the Summer Institute will receive a certificate, but for the first time in 2019, Institute attendees will also have the option of enrolling in an abbreviated course, offered during the Fall 2019 term, at Elmira College. The course will meet once a week, on Wednesday evenings, for six weeks. Teachers who attend both the Summer Institute and take the course will earn 3.0 credits towards their Masters in Education at Elmira College.
This course will include more sustained discussions of texts introduced during the institute and pedagogical approaches to them. Participants will also have the opportunity to follow-up with Dr. Chadwick via video-conferencing and engage with other Twain scholars in residence at the Center for Mark Twain Studies during the Fall of 2019.
On Saturday night, while Ron Chernow was addressing the White House correspondents and their esteemed guests, I was in Brooklyn speaking to and with an inspiring group of conceptual artists on the final day of “Dirt & Debt,” sponsored by ResidencyUnlimited. Though I was there, foremost, as someone who has tried to narrate the cultural history of American finance, the co-curator who introduced me wanted to also acknowledge my connection the Center for Mark Twain Studies and so had created a slide which featured the epigram from Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Michael Lewis’s bestselling postmortem of the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short:
Somewhat sheeepishly, I had to inform my gracious host that, in fact, Mark Twain never said such a thing. As I traced in 2016, the false attribution was popularized by Al Gore. In these moments, which are not entirely uncommon, I cannot help but ask myself, “Why do I care?” There is absolutely no reason why a viewer of McKay’s provocative film should suspect they are being misled. Is divesting them of this misconception anything more than a narcissistic display of my own idiosyncratic expertise? There are far more urgent falsehoods to be reckoned with. I could tell that the curator was a little disappointed. She liked the quote, and liked even more the symbolic way in reconciled the seemingly disparate strains of my scholarship. I saw it. I was flattered that she had engaged enough with my work to see it to. Believe me, it would be preferable for me if it were so. It just isn’t.
Back in my hotel room later that night, I logged into the backend of MarkTwainStudies.org, as I often do at the end of the day, just to see what our traffic looked like. It was surprisingly robust for the weekend, much of it directed to another “Apocryphal Twain” post I wrote on the occasion of the 2018 midterm elections. This one traced the origins of a scatatological assessment of what politicians are typically full of.
It took very little searching to surmise that the traffic was driven by the invocation of this aphorism by Ron Chernow at the conclusion of his speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner earlier in the evening, a speech which was already being widely praised. “As we head into election season, I will leave you with one final gem from Twain,” Chernow said, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons.”
I was exhausted, but I lay there watching and rewatching the last several minutes of Chernow’s speech. Much of what he said I could sympathize with, but knowing that he had ended on a false note (in fact, a couple of them), the overarching message rang hollow. If America’s leading historical biographer can’t be bothered to properly source the quote he chooses to conclude what he knows will probably be the most-watched speech he will ever deliver, what hope is there of defeating the “relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media” which he rightly describes.
Just a few moments earlier in the speech, Chernow had brought the room to its feet by calling them “heirs to a grand crusading tradition that dates back to Ida B. Wells…this is a glorious tradition, you folks are part of it, and we can’t have politicians trampling on it with impunity, both here and by autocratic regimes abroad.” A little pandering, sure, but I can get on board with this type of panegyric to the press, in part because it doesn’t rely, as Chernow elsewhere does, upon reductive characterizations of journalists as high-minded arbiters of truth and faultless guardians of facts. The tradition of U.S. journalism that includes Ida Wells, Ida Tarbell, and others who Chernow names, is propelled by a “crusading” impulse.
This tradition is not above using polemic, parody, poetry, and many other genres and rhetorical devices which depend upon journalists’ creative and critical acumen, not just their ability to navigate documents and report what’s happening “on the ground.” The mythic figures of American journalism – Joseph Pulitzer, for instance – habitually eluded details which were inconvenient to the case they were making, published insufficiently substantiated claims, and engaged in heated debates with other public figures that were rooted at least as much in their personal beliefs as the public’s interests. For those of us who spend ample time in the archives of U.S. newpapers, this observation is banal, and not at all bothersome. It is not tantamount to shouting #FakeNews or underestimating how integral the fourth estate is to civil society. Good journalists are not always “fair-minded” and “accurate.” Nor are the politicians and other powerful individuals and institutions who they cover and occasionally crusade against. Via these crusades power is forced to account for itself before the vigilance of a democratic citizenry. That’s the real credibility of the news media and the service they perform in civil society.
Chernow builds his panegyric to the press around facts: “Facts are the foot-soldiers of our respective professions. They do the hard marching and should wear no ideological coloring.” By reifying the myths of journalistic rigor and objectivity, Chernow and the reporters who applaud him are setting for themselves a standard which is both unachievable (because truth is hard) and unprecedented. They are complicit in creating an environment in which every mistake, every retraction, and every misattribution, no matter how trivial, gives that campaign being waged against their credibility more fuel. They can be foisted on their own petard. You don’t get to claim entry in a “glorious tradition” of fact-worshipping and then abdicate the basic fact-checking of statements that happen to be flattering to you, resonate with your worldview, or allow you to appropriate the high-approval ratings of a mythic figure like Mark Twain. Stop fetishizing facts. Perhaps the more potent position, certainly the one more reconcilable with Twain’s legacy, is to resuscitate and revere the historical overlap between muckraking journalists and persuasive realist fiction-writers.
“Remind the world that ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling: that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.
“Mark Twain Accepts” Hartford Courant June 29, 1888
I remain steadfastly convinced that if you’re willing to go digging for it, the stuff he actually said is always preferable to the weak witticisms of others we attempt to spruce up by imagining them coming out of his mouth.
Easter Sunday fell on April 21st in 1867. It seems likely that Samuel Clemens observed the holiday largely alone at the Westminster Hotel. He stood on the precipice of lasting fame. His “Jumping Frog” story had been a viral sensation. A collection with it at the center was scheduled to be published at the end of the month. It would sell 5,000 copies in less than a week. He had just spent a considerable portion of his savings to book the lecture hall at the Cooper Union. It would be prove an early example of the wisdom of investing in himself.
Eleven years later, Easter Sunday again fell on April 21. The Clemens family – Sam, Livy, and two daughters, Susy and Clara – celebrated the holiday aboard the steamship Holsatia bound for Hamburg. It was the ship’s final voyage and it was a rocky one. Sam reported that neither Livy nor the girls could bear to eat because they were “worn out with the rolling and tumbling of the ship.” “I have had inexhaustible appetite,” Sam assured Livy’s mother, “and have tried to make up for them.”
Again in 1889 Easter Sunday fell on April 21. The Clemenses now had three daughters, all of whom celebrate the holiday at their resplendent home in Hartford. Sam was confident that the Paige Compositor Company he had recently invested in would secure their future and free him of the pressures of the lecture circuit and writing under deadlines. It was 22 years to the day since he has spent Easter as a bachelor in New York and 21 years to the day before his death.
Happy Easter from The Center For Mark Twain Studies!
Our first update to Mark Twain Day By Day Online address several technical difficulties with the rollout version. There is a prominent searchbar associated with each volume, allowing scholars to quickly find keywords and dates from throughout the massive resource. Also, Paul Stonier has address many (all? most?) of the spacing and other formatting problems that were sprinkled throughout the text. We consider Day By Day to be a living resource, so additional updates are to be expected from time to time. If you encounter problems while using the database or imagine functionalities which would improve its utility, please let us know, recognizing of course that updates will be made as time, resources, and technical capacity allow.
David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day is an exhaustive chronology of the life of Samuel Clemens which was originally published in four enormous print volumes between 2008 and 2014. It has since become and invaluable reference for scholars who have the good fortune of having access to it, but the size and expense of the books have kept it primarily confined to university libraries and a few private collections. That is, until now. Independent Twain scholars, teachers, students, hobbyists, and all variety of Twainiac can now access a fully-searchable online edition of Mark Twain Day By Day for free from anywhere with an internet connection.
CMTS is incredibly grateful to Mr. Fears for entrusting us with the fruit of his extraordinary labors, and also to the late Dr. Thomas A. Tenney, Dr. Barbara Snedecor, Leslie Myrick, Dr. Susan K. Harris, Nathanial Ball, and Paul Stonier, all of whom donated time and labor essential to getting this project online.
On August 27, 1870, a sketch appeared in the Leavenworth Daily Commercial with Mark Twain’s byline. So far as I can tell, this sketch, “The Texan Steer,” has never appeared in any collection of Twain’s work or been discussed by scholars or biographers. There are several potential explanations for this oversight, including the inaccessibility of the archives of small-town and rural newspapers prior to recent digitization efforts. There is also the possibility that, despite the byline, this sketch was not written by Mark Twain at all.
Leavenworth is a town in the Missouri River Valley, a part of the country in which Mark Twain was very popular. Gossipy reports about Twain’s travels and performances appeared regularly in the Commercial, as well as excerpts from his published works. Reporting upon an appearance in Chicago (a city of 300,000) the correspondent from Leavenworth (a town of 18,000) speculated that Twain “would attract a large, first-class audience here.”
Nineteenth-Century American newspapers, particularly those in small markets, depended upon each other for content to fill their columns. Twain’s meteoric rise to fame during the late 1860s is actually closely associated with the practice (which would be prosecutable plagiarism by today’s standards). The humorous stories he wrote for papers in New York and California found their way to every corner of the interior. Twain’s stories proliferated like social media memes, although much slower, as each newspaper that “shared” them increased the likelihood that another from a neighboring city would do the same.
“The Texan Steer” did not appear only or originally in the Commercial. Between August and October of 1870 it showed up in at least a dozen papers hailing from Florida, Indiana, Kansas, New York, and Ohio. It was usually, though not always, attributed to Mark Twain. When Twain was not named, the Buffalo Express was, and Mark Twain was well known to be not only a contributor, but a partial owner of the Express.
“The Texan Steer” is inspired by events which had recently transpired in Buffalo. On August 8th, two bulls had escaped near the New York Central Depot and stampeded through the streets of Buffalo, killing at least one person and injuring several more, causing an uproar that was widely publicized even beyond the city. The tragic-comical nature of this incident does make it seem a likely target for Twain’s often twisted sense of humor.
The sketch appeared in the Express on August 18th with no byline, but this is not necessarily proof that the editors at the Commercial and elsewhere were mistaken. Twain, like other correspondents throughout the nation, frequently published unsigned articles, including several for the Express during this period (as can be found in Joseph McCullough and Janice McIntire-Strasburg’s collection Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express). Fellow editors at the Commercial, the Junction City Weekly Union, Florida Peninsular, and elsewhere may have had inside knowledge of the article’s true authorship, or they may have simply presumed, correctly or incorrectly, that it was the work of the Express‘s famous humorist.
Slightly complicating matters is the fact that we don’t know exactly where Samuel Clemens was on the date the article was published. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, died in Elmira early in August and the Clemenses attended the funeral on the 8th. It is unclear when they returned to Buffalo, though they were certainly back by the 30th (when he postmarked a letter from there).
Considering that wiring “dispatches” from great distances was part of what had made Twain famous during the preceding years, the 150 miles from Elmira to Buffalo was hardly an impediment to publication. Not including “The Texan Steer,” Twain published at least two articles in the Express, both unsigned, during this period, including his obituary for Jervis Langdon (the other was “Domestic Missionaries Wanted”). Nor would Twain’s failure to observe the stampede have prevented him from burlesquing it. He frequently drew inspiration from newspaper reports and the Langdon family, with their multitude of business interests throughout New York State, subscribed to several of the Buffalo papers.
One also might speculate that writing such an article would be in particularly bad taste during a time when Sam Clemens was supposed to be mourning the father-in-law for whom he held great esteem. But, as Joseph Csicsila has shown, Clemens consistently dealt with grief by throwing himself into his work, even at the expense of seeming callous to family and friends. Jerome Loving marvels that during this period
“Sam kept right on working on promised projects…he suffered along with the rest of the family…but he nevertheless managed to write. It is hard to imagine, even today, how he functioned as a humorist, but the Galaxy [a monthly humor column Twain wrote for the magazine headquartered in Buffalo] is hard evidence of his success.”
from The Adventures of Samuel Clemens (2010)
Barring the discovery of relevant records or correspondence, we may never be able to definitively support or debunk the attribution of the “The Texan Steer.” However, there are some clues within the text which explain why it was reasonable to connect it to Twain. Perhaps most evidently there is the narrator, whose affectation is that he is a naturalist scientifically observing and recording the behaviors of the Texan steer when readers, especially those familiar with the recent events in Buffalo, know he is just cowering in a tree to avoid being gored. What we might characterize as the “pretentious idiot” is a persona which Twain took on frequently in his burlesque sketches and, perhaps most famously, in episodes from The Innocents Abroad.
Also, Twain was not above reusing material with minor variations. The use of “corned” as a synonym for drunkenness (and a culinary pun) would reappear, complete with quotation marks, in his 1872 speech, “The Union, Right or Wrong.” His fondness for the word cussed and all its derivations is evident throughout his career. My personal favorite invocation, from an 1868 letter sent from Washington DC: “Cuss this cussed place.”
As that letter, with its berating of “stupid old muffs of Generals & Senators,” suggests, Twain never tired of inventing creative invectives for politicians. Aldermen were not spared. In fact, they may have been fresh in his mind, as Twain had corresponded on his father-in-law’s behalf in a dispute with a municipal board in Memphis the preceding year. Among the many places where he wreaked his vengeance upon alderman, regardless of municipality, is in Life on the Mississippi, when he says of Dominique You, a hero of the War of 1812, “He was a pirate with a tremendous and sanguinary history; and as long as he preserved unspotted the dignity of his ancient calling, homage and reverence were his from high and low; but when at last he descended into politics and became a paltry alderman, the public ‘shook’ him, and turned aside and wept.”
It is my own “expert opinion” that this is either a sketch written by Mark Twain or an excellent counterfeit. It is, undeniably, evidence of how much of a celebrity Twain had become, even as early as 1870. The extensive network of US newspapers, nearly 6,000 of them in 1870, stretching from coast to coast, was primed to disseminate anything and everything associated with him. Even when he chose not to put his famous nome de plume in the byline, they did it for him.
UPDATE: Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com offers another plausible possibility, that “The Texan Steer” may have actually been the work of Frank Manly Thorn, another regular contributor to the Express who usually signed his work “Hy Slocum” or “Carl Byng.” Twain accused Thorn of being a “habitual plagiarist” and tried to have him banned from the Express when he became part owner, but Twain himself believed that some of Thorn’s work was still being published in his paper at least as late as January of 1871. Schmidt has written an informative profile of Thorn which I recommend. While I feel no more confident attributing “The Texan Steer” to Thorn than I do to Twain, the conflict between them shows that Twain believed there were writers imitating his style well enough to fool the public.
EDITOR”S NOTE: The following was offered as an introduction to the performance of “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Park Church in Elmira on February 8th, 2019.
117 years ago this week, in February of 1902, Mark Twain, age 66, took off running after a train that was leaving from the Elmira depot on what is now 3rd St. (you know, behind the McDonald’s). He fell, badly scraping his hand, but after picking himself up he managed to get the attention of the brakeman, who helped him climb aboard. Upon arriving in New York City the next morning without a coat or hat, having shedded them during the chase, one of the reporters charged with meeting his train asked America’s foremost celebrity about his bandaged hand. Twain replied, “I have just come down from Elmira. It is a great place to keep away from in winter…the express trains passing through never stop long enough to see whether a fellow gets on or not…but I was going to catch that train if I had to lose a leg, or an eye, or an ear. I was determined to lose something.”
Twain mostly stayed away from Elmira during the Winter, but every Summer and Fall, he and his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, and their three daughters could be found here. And I mean that quite literally. Livy and the girls were dependable congregants at the Park Church, which her family had financed when Thomas K. Beecher’s congregation became so big it could only be accommodated by an Opera House. Mr. Clemens, though he was not as dependable a presence in the chapel, could frequently be found in the rooms behind it, especially the pool room where Reverend Beecher is rumored to have kept beer on tap.
The Clemenses winter residence in Hartford, CT was across the street from that of Reverend Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mark Twain, somewhat facetiously called Mrs. Stowe the “self-appointed instructor of the public.” On Twain’s 100th Birthday, in 1935, her grandson, Lyman Beecher Stowe, returned the favor. He stood on this very spot and delivered a lecture called “Mark Twain, Self-Appointed Instructor of the Public,” in which he argued that Mr. Clemens, admired though he was, had the unfortunate lot of being a “confirmed pessimist, though he often laughed through the tears.”
Max Eastman, another famous son of Elmira, saw things rather differently. He and his sister, Crystal, two important activists in the suffrage movement, lived in this building while their mother, Annis Ford Eastman, was minister here. Reverend Eastman was the first woman ordained in the state of New York and the person who Mark Twain chose to write his eulogy. Max Eastman, who, I repeat, literally grew up in a church, called Mark Twain the only “saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This, Max said, was “the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom has ever produced.”
This small, upstate town founded the first degree-granting college for women, was a key junction in the Underground Railroad, and was one of the first American communities to embrace abolitionism, the Women’s Rights Movement, prison reform, and radical anti-poverty initiatives. According to Max, Mark Twain was the prophet of a “gospel of revolt” which he did not bring to Elmira, but found here and sought to spread around the world. Max wrote,
“There was a hardier and deeper ‘radicalism’ in the Park Church culture into which Mark Twain married than there was in Mark Twain. To find so much open revolt against empty forms and conventions, so much laughing realism, and downright common sense, and democracy, and science, and reckless truth-telling in these people of Elmira who were, nevertheless, dedicated with moral courage to an ideal, may well have given Mark Twain the possession of his deepest and best self.”
from “Mark Twain’s Elmira” by Max Eastman (Harper’s Magazine, 1938)
The first time Max met Twain was, appropriately, when he stopped by during the installation of a new organ on the stage from which tonight’s music will be played. He requested a specific work by Richard Wagner to test out the grand new instrument, but later whispered to young Max, “That stuff’s all too high up for me. I live right down here!”
Tonight’s show captures, through his musical tastes, many of the resilient paradoxes of Mark Twain. He was simultaneously high and low, vulgar and refined, cynically fatalistic and radically progressive. He could say, without irony, “I am not an American, I am the American,” and also be among the most cosmopolitan men of the 19th century, whose works, as well as his feet, took hold on every continent.
As the poet, Robertus Love, put it upon Twain’s death:
“Mark Twain became before he died the most famous man on earth. He was not merely a man: he was an institution. He was a sort of neighborhood settlement of good cheer, with many branches located in the oases as in the waste places…Millions – how many millions is beyond estimating – came and partook of his optimism and stayed for supper. His fame was and is universal. Though an American born…he belonged to all lands…He had perhaps more permanent homes than any other man of his day. Nearly always he was a wanderer, sometimes from necessity, more frequently from choice. The world was his plaything, and he was not content without remapping for himself the surface of the big ball.”
from “Mark Twain, King of Humor” by Robertus Love (Pittsburgh Gazette, 1910)
This tireless wanderer who became “the most famous man on earth” had, at last, one permanent home and it was by way of this very chapel and the words of Annis Eastman that he was transported to it.
Mark Twain wrote, “As to the past, there is but one good thing about it, and that is, that it is the past – we don’t have to see it again. There is nothing in it worth pickling.” Yet he penned these words from a place, Quarry Farm, which never failed to inspire a flood of memories, upon which his most successful works were based. This is the lasting paradox of Twain’s Quarry Farm novels, that they depend transparently upon remembrance and reflection, yet are also steadfastly resistant to the sentimental and romantic aesthetics one expects to be associated with such nostalgia. The Quarry Farm novels manage to be, like the community in which they were written, somehow simultaneously reverent and radical.
Just as Twain’s Quarry Farm novels look backward, unromantically, to more clearly reflect the unsentimental realities of Gilded Age America, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has inherited a sometimes counterintuitive mission: preserving the legacy of Mark Twain in Elmira, while also subsidizing the future of Mark Twain scholarship everywhere. Among those scholars which we are proud to support is Kerry Driscoll, a former Elmira College professor who wrote the essay upon which tonight’s performance is based. It is my honor to introduce: “Mark Twain’s Music Box.”
Tomorrow night – Friday, February 8th – at the Park Church in Elmira the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes will be performing “Mark Twain’s Music Box,” a program loosely based upon the music which Samuel Clemens chose to have programmed into the expensive customized music box his wife gave him as a birthday present during their extended visit to Europe in 1878. “Mark Twain’s Music Box” was originally performed in 2008 and is based upon an essay with the same title published by Kerry Driscoll that same year.
Dr. Driscoll is currently a Professor Emerita at University of St. Joseph in Hartford, CT. She has also been a professor at Elmira College, a Quarry Farm Fellow, Trouble Begins lecturer, and consultant for both the Center for Mark Twain Studies and the Mark Twain House & Museum. Her most recent book, Mark Twain Among The Indians, was published last year.
“Mark Twain’s Music Box” was part of a volume of essays, Cosmopolitan Twain, which focused on rescuing Twain from being merely “the American,” and instead presented him, as editor Ann Ryan puts it, as “competitive, skeptical, necessarily tolerant, multilingual and multicultural, frankly materialistic and acquisitive.”
Naturally, Twain’s cosmopolitan-ness was increased by the globetrotting he did during his maturity. The premise of Driscoll’s essay is that the music box purchased in Geneva for $400 ($9,500 today) is representative both of Twain’s absorption in cosmopolitan aesthetics and his anxiety about that absorption. Crucially, Driscoll argues that Sam and Livy’s European travels were, paradoxically, about the return home, when they could furnish their home with expensive and exotic purchases which would impress their Hartford neighbors, who the Clemenses, in typically nouveau riche fashion, were intimidated by and eager to please.
Sam’s concern with how the Hartford home and all within it would be judged by visitors explains why choosing what melodies would be programmed into his music box proved a difficult and lengthy task, one which he did not complete for four months. He feared that poor choices would reveal his uncultivated tastes. Moreover, Driscoll argues, these anxieties caused him to be disappointed by the finished product, even to the point of claiming he had been delivered the wrong music box.
Dr. Driscoll’s essay is based upon original research and explores many aspects of the Clemenses life in Hartford and Europe beyond the acquisition of the music box. Check out Cosmopolitan Twain from a bookseller or library near you! And come see the OSFL, in collaboration with the Center for Mark Twain Studies, perform “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Park Church.