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.

An Interview With Virgie Hoban About Six Degrees of Mark Twain

Virgie Hoban, in collaboration with the Mark Twain Project and it’s General Editor and Curator, Robert H. Hirst, has created a unique introduction to Twain’s social network. 6 Degrees of Mark Twain combines images and primary sources from the Mark Twain Papers with video interviews with Dr. Hirst and Hoban’s explanatory narrative to explore Twain’s relationships with a diverse sextet of his contemporaries, all of whom were celebrities in their own right. In addition to being a welcome resource for Twainiacs of all stripes, this interactive, multimedia experience would make a great resource for classrooms.

Virgie Hoban is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley (where the Mark Twain Project resides) and now works as a writer for the communications office at the Berkeley library, covering exhibits, collections, events, and the library’s digitization and open access initiatives. She kindly took time to answer a few questions about how 6 Degrees of Mark Twain came together.

1.) How did you become interested in Twain? Have you worked with the Mark Twain Project before?

My father gave me Tom Sawyer to read as a kid, and I loved it. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, studying English, I read Huck Finn for a class and was blown away by its heart and humor. At some point, I took a tour of the Library for an English class and saw treasures from the Mark Twain Project. This “6 degrees” project was my first time working with or writing about the Mark Twain Project — a dream of mine since I applied for this position. 

2.) What surprised you most as you pursued this research? Was there a particular relationship that you found most intriguing? Why?

I have been endlessly amazed at how infinite Twain seems, in his relationships with people and in his opinions on everything in the world. He speaks in such great hyperbole, too, with so much conviction that it feels almost impossible. I loved exploring those sides of him with this very tangible guide: the people he called friends.

There were a couple favorite moments. P.T. Barnum was a quirky one that was weirdly enlightening. I loved the bit about Twain collecting strange letters from Barnum just to learn more about humankind. That was a sort of light-bulb moment that made me feel like I was starting to get to know Twain a bit more. I was also intrigued by Twain’s fascination with Barnum. The guy is this shameless showman — I read articles comparing Barnum to Trump — and yet Twain can’t help but admire him, because he’s got that love for theatrics too. But Twain does sort of keep Barnum at a distance, declining to write ads for the circus, etc. As Bob Hirst told me, it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly is going on between them.

I think my favorite relationship was probably Twain and Helen Keller. It was astounding to see this larger-than-life person shrink in comparison to this woman, in the way Twain praises her. Like I said, I think Twain likes to exaggerate, but when he calls Keller the “8th wonder of the world,” you believe it. Also, I was floored by the way Keller sees right through Twain’s cynicism and old-man griping. There was love and understanding and encouragement in that friendship, which was very sweet to witness.

3.) As you point out, Twain’s life intersected with lots of public figures. How did you narrow it down to this particular half dozen? Were there particular demographics, issues, events, etc. that you wanted to highlight?

Haha, well I joke with my colleagues that I will do a sequel featuring Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Edison, Charles Dickens, Teddy Roosevelt, and hopefully more women. I picked these people with the guidance of Bob Hirst, who brainstormed with me about all the possible candidates. I chose Harriet Beecher Stowe over Dickens because I wanted another woman. Tesla seemed a little wonkier than Edison, and Twain was closer to Grant than Roosevelt. The other relationships were just who I found most interesting, I suppose. 


Please check out 6 Degrees of Mark Twain, as well as all the great digital resources available from the Mark Twain Project.

2019: The Year In Review

By any measure, this was the most active year yet at MarkTwainStudies.org, as well as an extremely productive year for the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies. In January, we relaunched the site with a full redesign from Paul Stonier and two significant new archives, the Beta version of David Fears’s Mark Twain Day By Day and David Bianculli’s Mark Twain: Television Star. These were not the only fresh resources for scholars and Twainiacs we added in 2019. In April, CMTS archivist Nathanial Ball released a digital archive of our collection of Twain’s marginalia. In June we launched an interactive map of Elmira from 1901, created by Director Joe Lemak and David Coleman’s SmallTown360. And, in September, resident scholar Matt Seybold contextualized the rare manuscript, Drinking With Twain, which we digitized for the first time. Over the course of the year, there were also substantive updates to the existing Virtual Tours of Quarry Farm and Woodlawn Cemetery (also in collaboration with SmallTown360).

The Center For Mark Twain Studies also hosted its 6th Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium in October, organized by Ben Click, Editor of Mark Twain Annual, with a keynote address from Michael Branch (University of Nevada – Reno). The topic was “Mark Twain & Nature” and you can read all about it, as well as listen to the ten speakers who participated in the event. You can also find an extensive recap of the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute hosted at Quarry Farm, led by Jocelyn Chadwick (Harvard School of Education) and Matt Seybold (Elmira College). We also added twelve new lectures to our Trouble Begins archives from 2019 series hosted at the Chemung Valley Museum, Elmira College, Quarry Farm, and The Park Church.

In July, the staff took a road trip to Hannibal for the 2019 Clemens Conference, the last to be organized by retiring Director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, Henry Sweets. We were proud to host tributes to Henry from Cindy Lovell and other grateful Twain scholars. Finally, we produced an episode of the C19: America in the Nineteenth Century podcast, released earlier this month, and featuring performances by Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor, Hal Holbrook, and his grandson, Will Holbrook. The episode, “The Gospel of Revolt: Mark Twain in Elmira,” can be streamed or downloaded from iTunes or SoundCloud.

In the meantime, “The Study” blog at MarkTwainStudies.org published over a hundred posts from more than thirty scholars. Here are some highlights:

Many thanks to the many Friends of the Center For Mark Twain Studies, including you, for visiting MarkTwainStudies.org, coming to CMTS lectures and performances (or giving them!), and supporting our ongoing mission. We’ve got more in store for 2020. Happy New Year!

The Crane House Speaks (A Quarry Farm Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.

The main house at Quarry Farm speaks. It sighs in the morning when I sit with my journal and tea overlooking Elmira in the valley below. When I switch from page to screen, the radiators hiss and pop. Their clatter and the calling geese are the only sounds in my silence. The squeaky kitchen door greets me from my afternoon woods walk. I leave my boots at the door and settle into the study for reading and one warmer whistles a welcome. This is my second stay at Quarry Farm and I’ve learned the way of the house by its hum. It’s helped me find my own writing rhythm too. It’s November and I’m tucked away on East Hill for a two-week fellowship.

My writing process has always been to binge. In Washington, DC my days are filled with teaching, attending department meetings, writing letters of recommendation, serving on committees: the labor of university that fuels and delays my creative work, but none of that reaches me at Quarry Farm. As a fellow, my job is to write or as I call it, to make. On the first day I manage only three pages but they are a pivotal scene in my novel-in-progress. When I’m stuck, I read from the books I’ve brought or wander through the house for a volume I didn’t know I needed. Since my first stay at Quarry Farm, the internet speed and capacity has vastly improved so I keep my laptop offline to counter the ambitious improvements from the Center for Mark Twain Studies. If I’m researching detail, the study is stocked with resources, including a capable computer with a lightning connection to the outside world I’m keeping out.

Much of my work is rooted in my hometown, Hannibal, Missouri, which I share with Samuel Clemens. In my debut novel, Flood, set during and after the 500-year flood of 1993, I reimagine Becky Thatcher through a female friendship more akin to Tom and Huck’s famous mischief. Flood is a story of identity and how we construct narratives, especially those based on false assumptions. I wanted to avoid the familiar “Can you go home again?” in favor of the more ambivalent “What happens if you have to?” Like the Mississippi River that once ran backwards, Laura Brooks, Flood’s protagonist, flows in a dangerous direction through her past as she seeks to recalibrate her future. Like Mark Twain’s work and social criticism, I examine race, class, and ideologies of rural communities. I’ve come to Quarry Farm to work on Flood’s sequel and see how a modern Becky emerges on the page. I can’t help but find the view of Elmira in the valley below and the Chemung River matching the riverbanks and bluffs I was born and raised admiring in Hannibal. Sam and I are in on a secret.

By my third day, I have a plot map for a short story and a newly drafted sample chapter which I will take apart and rewrite four more times in the coming week. The ability to stay in work and to hold the pieces in my head as I move from study to kitchen to fields allows ideas and words to percolate until the steam from the boil must meet my page. The time, space, and place at Quarry Farm is ideal for the deep work necessary for scholars and creatives alike.

When the house can hold me no longer and I’m out of groceries, I drive to Elmira for provisions, art, and research. I explore “Mark Twain’s Elmira” at the Chemung County Historical Society and spend hours learning about Women’s Suffrage and the NAACP’s presence in the community. The generous docent at the Arnot Art Museum teaches me about the ties between the Arnot and Langdon family and she is patient with my many questions. I bring my journal so I can scribble on a bench in the gallery in the beauty of this collection. 

On the last day of my two-week residency, I send the sample chapters to my agent and the revised manuscript proposal to my editor—it’s the amount I’ve been trying to juggle in my academic days for an entire year—and it’s done. I’ve begun three new projects and they must now marinate until I can clear my calendar again for the gift of time.

Susan Crane understood that a writer needs solitude and support. She had dinner ready and a community to bolster Sam’s spirits when he returned from a day writing up the hill in his studio. As an artist informed by scholarship, Quarry Farm inspires me and I listen. The rabbit holes of research I fall into become a phrase for a future poem, a line of dialogue I hear imagining a hallway conversation between Sam and Livy, or a scene that might make its way into my next novel. I like to think that the Langdon-Crane crew might be pleased that a fellow girl from Hannibal made her way up to East Hill to write in Mark Twain’s footsteps.

Melissa Scholes Young is Associate Professor of Literature at American University and author of the award-winning Flood (2017).

“The Gospel of Revolt: Mark Twain in Elmira,” An Episode of The C19: America In The Nineteenth-Century Podcast, Featuring Hal Holbrook

Also available on iTunes and other podcast purveyors.

The Center For Mark Twain Studies is proud to announce the release of our first podcast project, a collaboration with C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists for their podcast, C19: America in the Nineteenth Century. The episode provides a tour through the history of Elmira, with stops at the Park Church, Woodlawn Cemetery, and Quarry Farm. Did you know that Mark Twain’s father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, lobbied for the release of a young woman arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law in 1853? That Mark Twain’s grave lies in a cemetery with numerous conductors and stationmasters on the Underground Railroad? That Mark Twain’s eulogy was given by the first woman ordained in the state of New York? Our episode explores the largely forgotten and often surprising political history of this small town.

The episode was written and narrated by Matt Seybold, Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies, and co-produced by Joe Lemak, Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Our C19 producer was Ashley Rattner of Tusculum University. It also features performances from Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor, Hal Holbrook, who spent 65 years touring Mark Twain Tonight! and is the focus of the new documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, available now on Amazon Prime Video and Apple iTunes. In our podcast, Holbrook plays a 71-year-old Mark Twain and is joined by his grandson, Will Holbrook, who plays Twain at 33.

We are also grateful to Quarry Farm caretaker, Steve Webb, and Larry Howe, President of the Mark Twain Circle. They provided music for the episode with their ensembles, The Compass Rose Sextet and Steve Webb & The Balance.

We hope you find time to give it a listen this holiday season. Let us know what you think!

150 Years of Innocents Abroad: The American Vandal in Venice

EDITOR’s NOTE: August of 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad. We celebrate the occasion with a series of short essays by Twain scholars who have done extensive research and writing about the travel book and the voyage it describes.

Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except Heaven and Hell and I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.”

Mark Twain, Letter to W. D. Howells (May 20, 1891)

Well, perhaps Twain changed his mind about travel later in Following the Equator (1897), having discovered the cultural diversity and charm of India, particularly the clothing and color of Ceylon.[1] When I traveled to Venice, Italy during a sabbatical in April of 2017, at about the same age of Twain in his journey around the world, I wanted to experience what I could of Twain’s first visit to Venice. I wanted to find the charm and the culture of Italy and see for myself the decline of Venice. I hardly had the time to experience the clothing and color of Venice, because within a week of my arrival I delivered a talk at the University of Venice before faculty and students.[2] I tried to tailor my discussion toward Innocents Abroad, which all had read closely in terms of Twain’s chapters on Venice.    Everything I said to this Venetian audience was of the abstract type one gleans from reading without knowing. I probably said something to the effect that the culture of Italy influenced Twain in a number of ways, first through his satire on art, second in his recognition of the decline of Venice as a global force, third in his reflections on Italian lifestyle as a tranquil unity of nature and civilization, and finally in his acceptance of some of the religious and family values that Italian culture promotes. I do know I tried to cover the history of the text, some of the insights about the excursion on the Quaker City cruise ship, some of the comparisons made between Europe and America, and some of the comments made on the decline of Venice along with its historical charm and glory.  Twain writes a good deal of material that might annoy a modern Venetian, so I looked at Innocents Abroad for material that would demonstrate the charm and glory of Venice for my audience. Twain himself does mute his observations that Venice has become something of a mausoleum for tourists:

I began to feel that the old Venice of song and story had departed forever. But I was too hasty. In a few minutes we swept gracefully out into the Grand Canal, and under the mellow moonlight the Venice of poetry and romance stood revealed. Right from the water’s edge rose long lines of stately palaces of marble; gondolas were gliding swiftly hither and thither and disappearing suddenly through unsuspected gates and alleys; ponderous stone bridges threw their shadows athwart the glittering waves…Music came floating over the waters – Venice was complete. It was a beautiful picture – very soft and dreamy and beautiful

Innocents Abroad, 218-219

This glittering vision of Venice is one that I had to find, and did, on a charming island, San Giorgio Maggiore, which I had almost all to myself, within sight of the St. Mark’s Square.[3] Twain finds Venice to be a place for ghosts, as did I some nights while on my private island:

Yes, I think we have seen all of Venice…We have stood in the dim religious light of these hoary sanctuaries, in the midst of long ranks of dusty monuments and effigies of the great dead of Venice, until we seemed drifting back, back, back, into the solemn past, and looking upon the scenes and mingling with the peoples of a remote antiquity…A part of our being has remained still in the nineteenth century, while another part of it has seemed in some unaccountable way walking among the phantoms of the tenth.

Innocents Abroad, 216

The culture of Italy influenced Twain in a number of ways, though I took some time understanding how the Italian lifestyle could mirror a unity of nature and civilization while in Venice, and I really did not see for several years how Twain might accept some of the religious and family values that Italian culture promotes. Twain clearly had some difficulties with organized religion, and outright hostility toward Catholicism, so changing my mind took time, the time I needed to think about the Venetian excursion I had made. I believe that Twain found common ground between the secular world of Venice and its long historical religious perspective. It’s there in Twain’s words. But I as a traveler needed to experience how that might work. One can still visit Venice and be impressed with the merger of art, religion, and architecture. Twain writes of the chiesa (church) Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari:

Among a long list of churches, art galleries, and such things, visited by us in Venice, I shall mention only one -the church of Santa Maria dei Frari. It is about five hundred years old, I believe, and stands on twelve hundred thousand piles. In it lie the body of Canova and the heart of Titian, under magnificent monuments…In the conventional buildings attached to this church are the state archives of Venice. We did not see them, but they are said to number millions of documents. “They are the records of centuries of the most watchful, observant and suspicious government that ever existed – in which every thing was written down and nothing spoken out.” They fill nearly three hundred rooms. Among them are manuscripts from the archives of nearly two thousand families, monasteries and convents. The secret history of Venice for a thousand years is here – its plots, its hidden trials, its assassinations, its commissions of hireling spies and masked bravoes – food, ready to hand, for a world of dark and mysterious romances.

Innocents Abroad, 235-236

This dark Venice is not something I found at the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, but I did stand awed by the overwhelming grandeur of the place, by its scale, and by its presence as one of the chief monuments to the Catholic religion in Venice (among the other 56 or so churches that I have on my to-do list, having evaluated only about 16 of those that Hemingway, James, Howells, Hawthorne, Pound, and others visited[4]).  The State Archives of Venice are still near the Frari, though not public; some material is online. Twain writes a good deal more about Frari (as it is generally referred to now) and I can only add my own tourist’s amazement to his.  Twain’s merger of the secular history of the Machiavellian Venice with the religious importance of Frari emphasizes the sense that Venice challenges the tourist as a mystery that can only be solved by way of continued meditation on how art reflects religion.

Religion in Italy means a daily awareness of the imminent death of the physical being, with a promise of an afterlife of eternal glory, with the promise of redemption and salvation. One is saved from sin by continual reflection on one’s relationship with God; Mary, Christ’s earthly mother, is a key to that daily prayer. Virtually every chiesa or church in Venice reminds the worshipper of that promise. The general design of a Catholic church depends on the cruciform shape, a transept crossing a longer nave, the building’s shape resembling Christ’s cross. The ceiling often represents Heaven, a tower pointing toward the afterlife. Most Venetian churches demonstrate the wealth of Venice in its prime, with art symbolic of the unity of purpose between the earthly and the divine (economic dominance and religious zeal); Tintoretto’s Last Supper in the chiesa of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, aside from being a didactic religious portrayal, captures the sense of the worldly domain (resembling a Venetian inn, with servants) watched over by a heavenly realm (a radical use of light, with God’s servants, angels, overhead). I have no evidence that Twain saw that kind of symbolism in his travels. Twain recognized that daily devotion to one’s faith but found organized religion of any kind a hindrance to the human spirit, relying in part on a devotion to his family and to places he called home; he openly mocked the religion and the art of Venice:

As far as I can see, Italy, for fifteen hundred years, has turned all her energies, all her finances, and all her industry to the building up of a vast array of wonderful church edifices, and starving half her citizens to accomplish it. She is today one vast museum of magnificence and misery. All the churches in an ordinary American city put together could hardly buy the jeweled frippery in one of her hundred cathedrals. And for every beggar in America, Italy can show a hundred – and rags and vermin to match. It is the wretchedest, princeliest land on earth.

Innocents Abroad, 258

Twain ridicules great art when it represents an imperialist culture that exaggerates its own importance, an art that fails to recognize the vernacular values of life, the vernacular vandal that Twain often represents in his own work. But then there’s that pause in his words, the “princeliest land on earth,” that “one vast museum of magnificence and misery,” a backhanded compliment to the competence and capacity of a country that can sacrifice so much for the sake of art. Twain complains about the acres of paintings by Tintoretto, yet he admires it. In A Tramp Abroad (1880), he even comes around to openly praising that monumental painting in the Doge’s Palace, presumed to be the largest oil painting in the world, Il Paradiso.  (There’s a larger one now in India, painted by Sandeep Sinha, completed in 2018.)  I found, and later recognized fully, the integration of art with family and religion by being in Venice, by being in Carlo Goldoni’s home (playwright, his home now a shrine and museum), by being enveloped by the small museums that dot Venice (the Querini Stampalia Foundation Museum, for example) that capture the sense of living at home while living within art.

Twain first toured Italy in 1867, returning with his family in 1878, later in 1892-93 living at the Villa Viviani in Florence, and his last lengthy visit at the Villa di Quarto in Florence in 1903-04, where his wife Livy died. Italy had, over about seventy years, begun to find its place in the global marketplace of ideas and politics, becoming a more or less unified country by 1871. Twain, however, found Venice in 1867 a political mirror of the potential disunity of the aftermath of the American Civil War, a perilous and complicated period of time for America. Italy is something of a mirror for America at that point, an America mired in racism and doubt. The 1867 trip to Venice, in particular, suggests that the corruption and decay of Venice, long considered a major and global force, could well be the fate of an America on the verge of becoming a global power. He begins to modify that position in 1878, and finally accepts a new vision of Italy in 1893 as the potential future of an America that, while still struggling with its past, can yet find a unity of nature and civilization. He may have found that unity already in Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York:

“But we are housed here on top of the hill, now, where it is always cool, & still, & reposeful & bewitching.”

Letter to W. D. Howells (June 14, 1877)

Quarry Farm represents the kind of Italian vista that he and his family later enjoyed at the Villa Viviani, and he perhaps recognizes how well Italy can be a place of tranquility, having enjoyed that tranquility in America.  

Twain’s contrasting image of the glories of the Doge’s palace in Venice with the desperation of those who suffered under the rule of the Venetian government emphasizes his revulsion at what Venice has become:

The walls and ceilings were bright with gilding, rich with elaborate carving, and resplendent with gallant pictures of Venetian victories in war, and Venetian display in foreign courts, and hallowed with portraits of the Virgin, the Saviour of men, and the holy saints that preached the Gospel of Peace upon earth – but here, in dismal contrast, were none but pictures of death and dreadful suffering! – not a living figure but was writhing in torture, not a dead one but was smeared with blood, gashed with wounds, and distorted with the agonies that had taken away its life!

Innocents Abroad, 224

This museum that Venice has become suggests that the emergent capitalism of the era will produce faceless individuals, people without identities, a crowd of tourists who lack a purpose within this new world of global commercialism, tourists who lack empathy of those prisoners of the long-gone Venice. These lost souls represent the new modern citizens, citizens who have no appreciation for the past or for what culture means. This Venice creates tourists without purpose and becomes a museum that shows an appropriation of culture without a real meaningful context. Venice, once a commercial and vital city state, is now a vast souvenir shop. The search for the authentic experience for Twain illuminates the decline of American commercial enterprises, the Grand Tour of Europe becoming a way to export the robust and corrupt American system of exploitation and the inflated sense of Empire that England imagined for its global domination. Twain sees what has happened to Venice and imagines what it would be like for America to disintegrate in the same way that Venice had.

However, Twain is charmed by the tranquil social life that he imagines Italy represents. Venice is a city of art; paintings are everywhere; the 56 churches all contain art; even the people of Venice seem to be part of an artist’s palette. Perhaps the light of Venice and Italy changed his perspective on how he might live out the last years of his life, surrounded by members of the Angelfish Club at Stormfield. But Venice also represents a lost vista, one that had power as a commercial and vital city state and now has become a vast souvenir shop, a powerless icon of politics, a magnificently ruined city-monument, a collection of tourist sites and museums. 

Quarry Farm, for a time, recaptures that lost vista, a restful and secure place for the simultaneous acts of vacationing and working. Nature surrounds the family with a fusion of a civilized wilderness and a view of the urban landscape that can provide a social environment esteemed by the Clemens family, reminiscent of the idealized Italian vistas that his family will enjoy. Later, Twain returns to the play on words that “Innocents/Innocence” conveys. In a letter dated October 7, 1908 to Dorothy Quick, one of his Angelfish, he suggests that she might visit him in at home in Redding, Connecticut, then called “Innocence at Home”: “We are putting glass in the arches of the loggia now, & turning it into a winter parlor, so that we can sit there with our knitting & watch the snowstorms” (MarkTwain’s Aquarium, 218).[5] It was a house that reflected the architecture of Italy, a reflection of Livy’s death in Florence and more likely the earlier memories of Villa Viviani. “Innocence” evokes the memory of Twain’s first travel book, The Innocents Abroad. “Innocence” is also a common concept in the letters he writes to his young members of the Angelfish Club. He writes, for example, that he has followed the suggestion of Marjorie Breckenridge: “the house has two names: ‘Innocence at Home’ for the Aquarium girls, and ‘Stormfield’ for the general public” (December 1, 1908).  

I was certainly innocent in my stay in Venice. I came to see what Twain had intuitively captured, that the city has a duality of souls, one seemingly mired in the past and one that continues to celebrate the secular reality of its religion. The memories that haunt me now are those I did not know I had, that I lectured a group that knew Venice all too well, and that I needed to reflect on my experience there for a long two years before I got what Twain found in just a few days in that city. His was an insightful journey, one I am beginning now to appreciate.  I accept the decline of the city, but now I am also finding Twain’s words about the actual experience of travel also true:

I began to feel that the old Venice of song and story had departed forever. But I was too hasty. In a few minutes we swept gracefully out into the Grand Canal, and under the mellow moonlight the Venice of poetry and romance stood revealed.

Innocents Abroad, 218

Harold H. Hellwig is Associate Professor of English at Idaho State University and author of Mark Twain’s Travel Literature: The Odyssey of a Mind (2008)


[1]Susan Gillman in “Mark Twain’s Travels in the Racial Occult: Following the Equator and the Dream Tales” writes that Twain’s travel book and a number of dream tales, which includes The Mysterious Stranger, “invoke and adapt the notions of spirit communication and disembodied space-and-time travel…as a means of revisiting the old terrain of U.S. slavery and linking it to the newer global imperialism, the worldwide nationalism, nativism, and racism of the late 1890s” (194). Gillman writes that when Twain goes to Ceylon “we have clearly arrived at the very center of the voyage, Twain’s own paradoxical heart of darkness, where this remote orientalized land of dream and romance merges, both pleasurably and disturbingly, with memories of Twain’s boyhood in the antebellum South” (202). However, Twain’s “heart of darkness” becomes a testament of faith that the racial differences that exist will, with an effort of memory, disappear within the context of a timeless moment when these differences will vanish.

[2]“Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad: Among the Monuments of Time.” Presented to the faculty and students at the University of Venice. April 10, 2017. Ca’ Bernardo, Sala B. Organizzato da Daniela Ciari Forza. Universta Ca’Foscari Venezia. Dipartimento di Studie Linguistici e Culturali Comparati.

[3]I was enabled in my stay in Venice by way of being a resident at the Vittore Branca International Centre for the Study of Italian Culture, sponsored by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, April 3 through April 27. I spent a good deal of time at the Nuova Manica Lunga (library system with an emphasis on the history of Venice, literature, music, theatre and opera; the relations between Venice and the East, and Venice and Europe).

[4]Nathalia Wright, in American Novelists in Italy, Michael L. Ross, in Storied Cities: Literary Imaginings of FlorenceVenice, and Rome (with a focus on British writers), and Van Wyck Brooks, in The Dream of Arcadia, are among those who discuss some of these Italian travelers. Single-figure critics include Dennis Berthold’s American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and Cultural Politics of Italy. Venice represents for most a combination of the secular and the religious, for Twain a central locus of meaning on art, nature, and family.

[5]Twain is pleased with the “roomy Italian villa which John Howells has built for me on lofty ground surrounded by wooded hills and valleys, and secluded by generous distances from the other members of the human race” (Autobiography, Volume 3, 239).  

Works Consulted

PRIMARY SOURCES

A Tramp Abroad. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1880.

Autobiography of Mark Twain. Vol. 1. Ed. Harriet Elinor Smith, et al. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2010.

Autobiography of Mark Twain. Vol. 3. Ed. Benjamin Griffin & Harriet Elinor Smith. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2015.

Innocents Abroad. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1869.

Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1897.

SECONDARY SOURCES

Beauchamp, Gorman. “Mark Twain in Venice,” Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought.” 38.4 (Summer 1997): 397-413.

Buzard, James. “A Continent Of Pictures: Reflections On The ‘Europe’ Of Nineteenth-Century Tourists.” PMLA: Publications Of The Modern Language Association Of America 108.1 (1993): 30-44. 

Gillman, Susan. Dark Twins:  Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain’s America. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.

—–. “Mark Twain’s Travels in the Racial Occult: Following the Equator and the Dream Tales.” The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain, 1995. Cambridge UP.

Madigan, Francis V.  “Mark Twain’s Passage to India: A Genetic Study of Following the Equator.”  Ph.D. diss., New York University 1974.

Salmoni, Steven. “Ghosts, Crowds, And Spectacles: Visions Of Venetian Travel In Henry James’s Italian Hours.” Journal Of Narrative Theory 35.3 (2005): 277-291. 

Perfect Pairings of Music & Literature: A Holiday Collaboration with The Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes

Want to learn more about how Mark Twain and his family celebrated Christmas, while also listening to holiday-themed music at the historic Clemens Center? Next Saturday, December 7th, Dr. Matt Seybold will be presenting selections from Twain’s holiday writings as part of the “Perfect Pairings” series created by the OSFL. Tickets are available now at ClemensCenter.org

Discount tickets are available with a Student ID.

Through a Southern Woman Writer’s Eyes: Seeing the Man in “A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns”

Miki Pfeffer at Quarry Farm

Editor’s Note: Miki Pfeffer, recent Quarry Farm Fellow, gave a lecture for CMTS on Grace King and Mark Twain as part of the Fall 2018 “Trouble Begins” Lecture Series. Her talk, “Getting to Know Mark Twain through the Eyes of Grace King, a Southern Woman of Letters,” can be found HERE.

“Why should we be interested in Grace King and her letters?” Steve Courtney asked me at the 2019 Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge. “Because she was a respected fiction writer and historian in her time (the late nineteenth and early twentieth century). And because she was a friend of Mark Twain and his family, for goodness sake! Hers is a fresh southern voice too little known, even by Twain scholars. There are nuggets of the personal lives of each of the Clemenses here, and this collection has never been gathered in one place in this way. King’s letters are not digitized, and many have not been transcribed previously. What a keen observer and letter writer she was. As examples, a meticulous description of food served at a Clemens dinner and her declaration from the splendid guest suite that she felt ‘like Beauty when the Beast left her alone in the palace,’ a line that is quoted during tours of the house.”

Steve Courtney of the curatorial staff at Mark Twain House was helping me launch A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns. He had written a foreword on how I made contact with the house just as he was reading King’s biography and her published notebooks. My book covers essential years from 1885 to Twain’s death in 1910, the period of King’s development as a writer and over the course of Twain’s zenith and nadir. In the letters, she tells delicious tidbits about Twain’s quirks, jokes, and stories, his warm generosity to her, and his loving ways as husband and father. Grace King and Olivia Clemens reveal remarkable confidences in their exchanges, and the personalities of Susy, Clara, and Jean shine through in uninhibited letters to their special friend, “Teety.”

Grace King first met the Clemenses in 1887 when she was visiting their neighbor and her mentor, Charles Dudley Warner, with whom Twain had written The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873). The new acquaintances immediately began to spend much time together reading, talking, traveling, playing games, and sharing meals. The Clemenses invited Grace to spend a weekend with them that year and then a month with them in 1888, where the friends became more devoted to each other. The couple even brought Grace to New York so she could offer the dramatization of her first story, “Monsieur Motte,” to Augustin Daly, an impresario that Twain knew. Then in 1892, Grace King and her sister Nan visited the Clemenses for another several weeks at the Villa Viviani outside Florence, Italy. In between these visits, Grace, Livy, and the girls, especially, kept track of each other’s lives, ailments, sorrows, and pleasures in unfiltered letters with sometimes quite startling revelations.

Grace King

I first encountered King’s letters at the Hill Library at Louisiana State University while researching my previous book, Southern Ladies and Suffragists. I knew then that I’d return to those fascinating morsels of life, literature, and family in New Orleans. The next round of transcribing brought me to her friendship with Twain, about which I then knew little, and to the discovery of a cache of her letters to the Clemenses at the Mark Twain Project at University of California, Berkeley. Bob Hirst became my partner in uncovering all those letters, some of which, he told me, had been sitting there since the late 1960s waiting for someone to be interested enough and able to decipher what was apparently considered a difficult handwriting. I was delighted to assume that role.  The rest was pleasure and discovery, with each new letter unfolding another scene in the drama.

I intended from the beginning to include all of the Clemens letters. To tell Grace King’s own story, I chose excerpts and near-complete letters from the hundreds of family letters and wove them into a contextualizing narrative that allows her own voice to sing through. She tells how when she meets Twain, the writer of her deceased father’s favorite Innocents Abroad, she is thrilled; when he parodies her literary nemesis George Washington Cable, with whom Twain had toured and performed in 1885, she becomes further devoted. The sections of complete letters of each of the Clemenses to and from Grace allow the saga of family and friendship to be central to the story. These are interspersed with only narrative enough to keep the reader grounded.

Grace cultivated Livy’s friendship as well as Twain’s; she was no threat to wives of famous men. Instead, they seemed to have welcomed her as a smart, amusing, informed, and charming southerner who was good company, a reasonable card player, and an appreciative guest. Grace and Livy shared intense interest in food, fashion, manners, religion, business, literature, and more. Grace attended the regular “Brownings” at the house, when Twain read and performed Robert Browning’s poems. They played his favorite Hearts into the wee hours.

Many of the letters come from and tell little details about life at Quarry Farm, where the girls enjoy baseball games and moonlight rides, and in Hartford, about their lessons and performances and autographs of favorite stars of the theater, which Twain himself helped Clara gather. Livy writes about his intense writing at the farm and invites Grace to spend a month with the family in Hartford in October, 1888. She assures Grace that Mr. Clemens asserted that she would cause no disruption in the writing he planned, although he discouraged visits from male friends during that period of work. Grace became enfolded in the family during that month, when Twain voted Democratic in the presidential election, when Livy comforted Grace in her mourning for her maternal uncle, and when friendships deepened. These details might enhance some entries in the Twain Day by Day, which fascinated me when I spent time at Quarry Farm last year to speak in the Center for Mark Twain Studies’ Trouble Begins lecture series.

The letters take readers through joys and sorrows, especially during loss of both families’ members. Brief notes are as poignant as are formal announcements of deaths. Even when Clara alone is left of the Clemens family, she and Grace King exchange a few letters of affection. They see each other once more, in New Orleans in 1915, when Clara’s husband Ossip Gabrilowitsch performs with the city’s symphony.

The two-plus decades of letters are treasures from a unique friendship in a notable literary and cultural age. I have been gratified by the response of attendees at the Louisiana Book Festival and elsewhere to A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns. My hope is that this collection will fill tiny interstices in the study of Twain the man as friend and en famille.

Miki Pfeffer is a Visiting Scholar in History at Nichols State University, as well as author of Southern Ladies & Suffragettes, which won the Eudora Welty Prize in 2015.

Celebrity Authors For A Cause: The Anti-Vivisection Connection Between Mark Twain & Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Twain’s fascination and sympathy for animals is abundantly clear in the countless depictions of animals in his writing. One of my favorite manifestations of Twain’s love of animals, however, isn’t a literary example, but an architectural one: the cat doors built into his Octagonal Study. The cat doors allow me to identify with the iconic author on a personal level as I conjure up a delightfully relatable image of him exactly as I am at the moment – writing with my beloved cats surrounding and draped upon me. That Twain loved animals is common knowledge. But what may surprise even Twain fans today is that he didn’t only love animals, he advocated for their rights. 

Twain’s sympathy for animals can be traced throughout his entire life, a fact he attributed to his mother’s influence, and his wife Livy and their daughters were all avid supporters of animal welfare causes. It took a more radical branch of the animal welfare movement, though, to draw Twain’s public statements of protest: the practice of vivisection, or scientific experiments on live animals. During Twain’s lifetime, vivisection became increasingly common, especially in universities, where “modernized” physiology laboratories touted their facilities for conducting animal experiments and theatrical lecture hall demonstrations on animals were the new norm. Twain became increasingly conscious of the use of animals in experiments, and he railed against the practice in his 1899 letter to the London Anti-Vivisection Society, which was published and circulated on both sides of the Atlantic as a pamphlet for the anti-vivisection cause. Characteristic of the author’s usual outrage over the exploitation of the vulnerable in society, Twain’s letter took a radical philosophical stance, refuting the notion that animal testing was justifiable as a means to advance medical science.

“I believe I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. To know that the results are profitable to the race would not remove my hostility to it. The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.”

A few years later, apparently at the suggestion of his animal-loving daughter Jean, Twain wrote the short story that solidified his public support for the cause, “A Dog’s Tale.” As the last published work Twain wrote in Quarry Farm, “A Dog’s Tale,” published in December 1903 in Harper’s and the following year as a book, is a fitting culmination of the many productive summers he spent surrounded by the beloved cats, dogs, farm animals and wildlife of his Elmira, N.Y. retreat. The story is told from the perspective of a loveable mother dog, Aileen Mavourneen, who earns an honored status in her family by rescuing a baby from a nursery fire, only to have her own puppy killed by her unfeeling vivisector owner in an unnecessary experiment in his home laboratory. In “A Dog’s Tale,” Twain condemns vivisection as an act of betrayal. As the sympathetic family servant who buried Aileen’s puppy, laments, “Poor little doggie, you saved his child.”

After the publication of his letter to the Anti-Vivisection Society and “A Dog’s Tale,” Twain became a celebrity spokesperson for the cause, and he was not alone in that role. His contemporary Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, the author of over 50 volumes of fiction, poetry, and essays, also joined the fight against vivisection. From the 1890s until her death in 1911, Phelps devoted herself to the anti-vivisection cause. In addition to writing novels and short stories that protested vivisection, Phelps contributed several pamphlets and three speeches to the Massachusetts Legislature in support of a bill to regulate vivisection in that state, and she lobbied for legislative reform with lawmakers. Phelps was such a prominent advocate for animal rights that the New York Times featured her stance in a 1908 article about the vivisection controversy: “Ten thousand things learned, if this were possible, from vivisection, would not justify the intolerable and unpardonable torture to which animals have been subjected by this brutal practice.” Phelps, while in agreement with Twain on wanting to abolish vivisection completely, nevertheless supported legislation to regulate the practice, with the hopes of lessening the suffering of animals in laboratories. 

Despite the nuances of their activist stances, Twain and Phelps both used their fiction as a vehicle to generate sympathy for animals and support for the anti-vivisection campaign. As Phelps’s most significant contribution to the cause, her novel Trixy highlights the degrading effect of vivisection on humanity and especially on the medical profession. The vivisector characters of both “A Dog’s Tale” and Trixy are portrayed as elite class “gentlemen of science” who perform unnecessary experiments on animals for the sake of professional glory, and who are desensitized to the suffering of living beings. The dog characters of both stories are the kind of loyal, trusting, and loveable companion animals that were cherished in the Victorian pet keeping culture (and today), which makes the stories of their betrayal by humans especially heart breaking.

Although neglected by scholars and readers for many years, Twain’s contributions to the anti-vivisection campaign are finally getting the attention they deserve, in large part thanks to Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s volume, Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, published in 2010. Phelps’s writing for the cause, which has been out of print for over a century, warrants recovery, as well. Trixy speaks as much to readers today as it did in Phelps’s and Twain’s era, because it presents a progressive and capacious model of compassion that crosses boundaries of species and social status. In Trixy, Phelps anticipates posthumanist philosophers today who challenge species-based divisions and hierarchies.  

Animal rights activists today will appreciate Phelps’s strategic choice in highlighting not only the suffering animals, but also the bonds between animals and humans, and they’ll recognize the power of storytelling as a key strategy in transforming readers’ attitudes about the status of animals in society. In many ways, I see social media profiles of rescue dogs as a modern day version of the narrative strategies popularized by Twain and Phelps. In Twitter posts told from the point of view of rescue dogs, adopters share updates about their dogs’ happy lives, loving homes and relationships, and carefree adventures. With their focus on telling stories of dogs and their emotional experiences and interactions with people, activists who focus on nonhuman animals’ stories pick up where Phelps and Twain left off over a century ago. 

Trixy and “A Dog’s Tale” take us back to a time when the use of animals in laboratories had just become commonplace in the U.S., especially in universities. These stories offer us a glimpse into the authors’ prescient ideas about the enduring effects of that new norm, and they reflect the authors’ passionate devotion to the rights of nonhuman animals. At the same time, they also offer readers today a progressive vision of love and compassion across the species divide. 

“Who comes so near to meeting the conditions of a real friendship as your dog? His devotion surpasses the devotion of most women. His affection outvies the affection of any man. He gives everything; he asks nothing. He offers all; he receives little. He comforts your loneliness; he assuages your distress; he sacrifices his liberty to watch by you in sickness; when every one else who used to love you has neglected your grave, he will break his heart upon it. Who fails you in faith? Your dog is loyal. Who deserts you? Your dog never. Who gashes you with roughness, or bruises you with unkindness? Your dog offers you the tenderness that time and use cannot destroy. You have from him the expression of the uttermost, the unselfish love.”

from Trixy by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

A more expanded discussion of these remarks, especially the Twain and Phelps anti-vivisection connection, can be found in my Introduction to the new critical edition of Trixy being published by Northwestern University Press. The volume also includes Mark Twain’s story “A Dog’s Tale” in the appendix. To find out more and received a 25% discount, check out this flyer.


I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Center for Mark Twain Studies through a Quarry Farm Fellowship, which provided me with valuable research time and inspiration for this project. 

Emily E. VanDette is a Professor of English at SUNY Fredonia. She was a Quarry Farm Fellow in 2017.

You Could Get Bookings: A Review of Holbrook/Twain

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, a documentary about the six-decade run of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!, will be released on Tuesday, November 19th. As of today, the film is available for pre-order from iTunes.

The majority of the film, directed by Scott Teems, was shot a few years ago. It centers on a performance Holbrook gave on his 90th birthday, in 2015, to a sold-out crowd in Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain was a long-time resident.

But while Holbrook/Twain does feature numerous, elegantly-framed excerpts from that performance and others, it’s primary focus is not the show, but the showman. Teems previously directed Holbrook in the 2009 independent film, That Evening Sun, which won eleven festival prizes, including two at SXSW. It is clear that what interests him is Holbrook’s mastery of his craft and the costs of pursuing that mastery. We understand Holbrook foremost as a actor, albeit one who has been indelibly shaped by the unique experience of playing one of America’s most iconic historical figures, continuously, for his entire adult life.

Holbrook began staging Twain’s “An Encounter with an Interviewer” as part of a variety show which he and his first wife toured straight out of college at Denison. The show was seen by James “Bim” Pond, then editor of Program magazine. Pond’s father was one of Twain’s booking agents and, having inherited the family business upon his father’s death in 1903, Bim would certainly have been familiar with the public clamor for all things Twain, even deep into the 20th century. When the Holbrooks settled in New York City, looking for more stable employment to support their family, it was Pond who suggested a solo show as Twain. When Holbrook flinched, the editor said, simply, “I think you could get bookings.” The Hartford show from Holbrook/Twain was the 2,301st staging of Mark Twain Tonight!

Holbrook’s commercial success was not without sacrifices, from getting assaulted in the South by those who saw his interpretation of Twain as implicitly sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement to estranging himself from wives and children. Teems approaches his subject without caution, drawing poignantly, for instance, from an unvarnished interview with Holbrook’s son. Nor is Holbrook himself guarded when talking about the costs of his choices. The result is an unexpectedly intimate portrait. We see Holbrook’s life mimicing Twain’s, as his personal losses are weighted with the continual expectation to make people laugh as they have never laughed before. But we also see Hal Holbrook without the white suit and wig, an artistic force entirely distinct from his most famous role, who has earned the highest esteem of his peers, both actors like Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch, and scholars like Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Barbara Snedecor.

It’s hard to imagine there will ever be anything remotely like Mark Twain Tonight!, a show that was born amidst the last vestiges of vaudeville and somehow remains relevant to students born after 9/11. It’s cheap to say this is a testament to Twain. Twain’s burlesque jokes are greeted to scornful silence when I read them in my classrooms. Nearly half-a-century after his death, Twain caught another break when Holbrook crossed paths with Bim Pond. One cannot overestimate how different each of their legacies might have been without the other.

View of trailer for Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey above and Pre-Order from iTunes before November 19th.