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.


Life, In Purgatory (A Twainiac Quarantine Diary)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Slavishly useful. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Life, In Arbitrage (A Twainiac Quarantine Diary)

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

Perhaps I’m projecting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its consequences were not. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel Clemens to Joseph Twichell, January 17, 1897

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

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

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

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