Toni Morrison died today. It addition to being one of the most renowned writers of the past century, Morrison was an incisive critic and passionate reader of Mark Twain’s works. The Twain Studies community of teachers and scholars has lost one of our more notable friends.
In 1993, Morrison told The Paris Reviewthat “Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I have ever read.” In her 1996 introduction to the Oxford edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Morrison narrates her decades-long, evolving relationship with Twain and his critics. During what was arguably the peak of her literary celebrity, from the publication of Beloved (1987) to her receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Morrison repeatedly and forcefully came to the defense of Twain, who was, during this same period, being subjected to what she called the “purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”
Giving the Tanner Lectures at University of Michigan in 1988, she placed Twain, along with Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and Henry James, on a list of canonical authors who “I, at least, do not intend to live without.” She said, “”There must be some way to enhance canon readings without enshrining them.” Thus began her exploration of Africanism in American Literature which climaxed with the Massey Lectures at Princeton University, where she was a faculty member. These lectures were published as Playing In The Dark: Whiteness & The Literary Imagination (1991). Morrison argued that many of the familiar themes and writers of the American literary canon were inspired by “the imaginative encounter with Africanism.” Some writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, were driven by the terror of increasingly desperate clinging to the precarious ideology of white supremacy. Others, like Twain and Melville, narrated the unraveling of that ideology unsentimentally, even eagerly.
“Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.”
Toni Morrison, Playing In The Dark (1991)
Among the centerpieces of Playing In The Dark is what remains one of the most-cited readings of Adventures of HuckleberryFinn. It is a masterpiece of deconstruction, though Morrison would never call it that, as she shows how the novel anticipates and amplifies all its ensuing controversies. She seeks to “release it from the clutch of sentimental nostrums about lighting out for the territory” and revive “its contestatory, combative critique of antebellum America.” “The hell it puts the reader through” is exactly the point, according to Morrison. The novel produces and reproduces “palpable alarm.” It discomforts. It triggers. It interrogates our preconceptions about childhood, morality, community, and, of course, race. It is resiliently controversial, and therein lies the evidence of its merit.
Morrison’s reading ends with the phrase, “it simulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom.” Simulates. What does it mean for a novel to “simulate”? It is something more than mere representation. The subjects of a simulation are not creations, but participants. Not characters, but readers. When we read Twain’s novel as Morrison wishes, we are compelled not only to recognize that Huck and Tom do not understand their freedom independent of Jim’s enslavement, but that we don’t. The novel places its readers in a position of knowing complicity, which explains, in part, why so many of them hate the ending. It asks us: Your freedom, to the extent you have it, comes at whose expense?
“For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed.”
Toni Morrison, Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1996)
On the final weekend in July, a dedicated contingent of Twain Studies scholars gathered in Hannibal, Missouri for the third quadrennial Clemens Conference, sponsored by the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. The weather was surprisingly agreeable for midsummer in the Mississippi River Valley and the conference organizers made sure there was plenty of time for adventuring between panels and plenary sessions.
The keynote address was delivered by Kerry Driscoll, author of Mark Twain Among the Indians. She explored the apocryphal association between “Injun Joe,” the antagonist of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and “Indian Joe,” a longtime resident of Hannibal. Dr. Driscoll’s compelling argument includes analysis of an essay on Native American and mixed race populations in and around Hannibal written by Sam’s brother, Orion Clemens.
After the keynote address, the Mark Twain Circle and Center for Mark Twain Studies surprised the conference host, Henry Sweets, by awarding him with the Thomas A. Tenney Award for service to Mark Twain Studies. The award was not scheduled to be presented again until 2021, but in recognition of Sweets’s 42 years as Director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, a position which he is relinquishing later this year, it seemed appropriate to deliver the award on his home turf. Noted collector of Twain-related artifacts, Kevin Mac Donnell, sweetened the ceremonial plaque with a collectible plate designed and sold in Hannibal during Twain’s lifetime.
Friday’s plenaries featured a preview of the forthcoming and much-anticipated volumes of Mark Twain’s Literary Resources by Alan Gribben and an exploration of intimacy, celebrity, and literary wit by Bruce Michelson. After an afternoon exploring the museums and attractions of downtown Hannibal, conference participants were treated to a guided tour of the cave where crucial scenes in Tom Sawyer are set.
On Saturday, John Bird discussed the lessons of his years editing the Twain section in American Literary Scholarship and editors of various Twain-related publications answered questions from the audience. Another panel focused on the influence of Twain’s authorized biography, Albert Bigelow Paine.
The weekend climaxed with a steamboat cruise on the Mississippi River. Henry Sweets arranged for two of the conference organizers, John Bird and Ann Ryan, to take turns in the pilot house.
The Center for Mark Twain Studies would like to heartily thank our hosts from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, the Mark Twain Cave, Mark Twain Riverboat, Mark Twain Brewery, and Finn’s Food & Spirits.
A group of forty-six K-12 teachers, librarians, and other educators gathered in Elmira this week for the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute to discuss the challenges and opportunities created by using Mark Twain’s life and work with students from “Generation Z.” The Institute was led by Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recent President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and author of numerous books on literature and literacy education.
Dr. Chadwick began the Institute by defining what she means by “Generation Z,” a category loosely describing those born after 9/11 and encompassing all the students currently working their way through the K-12 system. Over the past several years, Dr. Chadwick has been conducting fieldwork for NCTE, NBC Learn, and Pearson Publishing by visiting classrooms across the country and conducting interviews with students and teachers. She shared selections from a couple of those interviews and discussed what she was learning about this generation and their educational environments. She described a young student who proclaimed there was no longer any “American Dream,” and suggested that this was indicative of a broader dissatisfaction among Gen Z students with the idea of education as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself. Dr. Chadwick assured the audience of teachers that their students will do the work if they are persuaded that the texts and tasks being assigned are directly and immediately relevant to their lives and communities. Furthermore, she insisted, Twain’s enormous body of public and private writings is well-suited to addressing many of Gen Z’s most common concerns, including financial precarity, community service, blended families, and technological change.
During the second session, Matt Seybold, the resident scholar from the Center for Mark Twain Studies, used the example of social media as something which Gen Z students and their teachers were likely to have strong opinions about. Using demographic tables from the U.S. Census, Dr. Seybold summarized the media environment of Twain’s life, as new printing technology made periodicals less expensive, more accessible, and more diversified. He asked participants to imagine the butterfly effects of changing, over the course of a few decades, from a nation with a few hundred periodicals concentrated on the eastern seaboard to one which published 2.5 billion issues in a single year. Participants speculated that people would be more informed and more inclined to imagine the world beyond their daily experiences, but would also be unprepared to be discerning about what they were reading and might depend primarily upon publications that reinforced their existing beliefs. Dr. Seybold also pointed out that celebrities like Mark Twain (or Taylor Swift) are one manifestation of Americans’ desire for national identity amidst this cultural cacophony.
During the first breakout session, small groups of teachers discussed how the generic Generation Z student who Dr. Chadwick described resembled students in their classes and how some of the Twain texts they had read could be used to generate or supplement discussion of the topics which resonated with such students. Upon reconvening, one group of primarily elementary instructors reported that unconventional and fractured family structures were common in their districts and that students were likely to empathize with characters and narrators who felt insecure and who struggled to adjust to changing environments. A second group of elementary instructors were drawn to the theme of community-building and also community exclusivity, as in Adventures of Tom Sawyer and “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.” They suggested that these texts could be leveraged to increase student “buy-in” for cross-curricular and blended classrooms. They wanted to look particularly for ways Twain could be paired with historical contexts and visual arts projects. They also expressed a desire for texts which dealt with diversity and human rights, but did so without vulgarity or other potentially incendiary content.
A group of middle school teachers reiterated the desire for pairing and blending fiction with non-fiction, literature with history, literacy with other subject matter instruction. They wanted to know more about how Twain used games to educate his own children. With reference to “disenfranchised students,” they were looking for how Twain represented struggles for self-definition and self-esteem. A group of secondary teachers reiterated the importance of framing texts around the inevitable questions of adolescence and young-adulthood: “What I am doing and why am I doing it?”, “Where am I going and how do I get there?,” and “Who am I?” They also acknowledged the sticky wicket which they need to navigate: they want to engage with topics that are important to their students but they also want to teach texts which create a safe distance between the classroom and the frightful world. They want relevance to Gen Z, but without making students feel “at risk.”
After lunch, Dr. Seybold gave a brief history of Mark Twain’s connection to Elmira with particular attention to the domestic instability of Samuel Clemens’s youth and the conflict between his habitual itineracy and his desire to provide his wife and daughters with a stable home. Dr. Chadwick proceeded to address some of the cross-curricular opportunities which could be explored using primary sources, including Bills of Sale from slave auctions, selections from African-American Newspapers, artwork by Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, and speeches by Frederick Douglass. The first day closed with an open-ended discussion, as Dr. Chadwick called upon individual teachers to articulate what had surprised them about either Generation Z or Mark Twain during the first day of the Institute. Several teachers expressed surprise at the breadth and diversity of Twain’s writing and particularly at the potential to move away from teaching Twain exclusively as a commentator on race in America. Others admitted to being unaware of how influential Twain became in his own lifetime, amassing enough cultural power to influence political campaigns, amplify the voices of younger artists and activists, and bring publicity to colonial atrocities.
On Thursday morning, Institute participants congregated on the porch at Quarry Farm. After breakfast, Dr. Chadwick led a session on one of her favorite subjects: using Twain’s fiction as a model for teaching the formal elements of writing, particularly as they are outline in the education standards of New York State. For more than an hour, the group discussed how a single famous passage from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could be used to teach genre, audience, allusion, symbolism, anaphora, verisimilitude, and many other ELA terms and concepts. During the breakout session, participants analyzed other passages of their choosing from the reader and shared their ideas for using these passages to teach close-reading and writing. Selections discussed came from Twain’s poems, speeches, sketches, and letters, as well as his novels. Several groups recommended pairing with texts by other authors, from Harper Lee and Toni Morrison to Pope Urban II and The Beatles.
The second session of the day began with Dr. Chadwick reading Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It” on the very spot which the story is set. After her reading, Dr. Chadwick led a wide-ranging discussion of the story.
During lunch, teachers toured the grounds at Quarry Farm and mingled with one another, as well as with a few fourth-graders from Michelle Halperin’s class at Hendy Elementary in Elmira. During the Spring term, Dr. Chadwick visited Mrs. Halperin’s class both via video-conferencing and in person to discuss what they had been doing with Twain, including reading “A True Story” and Adventures of Tom Sawyer. After lunch, the students joined the teachers on the porch and answered questions about their experiences reading and listening to Twain’s works. These precocious young Elmirans felt that Tom Sawyer, in particular, compelled them and their classmates to be imaginative, even those who weren’t naturally inclined to be. They were able to remember specific details from the story and even half-remember direct quotations. Even under pressure they refused to admit that any of their classmates had not been enthusiastically engaged by the material. If nothing else, this proves they had learned to consider their audience.
The final session of the Institute focused on memory and memorization. Dr. Seybold began by reading a short selection from a work-in-progress about how Twain used specific works of music to memorialize his wife and daughters after they died. He listened to these specific works of music almost daily, using them to stimulate both his memory and his imagination. In other places, like the speech “Memory & Morals,” Twain discusses the importance of converting the vagaries of memory into productive lessons. Dr. Seybold also summarized some of the games and pneumonic devices Twain developed for the purposes of memorizing historical facts and his own lectures. This prefaced a discussion of what we require students to remember and why. What are the justifications for memorization and how can memorization be better integrated with imaginative and creative work?
Dr. Chadwick and the Center for Mark Twain Studies left the Institute with promises of updated resources and continued support. In addition to the provided reader, Institute participants have access to a digital archive of primary sources, opportunities for continued engagement with Dr. Chadwick and other Twain scholars, including eligibility for a six-week graduate course at Elmira College during Fall semester.
The following is primarily a repository of resources related to the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies on Wednesday, July 16 and Thursday, July 17. While a few of these resources are password-protected for intellectual property reasons, many of them are open access and may be of interest to teachers, students, and scholars, even if they are not attending the STI this year. This page will continue to be updated throughout the duration of the Institute, after which it will stay active.
The Mark Twain Circular is a newsletter published by the Mark Twain Circle which has been in continuous publication since 1987, offering anywhere from two to twelve issues a year. The new editor of the Circular, James W. Leonard (The Citadel), has digitized the back issues, creating a valuable resource for Twain scholars and aficionados, new and old. The Circular features updates on the activities and projects of the Mark Twain Circle, including a message from the President, as well as a wide variety of Twain-related ephemera, including summaries of recent publications, conference proceedings, and interviews with scholars. The most recent issue, for instance, happens to include interviews with four members of the staff of the Center for Mark Twain Studies (the motley crew pictured below).
Early issues provide insight into the scholarly community of the late 20th century, as well as some more candid and casual commentary from seminal figures, several of whom are no longer with us.
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 was common enough in the 20th century. It has only 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.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines! Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover!”
David Sivak of CheckYourFact.com did a story on this ubiquitous piece of Twain apocrypha this week and contacted me for comment, so I figured it was a good time to add it to our own archive. David rightly deduced that this is not something Mark Twain said. The more interesting part of these columns, as far as I’m concerned, is who did the quote actually come from and how did it come to be associated with Twain. Unlike many of the apocryphal aphorism I have trace over the past couple years, this false attribution traces back to before the social media era. Because of that endurance, the attribution seems more credible. Books and periodicals produced by reputable publishers and institution – including, for instance, the US Navy – attributed the quote to Twain before the turn of the 21st century.
As David notes, citing the reliable work of Garson O’Toole, the quote in this particular phrasing likely originated with H. Jackson Brown’s 1990 book, P.S. I Love You, in which Brown attributes the quote to his mother, Sarah Frances Brown. But the basic formula dates back somewhat further. In 1982, as part of a syndicated interview about his retirement, the longtime NBC anchor and host, Hugh Downs, said,
“Don’t be afraid to try something. It never hurts as bad as you think to fail. You seldom regret what you do. You regret what you didn’t do. Don’t try to be invulnerable. Don’t worry too much about security. If you build a wall around yourself, you become a prisoner of that wall. Take a chance!”
Register & Tribune Syndicate (February, 1982)
A couple years earlier, Harry Haun had published his Movie Quote Book, in which he reported that on the set of Mildred Pierce (1945), 31-year-old Zachary Scott told 41-year-old Joan Crawford, “As you grow older, you’ll find the the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do.”
A.B. Guthrie, a writer of midcentury Westerns, notably Shane (1953) and The Kentuckian (1955), wrote in his 1965 autobiography,
“I am free of most encumbrances, so I am free of regret, the most debilitating of indulgences. If you must be regretful, regret what you didn’t do, not what you did. A man lets too many smiling opportunities pass him by.”
The Blue Hen’s Chick (1965)
So how did this bit of wisdom come to be associated with Mark Twain? As best I can tell, we can blame the Peace Corps. In January 1999, they circulated a recruitment advertisement in New York City papers which featured the quote prominently with Twain’s byline.
The next year it showed up in publicity materials from the U.S. Navy and soon thereafter in advertisement for real estate agencies and funeral homes, then became a familiar trope in newspaper editorial and valedictorian speeches.
Carl Richard Dolmetsch, Jr. passed away earlier this month. He was 94. Dolmetsch wrote an influential book in Mark Twain Studies, “Our Famous Guest”: Mark Twain in Vienna, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. His history of the modernist magazine, The Smart Set, was also highly acclaimed and he published both academic and popular articles on early American literature and classical music.
Dr. Dometsch was a guest of Elmira College and the Center for Mark Twain Studies in October of 1988. As a Distinguished Academic Visitor, he led courses in English and American Studies, and was part of the Trouble Begins lecture series. That lecture, “Mark Twain and The Jews,” would become part of “Our Famous Guest”. It was preserved, recently digitized, and is now available for streaming and download from our online archives.
The American Studies Association is inaugurating a new prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies. The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize is named in honor of the contributions Fishkin has made to developing the field of Transnational American Studies.
Fishkin has also devoted considerable time and energy to building international networks for Twain criticism, including Global Huck, a digital archive of translations of Adventure of Huckleberry Finn currently in development. Fishkin was a founding editor of The Journal of Transnational American Studies, launched in 2009. She has been instrumental in mentoring emerging Twain scholars and publicizing groundbreaking Twain scholarship.
Tsuyoshi Ishihara, author of Mark Twain in Japan (2005), writes, “Thanks are due first to Prof. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the great Twain scholar and Americanist, for her encouragement, suggestions, care, and patience. Her encyclopedic knowledge and sparkling insights were vital in developing this project.”
Selina Lai-Henderson, author of Mark Twain in China (2015), calls Fishkin an “intellectual giant…whose vision, breadth of knowledge, and dedication have made many of my dreams become possible.”
The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies will be awarded annually to a scholar based at institutions outside the United States who have published excellent original research in the past three years. More information and submission guidelines are available from the American Studies Association.
Congratulations to Dr. Fishkin from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Each installment of “Mark Twain’s Portfolio” can be read as a stand-alone essay, though together they will produce a more comprehensive account of Twain’s financial life. If you enjoy what follows, check out the first installment, “Existential Hedging & The United Fruit Company.”
In November 1905, an innovative publicist placed an ad in a series of midwestern newspapers. Herbert Vanderhoof, then working out of Chicago, would go on to have so much success attracting settlers to British Columbia, the Canadian government would name a town after him. But in 1905, the 30-year-old publicist was shilling for the insurance industry. The conceit of his advertisement, dressed up to look like an editorial, was that insurance “will do for you what H. H. Rogers did for his friend Mark Twain…it will invest your dollars. It will guarantee you a definite and fixed profit.”
“Would not we ordinary fellows of common sense jump at the chance,” Vanderhoof mused, “if H. H. Rogers came along and said to us: ‘Just turn your savings over to me and I’ll see what I can do with them. You can’t lose, and you may win.’” There was but “one gracious act in the life of the master of Standard Oil,” Vanderhoof said, but the insurance companies stood ready everyday to put ”the power of their money-making machinery at your disposal.”
The merging of retail investing and insurance under one corporate umbrella was such a foolproof plan it only crashed the U.S. economy twice.
Vanderhoof’s argument, though deeply flawed, shows how well-publicized Mark Twain’s relationship with Henry Huttleston Rogers was, as well as how dubious were some of the sources that helped circulate and calcify the conventional wisdom about that relationship.
The advertisement, purposefully designed to look as though it was regular copy, includes fake dialogue between Twain and Rogers. Vanderhoof imagines Twain saying things like “I’ve heard that one of your professions is that of receiver-general for suckers” and “Some say I’m a genius, which is as it may be. But one thing I’m not – I’m not a financier.” Befitting his trade, the publicist was both reiterating what he presumed to be the common beliefs of midwestern readers about the humorist and his patron-magnate, and reinforcing those beliefs with pure fabrication. It was a cynical ploy to raise his credibility in a way he could leverage on behalf of his clients.
But the question that motivates Vanderhoof – What do readers want to believe? – is an important one when considering the reputations of both Twain and Rogers. Vanderhoof can, in almost the same breath, present Twain as the rarest literary genius and a representative of “we ordinary fellows.” He presumes that Twain’s widely reported financial misadventures made him an empathetic figure. Twain came to recognize this himself. In his autobiographical writings, there are many confessions of short-sightedness, self-delusion, and speculative euphoria which resonate with anyone who has ever put money on a horse, imagined winning the lottery, owned a few bitcoin, failed to read the fine print, or had a car repossessed.
For those of us with relatively shabby fiscal records, supposing that “geniuses” also leads lives of perpetual financial bumbling is reassuring, as is the implication that the wealth of financiers is endogenous to their moral turpitude. But Twain was not a perpetual bumbler and Rogers was not a compassionless shark.
The timing of Vanderhoof’s advertisement is significant. Twain had long been a national celebrity, but Rogers’s fame (or, perhaps, infamy) had risen in recent years. He was the primary spokesperson for Standard Oil as the company defended itself against antitrust lawsuits and progressive muckraking. In the same month Vanderhoof’s advertisement circulated, another professional publicist, Thomas Lawson, published the eighteenth and final installment of “Frenzied Finance,” a serial in Everybody’s Magazine which, among other things, gratuitously slandered Rogers.
Lawson had helped Rogers and his primary business partner, William Rockefeller, promote a series of copper mining companies linked together like the subsidiaries of the Standard Oil Trust. Rogers and Rockefeller were transparently creating a Copper Trust on the model of their employer. Only after making $50 million in this gambit did Lawson have a very performative crisis of conscience, refashioning himself as a whistleblower. He began publishing “Frenzied Finance” in July 1904 to much fanfare. Lawson promised to unravel for his readers the sordid history of the Amalgamated Copper Company and, by so doing, reveal the secret system of American corporate finance “which, if allowed to continue, surely will in time, destroy the nation by precipitating fratricidal war.”
Rogers, Lawson insisted, was the primary architect of this “tigerishly cruel system,” the one “pulling the wires and playing the buttons in the shadows just behind of the throne” of the more recognizable Rockefellers. Rogers was “the big brain, the big body, the head of Standard Oil,” though he did not hold the title. It was he who ruled over the “spider aristocracy of finance,” though he did not work for a bank or a brokerage. And it was he who was the “Master of Hell” who tempted Lawson to sell his soul for $50 million. Lawson insisted Rogers, unlike himself, “knew no Sabbath, no Him” and was “immune to every feeling known to God or man.”
As these lines suggest, “Frenzied Finance” is a classic American conspiracy theory. It is just accurate enough to satisfy paranoid fanatics and fills the spaces between with the prejudices and grievances of its author. Like most conspiracy theorists, Lawson was bad at editing himself. After making an initial splash as the de facto sequel to Ida Tarbell’s wildly popular history of Standard Oil, “Frenzied Finance” wore out public and publisher alike. By the time it ended, Lawson had run so tediously and circuitously long that he had to pay to have his final installment published in the advertising section.
In August of 1905, Clemens wrote to Rogers, “I hope you are noticing it is Lawson’s turn now – a thing which was sure to happen. If he likes skinning, there’s good times ahead.” While I can’t be sure exactly what inspired his schadenfreude, Twain accurately describes the backlash that was unfolding in the press. In newspapers issued during the preceding week, there are dozens of derisive mentions of Lawson, ranging from sarcastic jokes to incendiary accusations. The Detroit Free Press, which had previously sung the whistleblower’s praises, now reported that Lawson had been shorting copper stocks in hopes of inciting a sell-off with “Frenzied Finance” and the associated lecture tour.
The market did not collapse and Lawson got laryngitis early in the tour. Rogers deadpanned to Clemens, “He has lost his voice because he has nothing left to say.”
The week after the first installment of “Frenzied Finance,” Amalgamated Copper was called “an impudent farce” by the Wall Street Journal and the trading price of its shares dipped below $50. By the time Lawson’s serial concluded, Amalgamated was trading at over $90 a share. If the Detroit Free Press report was correct, Lawson’s speculating scheme backfired spectacularly. As polemic, “Frenzied Finance” didn’t fare much better. The copper conglomerate survived the antitrust battles of the ensuing decade and emerged in 1915 as the biggest producer in the world.
Mark Twain owned a large block of shares in Amalgamated Copper and, later, in its largest subsidiary, Anaconda Copper. Though he may have become cavalier about Lawson’s “skinning,” he was initially spooked. Within days of the first installment of “Frenzied Finance,” he was looking to unload his shares. Rogers cautioned him against selling into the run, “I have not overlooked the matter of the Amalgamated stock, but the market has not been favorable to selling, so I have deferred it. It will come out right in the end, I am sure.” As alluded to above, the price rose 80% by the end of the next year.
This episode conforms to the conventional wisdom about their relationship: Clemens impulsively misreading the market and the far-sighted financier saving him from his bad instincts. Even the few contemporary scholars who do acknowledge that Clemens’s investing record was remarkably strong after his 1894 bankruptcy usually attribute that success entirely to the patronage of Rogers. Michael Sheldon, for instance, writes, “It was only because Rogers continued to keep a close eye on his finances that Twain didn’t return to his old ways and lose more money on one bad investment after another.”
Rogers undeniably played the leading role in Clemens’s financial recovery and remained the author’s most valued advisor and, frequently, his broker. But the history of his copper investments, upon closer examination, shows that Clemens still took the lead in his investing decisions, for both good and ill.
It was Clemens who floated the idea of investing in Amalgamated in the first place. “The Vienna papers,” he wrote, “have been excited over the great Copper combines; and sometimes they say you are the president of it, other times they call you vice-president, but all the time I seem to gather from them that you are the Company and the Board of Directors.” Recognizing that Rogers would “make a copper hen lay a golden egg,” Clemens suggested putting the $52,000 in his brokerage account into the new venture. Though they didn’t discuss the exact size or price of the block Rogers purchased on Clemens’s behalf, two years later Clemens marveled that the trading price was “nearly 70 points above what it cost me.” That day, Amalgamated shares were trading around $87, which means Clemens truly got a cut rate as an initial investor, and regardless of when he sold, he must have made an utter killing.
Based on their conversations, it seems safe to presume that Clemens held onto his block of Amalgamated shares at least through 1905, but they were not part of the inventory of his estate in 1910. Perhaps Clemens sold during the 1907-1908 recession, when Amalgamated’s stock dipped below $50 per share. It does seem reasonable to speculate, though there is no record of this, that he may have sold the shares to finance the purchase and construction of his Stormfield property during this time.
Or perhaps he sold just before the bubble burst, when Amalgamated was trading at over $110. Or maybe he held on until the final months of his life, when Amalgamated was trading around $75. In any case, if he really did buy in at $17 per share, he made somewhere between 350% and 650% return. And if he really did commit $52,000 to the initial investment, he turned it into the contemporary equivalent of $4.5-8.6 million. And that’s before we account for the dividends.
The dividend history of Amalgamated is very complicated, including both annual and quarterly statements, and shifting between defined and proportional payments. Within the Wall Street Journal archives I rely upon there are conflicting reports of what Amalgamated paid its shareholders during the period Clemens held the stock. A conservative estimate puts his earnings above $2 per share annually from 1899 to 1905, which would yield him about $6000 a year or, after adjusting for inflation, $150,000. It may have been significantly more than that. In 1907, Clemens would claim 1902, a strong year for Amalgamated, was the most profitable year of his life.
Even though Twain commanded the highest rates in his industry, he could still only get $150-$200 for a lecture or magazine article, both of which required work he found demanding. It’s easy to see why he preferred “the financial platform” to the literary one, as he told Rogers in 1899, and recommitted himself to investing.
Clemens was one of the “first in” on Amalgamated and made a mint. His experience with its subsidiary, Anaconda Copper, where Rogers was also a Vice President and trustee, was almost the inverse.
Rogers’s personal secretary, Katharine Harrison, purchased 400 shares of the Anaconda on behalf of Clemens. She acquired half the shares at $59 and the other half at $60. The latter price was the closing price listed in the Wall Street Journal on May 27, 1907, the same day Harrison wrote Clemens to let him know the shares had been acquired. Presumably these 400 shares were the same 400 shares listed in the inventory of Clemens’s estate three years later. They were appraised at the value of $45.25 per share, which meant Clemens had taken a 24% loss on their exchange value. He had also collected $3700 in dividends.
Adjusting for inflation, these shares were good for the equivalent of $33,000 in annual income. They would continue to provide healthy income (assuming the Twain estate held onto them) for decades to come, though the trading price would not equal what Clemens had paid for more than twenty-two years.
These investments in the Copper Trust simultaneously confirm and contradict conventional wisdom surrounding Mark Twain’s investment record. It would seem that Clemens, to an almost comical degree, bought his Anaconda shares at the absolute peak of the market. Not only did the trading price on those shares dip severely during the coming decade, but Anaconda’s quarterly dividend dropped from $1.75 when Clemens bought in to $0.50 within the next year, and remained at that comparatively low rate until 1917. But Clemens bought in on Amalgamated during the initial allotment and whatever his estate lost on Anaconda (if anything), he more than made up for with Amalgamated.
Both Anaconda and Amalgamated were good long-term investments at nearly any price. It is tempting to presume that Rogers’s office not only executed these trades for Clemens, but directed his investing decision. But in the case of Amalgamated, the evidence points to the opposite chain of command and, in the case of Anaconda, there is no evidence that Rogers was pulling the strings. If he was, why did he have Clemens buy into Anaconda so late, missing out on the boom years and paying an inflated price for shares? Why wasn’t he part of the initial group of investors, as he had been with Amalgamated? These transactions seem to suggest that Clemens was largely in control of his portfolio, even when it came to the investments about which Rogers was the epitome of an inside trader.
I don’t mean to imply that Twain didn’t benefit from insider information due to his close friendship with Rogers. He most certainly did, as future installments will evidence. But, from at least 1897 forward, Clemens was not exclusively reliant on or even wholly deferential to Rogers. Nor was it a given that Rogers would include his friend in every promising operation he undertook. Twain heard about Amalgamated in the international press before he heard about it from his friend and broker, who was the President of the company! We cannot selectively ascribe the good investments to Rogers and the bad ones to Clemens, unless there is a clear and substantive archival rationale for doing so.
Like United Fruit, which was the subject of my first chapter, Anaconda Copper would survive and prosper deep into the 20th century, profiting from destructive labor and environmental practices. Twain had a complicated, but generally favorable attitude toward labor unions, and likely would’ve been disgusted by many of the things narrated in books like Smoke Wars (2001) by Donald Macmillan, Anaconda (2001) by Laurie Mercier, and The Battle for Butte (1981) by Michael Malone. But, despite superficial resemblances between Anaconda Copper and United Fruit, I don’t think we can attribute his investments in copper to his philosophy of existential hedging. Whereas he was well-informed about the U.S. imperialism which underwrote commercial plundering abroad, he seems to have been surprisingly unaware (or uninterested) in the abuses of industrialization in the American West, even though he had spent much of his youth in places similar to the copper mining towns. Nor were the labor and environmental practices of the copper conglomerate a significant part of the ample and ambivalent public discourse surrounding it during Clemens’s lifetime.
The copper boom was driven largely by technological developments about which Twain was enthusiastic, which may have blinded him to the social costs. Both Twain and Rogers understood that the U.S. was on the precipice of a communication revolution which required copper filaments, wiring, conductors, etc. More on that in due time.
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.