Mark Twain Day By Day 150 Years Ago: A Long, Hard Winter in Buffalo

One of most important reference works on is the digital edition of David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day. This exhaustive chronology of the life of Samuel Clemens was originally published in four enormous print volumes between 2008 and 2014. It immediately became an invaluable reference for scholars who had the good fortune of access to it, but the size and expense of the books kept it primarily confined to university libraries and select private collections. That changed in 2019 when, with the permission of David Fears, CMTS created and launched a digital version of Day By Day. Twain scholars, teachers, students, hobbyists, and all variety of Twainiac can now access a fully-searchable online edition of MTDBD for free from anywhere with an internet connection.

One of the foremost goals for CMTS in 2021 is to create strategies for updating and improving the current digital edition. The ultimate goal is modernize the delivery of the database content, making it more accessible, interactive, and practical for researchers.In recognition of this goal, and as a way of promoting MTDBD, the staff at CMTS is launching #SesquicentennialSam, a project of chronicling where Sam Clemens was, and what he and Mark Twain were doing 150 years ago. We hope that you join us!

March 3, 1871 to March 11, 1871 – Buffalo

In early March 1871 Samuel Clemens was in bad shape. Before the doldrums of late winter had seeped into the consciousness and daily routine of the entire upstate New York population, Sam and Livy had already experienced a number of major emotional events, starting with the death of Jervis Langdon, Livy’s father. Livy and Sam were also pregnant with their first child. This alone would have been a challenge for any newlywed couple.

Sam was also fed up with his day job working for the Buffalo newspaper he partially owned, The Express. His daily obligations to the paper had begun to seriously interfere with the progress of his follow-up to Innocents Abroad. He characterized this new work as a “big book on California, Nevada, & the Plains.” The manuscript was nowhere near finished and perhaps Sam was afraid that his recently acquired literary fame would fade before it was ready for publication, wasting the countless hours of writing, lecturing, and hard work racked up over the past several years. He undoubtedly contrasted the potential fragility of his own stardom with the recent spectacular rise of his literary rival, Bret Harte.

Yet things got worse. Emma Nye, Livy’s childhood friend from Elmira, had come for an extended visit at the Clemens house in Buffalo to support Livy with her bereavement and pregnancy. Soon after Emma’s arrival, Sam wrote in a letter that Emma was “right sick” (MTL 4: 248). The person who had come to help the newlyweds had quickly turned into a patient who needed constant care. Livy spent most of September doing her best to take care of her friend. Almost two months after Jervis Langdon’s death, Emma passed away from typhoid fever on September 29, 1870 in the Clemens’s Buffalo home. Sam and Livy were too exhausted to attend Emma’s funeral in Elmira.

Five weeks later, on November 7, 1870, Langdon Clemens was born a month premature. Livy struggled to nurse Langdon and a wet nurse was soon sought after. Wracked with exhaustion and still reeling from the deaths of her father and Emma Nye, Livy wrote her friend Alice Hooker in a Buffalo hospital after a health scare with Langdon:

“I often feel since Father left us, that he was my back bone, that what energy I had came from him, that he was the moving spring – It seems to me that all who have lived by the side of so noble and self sustained a life as his [was] must feel so…I dread very much my first visit home [Elmira] – I know that I shall realize more than I possibly can away from there that Father has left us never to return any more…

Shall I explain to you how I came to be writing you with a pencil? I am at this present time seated in a private room of the General Hospital in Buffalo – with my baby near me – I had not food enough for the little one, we tried feeding him but that did not do at all, so we were obliged to look for a wet nurse….It is about the forlornest place that ever you saw, but you know we can do almost anything for the dear little ones.”

MTL 4:313-4
Photo taken in 1871 on a lobbying trip to Washington D.C. On the right is David Gray, editor of the Buffalo Courier. On the left is journalist George Alfred Townsend. Clemens was living and working in Buffalo at the time.
Picture taken on February 7, 1871 in Washington, D.C.; George Alfred Townsend (left), Mark Twain (center), David Gray (right)

As Livy was facing the challenges of being a new mother, Sam was working on the manuscript which would become Roughing It and trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to keep up with his responsibilities to the Buffalo Express. He was also keenly aware of the recent success of Bret Harte, especially since Sam was accused of plagiarizing Harte two months earlier in January 1871. While that matter was eventually resolved, the accusation must have been a real blow to Sam’s ego.

As Sam’s dislike of working for The Express increased, he began the process of formally distancing himself from the newspaper. In February, Clemens had to go to Washington D.C. on some unfinished business involving his father-in-law’s estate. While in Washington D.C., Susan Crane, Livy’s older sister, telegraphed Sam. Susan had been in Buffalo to assist with baby Langdon and help her sister who had recently had not been feeling well. Susan wrote to Sam:

“She [Livy] has had some fever, no appetite, no power to sleep, & (great depression of spirits – Livy did not like that, so I did not say it)…He [Baby Langdon] is doing quite well now although he has not been well & it is the anxiety in part which has worn Livy….Theodore [Susan’s husband] goes home this afternoon & I shall take as good care of Livy as she will allow me….Do not be worried. I think Livy will be better but I wanted to feel that we were not keeping you entirely in the dark.”

(MTL 4: 327)

Clemens rushed back to Buffalo, while Livy’s health worsened. On February 9 Clemens wrote “My wife is seriously & I am afraid even dangerously ill.” (MTL 4: 329) Livy had contracted typhoid fever, the same disease which had struck Emma Nye.

Amidst all the births, deaths, sickness, author envy, unhappy business dealings, and inclement weather of a Buffalo winter, Orion Clemens, Sam’s older brother, added his own pressure to his already overtaxed sibling. A few months earlier, Sam had arranged a job for Orion to work at the American Publisher, a monthly circular which would advertise forthcoming books. The company was owned by Elisha Bliss, the secretary of the American Publishing Company, the organization which had just published Innocents Abroad and would eventually publish Roughing It. This kind gesture to his older brother would prove to be a giant pain in the neck for Sam. Almost immediately Orion started pestering Sam to contribute the American Publisher on a regular basis, the last thing Sam needed from his brother….

….and through all this turmoil Sam was still not making any real progress on his “California” manuscript. Early March 1871 found Sam Clemens at a near breaking point.

The Clemens Home in Buffalo

March 3, 1871 – Buffalo – Sam wrote to John Henry Riley, a friend whom he met when they were reporters together in San Francisco. Sam begins his letter by praising Riley for messages that were ” as satisfactory as letters could be.” Then in frank revelation with how his life was going, Sam blamed his misfortunes on the city of Buffalo:

I have come at last to loathe Buffalo so bitterly (always hated it) that yesterday I advertised our dwelling house for sale, & the man that comes forward & pays us what it cost a year ago, ($25,000,) can take it….I offer THE EXPRESS for sale also, & the man that will pay me $10,000 less than I gave can take THAT….

We have had doctors & watchers & nurses in the house ALL the time for 8 months, & I am disgusted. My wife came near dying, 2 weeks ago.

I quit THE GALAXY with the current number & shall write no more for any periodical. Am offered great prices, but it’s no go. Shall simply write books.

Do you know who is the most celebrated man in America to-day?—the man whose name is on every single tongue from one end of the continent to the other? It is Bret Harte. And the poem called the “Heathen Chinee” did it for him. His journey east to Boston was a perfect torchlight procession of eclat & homage. All the cities are fussing about which shall secure him for a citizen.

MTL 4: 337-8

Ron Powers in Mark Twain: A Life describes Harte’s literary triumphal procession across the United States, which undoubtedly must have irked Sam, especially after the recent plagiarism accusation.

On February 2 [1871], Francis Bret Harte…boarded a train in San Francisco and commenced a magisterial three-week journey across the continent to Boston, where Harte expected he would claim the national literary peerage toward which he had struggled for nearly two decades….Women went crazy over his good looks and flowing sideburns (the acne scars were hard to spot at a distance). Newspapers ran telegraphed reports of his eastward progress as if he were a conquering general. The Hartes arrived at Boston around 11a.m. on Saturday, February 25, to the cheers of a welcoming crowd. Foremost among the greeters, hunched against the cold, heavy air, was the destined gatekeeper of American literature, the thirty-three-year old William Dean Howells.

Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life, 295.

March 4, 1871 – Buffalo – Sam Clemens wrote to his brother Orion, answering his insistent request for an article for the American Publisher:

I have written the GALAXY people that I will never furnish them another article, long or short, for any price but $500 cash—& have requested them not to ask me for contributions any more, even at that price. I hope that lets THEM out, for I will stick to that.

Now do try & [leave] me clear out of the PUBLISHER for the present, for I am endangering my reputation by writing TOO MUCH—I want to get out of the public view for a while. I am still nursing Livy night & day & CANNOT write anything. I am nearly worn out. We shall go to Elmira ten days hence (if Livy can travel on a mattrass then,) & stay there till I have finished the California book [ROUGHING IT]—say three months. But I can’t begin work right away when I get there—MUST have a week’s rest, for I have been through 30 days’ terrific siege…..

I have offered this dwelling house & the EXPRESS for sale, & when we go to Elmira we leave here for good. I shall not select a new home till the book is finished, but we have very little doubt that Hartford will be the place. We are almost certain of that.

MTL 4:341

March 6, 1871 – Boston – Bret Harte signed his record-breaking contract with The Atlantic Monthly with a $10,000 annual salary.

March 8, 1871 – Hartford – Orion wrote to Sam insisting that he write for the American Publisher on a monthly basis:

….with your pen withdrawn from THE GALAXY, and held aloof from small books, and confined to the larger and more elevated description worthy of your mettle, and writing only for us who publish a paper as a branch of your publisher’s enterprise, you would not be writing too much or too little, but just exactly enough. Squarely, we must have something from you or we run the risk of going to the dickens. Bliss says he will pay you, but we must have SOMETHING every number [month]….a joke, an anecdote or anything you please – but give us something, so that the people may not brand us falsifiers, and say we cried “Twain,” “Twain,” when we had no “Twain”……

Mark Twain Papers Online

March 11, 1871 – Buffalo – Sam responded to Orion’s insistence with a pen dripping with anger:

Now why do you & Bliss go on urging me to make promises? I will not keep them. I have suffered damnation itself in the trammels of periodical writing and I will NOT appear once a month nor once in THREE months in the PUBLISHER nor any other periodical….

You talk as if I am RESPONSIBLE for your newspaper venture. If I am I want it to stop right here—for I will be damned darned if I, am not going to have another year of harassment about periodical writing. There isn’t money enough between hell & Hartford to hire me to write once a month for ANY periodical. I would do more to advance Bliss’s interests than any man’s in the world, but the more I turn it over in my mind how your & Bliss’s letters of yesterday are making the PUBLISHER a paper which the people are to understand is Mark Twain’s paper & to sink or swim on his reputation, the more outrageous I get…..

Make me the very smallest among the contributors—the very seldomest I mean—& in that way give me some WEIGHT. Haven’t I risked cheapening myself sufficiently by a year’s periodical dancing before the public but must CONTINUE it?……

I lay awake all last night aggravating myself with this prospect of seeing my hated nom de plume (for I do loathe the very sight of it.) in print AGAIN every month….

The man who says the least about me in any paper for 3 months to come will do me the greatest favor. I tell you I mean to GO SLOW. I will “top” Bret Harte again or bust. But I can’t do it by dangling eternally in the public view.

MTL 4:349-357

Sam and Livy desperately needed a break from their cold Buffalo winter. Thankfully this respite would come in the form of Susan Crane, Quarry Farm, and Elmira. Sam needed to be away from his “hated nom de plume” and the constant demands of regular periodicals. He needed the opportunity to be away from the constant telegrams and business dealings that sucked away time from his “California” manuscript. While Livy had some understandable trepidation of returning to her hometown, bringing up all the emotional memories of her recently departed father, she most likely looked forward to having the company of her family and friends. She could also take the opportunity to get some help with Baby Langdon and show off the new addition to the family. All through the Spring and Summer of 1871, the family would stay in Elmira, with Sam sporadically traveling to Buffalo to close his business dealings there. As the Buffalo Winter ended and the Elmira Spring began, the Clemens family would be able to take a breath and rejuvenate.

Up on the East Hill of Elmira at Quarry Farm in 1871, Sam would write the majority of Roughing It. It is during the Spring and Summer of 1871 that Sam would realize how much work he could accomplish at Quarry Farm, if simply left alone to write, while his wife and family were in the good care of his in-laws. It is this trip to Elmira that would begin the over two decade tradition of the Clemens family summering at Quarry Farm. It is during this summer that he will get to know Mary Ann Cord and begin to strengthen his relationships with the Elmira community that will profoundly affect his worldview. It is during this first long stay that Quarry Farm will weave its spell on Sam Clemens, when he would begin a run of books that would not only eclipse Bret Harte, but change American literature forever. Spring was coming for the Clemens family.