The John T. Lewis Story: A Repeat Epistolary Performance

Each year we are proud to publish a series of essays conceived, written, and edited by members of the Mark Twain Circle of America, which, since 1986, has been the primary member organization devoted to the study of Twain’s “work, life, and times.” Naturally, the Twain Circle and the Center For Mark Twain Studies are frequent and enthusiastic collaborators on numerous fronts, but we want to emphasize that the essays in this series are created without any input from CMTS, which functions solely as the venue for publication.

Through these essays we get a peak at the vibrance of Twain Studies scholarship, but also the diversity of perspectives.

Special thanks on this occasion goes to Kerry Driscoll, Associate Editor at the Mark Twain Papers & Project and Professor Emerita at University of St. Joseph, who acted as editor for this series of three essays, which we will be publishing over the next six weeks.

If you’ve been to Quarry Farm, you’ve probably heard the John T. Lewis story. If you’re a little more of a Mark Twain fan, you may be aware of Clemens’s August 25-27, 1877 letter to William Dean and Elinor Howells, published as part of the Mark Twain-Howells Letters.1Mark Twain-Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens and William D. Howells, 1872-1910 (Cambridge, HUP: 1960), 194-99. The letter recounts a harrowing incident at Quarry Farm: Ida Langdon (wife of Olivia Clemens’s brother, Charles Langdon) had started driving a buggy with her young daughter, Julia, and the child’s nurse, Nora, down the steep hill leading away from the family home when suddenly “the new, young, spry gray horse” drawing the buggy ran out of control. Clemens and Theodore Crane (husband of Olivia’s adopted sister, Susan Crane) ran down the hill after the runaway buggy with no hope of catching it. But at that very moment John T. Lewis, an African American tenant farmer, was driving manure up the hill. When he saw the buggy coming, he created a roadblock with his own team of horses at a turn in the road. Then he bravely jumped into the horse’s path, grabbed its bit, steered it to a halt, and most likely saved the passengers’ lives. The buggy had descended so far from view of the grieving spectators further up the hill, including Clemens and Crane as they tried to catch up with it, that no one except the heroic Lewis and the rescued passengers witnessed what had happened. Yet all were apprised in short order, and Lewis became a perennially rewarded hero at Quarry Farm. Meanwhile, Clemens, awestruck by Lewis’s cunning and courage, perceived the incident’s literary qualities.

The letter to W.D. and Elinor Howells has more than just a customary touch of literary styling by a great American stylist.2If you would like to read the entire manuscript of the letter for yourself, see the flipbook at the bottom of this post or visit this link to the Henry & Albert Berg Collection of English & American Literature at New York Public Library. Though true to life, it arguably tends more toward narrative craftsmanship than, say, his love letters to Olivia or his anecdote-ridden performances to fellow authors, including Howells. To begin with, the August 25-27, 1877 letter begins with a frame, hooking the reader with a sense of urgency and intimacy.

I thought I ought to make a sort of record of it for future reference; the pleasantest way to do that would be to write it to somebody; BUT that somebody would let it leak into print, & that we wish to avoid. The Howellses would be safe.

Clemens-Howells Letter, Vol. I, pg. 194

Then comes the setting of the scene: Quarry Farm, the cast of characters, and the planting of “the new, young, spry gray horse” behind the buggy. Clemens lulls his audience into relaxed epistolary reading with four paragraphs that lay out the bucolic setting. Then he springs the incident on its readers with Livy’s shocked exclamation: “Ida’s driving too fast down the hill!” Clemens and Crane run in hot pursuit, the buggy disappears behind the fateful turn in the road, and Clemens expresses despair, no doubt shared at this point by W.D. and Elinor Howells. Then relief: the doomed buggy passengers are safe in the company of Lewis at the turn in the road. Next, Clemens gives his undoubtedly captivated readers a proper denouement, retroactively explaining what the witnesses up the hill had not seen: how Lewis managed to block the road, grab the horse, and rescue the buggy passengers. Clemens follows the denouement with several paragraphs of falling action, positive excitement in the family home (all’s well that ends well), and a cherry on top: a brief theological debate between the heroic Lewis and the Crane family’s African American cook, Aunty Cord (the real name of “Aunt Rachel,” who gave Mark Twain “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I heard It”).3“A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” in A Family Sketch and Other Private Writings, ed. Benjamin Griffin (Oakland: UC Press, 2014), 45-50. A “P.S.” serves as a coda, beginning “Our little romance in real life is happily & satisfactorily completed.” For a few paragraphs, Clemens discusses the gifts that he and others gave Lewis, and Lewis’s modesty and selflessness in face of such rewards. We almost stand to applause, expecting the actors to take a bow.

Nevertheless, the literary casting of the letter to the Howellses is neither the only proof of its artistry nor its most peculiar attribute. For, as the last footnote in the Mark Twain-Howells Letters states: “Clemens sent an almost verbatim copy of this letter…to his friend Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh, author of Rab and his Friends” (199, n5). The authors of this blog post, who work at the Mark Twain Papers and Project, discovered this footnote after analyzing the Project’s forthcoming volume of Mark Twain’s Letters, 1876-77 (volume 7), in which the duplicate letters recounting the John T. Lewis story are destined to appear. No annotation explains the duplication of the letters in the edited volume because the interpretation of the why and how of their duplication is left to the volume’s readers, as it should be: an edited volume is a resource for interpretation and aspires to avoid interpretation itself, however impossible this may be on some level. That said, as we assessed the volume, we found the paths of inquiry opened to us by the duplicate letters irresistible.

We first wanted to know how Clemens duplicated the letter. Given his investments in technologies of print and image reproduction shortly after 1877, we asked ourselves whether he might have been aware of various means of manuscript duplication from previous decades. Such means probably did not include the cumbersome “Polygraph,” which Thomas Jefferson had been enthused about in 1804. Clemens was probably aware of the use of carbon paper to replicate manuscripts in the 1870s—about a decade before he began having his typists make carbon copies of his typescripts. We were eager to see if he had used some type of device or transfer method to create the duplicate letter. Alas, there is no technological novelty to uncover in the case of the letters bearing the John T. Lewis story. The version of the letter addressed to Brown is a handwritten duplicate, each consisting of exactly twenty numbered leaves inscribed on the recto only. A glance at the facsimiles made available by the New York Public Library’s digitized papers in the Berg Collection makes the fact of hand-duplication plain and clear.

Where technological novelty is lacking, however, Clemens’s labors in copying a lengthy letter by hand teased out some intriguing variations that reveal just why the story was worth a cramped hand. The framing of the tale, beginning with “I thought I ought to make a sort of record,” is nearly identical in the duplicates. The phrase “for future reference” is dropped out of Brown’s version. This gives us one indication that Clemens wrote Brown’s version second, as Clemens readily perceived that the phrase could be dropped out without loss, for it is implied. The above-mentioned direct address to the Howellses being “safe” at the end of the frame is changed to reflect the letter’s recipient. In Brown’s version it reads: “There is Dr. John—he is safe—so let us tell Dr. John about it.” To illustrate the differences, the passage is provided below with the text of the version to the Howellses struck through and the additions to the Brown version in red:

I thought I ought to make a sort of record of it for future referencc; : the pleasantest way to do that would be to write it to somebody; but that somebody might let it leak into print, & that we wish to avoid. The Howellses would be. . . . . . . . . . . There is Dr. John – he is safe – so let us tell the Howellses Dr. John about it.

Edits aside, the duplicated wording suggests that Clemens had the letters side by side and that he copied the text of the letter to the Howellses into the Brown letter, adjusting for the destined reader.

Such adjustments are evident in Clemens’s expanded descriptions of the cast of characters in the version addressed to Brown, who wouldn’t have been as familiar as the Howellses with Clemens’s intimates. For instance, in the first paragraph he changed “Livy” to “Livy (my wife, you may remember)” and “mother Langdon” to “mother Langdon (who is Livy’s mother).” Other changes stem from Clemens knowing to switch linguistic and economic registers: “‘high carriage’” becomes “barouche” in Brown’s version, and Clemens converted “fifty dollars” to “£10” for Brown. Again, suggesting that Brown’s version came second, Clemens consistently used numerical figures where he had previously spelled them out (“3 miles” instead of “three miles”). Why add to a cramping hand?

Yet hand copying also resulted in changes for aesthetic and thematic effect. In some cases, revision led to the dialing back of the performance. For instance, in the version for the Howellses Clemens finished setting the scene and listing the characters with the following sentence: “Then there was the farmer’s wife (colored) & her little girl, Susie.” Then he started a new, very short paragraph to secure his readers’ attentions as he prepared to turn up the heat: “Wasn’t it a good audience to get up an excitement before? Good excitable, inflammable,  combustible material?” The questions alone lend the tale rhetorical and narrative flourish, as do the formal skipping of a line and its indentation. In the Brown version, Clemens opted for a less theatrical presentation of the same questions (without the deleted word “combustible”). Though such changes suggest a diminution of literary ambition, they may in fact represent a reining in of impulses following a first draft. See the third page of each manuscript below.4Clemens actually added and then deleted a phrase in Brown’s version preceding the dramatic phrase in question: “Then there was the farmer’s wife (colored) & li her little girl Susan.̭ (it being customary, in this region to name girls after Susie Crane.)” To the eye, the deletion separates the dramatic phrase from the paragraph that would have ended “Susan.” But as Clemens didn’t indent the dramatic phrase, as he did in the letter to the Howellses, the dramatic phrase becomes contiguous with the paragraph.

Elsewhere, Clemens added flourish to Brown’s version. The laundress “Chocklate” (or Charlotte) becomes “a superb creature to look upon” in Brown’s version, and, just before the incident begins with Livy’s exclamation (“Ida’s driving too fast down the hill!”), Clemens added that the “barouche” was being loaded before departure while “all the Quarry Farm tribe, white & black, grouped upon the grass in front,” as below:

Well, sunset came, & Ida the young & comely, (Charley Langdon’s wife) & her little Julia & the nurse Nora nursemaid Norah, drove out at the upper gate behind the new gray horse & started down the long hill – the high carriage barouche receiving its load under the porte‑cochère. , & all the Quarry Farm tribe, white & black, grouped upon the grass in front. Ida was seen to turn her face toward us across the fence & intervening lawn – Theodore waved good-bye to her, for he did not know that her sign was a speechless appeal for help.

As before, red text indicates additions or substitutions made in the letter to Dr. Brown.

The detail of interracial gathering on the lawn to witness a Black tenant farmer rescuing and returning to safety two white women and a little white girl from a near death experience was not exactly necessary, as Clemens had set the scene with a cast of interracial characters at the story’s beginning. That he emphasized the interracial cast of characters in the duplicate letter for Brown shows us that the matter of race was increasingly on Clemens’s mind as he wrote out the story by hand for a second time.

It almost goes without saying that the racial aspect of the tale motivated its artful crafting in the letter to W.D. and Elinor Howells in the first place. But it is worth adding that the race of the hero and the interracial cast of characters also motivated the story’s duplication and enhancement in the Brown version. All in all, the two letters suggest that Clemens’s crafting, copying, and revision of the John T. Lewis story was not just a matter of daily correspondence but a labor of love. For this and other reasons, there is still more to say about these intriguing documents and the forthcoming edited texts based on them. And that is the work we leave to you.

Blake Bronson-Bartlett is Associate Editor, Mark Twain Papers and Project & Terry Catapano is Director of Digital Strategy and Publication, Mark Twain Papers and Project

Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) to William Dean Howells & Elinor Howells (August 25-27, 1877)

Courtesy of the Henry W. & Albert A. Berg Collection of English & American Literature, The New York Public Library