Need Some Summer Reading? Here Are The Most Popular Essays From Our First Four Years.

Some of our friends from C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists and the Mark Twain Forum asked their members to recommend accessible, non-academic essays. As this is a genre we have specialized in since our launch in 2016, we thought we would seize the occasion to highlight some of the most popular Twain-centered essays published on the site.

For the purposes of this exercise, we excluded our popular digital resources and multimedia content, as well as the “Apocryphal Twain” series (which isn’t really about Twain, after all) and shorter “this day in Twain history” pieces. All the links that follow are to essays which have substantive narrative and/or critical components. Here, in reverse chronological order, are the 25 most popular essays on MarkTwainStudies.org:

“Black Lives Matter at Quarry Farm” by Larry Howe (June 2020)

“Life, In Purgatory (A Twainiac Quarantine Diary)” by Matt Seybold (April 2020)

“Getting Innocent” by Hilton Obenzinger (February 2020)

“Elmira Girls Marries Hannibal Boy (And The Rest Is Literary History)” by Susan K. Harris (January 2020)

“A Tale of Today: Mark Twain on Impeachment” by John Muller (January 2020)

“Finding the Lost Diary of Mark Twain’s Granddaughter, Nina Gabrilowitsch” by Alan Rankin (October 2019)

“Mark Twain, MAD Magazine, & Old Crow Whiskey” by Barbara Schmidt (July 2020)

“Put The Reader Through Hell: In Memory of Toni Morrison, Twain Scholar” by Matt Seybold (August 2019)

“Mark Twain’s Portfolio: Hell-Hound Rogers, Anaconda Copper, & The Spider Aristocracy of Finance” by Matt Seybold (June 2019)

“The Mugwump Bump: Mark Twain, Independent Politics, & The Election of 1884” by Dwayne Eutsey (June 2019)

“Mark Twain’s Portfolio: Existential Hedging & The United Fruit Company” by Matt Seybold (May 2019)

“150 Years of Mark Twain in Elmira: Dickens Holidays, The Gospel of Revolt, & The Quarry Farm Style” by Matt Seybold (September 2018)

“The Calculated Incivility of Anson Burlingame, The Only Congressman Mark Twain Could Tolerate” by Matt Seybold (July 2018)

“Building a Model of Huck & Jim’s Raft” by Peter G. Beidler (April 2018)

“When Will We Listen?: Mark Twain Through The Lenses of Generation Z” by Jocelyn Chadwick (March 2018)

“A Disturbing Passion?: Mark Twain & The Angelfish” by Laura Skandera-Trombley (December 2017)

“Dispatches From Quarry Farm: Huck! Speak Up. We Need You.” by Steve Webb (December 2017)

“Mark Twain Expected Us To Read His Fan Mail” by Courtney Bates (October 2017)

“The Android & The Icon: Mark Twain’s Appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation by Kaine Ezell (September 2017)

“The Shocking Truth About Mark Twain’s Fascination With Electricity” by Jennifer L. Lieberman (August 2017)

“Dreaming India The Marvelous & Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger” by Dwayne Eutsey (April 2017)

“Mark Twain, Suffragette Ally & Overprotective Father” by Susan K. Harris (April 2017)

“Never In A Hurry To Believe: The Theology of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Dwayne Eutsey (March 2017)

“Mark Twain in Damascus: A Quest for Immortality?” by Hamada Kassam (February 2017)

“Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, & The Nadirs of U.S. Electoral History” by Matt Seybold (November 2016)

New Issue of the Mark Twain Circular Now Available

Editor’s Note: James W. Leonard is a faculty member at The Citadel (Charleston, SC), the editor of the Mark Twain Circular, and webmaster for the Mark Twain Circle of America, the principal scholarly organization dedicated to the study of Samuel Clemens, his works, and his times. The membership includes most of the leading Mark Twain scholars in the world, as well as teachers, fans, and enthusiasts from many nations and many walks of life.

The June 2020 issue of the Mark Twain Circular is out! As some of you may have noticed, we’ve altered our publication schedule so that our first issue each year includes the minutes from our late-May business meeting. Of course, this year’s meeting was conducted over Zoom, which was surprisingly effective and led to some interesting discussion of how video conferencing will change meetings, round tables, and symposia moving forward. Along with the minutes, the current issue includes an introductory note from Susan K. Harris, the Mark Twain Circle’s new president. Our “Twain Talk” interviewee is outgoing president Larry Howe, and our “Recent Publications” section is full of exciting new scholarship.

While the most recent issue of the Circular is only available to Circle members (you can renew your membership or join here), all past issues are now hosted at the Mark Twain Circular Archive on our website. There, you can catch up on the recent publications listed in our Winter 2019 issue, or take a peek into the past by browsing the Circle’s very first (1987) issues. It’s always interesting to see how scholarship has evolved over the years, but the Archive also offers an opportunity to understand how we’ve grown as an organization. My thanks to everyone involved in producing and preserving these records—especially to Jerry Kerkmeyer, who digitized the early years for the original archive and to James S. Leonard, whose collection made compiling a comprehensive archive a relatively simple task.

We’ve got some new and exciting projects in the pipeline, and I’m happy to announce that our new website will be launching soon! We’ll be streamlining electronic renewals, re-organizing information, and even launching some new web-based series to promote and further Twain scholarship. I can only hope that we’ll live up to the example set by the Center for Mark Twain Studies’ digital content. This has been a long time coming, and we’re excited to see what the future holds.

Black Lives Matter at Quarry Farm

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following reflections by Lawrence Howe feature analysis of Mark Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It.” Following the post, you can find links to the story as it was original published, as well as a live reading of the story by Jocelyn Chadwick on the porch at Quarry Farm, from the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute hosted by CMTS. Enrollment for the 2020 STI is now open.


My wife, Judy, and I just spent a blissful week at Quarry Farm. Early June in New York’s Finger Lakes region is a beautiful time—wildflowers add splashes of color to the landscape, bird songs add a soundtrack, and soothing breezes waft up from the Chemung Valley. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the globe, the privilege of staying at Quarry Farm is especially welcome, and we didn’t take our social distancing there for granted. I imagined that our respite was something like how the characters in Bocaccio’s Decameron felt as they retreated from the plague in Florence to a hilltop villa in Fiesole in the middle of the 14th century.  

Mary Ann Cord

As often happens when I sit on the porch—and I know I’m not the only one—I think about Mark Twain’s iconic tale, “A True Story,” which takes place on that very spot where Twain and his family enjoyed the peace and quiet during the twenty summers he spent at the home of his in-laws Susan and Theodore Crane.

The COVID-19 plague is, of course, not the only event unsettling the nation these days. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has disrupted any pretense of peace and quiet, bringing millions into the streets of cities around the world, including Chicago where we live. Two nights earlier, when we approached Union Station to board a train east, Chicago was in lockdown, the streets deserted, and the drawbridges raised as if protecting the gates of a medieval city under siege. So I felt a little embarrassed to be so comfortably settled in Elmira at a moment when injustice has raised the conscience and the temperature of the nation.  

On further thought, as strange as it might sound, “A True Story” has added meaning at this moment of social reckoning because it opens with Mark Twain’s ignorance of what the life of an African-American woman involved. Many white people, like myself, having watched the disturbing video of Floyd, handcuffed, prostrate on the pavement, with a knee to his neck until life ebbed away, are now struck with how little we’ve known about what it means to be black in America. The oppression of being repeatedly suspected of wrongdoing, of being subjected to violence, of being perceived as a problem, as W.E.B. DuBois noted in The Souls of Black Folks, are not part of my white middle-class experience.  

On a summer evening in 1874, with the Quarry Farm household gathered on the porch, Twain did not perceive “Aunt Rachel” as a threat, but she was a “servant, and colored,” and therefore seated “respectfully below” him (202). Observing Aunt Rachel’s laughter when teased by the children, Twain asks her how she could have lived so long without ever having any “trouble?” to which she responds, “Misto C—–, is you in ‘arnest?” (202-03). This brief opening exchange is suggestive of our times: the racial cluelessness that Twain exhibits resonates with our contemporary awakening. He deserves credit for dramatizing this admission in a story that marks his debut in the Atlantic Monthly, an opportunity to gain prestige.

Although Twain’s humor was often fueled by self-deprecation, he takes a risk by displaying his humiliating ignorance. In daring to present himself in an unflattering light, he showed how insulated a white person—like many readers of the Atlantic, no doubt—can be from understanding the life circumstances of someone like Aunt Rachel. And in the name by which Aunt Rachel addresses him—Misto C——-, a respectful abbreviation of “Mr. Clemens,” we can detect a very unusual move on Twain’s part. As far as I can tell, and I’ve looked, there is no other piece published under his pseudonym in which he signaled his actual name. So it seems reasonable to infer that this slippage of the mask is a gesture of sincerity and authenticity. The allusion to his true identity in the story assures us that “A True Story” is what the title claims it to be, and recorded “word for word.” 

The full impact of the story emanates from the personal narrative of Aunt Rachel. Born into slavery, she recalls her love for her husband and their seven children and underscores that their love for each other was comparable to the love that “Misto C—-” and his wife and children have for each other. This is an important point that we might easily overlook in our day. Slavery propaganda in the nineteenth century had persuaded white people that the otherness of black folk included their inability to develop bonds of affection. And that myth, which excused the disintegration of slave families, destroys Aunt Rachel’s family: she, her husband, and all seven children are sold off separately in the cruel economics of the peculiar institution. She recalls that just before her youngest son, Henry, is pulled from her arms, he whispers a promise to escape and to return to free her. The story’s emotional climax is the scene of that fulfilled promise. Henry had, indeed, escaped slavery and made his way to Elmira, a city that wore its abolitionist sentiments proudly. Joining a black regiment of the Union army, Henry was among the troops that liberated New Bern, North Carolina. There, he and his mother are tearfully reunited, and Henry brings her home to Elmira where she lives the remaining three decades of her life. 

As others have noted, the vigor of Aunt Rachel’s narrative disrupts the literary form. Like other examples of Twain’s short fiction, “A True Story” is a frame tale, or at least it starts off as one. This colloquial form begins with the writer of the piece introducing an encounter with a storyteller who proceeds to occupy the majority of the narrative space. The frame narrator represents the social center through standard diction and usage, and the internal storyteller is usually a socially marginalized, vernacular speaker that challenges the social center. These conventions are present in “A True Story” as well. However, Twain breaks the form. As frame narrator, he does not re-enter the story at the end, and thus the frame is incomplete. His silence is the result of Aunt Rachel’s personal story; he can say nothing that would provide a container or a gloss for her emotionally riveting account of her “trouble” and “joy” (207). In fact, Twain’s last words come in the middle of the story, when Aunt Rachel is about to recount the selling of her family members on the auction block. At this moment, Twain describes how Aunt Rachel alters the social positions that he noted at the start of the story. Instead of remaining below him, she rises up from her seat and “warmed to her subject, and now . . . towered above us black against the stars” (204). Flipping the rungs of the social ladder, she also reorients the narrative authority—asserting hers and extinguishing his. Twain can do nothing but listen.

Aunt Rachel’s telling of that story is powerful. But I’ve come to think of it not as a story but as testimony, viewing it in the context that I gleaned from an unexpected source. During the week, Judy and I listened to historian Jill Lepore’s podcast The Last Archive, a new favorite of ours. The latest episode was about the history of black testimony. Lepore explained that in the antebellum period, a black person could not give legal testimony. An exception was made if a black witness was testifying against another black person alleged to have committed a crime. In these instances, witnesses faced extraordinary draconian threats to provide the proof sought in these hasty proceedings. The exclusion or discounting of black testimony persisted after the Civil War in various states, and especially in the Jim Crow South.

Lepore also points out that even many of the oral histories of former slaves collected during the Depression under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project were compromised by the unequal positions of white interviewers and black subjects. In one recorded oral history featured in the podcast, Harriet Smith, an 80-year-old African American woman who had been a slave until the age of thirteen, was interviewed by John Faulk, a young, white Southern man. As in “A True Story,” the forms of address signal the social disparity: Faulk calls her “Aunt Harriet,” while she refers to him as “Mr. Faulk.” Unlike “A True Story,” though, Faulk steers the interview, coaxing her into agreeing that “[t]he white folks did treat you good,” and “Some folks were awful good to their slaves, weren’t they?” So with the insights Lepore’s history on the status of black speech, and especially that speech framed by white interlocutors, I’ve begun to see “A True Story” in a slightly new light: I had long viewed this sentimental memoir about a black mother’s sorrows and joys as Twain’s enlightened act of granting agency to a black vernacular; now I see his act as resisting the official exclusion or conditioning of those voices.

But there is another aspect of the story that distinguishes Aunt Rachel’s testimony from the purely verbal kind that Lepore mentions. Her towering presence in the middle of the story is a prelude to her physical performance of the climax of the story. Describing the scene in the kitchen where she cooked for the Union officers, she recalls, “I was a-stoopin’ down by de stove, –jist so, same as if yo’ foot was de stove,–and I’d opened de stove do’ wid my right han’,–so, pushin’ it back, jist as I pushes yo’ foot” (207, emphasis added). Aunt Rachel is not simply telling the story, but acting it out with “Misto C—-” as a stand-in for the stove. Then, when she re-enacts the electric moment of her reunion with Henry, Aunt Rachel recasts Twain in a personal role. As she reached down to the oven, Aunt Rachel recalls,  

“I see a black face come aroun’ under mine, and de eyes a-lookin up into mine, jist as I’s a-lookin’ up clost under yo’face now; . . . an’ all of a sudden I knowed! . . . . an’ I grab his lef’ han’ and shove back his sleeve, – jist so, as I’s doin’ to you, – an’ den I goes for his forehead an’ push de hair back, so, an’ “Boy!” I says, “if you ain’t my Henry, what is you doin’ wid dis welt on yo’ wris’ and dat sk-yar on you’ forehead?  De Lord God ob heaven be praise’, I got my own ag’in!”

(207, emphasis added)

Aunt Rachel’s words tell the story, but her gestures elevate the story from a narration to a dramatization of this life-altering episode—her eyes become Henry’s looking up into Twain’s, encouraging him to imagine her emotions at the time. Then Aunt Rachel has them switch roles, casting Twain as Henry whose scars she detects by pushing back Twain’s sleeve and lifting his hair off his forehead. Her personal proximity to him and her unsolicited touch transgress the boundaries that he noted her initial place on the porch “below” him. The contact of her black hand with his white arm and forehead is a bold familiarity that ignores their racially defined positions in order to physically convey the story’s emotional experience in a manner that her words alone cannot. Rather than simply listening passively to her story, Twain unexpectedly shares in her memory; for a moment, Aunt Rachel has pulled back the veil on the facts of black family life.

Numerous commentators, black and white, have reminded us that whites in America cannot fully understand what African Americans face in their daily lives. That was as true for Mark Twain as it is for any white person living today. Sam Clemens was the son of a slaveholder who admitted that slavery was simply the world he knew without questioning it. Then his head was turned not simply by falling in love with Olivia Langdon but also by becoming a member of a family that had worked actively for abolition. As Mark Twain, his encounter with Mary Ann Cord—the real-life Aunt Rachel—took him a step farther. Although he doesn’t say it in the story, his silence suggests that Aunt Rachel’s performance of her true story and her casting him within it have given him a glimpse of how black lives matter. 


Larry Howe is an Emeritus Professor of English at Roosevelt University, as well as current President of the Mark Twain Circle of America and current Editor of Studies in American Humor. His most recent book, co-edited with Henry Wonham, is Mark Twain & Money (2017). He is also author of Mark Twain & The Novel (1998).

The page citations in the above text are to the Oxford Mark Twain edition of Sketches New & Old, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin.


Mark Twain Circle of America Issues Statement of Solidarity With Protesters Against Police Brutality


“The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”

                                          – Mark Twain, Following the Equator

The Mark Twain Circle affirms the courageous citizens who are risking their health and safety to protest police brutality. We stand in solidarity with the Black and Brown communities whose suffering under systemic racism exposes the vicious underbelly of American culture. We call on government agencies to uphold the social contract – to defend, not attack, the citizens who have trusted them for protection. And we embrace CHANGE: change in the training and culture of U.S. policing, change in the education system of our future citizens, and not least, change in our own hearts and minds as we constantly reevaluate our own basic assumptions. 

We repeat the names of the recent dead, despite understanding that they represent only a fraction of those wrongfully killed by the authorities pledged to protect them: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Monika Diamond, Sandra Bland, Eric Gardner, Freddie Grey, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Pamela Turner, Tamil Rice. In repeating the names, we keep them with us, reminders that it is our constant duty to struggle against injustice.

We are confident in our ability to change ourselves and our systems because, as teachers, scholars, and readers of Mark Twain and of American culture, we know that change is possible. Twain himself provides a model.  Growing up as the son of slave owners, firmly rooted in the tumultuous environment of the nineteenth-century United States, he was also a world traveler and, most importantly, a world thinker.  In our efforts to understand him, we have learned that he struggled to understand global change, from germ theory to electronics, U.S. racial conflicts to worldwide rebellions against imperialist domination.  In the process, he changed: the Mark Twain of the 1900s, who vociferously protested the U.S. annexation of the Philippines and satirized King Leopold’s rape of the Belgian Congo, was not the same person who snarled about the “infernal abolitionists” in a letter to his mother in 1853.[i]  Over the years he had become, as Philip Foner has written, one of America’s foremost social critics, speaking up against injustice — whether perpetrated by individuals or by their governments.

The Mark Twain Circle of America has and will continue to pursue educational programs designed to uncover and interrogate systems of racism and racist violence in American culture. Our panel at the 2019 American Literature Association conference evoked the memory of the transatlantic slave trade in a session on “Mark Twain and Racial Identity,” and members of our organization have spearheaded the Elmira Center for Mark Twain Studies’ upcoming Quarry Farm Symposium on “American Humor and Matters of Empire,” which aims to honor the rhetorical, ideological, and historical distinctiveness of African American comic traditions. The teachers among us routinely interrogate American racial assumptions as they and their students wrestle with Twain’s writings and their legacies. These strategies, long our practice, will continue, and we invite all those interested in Mark Twain and in American cultural history to join with us as we strive to contribute to the struggle for racial justice in America.


[i] Letter from Samuel L. Clemens to Jane Lampton Clemens, August 24, 1853, in Mark Twain’s Letters, vol. 1, 1853-1866, edited by Edgar Marquess Branch, Michael Barry Frank, Kenneth M. Sanderson, Harriet E. Smith, Lin Salamo, and Richard Bucci (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 4.

2020 Elmira College Twain Art and Writing Winners Announced

The Center for Mark Twain Studies has announced the winners of the Annual Portraying Mark Twain Art Contest and the Mark Twain Essay Contest. First place prizes were awarded to Morgan Mordini ’22 and Alex Taylor ’23, respectively. Morgan’s winning piece in the Art Contest was a wintery photograph of the Mark Twain statue on the Elmira College campus, looking directly at Cowles Hall, the building where his wife Livy received a part of her education.

Honorable mentions in the Art Contest were awarded to Max Lundin ’22, Jenna Cowder ’22, Brooke Shollenberger ’23. Each student was awarded a monetary prize ranging from $150-$50 for their artistic and writing skills.

The 2020 Mark Twain Writing Contest winner is freshman art major Alex Taylor’23, who submitted a creative essay inspired by Mark Twain’s The War Prayer. After learning that many of  Mark Twain’s novels and stories were illustrated by artists such as Lester Ralph (Eve’s Diary) and Truman Williams (Adventures of Tom Sawyer), Alex decided to illustrate his own fictional letters from a 21st Century father and husband who was stationed somewhere in Syria. Alex wrote that he intended for the reader to think about soldiers in their own family, just as reading The War Prayer had caused him to think of soldiers who have been important to him in his own life.

The 2021 Portraying Mark Twain Contest and Mark Twain Essay Contest will soon be open for entries. All Elmira College students are encouraged to submit artwork and writing that reflects some aspect of Mark Twain, his writings, or his life in Elmira. More information is available here. Any questions should be directed to Dr. Joseph Lemak ([email protected]).

Gallows without Humor: How I Mined Mark Twain’s Western Violence

In 2008 I began my PhD program shortly after I had broken my second metatarsal on a run with former students. At the time, antebellum writers of the gothic and sensational occupied my imagination in the darkness of my newly sedentary life. I read the novels of George Lippard, George Thompson, and John Rollin Ridge and the journalism within The Hangman and the National Police Gazette. One day, as I searched for crime narratives set in the American West, I came across The Sagebrush Anthology, edited by Lawrence Berkove. This collection contained hoaxes written by Mark Twain, which had been published in Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise in the early 1860s. I had not read much early Twain, for I mostly spent time with Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, Hank Morgan or Pudd’nhead Wilson. But, as I researched and read, I noticed that Twain’s periodical writing read more like antebellum sensational writers than like the Twain I had read in school, or his writing I usually taught.

Now I began to catch up, though I could not run, and I emailed Larry Berkove. To my surprise, he responded. We corresponded several times, and I read all that he recommended. Still, I could not shed those gothic writers from eastern cities. I discovered many relationships between eastern metropolitan writers and western writers in mining towns, so I focused on these similarities in my research: narratives or journalism that criticized society, assessed gender norms, reported on or created scenes of crime and punishment, and employed violent discourse. Twain’s journalism and letters had it all. Even humor. I decided, however, mostly to avoid his humor and instead welcome the bullets and ropes, blood and bruises. Besides, I found out, James Caron had written the best book about Twain’s humor and western journalism, Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, that same year.

So I focused on the violence. My essential question has kept me interested all these years: What and how did Twain write about crime and punishment during his time in the West and just after he left it? Though I was well into my research by 2011, one answer came during the first Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri, that summer. Robert Hirst gave the keynote address, and as he discussed various letters and notes penned by Twain, Bob showed an envelope that contained Twain’s handwritten, but not mailed, response to Henry Bovee, a senator who had campaigned against capital punishment. After his address, I chatted with Bob about the note and asked him if any other such letters or envelopes existed in the Mark Twain Papers. The next year I visited the Papers in Berkeley, and within a box of unpublished materials in Bob’s office sat another envelope, with another response that Twain did not send to Henry Bovee. Images of both envelopes appear in my book, thanks to Bob Hirst.

Sam Clemens pistol practicing at his home in Redding, CT. (1908)
Image found at www.MarkTwainQuotes.com

During that exploration in the Papers I read various newspaper articles, bits, pieces, and columns that offered Twain’s specific, complicated, sometimes fluid views on western violence, including legal and extralegal punishment. He also wrote much about guns, but not in ways that would please either of our current political parties. He wrote about gender in ways that would not necessarily satisfy today’s men or women, whether traditionally or fluidly gendered. And he wrote about violence in ways that might disgust and excite his readers, for violence disgusted and excited him. These contradictions interested me. And though I can now run again, I cannot escape these contradictions, and the darkness and danger lurking in cities or mining towns that Mark Twain’s writing illuminated.


Dr. Jarrod Roark is a teacher at St. Teresa’s Academy (Kansas City, MO) and is Executive Coordinator of the Mark Twain Circle. Dr. Roark presented the following paper at the Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies:

His recent book, Mark Twain at the Gallows: Crime and Justice in His Western Writing, 1861-1873, is available from McFarland & Co.

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.  

Wild To Move: Mark Twain in Cleveland

In the years following the Civil War, Cleveland was one of the wealthiest and largest cities in America. Its prime location on Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River made it ideal for manufacturing and transportation. Its population grew alongside its industries.

The U.S. Gilded Age was good for the city. As business and people took root, so did cultural institutions and neighborhoods. 

It was this booming American city that the country’s soon-to-be most famous writer visited in 1868, and several other times over the years. Not only did Samuel Clemens visit Cleveland, the city he almost called home served a pivotal role in his life. 

Mark Twain’s relationship with the city of Cleveland is explored in my new book, Mark Twain’s America Then and Now, published in October 2019 by Pavilion Books.

Cleveland is one of more than 69 significant places in Clemens’ life journey that are visited in the book. Together, they tell the story of man for whom a sense of place, and home, was of utmost importance. A man who wrote “I am wild with impatience to move — move — Move,” to his mother in 1867. At the time, he was preparing for a formative international voyage, the Quaker City cruise to Europe and the Holy Land.

Little did he know, this man wild to move, that he was just in the early chapters of his biggest adventure: a lifelong journey to reinvent American literature while making Mark Twain the most famous pen name in the world. It was for this reason that tracing Clemens’ biography through the geography of his life made sense. 

Many of the most essential places in Clemens’ life are well known: Hannibal, Mo.; Virginia City, Nevada; Hartford, Ct.; Elmira, NY.  But his life passage was filled with many formative stops, from Buffalo, NY to Keokuk, Iowa, to New Orleans, and, yes, Cleveland.

Clemens’ first visit was linked to that fortuitous Quaker City cruise. 

Mary Mason Fairbanks

While on the Quaker City, Clemens befriended a wealthy society matron named Mary Mason Fairbanks. Though she was only seven years older than him, he dubbed her Mother Fairbanks. She was the wife of Abel Fairbanks, the co-owner of the Cleveland Herald, Cleveland’s first daily newspaper. She was a college educated woman, mother of two, and a writer herself. She was also a member of Cleveland’s burgeoning upper class, which included families such as the Rockefellers and Hannas and Mathers and other residents of Millionaires’ Row. This world famous stretch of Euclid Avenue was compared to the Champs-Élysées and Fifth Avenue for its collection of wealth and beauty.

On the Quaker City, Mary Fairbanks was traveling under her nom de plume, Myra. She and Clemens quickly bonded. “Mother Fairbanks” was far more than just a wealthy wife. Sam called her the “most refined, intelligent and cultivated lady on the ship.” He trusted her so much that he let her edit the dispatches he was sending back to the Alta California. She was traveling with another wealthy Cleveland matron, Emily Severance, and came to view both Clemens and 17-year-old Charley Langdon as young “cubs” in need of her advice — in life, love and writing.

It was a friendship that would last 32 years. Mother Fairbanks’ influence on Clemens was extensive in the early years of their relationship. 

So it was no surprise that when Clemens was struggling with his writings about the Quaker City as well as trying to woo Livy Langdon, who would eventually become his wife, he turned to the other writer he had met on the cruise.

But this wasn’t just a social visit. Clemens had decided to throw himself full-force into his new lecturing career. He lined up an extensive 26-date tour that began in Cleveland.

The choice was not random. Given his newspaper connections, Clemens felt he could earn good reviews in town, something that would help boost the tour.  

He did, and not just from the Herald

“The most popular American humorist since the death of poor Artemus (Ward), made his first bow in Cleveland Public…Mark Twain has reason to feel gratified pride at the pleasant and satisfactory impression he made upon the immense audience,” raved The Plain Dealer.

Clemens spent the better part of two months in Cleveland, preparing for his November lecture debut. 

Mother Fairbanks provided much guidance, on how to court a refined lady and conduct oneself in society, but more importantly on his Quaker City stories, which would eventually become The Innocents Abroad.  Clemens had lined up his schedule without his talk yet written. He had given a lecture called Pilgrim Life, Being a Sketch of His Notorious Voyage to Europe, Palestine, Etc,. earlier that year, but wasn’t sure if he wanted to do the same again.  

He decided to rewrite Pilgrim, which had been criticized for its irreverent portrayal of the Holy Land, and retitle it The American Vandal Abroad. With his book slated for an early 1869 release, the tour would be an ideal way to promote it, too.

Mother Fairbanks agreed, in theory.  The refined lady had strong opinions on Clemens’ mean-spirited article about the trip in the New York Herald, as well as some of his book drafts. She thought he should rein in his more sarcastic tendencies that were likely to offend the passengers, the audience  …and herself.  

She proved a benign influence, toning down Clemens’ baser instincts and impetuousness, leading to a leaner, funnier and more benevolent narrative. Clemens allowed her to read and edit his draft several times as he worked in the Fairbanks’ St. Clair Avenue house. He also allowed her to throw a reception in his honor, introducing him to Cleveland society as “reformed prodigy.” He would spend more than a few nights carousing with the younger male residents of Millionaire’s Row thanks to her introductions. 

The Fairbanks helped Clemens promote the speech he would eventually deliver on November 17 at Case Hall, a 1,200 seat Victorian-Italianate lecture hall built in 1867, on Superior Avenue, not far from the Herald. Previous speakers at the hall included Horace Greeley and Henry Ward Beecher.

In the Herald, Mary Fairbanks was even more effusive than The Plain Dealer in one of three stories on Mark Twain’s Cleveland lecture. (Conflicts of interest were apparently not of concern.)

 “For nearly two hours he held them by the magnetism of his varied talent,” she wrote. “We shall attempt no transcript of his lecture, lest with unskillful hands we mar its beauty, for beauty and poetry it certainly possessed, though the production of a profound humorist.”

This glowing review helped Mark Twain add more dates across the country. Eventually, it would grow from 26 dates to 40, through March of 1869.

In just one year, the Herald would again figure prominently in Clemens’ life when he made a bid to become co-owner with Abel Fairbanks. 

“Livy, I guess that after all I shall become interested in this ‘Herald,’ and then you shall be managing editor – that is to say, you’ll manage the editor,” Twain wrote from Cleveland on Dec. 30, 1868. “I think we’ll live in Cleveland, Livy…But I don’t think we’ll live in the Avenue yet a while, Livy – we’ll take a back seat with Mrs. Fairbanks, in St. Clair street.”

Alas, Abel Fairbanks raised the asking price and Clemens was forced to pursue other career paths. The paper ended up closing in 1885, two years after the Fairbanks sold their interest before moving to Omaha, Nebraska. 

It was a deal that clearly worked out well for Clemens who went on to much greater things that running a midwestern newspaper – after a stint at the Buffalo Express, which his father-in-law bought a stake in following Clemens’s 1870 marriage to Livy Langdon. Clevelanders today must wonder what their city might have been like if Mark Twain had made it his permanent home. 

Though he chose not to live in Cleveland, Clemens did return to the city that played an important role in his formative years in 1895. Again, the visit was of high significance. Facing bankruptcy, Clemens had been forced to return to the road to repay his debts. 

An ambitious international speaking tour of Australia, New Zealand,  India and Africa was planned. But it began on familiar territory. Very familiar territory.

Mark Twain kicked off his world speaking tour on July 15 at the Music Hall in Cleveland, the city that had served him so well launching his 1868 tour.  Opening night would be followed by 140 other dates and would take more than a year. Domestic tour dates were billed as Mark Twain Reading and Talking. Overseas, the lecture was called Mark Twain at Home.

The show was announced in The Plain Dealer on July 7.  His old friends Abel and Mary Mason Fairbanks were long gone, so he couldn’t count on a rave review from her to boost the tour. Clemens stayed at the new Stillman Hotel on Erie Street while he prepared. 

Music Hall, opened a decade earlier on Bond and Erie streets,  was the town’s largest gathering place, a steep, foreboding building that could seat 4,000; it burned down just three years later

Clemens needn’t have worried about the press. Raved The Plain Dealer, “His immense shock of hair has turned nearly white, but his humor is just as vigorous and his style as entertaining as ever.”

Once again, Cleveland had helped launch Mark Twain.


Laura DeMarco is the author of Mark Twain’s America Then and Now (2019), Lost Cleveland (2017), and Cleveland Then and Now (2018). She is an arts and culture reporter for the Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio. 

For more on the many places across the country that helped shape and inspire Mark Twain, from small-town Missouri to Mississippi river cities to the Wild West, Hawaii and the great cities of the East, check out Mark Twain’s America Then and Now (Pavilion Books, 144 p) The book features 69 locations, with more than 200 vintage and new photos.

A Tale of Today: Mark Twain on Impeachment

With articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump passed by the United States House of Representatives in December 2019, political gridlock has prompted Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to deliberate how and when to send the articles to the Senate to begin the subsequent trial. 

Impeachment intrigue gripped and enraptured Washington’s attention previously during the administration of President Bill Clinton, who was impeached in 1998, and President Andrew Johnson, who was impeached in 1868. 

As a Washington City correspondent covering parts of the 1st and 2nd sessions of the 40th Congress Mark Twain penned thousands of pointed words analyzing the machinations of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats within the charged social and political atmosphere of the nation’s capital surrounding Johnson’s impeachment

During the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, the New York Times cited Twain’s observations of President Johnson’s impeachment:

“A Tennessee Democrat, President Johnson had been Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 on a ‘National Union’ ticket but had run afoul of the radical Republicans since succeeding Lincoln. He fought them often over their efforts to harshly punish the South. Congress repeatedly sought to strip him of power and radical Republicans tried several times to impeach him. The climactic battle came when the President fired his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, in the face of a law designed to give Congress control over Cabinet officers’ tenure.

Twain was working that winter as a journalist, filing dispatches from Washington to newspapers around the country, when Andrew Johnson’s enemies in Congress finally found ammunition they thought would remove the President from office.”

“Word for Word / Samuel L. Clemens, Journalist; When Congress Last Rose to Impeach, Mark Twain Rose to the Occasion.” New York Times. December 20, 1998.

Washington Weather as a Forecaster of Impeachment Sentiments 

Arriving in Washington in late November 1867 to serve as a private secretary for Nevada Senator William Stewart, Twain maintained his byline for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise and Daily Alta California as a Washington Letter writer. He also contributed original reportage to local papers in Washington, and riffed about life in the District of Columbia for papers in Chicago and New York. 

A conspicuous presence in Washington, from receptions to the press galleries, Twain could quickly assume a provincial perspective, directing his disdain towards the city’s tempestuous environment and its commentary on the incessant impeachment chatter. 

Comparing the political climate with the apparently schizophrenic thermometer of Washington, with a date line of December 4, 1867, Twain wrote to the Territorial Enterprise

“I have been here a matter of ten days, but I do not know much about the place yet. There is too much weather. There is too much of it, and yet that is not the principal trouble. It is the quality rather than the quantity of it that I complain of; and more than against its quantity and its quality combined am I embittered against its character. It is tricky, it is changeable, it is to the last degree unreliable. It has catered for a political atmosphere so long that it has come at last to be thoroughly imbued with the political nature. 

As politics go, so goes the weather. It trims to suit every phase of sentiment, and is always ready. To-day it is a Democrat, to-morrow a Radical, the next day neither one thing nor the other. If a Johnson man goes over to the other side, it rains; if a Radical deserts to the Administration, it snows; if New York goes Democratic, it blows—naturally enough; if Grant expresses an opinion between two whiffs of smoke, it spits a little sleet uneasily; if all is quiet on the Potomac of politics, one sees only the soft haze of Indian summer from the Capitol windows; if the President is quiet, the sun comes out; if he touches the tender gold market, it turns up cold and freezes out the speculators; if he hints at foreign troubles, it hails; if he threatens Congress, it thunders; if treason and impeachment are broached, lo, there is an earthquake!

If you are posted on politics, you are posted on the weather.”

Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, December 22, 1867. Letter is dated December 4, 1867.

Twain on Patronage

Twain observed the machinery of Washington as an embedded capital correspondent, as well as a reluctant office-seeker and half-hearted lobbyist for his older brother Orion. In February 1868 Twain described how the atmosphere of uncertain impeachment impacted the established spoils system for readers of James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, one of the country’s most widely distributed newspapers.

Twain’s “Washington Gossip” column described the adversarial attitude towards President Johnson replete within Washington’s government departments. He wrote:

“A Cabinet may dispense patronage. The one we have at Washington does this on a small scale, but more to the President’s injury than benefit. Nearly all the government employés are in sympathy with Congress. They used to furnish Sumner with all his petitions for “manhood suffrage,” “civil rights,” “republican forms of government,” &c., and now they supply aid and comfort to the radicals in New Hampshire. Except from the evidence of their personal assurances the President has no knowledge that his constitutional advisers entertain views corresponding with his own.

A coinciding tendency of opinion has, under the accepted rules or partisan constancy, heretofore been exemplified by an appropriation of the benefits of patronage. It is proper to say that the President has not at any time exhibited a proscriptive spirit, nor has he exacted of the heads of departments a transfer of patronage from his enemies to his friends. 

At this time the departments are filled with radicals who have openly clamored for the impeachment of the President, and contributed of their sympathy and substance to uphold and perpetuate the Congressional policy. Not one man has ever been removed for vigorously abusing the President, nor has there been any discrimination against applicants who were recommended by influences in hostility to the administration. 

Furthermore, the President’s recommendation of an applicant, in former times, was equivalent to an appointment. Now it is otherwise. His endorsement of an application amounts to no more than that of any other man. If there is a vacancy, he may get it or he may not. Positive men are now the most successful. An uncompromising radical or an out and out democrat can succeed where a conservative would hardly get courteous attention. This is not a fancy of my own. I heard the same opinion expressed by a conservative Senator, who gave utterance to it under the force of a somewhat unpleasant experience.”

“Washington Gossip.” New York Herald. February 8, 1868.

The Movement towards Impeachment 

Chronicling the crescendo-ing political engineering of the impeachment movement by Radical Republicans in the House, Twain contributed a letter to the Chicago Republican with a biblical sub-head: “LAZARUS IMPEACHMENT, COME FORTH!”

With a date line of Monday, February, 24, 1868, in the immediate aftermath of President Johnson’s dismissal of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Twain wrote of the resurrective spirit of impeachment.

The past few days have been filled with startling interest. On Friday the nation was electrified by the President’s last and boldest effort to dislodge Mr. Stanton. The wild excitement that pervaded the capital that night, has not had its parallel here since the murder of Mr Lincoln.

The air was thick with rumors of dreadful import. Every tranquil brain, thrown from its balance by the colossal surprise, magnified the creations of its crazed fancy into the phantoms of anarchy, rebellion, bloody revolution! Assassinations were prophesied; murders, robberies, and conflagrations; cannon were to thunder, drums to beat, and the pavements to echo to the tread of armed men! 

The Senate sat at night, and the unusual spectacle of the illuminated Capitol attracted every eye, and impressed every mind with something like an assurance that its bodings and prophecies were well founded. And out of the midst of the political gloom, impeachment, that dead corpse, rose up and walked forth again!”

“Mark Twain’s Letter.” The Chicago Republican, March 1, 1868.

Capturing the scene overnight as Friday, February 21 turned into Saturday, February 22, 1868, Twain observed life inside and outside the grounds of the United States Capitol. Defying previous custom, Congress convened on the birthday of the country’s first president, George Washington. 

Twain wrote,

“The Senate sat at night, and multitudes flocked to the Capitol to stare and listen. The House resolved to make Saturday a working day for once, and both bodies decreed that for the first time since Washington’s death Congress should transact business on the anniversary of his birthday.”

Territorial Enterprise, March 13, 1868. Mark Twain’s Letters from Washington, No. 10.

Elbowing his way into the Capitol past onlookers, lobbyists, office-seekers, doorkeepers and fellow scribes, Twain took his seat Saturday morning from the vantage point of the press gallery. 

He noted,

“By 9 o’clock – full three hours before the sitting of Congress, long processions of men and women were wending their way toward the Capitol in the nipping winter air, and all vacant spaces about the doors were packed with people waiting to get in. 

When I reached there at noon, it was difficult to make one’s way through the wide lobbies and passages, so great was the throng. There was not a vacant seat in the galleries, and all the doorways leading to them were full of tiptoeing men and women, with a swarm of anxious citizens at their backs, eagerly watching for such scanty crumbs of comfort as chance opportunities of glancing between their shoulders or under their arms. 

I went immediately to the reporters’ gallery – it was about full, too, and excited doorkeepers and sentinels were challenging all comers and manfully resisting an assaulting party of men, women and children who were the fathers, brothers, wives, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, schoolmates, admirers of editors, correspondents, reporters, members of Congress, Cabinet officers and the President of the United States – and consequently they demanded to know why they couldn’t go into the reporters’ gallery!”

Territorial Enterprise, March 13, 1868.

Covering the scene for the Chicago Republican, Twain observed,

“A strong interest was depicted in every countenance — even in the countenances of the members of the floor — inasmuch that these latter earnestly conversed in groups and couples, instead of looking listless and writing private letters, as is their custom. The multitude of strangers were waiting for impeachment.

They did not know what impeachment was, exactly, but they had a general idea that it would come in the form of an avalanche, or a thunder clap, or that maybe the roof would fall in. Bye and bye a member rose up solemnly, and every soul prepared to stand from under. But it was a vain delusion — he only had a speech to make about a degraded cooking stove patent. The people were justly incensed.”

The Chicago Republican, March 1, 1868.

In the Territorial Enterprise, he added,

“It was a relief to the galleries, who somehow seemed to look upon this trifling about cooking stoves as a fraud upon themselves, and a sort of affront, as well, thrust forward, as it was, at a time when any idiot ought to know that impeachment was the order of the day!

No committee yet. Something must be done. Motion to adjourn, ‘in honor of Washington.’ Amendment – to read Washington’s Farewell Address. Both were voted down. Ayes and nays called on both, and the long, tedious, monotonous calling of names and answering followed. The vote was no – everybody knew what it would be before. 

Before the roll call was finished, Boutwell came in [sensation]; afterwards, at intervals, Bingham [sensation], Paine [sensation], several other committee men, and finally Thad. Stevens himself. [Super-extraordinary sensation!]”

Territorial Enterprise, March 13, 1868. Mark Twain’s Letters from Washington, No. 10.

After the “hour of irksome suspense rolled away,” Twain reported, “the one man the audience found out they must look for, entered — Thaddeus Stevens.”

Scholars of Twain are likely familiar with the notations and colorful observations he recorded of members of Congress in his journals upon his preliminary sittings in the House reporter’s gallery.

With descriptive rhetoric inartful by today’s norms,Twain took special notice of Stevens, the long-serving congressman from Pennsylvania, who was born in 1792 and would ultimately pass later that year.

The haggard, cadaverous old man dragged himself to his place and sat down. There was a soul in his sunken eyes, but otherwise he was a corpse that was ready for the shroud. He held his precious impeachment papers in his hand, signed at last! 

In the eleventh hour his coveted triumph had come. Richelieu was not nearer the grave, Richelieu was not stirred up by a sterner pride, when he came from his bed of death to crown himself with his final victory.

The buzzing and whispering died out, and an impressive silence reigned in its stead. The Speaker addressed the galleries in a clear voice that reached the farthest recesses of the house, and warned the great concourse that the slightest manifestation of approbation or disapprobation of anything about to be said, would be followed by the instant expulsion of the offending person from the galleries; he read the rules, at some length, upon the subject, and charged the Sergeant-at-Arms and his subordinates to perform their duty without hesitation or favor. 

Then Mr. Stevens rose up and in a voice which was feeble but yet distinctly audible because of the breathless stillness that hung over the great audience like a spell, he read the resolution that was make plain the way for the impeachment of the President of the United States!

The words that foreshadowed so mighty an event sent a thrill through the assemblage, but there was no manifestation of the emotion save in the sudden lighting of their countenances. They ventured upon no applause, nor upon any expression of dissent. Mr. Brooks of New York took the floor, and in a frenzied speech protested against impeachment, and threatened civil war if the measure carried.”

Territorial Enterprise, March 13, 1868.

Twain Predicts Johnson’s Acquittal 

Possibly reading into the latest weather front to settle over the nation’s capital, in his final Washington Letter for the Territorial Enterprise,Twain gave a less than optimistic forecast for impeachment.

“A few days ago, everybody was entirely satisfied that the President would be impeached and removed with all possible dispatch. To-day nobody has a settled opinion about the matter. The Democrats do not howl about impeachment much now, a fact that awakens suspicion. Maybe they are satisfied that to martyr the President would make a vast amount of Democratic capital for the next election. Martyrdom is the coveted thing, now, by everybody.

The Republicans show a disposition to quit talking about the impeaching of a President on stern principle for a contemptuous violation of law and his oath of office; they show a disposition to drop the high moral ground that such a precedent must not be sent down to hamper posterity, and they already openly talk about the “impolicy” of impeaching. It would be curious to hear a Court talking of the “impolicy” of convicting a man for murder in the first degree.

This everlasting compelling of honesty, morality, justice and the law to bend the knee to policy, is the rottenest thing in a republican form of government. It is cowardly, degraded and mischievous; and in its own good time it will bring destruction upon this broad-shouldered fabric of ours. 

I believe the Prince of Darkness could start a branch hell in the District of Columbia (if he has not already done it), and carry it on unimpeached by the Congress of the United States, even though the Constitution were bristling with articles forbidding hells in this country. And if there were moneyed offices in it, Congress would take stock in the concern, too, and in less than three weeks Fessenden and Washburne would fill it full of their poor relations. 

What a rotten, rotten, and unspeakable nasty concern this nest of departments is, with its brainless battalions of Congressional poor-relation-clerks and their book-keeping, pencil-sharpening strumpets.”

Territorial Enterprise, April 7, 1868. MARK TWAIN’S LETTERS FROM WASHINGTON.

Sensing the result of a pending impeachment acquittal against Johnson two months in advance of its actuality in May 1868, Twain wrote, “It is dead for good, now, I suppose. It promised so fairly, two months ago, that everybody boldly turned prophet and said it would certainly succeed. But it didn’t. Nobody’s prophecies concerning Washington matters ever come out right. Isaiah himself would be a failure here.”

Despite describing Congressman Stevens as pallid and with one foot in the grave, Twain wrote, 

Hon. Thad. Stevens, the bravest old ironclad in the Capitol, fought hard for impeachment, even when he saw that it could not succeed. He is not choice in his language when he speaks on this subject, concerning his fellow-committeemen and Congress generally. He simply says the whole tribe of them are ‘Damned Cowards.’ It is the finest word painting any Congressional topic has produced this session.”

Territorial Enterprise, March 7, 1868. MARK TWAIN’S LETTERS FROM WASHINGTON.

Twain Leaves Washington City 

Seemingly unmoved by the opportunity to cover the ensuing impeachment trial in the Senate, Twain wrote to his mother February 21, 1868 of his growing discontent with Washington,

“I couldn’t accept the Postoffice—the book contract was in the way—I could not go behind that—& besides, I did not wantthe office. I might want such a thing under the next administration, & if it shall so happen, it will be in my favor that I did not serve under this one.”

Samuel L. Clemens to Jane L. Clemens & Family. February 21, 1868.

On Monday, March 9, 1868 the Evening Star noted, “Mark Twain”—Clemens—has left Washington for California to make arrangements for the publication of his work.”

The Innocents Abroad would eventually be published in 1869 as one of Twain’s most popular works during his life and one of the best-selling English language travel books of all time. Although his life as a Washington letter writer was short-lived, Twain’s observations about our nation’s capital and the fervor of impeachment more than one hundred and fifty years ago prove to be prescient.


John Muller is author of Mark Twain in Washington D.C. (The History Press, 2013) and Frederick Douglass in Washington D.C. (The History Press, 2012). He is an Associate Librarian in the Washingtonia Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, part of the DC Public Library system. He regularly writes and speaks about the history of Washington, D.C.

CMTS' 2020 Strategic Plan

For a full version of the Center for Mark Twain Studies 2020 Strategic Plan, click HERE.

Strategic planning is a useful tool for the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies (CMTS) to assess its past and design its future.  Strategic management helps CMTS cultivate a continuing commitment to its mission and vision, promotes a culture that includes meaningful input from all stakeholders and encourages a focus on the annual agenda by means of a transparent decision-making process.  The annual strategic plan allows the staff of CMTS to identify and respond to its most fundamental and immediate issues, and develop strategies for fostering fiscally sustainable growth in moving CMTS toward being a leading internationally recognized academic center.  Finally, the CMTS strategic planning process fosters proactive discussion and formulation of action plans by all staff members, both within their spheres of influence and within the organization as a whole.

CMTS continues to strive for transparency in all its endeavors and is more than willing to make its strategic plan available to the public.

Vision Statement of the Center for Mark Twain Studies

The Center for Mark Twain Studies strives to renew and deepen its identity as a scholarly center for Mark Twain Studies and any and all related academic disciplines with the goal of becoming one of the best academic centers in the country.

To achieve this vision, the Center for Mark Twain Studies must harness its great energy and talents, inspire its supporters, and most importantly, exercise the collective imaginations of the greater Mark Twain community to build and maintain an even better Center for Mark Twain Studies for its current constituents and future generations.

Mission Statement of the Center for Mark Twain Studies

The Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies (CMTS) is dedicated to fostering and supporting scholarship and pedagogy related to all aspects of Mark Twain.  The primary purpose of CMTS is to serve an international community of scholars and educators.  The responsibilities of CMTS also include oversight and preservation of two historic landmarks: Quarry Farm, which has been designated a cultural humanities site dedicated to scholars and writers working in Mark Twain Studies, and the Mark Twain Study, now located on the Elmira College campus.  Starting in 1871 and for over twenty consecutive summers, Twain lived at Quarry Farm and worked in his octagonal Study.  It was here that the author wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and many other important works, signifying his most productive and successfully creative time of his life.

In addition, CMTS closely collaborates with the Elmira College Mark Twain Archive, the home of primary and secondary sources dedicated to Twain and his circle.  CMTS also seeks to enrich local and regional community members and organizations by promoting and preserving the legacy of Twain and his deep connection to Elmira.  CMTS fulfills its mission through the sponsorship of academic and creative research fellowships-in-residence; the creation of content for MarkTwainStudies.org, the website of CMTS; and through the facilitation of a number of scholarly events, including annual symposia, academic lectures, teaching institutes, and the quadrennial International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, the world’s largest scholarly conference focusing on Mark Twain.

Strategic Goals

Reflecting its vision and mission statement, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has established the following strategic goals:

  1. Enhance and sustain service to all constituents of CMTS
    1. Scholarly community
    1. Internet community
    1. Local and regional community
    1. Elmira College community
  2. Increase the quality and quantity of scholarly production associated with Quarry Farm
  3. Enhance and sustain the services and materials offered by the Mark Twain Archive to the academic community
  4. Preserve the historical infrastructure of Quarry Farm, the Study, the Exhibit, and the Archives
  5. Increase financial sustainability to support CMTS’ mission and strategic goals

For a full version of the Center for Mark Twain Studies 2020 Strategic Plan, click HERE.