John T. Lewis & Mark Twain: A Friendship

EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week was the anniversary of what we at CMTS affectionately know as “the carriage incident,” described by Robert Paul Lamb in the short essay that follows, which also profiles the “hero” of that story, John T. Lewis, including several allusions to Lewis’s correspondence with Samuel Clemens. Beneath the essay, we are very pleased to provide high-quality scans of Lewis’s letters, with permission from the Houghton Library at Harvard and the Mark Twain Project at UC-Berkeley.

In creating the character of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain drew upon several real-life people: Uncle Dan’l, a middle-aged enslaved man on the farm of young Sam Clemens’ uncle, John Quarles; George Griffin, a formerly enslaved man who lived with the Clemens family in their Hartford, Connecticut home and who served as his butler, friend, and confidant; and, as I will argue in an upcoming book, there are significant elements of Twain himself in Jim, as well as resonances of Frederick Douglass.

But arguably the most important source for Jim was John T. Lewis of Elmira, New York, the hometown of Sam Clemens’ in-laws and site of the Clemens and Langdon family graves. From 1870 on, Susan Langdon Crane, the adopted sister who was ten years Twain’s wife Livy’s senior, lived with her husband Theodore on Quarry Farm outside of Elmira. From then until he left for Europe in 1891, Twain and his family spent nearly every summer on Quarry Farm, where he did most of his finest writing in a small, detached, windowed octagonal study on a knoll overlooking the Chemung River, watching the occasional lumber raft, barge, and ferry pass by below.

Susan Crane had built the structure for his exclusive use, mainly to provide him with a quiet workplace, but also to keep his continual cigar smoke out of her house, or so the rumor goes. If his uncle John Quarles’s farm in Missouri provided most of young Sam’s youthful interactions with enslaved people and African American culture and became the prototype for the Phelps farm in Huck Finn, the Crane’s Quarry Farm in Elmira was the place where, years later, he transformed those experiences into fiction. Elmira also had a sizeable and proud African American population of free blacks and emancipated people because it had been a stronghold of abolitionism and active in the Underground Railroad before the war, efforts headed by the formidable figures of Twain’s parents-in-law, Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon, who were friends of Douglass.

John T. Lewis was born a free man in 1835, the same year as Clemens, in Carroll County, Maryland. In the fall of 1853, he became a member of the Baptist Brethren (the Dunkers) at the Pipe Creek Church, one of the relatively few black Brethren in antebellum America. Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr. observes that they “had no formal creed aside from the New Testament, believed in adult baptism, non-resistance to evil including war, and opposed taking oaths.” The Brethren were mainly located in Pennsylvania, but some had migrated to Maryland and Virginia, and thus the Church was compelled to take a position on slavery, which they unambiguously did.

In the Conference of 1797, they resolved, “no brother or sister should have negroes as slaves; and in case a brother or sister had such he (or she) was to set them free.” Nor were Brethren permitted to hire a slave and pay his or her wages to their slaveowner. In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, the Church reiterated its position on slavery in no uncertain terms at its annual conference, stating:

“In as much as the Brethren always believed, and believe yet, that slavery is a great evil, and contrary to the doctrine of Christ, we consider it utterly wrong for a brother to justify slavery either in public or in private, and that he should be admonished, and if obstinate, shall be dealt with according to Matt. 18 [i.e., expelled].”

Furthermore, African Americans were admitted into the church as full and equal members with no difference in status between them and white members.

Lewis remained a devoted member of the Brethren his whole life. When he moved to Elmira in 1862, he was virtually the only Dunker in the region but kept connected to the Church through their publications. In 1870, he wrote to his old church: “I am trying by the help of God to live in accordance with the gospel and the order of the Brethren. I hope the brothers and sisters will pray for me that I may be faithful to the end.” Near the conclusion of his life, he assisted in recovering and returning to the “Little Dunker Church” in Sharpsburg, Maryland its pulpit Bible that had been pilfered as a souvenir during the Battle of Antietam by a soldier from 107th New York Regiment. By his own instructions, no formal church service was performed on his death because a minister from the Brethren was not in close enough proximity to conduct it.

When he first came to Elmira, Lewis took a job as Jervis Langdon’s coachman. He also married Mary A. Stover, a former enslaved woman born in Virginia, and they had a daughter, Susanna (called Susan). Their only son (like Sam Clemens’ only son, Langdon) died in infancy. In 1870, Lewis became a tenant farmer on Quarry Farm, and then had his own farm about a mile away while still doing work for the Cranes. Mary passed away in 1894, and when Lewis, suffering from rheumatism, became too weak to work, Twain and Susan Crane arranged a monthly pension for him, with Twain enlisting the help of his wealthy friend Henry Huttleston Rogers for the purpose.

Although the two men surely knew each other since 1868, when Sam was courting Livy, their relationship deepened after an incident that revealed Lewis’ courage and character so strongly that Clemens detailed it at length in a letter to William Dean Howells. On the evening of 23 August 1877, Sam, Livy, the Cranes, and other members of their extended families and staff watched from the porch as brother-in-law Charles Langdon’s wife Ida, their six-year-old daughter Julia, and their nurse Nora started down a long hill in a carriage drawn by a new, spirited horse. Suddenly, Livy cried out, “Ida’s driving too fast down that hill!” and then screamed, “Her horse is running away!” Sam and Theodore Crane took off on foot in a desperate but futile pursuit, watching the disappearing carriage pass the front gate “springing high in the air,” with Sam expecting a “ghastly spectacle of mutilation and death” as they approached the spot where the road would make a sudden turn near a ravine. But when they got to that spot, the carriage was intact and all was well.

Earlier in the letter, Clemens wrote that John Lewis had been in town that day, three miles away, to pick up a load of manure for his farm in his two-horse wagon. He described Lewis as a farmer “of mighty frame & muscle, stocky, stooping, ungainly,” with “a good manly face & a clear eye. . . . the most picturesque of men” who “has worked mighty hard & remained mighty poor.” Lewis had borrowed money from the Cranes, which he was unable to pay back, and although they never brought it up to Lewis, Clemens wondered, “being conscientious & honest, imagine what it was to him to have to carry this stubborn, hopeless, load year in & year out.” Now John Lewis had performed, in Clemens’ words, a “miracle.” Twain wrote to Howells:

“You see, Lewis,—the prodigious, humped upon his front seat, had been toiling up, on his load of manure; he saw the frantic horse plunging down the hill toward him, on a full gallop, throwing his heels as high as a man’s head at every jump. So Lewis turned his team diagonally across the road just at the ‘turn,’ thus making a V with the fence—the running horse could not escape that but must enter it. He gathered his vast strength, and with a perfect Creedmoor aim he seized the gray horse’s bit as he plunged by & fetched him up standing! It was down hill, mind you; ten feet further down hill neither Lewis nor any other man could have saved them, for they would have been on the abrupt ‘turn,’ then. But how this miracle was ever accomplished at all, by human strength, generalship & accuracy, is clear[ly] beyond my comprehension—& grows more so the more I go & examine the ground & try to believe it was actually done. I know one thing, well; if Lewis had missed his aim he would have been killed on the spot in the trap he had made for himself, & we should have found the rest of the remains away down at the bottom of the steep ravine.”

The next evening, John Lewis arrived at the Crane home to a grand surprise. Mary and Susan Lewis, the Cranes, the Langdons, the Clemens family, and all the servants were waiting with a lavish dinner, presents of inscribed books and letters with money pinned to them, and $400 of his debt cancelled. After dinner, Mary Ann Cord, the Crane’s cook who had survived forty years in slavery and whose powerful story of her separation from her son on the auction block Twain would repeat almost verbatim in “A True Story,” had an interesting exchange with the hero. Twain was always delighted by their clashes over religion, for “Aunty Cord is a violent Methodist & Lewis an (fanatic) implacable Dunker-Baptist.” Cord exclaimed: “Now let folks go on saying there ain’t no God! Lewis, the Lord sent you there to stop that horse.” To which Lewis replied, “Then who sent the horse there in sich a shape?”

Two days later, when Charlie Langdon returned from the West to discover that Lewis had saved his family from certain death, the rest of his debts were cancelled and he received a massive, expensive gold watch. Inside was inscribed: “John T. Lewis, who saved three lives at the deadly peril of his own, August 23, 1877. This in grateful remembrance from Mrs. Charles J. Langdon.” Asked if such a gift was out of character, Twain replied, “If Lewis chose to wear a town clock, who would become it better?” He also observed, “this wearer aggrandizes the watch, not the watch the wearer.”

Twain noted that with the money Lewis made haste to help his aging father, who still lived in Maryland, and offered to pay back the remaining $300 of debt he owed the Cranes, who quietly put it off “to the indefinite future” so as not to embarrass Lewis, for they had no intention of accepting the money. He concludes the letter to Howells by quoting a sentence from a letter Lewis wrote to the Cranes, which Twain felt “raises it to the dignity of literature”: “But I beg to say, humbly, that inasmuch as divine providence saw fit to use me as a instrument for the saving of those presshious lives, the honner conferd upon me was greater than the feat performed.”

The two men would remain friends until Lewis’ death in 1906, four years before Twain’s own passing. Twain made sure to have his publisher send him copies of his books, which Lewis, who loved to read, deeply appreciated. After receiving A Tramp Abroad in 1880, he sent Twain a letter of appreciation, stating, “I except it as a grate treasure from noble generous heart and benevolent hand” and “thanks for it and the past unmerited presents you have kindly gave me,” adding that he and his family “are all quite well.” Upon receiving a copy of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Lewis wrote to Twain, “For a gentleman whos business cols him to move in the higher circuls of life to paus and think of makeing one in my humble caulling happy on Christmas, is surley some thing to be proud of.” Twain’s feelings about Lewis were in no way patronizing or condescending. He cared nothing about class distinctions, and his judgment of people was based on their character. He was as much at ease with a laboring man like Lewis as he was in the company of an intellectual giant like Frederick Douglass. In a 1903 interview for Ladies Home Journal, Twain showed the reporter one of the photographs of himself and Lewis taken on his most recent trip to Elmira, describing him as a “neighbor” and “a friend of mine,” and stating to the world, “I have not known an honester man nor a more respect-worthy one.” Samuel L. Clemens and John T. Lewis are both buried, with their families, in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

Robert Paul Lamb is professor of English at Purdue University, West Lafayette. He is the author of Art Matters: Hemingway, Craft, and the Creation of the Modern Short Story and The Hemingway Short Story: A Study in Craft for Writers and Readers, and co-editor of Blackwell’s A Companion to American Fiction, 1865 to 1914, for which he wrote the chapter on Mark Twain. This essay is excerpted from a book he is currently completing, tentatively titled, “Mark Twain and Jim’s America: Slavery, Race, and Realism in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

John T. Lewis to Samuel L. Clemens, April 11 1880, Elmira NY

+ Samuel L. Clemens to William D. Howells, April 12 1880, Hartford CT

MS Am 1784-1784.13. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

John T. Lewis to Samuel L. Clemens, 1 January 1903, Elmira, N.Y.

Courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers and Project, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

John T. Lewis to Samuel L. Clemens, 2 January 1890, Elmira, N.Y.