Life, In Purgatory (A Twainiac Quarantine Diary)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Slavishly useful. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Mark Twain & Libation”: A Talk By The 2017 Louis J. Budd Award Winner

On Saturday, August 5th, the Mark Twain Circle presented the Louis J. Budd Award to Laura Skandera Trombley at the 8th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. Dr. Trombley is a Professor of English at University of Southern California, as well as former President of Pitzer College and the Huntington Library. She is also author of two books on Sam Clemens’s relationships with women, as well as numerous other Twain-related publications. Ann Ryan, in presenting the Budd Award, says Dr. Trombley is “nothing if not spicy and untraditional.” What follows is the paper she presented at the conference, titled “Mark Twain & Libation,” which may tempt you to search out the small-batch bourbon produced especially for the conference by Finger Lakes Distilling.

I’d like to dedicate this paper to the Caldwell gang of 5: Ann Ryan, Gary Scharnhorst, Michael Kiskis, and Tom Quirk. All solid drinkers.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A guy walks into a miner’s cabin and a “jaded, melancholy man of fifty, barefooted, opened the door.” Upon hearing his visitor’s name, “Mark Twain,” he bitterly retorted: “You’re the fourth – I’m going to move.” “The fourth what?” said I. “The fourth littery man that has been here in twenty-four hours – I’m going to move.” “You don’t tell me!” said I; “who were the others?” “Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson, and Mr. Holmes – consound the lot!” Three hot whiskeys later, Twain convinced the cranky miner to tell his tale of the seedy Mr. Emerson, fat Mr. Holmes, and the disfigured prize-fighter Mr. Longfellow – all were cheats, thieves and drunken idiots. Upon finishing his sad yarn, the miner repeated: “Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in 24 hours – and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to the littery atmosphere. Twain replied: “Why, my dear sir, these were not the gracious singers to whom we and the world pay loving reverence and homage; these were impostors. The miner investigated me with a calm eye for a while; then said he, “Ah! impostors, were they? Are you?”

This famously unsuccessful after dinner story, that William Dean Howells later recounted in My Mark Twain, took place on December 18, 1877 at Boston’s Hotel Brunswick. The dinner, to which 58 male writers had been invited – ladies could only attend the after-dinner speeches – included seven opulent courses washed down with Sauterne, sherry, Chablis, Champagne, claret, and Burgundy; so much alcohol in fact that the next day the Women’s Christian Temperance Union passed a formal resolution objecting to the dinner. The Boston Transcript pronounced the speech “in bad taste,” and similar newspaper verdicts followed. Howells wrote Clemens on Christmas Day that “every one with whom I have talked about your speech regards it as a fatality.”

Clemens’ self-referential opening to his speech lauded his own literary achievement: “I am reminded of a thing which happened to me thirteen years ago, when I had just succeeded in stirring up a little Nevadian literary puddle myself, whose spume-flakes were beginning to blow thinly Californiaward.” A bold oratorical move considering that this evening organized by The Atlantic Monthly was to celebrate John Greenleaf Whittier’s 70th birthday and, in a larger sense, to pay homage to the New England Brahmin writers Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes, the most distinguished American men of letters of that generation, all of whom were in attendance.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A guy walks into a bar and finds “Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the barroom stove of the little old dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Boomerang, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused up and gave me good-day. I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smily – Rev. Leonidas W. Smily – a young minister of the gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of this village of Boomerang. I added that if Mr. Wheeler could tell me anything about this Rev. Leonidas W. Smily, I would feel under many obligations to him. Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair – and then sat down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph.”

There is a transmutation of sorts taking place between these two ostensibly similar stories. Yet the crucial difference is one of audience and intention. Miners could laugh at themselves; Brahmin New Englanders less so. Clemens was trying to establish himself as a writer in “Jim Smiley.” In his speech, he was asserting he was of the same stature as his elders.

“Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” was published by The Saturday Press on November 18, 1865, just twelve days shy of Clemens’ thirtieth birthday. This bar fly tale took Clemens over eight months to write; he took so long that he missed the deadline for a book of sketches Artemus Ward was editing. Printed and reprinted, the story was Clemens’ entrée into a more literary space than journalistic and has always been considered a pivotal moment in his writing career. The genesis for “Jim Smiley” came from the three months Clemens spent drinking during the winter of 1864–65. Part of his time was spent in the Gillis family cabin on Jackass Hill. Clemens knew Steve Gillis from Nevada, where Steve worked as a typesetter on the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise and was Clemens’ drinking buddy. In San Francisco Clemens signed a straw bond for $500 after Steve got in trouble with the police for intervening in a bar fight. Clemens then spent nearly a month drinking in Angels Camp. That Clemens would choose a saloon as the setting for his story should come as no surprise considering where he had spent the last four years of his life. Soon after arriving in Nevada in 1861 with his brother Orion, Clemens tried his hand at silver mining and quickly grew tired of the brutal living conditions. In 1862, he started sending writing samples to the Enterprise and was offered a job as editor earning twenty-five dollars a week. This was a significant move upwards since the Enterprise was, per Dan DeQuill and Enterprise employee, the “most flourishing newspaper on the Pacific Coast” where a “tribal wave of gold rolled in upon its proprietors.” Virginia City, elevation 6,000 feet, was a boomtown consisting of miners, alcoholics, millionaires, gamblers, prostitutes, outlaws, and saloons – more than fifty saloons – all sitting on top of the Comstock Lode. In one year, the population exploded from 4,000 in 1862 to over 15,000 in 1863. During the time Clemens lived there it was the richest, roughest, murderous, and drunkest place in North America.

In January of 1863, Clemens abandoned his earlier pseudonyms, “Sergeant Fathom,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh,” in favor of a new “nom de guerre”: “Mark Twain.” As has been noted before by Guy Cardwell, Paul Fatout, Horst Kruse, and Gary Scharnhorst, among others, the name Mark Twain has less to do with the muddy waters of the Mississippi than the clear water of high proof whiskey. Scharnhorst notes that in August 1864, only about a year and a half after Clemens began using his pseudonym, in an article for the Alta California, Albert Evans asserted that his “soubriquet was given him by his friends as indicative of his capacity for doing the drink for two.” Multiple newspaper accounts about his pen-name appeared in the spring of 1866. An article in the Nevada Daily on February 22, three years after “Mark Twain” had first appeared in print, explained “Mark Twain” was miner’s slang for ordering two shots of liquor on credit. A large piece of smooth slate would hang on the wall behind the bar where the bartender would chalk two slashes next to the regular’s name and call out “Mark Twain.” And Clemens’ growing bar tab would be on view for all to see. Clemens’ usage of the phrase in his newspaper columns was perfectly timed in that it not only reflected his current hard-drinking lifestyle and alcohol saturated audience, but created a definable persona he would populate for the rest of his life. His choice created a satirical, instantaneous, man-to-man connection with his hardened, swilling audience. Billed under his new name, he attracted crowds on the Western lecture circuit who had read the article about the genesis of his name, who obviously were in on the joke, and who came wanting to see an alcohol-soaked Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope. They were not disappointed. Clemens knew and, without objection, leveraged the fact that his audience expected the man who was described in newspaper accounts as taking two “horns consecutive, one right after the other, and when he come in there and took them on tick, Johnny used to sing out to the barkeep, who carried a lump of chalk in his weskit pocket and kept the score, ‘mark twain,’ whereupon the barkeep would score two drinks to Sam’s account – and so it was, d’ye see, that he comes to be called ‘Mark Twain.’”

Clemens had a life-long fondness for “the drink” (as my mother would say) and in those early years when his career was just beginning he not only frequently wrote about imbibing but also enjoyed a dissipated lifestyle. In January 1866 Albert Evans wrote in the Gold Hill (Nevada) Evening News about Clemens’ arrest for public intoxication in San Francisco, referring to “a stench which is only second in horrible density to that which prevails in the Police Court room when the Bohemian of the Sage-Brush is in the dock for being drunk over night.” This wouldn’t be his only stint in the hoosegow (as my father would say). One year after “Jumping Frog” was published, Clemens departed San Francisco bound for New York. He spent his time visiting city sights and writing about them in letters to the Alta California. In March 1867, he telegraphed the Alta asking to be hired as a paid correspondent on the Quaker City, a sidewheel steamship used by Union forces in the Civil War. The Captain of the ship, Charles Duncan, recalled years later that Clemens was one of the first people to contact him about the excursion. The Captain was repulsed by Clemens’ appearance and demeanor: “tall, lanky, unkempt, unwashed individual, who seemed to be full of whiskey or something like it, and who filled my office with fumes of bad liquor. He said he was a Baptist minister from San Francisco and desired to travel for his health.” Captain Duncan retorted that he didn’t “look like a Baptist minister or smell like one either.” While waiting for the ship to sail, Clemens gave a well-received talk at the Cooper Institute and spent his nights engaging in more risqué conduct. One evening, he was jailed for the night because he claimed to have intervened in a street brawl (why he was out “with a friend” at midnight remains a mystery) and the police insisted upon arresting the thwarted peacemaker. Clemens had now achieved the rather dubious distinction of having been jailed for public drunkenness on each coast.

Four days before the sailing, he visited Harry Hill’s Variety Theatre at Houston and Crosby Streets. Known as an “evil” and “vile house” and a gathering place for prostitutes, gamblers and criminals, it featured male wrestling and female bare knuckle fighting. In his Alta article, “Mark Twain” portrayed himself as an innocent who believed the establishment “was where the savants were in the habit of meeting to commune upon abstruse matters of science and philosophy – men like Agassiz and Ericsson and people of that stamp.” Instead he watched a male dancer dressed in a Highland costume outfitted in only a “short coat and short stockings. This was apparent every time he whirled around. However, no one observed it but me. I knew that, because several handsomely dressed young ladies, from thirteen to sixteen and seventeen years of age, went and sat down under the foot-lights, and of course they would have moved away if they had noticed that he was only partly dressed.” His final evening in New York was spent drinking over the course of many hours “several breeds of wine” and trying to sober up enough to pack his trunk. While on board the Quaker City, he met Charles Langdon, the younger brother of heiress Olivia Langdon, who Clemens would marry in 1870.

Clemens’ marriage to Olivia affected his own sense of self-worth, as well as deeply influencing how he desired others to view him. Seven years after marrying up into the first family of Elmira and publishing the bestselling book of his lifetime Innocents Abroad, Clemens apparently decided that having a pen name that was a miner’s drunk joke was no longer appropriate for the distinguished writer persona he was busily adopting. He didn’t want to be known as just a humorist, instead he was on the path to becoming more refined and “serious” author. On June 9, 1877, the Alta published a note from him explaining that “Mark Twain” was the nom de plume of one Captain Isaiah Sellers, who used to write for the New Orleans Picayune. When Sellers died in 1863, Clemens claimed he adopted his name. Yet, Sellers didn’t die until 1864 and he also never used that name. Six months later, after rewriting the history of his name, Clemens gave his after dinner talk in Boston. While including himself among the Brahmins, he was drawing upon the southwestern tradition of storytelling with liquor providing the entrée as well as the punchlines while reminding everyone about the brilliance of his short story. A stunning act of simultaneous hubris and self-doubt. He wanted to shove aside the old social order but he also wanted to be a member. As insecure as he was, he wanted to both conquer and belong. Had his inebriated audience laughed, possibly Clemens’ ardent desire to be accepted by this group would have been achieved. He had whitewashed his name; the time had come for these stalwarts to applaud his writerly talents. They didn’t laugh. Instead, as Howells tells us: “There fell a silence, weighing many tons to the square inch, which deepened from moment to moment, and was broken only by the hysterical and blood-curdling laughter of a single guest, whose name shall not be handed down to infamy. Nobody knew whether to look at the speaker or at his plate. . . . I stole a glance at him, and saw him standing solitary . . . with his joke dead on his hands.” Clemens would defiantly claim decades later in his Autobiography that he would do the same again, and told Isabel Lyon, his secretary who gifted vibrators to him for their “electrical” benefits: “those fine Boston men were a generation ahead of Mr. Clemens – & he didn’t see more of them than just to go up to Boston for their “seventy” birthdays. For himself there are only Mr- Howells and Mr. Aldrich – and he surprised me into recognizing the truth by telling me that he hasn’t had much of a literary friendship with men.” In Clemens’ final years he would disavow “Jim Smiley,” calling it “a villainous backwoods sketch,” just as he had rejected the original association with his pseudonym. The miner’s line, “Ah! impostors, were they? Are you?” may have been one of the most truthful questions Clemens ever raised in public and one he never managed to reconcile.

Well all this angst and drama is likely to drive sane people to drink! Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Twain scholars walk into a bar – see you all there later.

Thank You.

Lecture on Artemus Ward Concludes the 2017 Park Church Lecture Series

The 2017 Park Church Summer Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, continues Wednesday, June 21 at 7:00 p.m., with its final lecture of the season, “Artemus Ward: The Man Who Made Lincoln Laugh” presented by John Pascal, teacher at Seton Hall Prep School.

It is generally accepted that during his lifetime, Mark Twain was considered the preeminent American master storyteller and lecturer of humor. The tsunami that is Twain’s literary achievement can easily overwhelm the earlier vast movement of the American literary scene that led to its creation. The “underwater earthquake” of this movement is Charles Farrar Browne, but his more famous pseudonym is Artemus Ward. While there were earlier, as well as contemporary, humorous writers, Artemus Ward was regarded by William Dean Howells as “the humorist who first gave the world a taste of the humor that characterizes the whole American people.” Indeed, in 1862, President Lincoln laughed heartily while he read to his Cabinet passages from Ward’s first book. Ward’s uniqueness in telling a story from the lecture platform enthralled thousands throughout the United States and in Canada; he was also “the first deadpan comedian to take England by storm.” Despite these views, today Ward’s literary reputation is largely forgotten along with his distinctive contribution to the tradition of American humor. Thus he certainly is well deserving of study. This lecture will analyze the construction of his literary reputation by showing that what made Ward so popular in his time was the fact that his literary humor was rhetorically gentle. Ward parlayed the success of his nationally published letters into a commercially successful career as the first comedic lecturer to tour the nation. His platform appearances helped Twain become more professionally aware of humor’s literary and commercial value.

John Pascal is in his sixteenth year teaching 9th and 11th grade English at Seton Hall Preparatory School in New Jersey. He is in his second year teaching a course he developed called “Writings of Mark Twain.” He is a contributing author to Mark Twain and Youth: Studies in His Life and Writings (2016); he is the author of Artemus Ward: The Gentle Humorist (2008); has presented papers on Mark Twain and Artemus Ward at Mark Twain Conferences in Elmira and Hannibal; and has reviewed books for the Mark Twain Forum. He holds a B.A. Cum Laude in English from Villanova University, an M.B.A. from Seton Hall University, and an M.A. in English from Montclair State University.

Mark Twain Wishes “A Happy New Year” With 1876 Postcard

The above image, courtesy of The Mark Twain Project at UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, comes from an engraved greeting card Twain circulated in January, 1876. William Dean Howells, upon receiving one, described the frog as “luridly hopping along, and looking as if he had just got out of a pond of hellfire.” The card was designed by True Williams, who offered it gratis to Twain and his publisher as thanks for the sustained employment they had recently provided him. Williams’s illustrations in Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published later that year, are nearly as beloved as the novel. He also illustrated Sketches, New and Old, a collection of short stories released in September 1875.

Frontispiece of Mark Twain's Sketches, New & Old, drawn by True Williams
Frontispiece of Mark Twain’s Sketches, New & Old, drawn by True Williams

The illustration on the greeting card clearly alludes to Twain’s most famous story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (the tale was also published under several other titles). As of November 1875 it had been a decade since Twain introduced Jim Smiley and his unexceptional frog to their adoring public. The author had graduated to more ambitious and profitable projects like The Innocents Abroad (1869) and The Gilded Age (1873). In 1898 he admitted that through much of this time he was trying to “properly claim recognition as a Literary Person.” “Jumping Frog” had appeared in “a mere newspaper” and young Twain “did not consider that that counted.” “I was aware that it was only the frog that was celebrated,” he wrote in 1906, “I was still an obscurity.” Yet, as he prepared Sketches, Twain reacquainted himself with the story that jumpstarted his career, as he would periodically for the remainder of his life (see, for instance, his “Private History of the ‘Jumping Frog’ Story,” published in 1894).

A few years earlier Twain had reacquired the copyright to “Jumping Frog.” While his current agent, Elisha Bliss of the American Publishing Company, felt the deal Twain had negotiated was unfavorable, the retention of copyrights would thereafter become the author’s habit and, over time, work to his tremendous advantage. This habit, and the much-publicized opinions which justified it, would contribute substantively to changing the standard practices and benefit future generations of writers.

In March of 1875 Twain decided to introduce a curious addendum to “The Jumping Frog” for inclusion in Sketches. The manuscript he submitted in July included a French translation of the story, which had been published without his consent in 1872, and his comedic attempt to translate the translation back into English. As he put it, this new version was “clawed back into a civilized language once more by patient, unremunerative toil.” “I cannot speak the French language, but I can translate it very well,” he joked, parodying the French critic who, by Twain’s account, had translated the story poorly in order “to prove to his nation that there is nothing so extravagantly funny about it.”

Via this process, famously folksy dialogue became awkward, wooden prose. For instance, “I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog” became “I no saw not that that frog had nothing of better than each frog?” Twain complained, “I never put together such an odious mixture of bad grammar and delirium tremens in my life.”

This was a decent joke at the expense of the French, something American audiences always appreciate. Twain was also subtly drawing attention to the absence of international protection for intellectual property, which justly enraged him. But, perhaps most importantly, the new version of “The Jumping Frog” was something of an advertising coup. APC’s salesman could not only promise an expanded version of Twain’s most famous story, but it made the book ten pages longer and created additional room for Williams’s illustrations. Only one story in Sketches has more illustrations, and it’s twice as long.

true-williams-jumping-frog

As Twain well knew from APC’s promotion of his four previous books, illustrations were a major selling point, as was the notoriety of the author. And every padded page was valuable because APC’s books were priced based on size. Longer books meant better commissions and thus were pitched more aggressively by salesmen.

Sketches proved to be something of a flop. APC sold less than half as many copies of it in the first year as they had Innocents Abroad and The Gilded Age. However, as Hamlin Hill reports in Mark Twain and Elisha Bliss, the initial sales were brisk. When APC delivered the jumping frog postcards to Twain on December 30th, both the author and his publisher believed they had successfully marketed a volume of largely recycled material, the royalties from which would help sustain Twain until the publication of Tom Sawyer, which all anticipated would be a massive hit.

Throughout his career, Twain’s feelings towards his resiliently popular first story would oscillate between pride and shame. He often remarked that he was not, nor had even considered becoming, a professional writer when it was published. It was merely a well-rehearsed joke he had written down as a favor to Artemus Ward. He recognized that the circumstances of its composition and circulation were incredibly coincidental, but also incredibly formative. And he had since worked much harder on many superior works which didn’t garner nearly the acclaim. But he couldn’t help being grateful to the frog also, particularly when it was paying his bills.

Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, & The Nadirs of U.S. Electoral History

“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

                                                              – The Apocryphal Twain

In November 1973, Gore Vidal’s Burr debuted at #4 on the NYT Best Seller List. The novel spent the next 39 weeks in the top ten, including 21 at #1. The topic Vidal chose for his much-anticipated sequel, which also spent 25 weeks on the NYT list (nine at #1), was the year he infamously called “the low point in our republic’s history.”

The backdrop to Vidal’s 1876 is one of the most hotly contested elections in U.S. history.

An early favorite to succeed Ulysses S. Grant as the fourth consecutive Republican president was Senator James G. Blaine, but his candidacy was derailed by the unexpected circulation of several reams of private correspondence which seemed to reveal a propensity to sell political influence to private moguls. For reform Republicans, led by Secretary of Treasury Benjamin Bristow, Blaine epitomized the Washington insider serving special interests. But Blaine argued that press characterizations of his “Mulligan letters” were inaccurate and incomplete, and that any further publication was an insidious and perhaps illegal invasion of his privacy designed to benefit other candidates, particularly Bristow and Senator Roscoe Conkling.

Vidal describes Blaine’s congressional testimony a week before the Republican Convention in Cincinnati as follows, “Blaine spoke warmly of the sacred and inviolable nature of private communication between gentlemen. What was meant for one man’s eyes was no business of any other man on this earth. He made this somewhat dubious assertion sound as if it were the very foundation of the American Constitution and of all civilized law.” When the Convention opened, a crowded field of nine Republicans were nominated, with a bruised but unbroken Blaine receiving the most initial support. Seven ballots followed, interceded by increasingly incendiary debates between supporters of Blaine, Bristow, and Conkling, whose scandalous affair with a famous socialite was increasingly common knowledge.

The muckraking managed to discredit them all. The GOP finally settled on Rutherford B. Hayes, whose inclusion on the ballot was likely intended as little more than flattery for a former Ohio governor who had recently retired to manage his embattled real estate holdings. Hayes placed no higher than sixth on any of the first four ballots. He was, as Vidal describes him, “a man entirely unknown to most of the convention that had just nominated him.”

“We like men who talk straight out in plain unmistakable language—like Hayes. We not only know that such a man means something, but we know what he does mean. We have natural & justifiable distrust of talky men who make a sounding & ostentatious pretense of saying a thing & yet don’t say it after all—men who hide a mustard-seed of an idea in a kaleidoscope of words, so that the more you turn the thing the more you can’t quite capture that elusive little idea, because it always takes refuge, just in time, behind a new & bewitching rainbow-explosion of fine language—men like Mr. Tilden, for instance.”

                                                                                                                                 – Mark Twain (September, 1876)

The Democratic nominee was never in doubt. Samuel J. Tilden was a lawyer who had recently risen to Governor of New York thanks to his instrumental role prosecuting corruption within his own party, particularly that of the infamous Boss Tweed. Tilden had a reputation as a brilliant, studious policymaker who was unapologetically opposed to “the modern dynasty of associated wealth” which exerted undue influence over U.S. politics.

But Tilden was also a notoriously cold and charmless workaholic. Besides having a personality unsuited to the campaign trail, the 62-year-old suffered from a series of unappealing health problems, perhaps including, as Vidal speculates, a secret stroke. And, as the ensuing campaign revealed, his tax returns may have suggested he was not as immune to the machine politics he purportedly dismantled as his supporters believed.

Equally important to Vidal’s account of the 1876 campaign are the newspapers, particularly the New York Herald, The New York Times, and the New York Evening Post. These national newspapers, as well as a host of mass market magazines and syndicated correspondents, had the capacity, as well as the ambition, to make and break candidates. There is no suggestion in 1876 of a journalistic ethos based on accuracy and objectivity. The Herald’s Charles Nordoff quips, “As for the truth always coming out, I think it never does. But even if it did, who would know?” Vidal’s narrator contends, “There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”

“Mark Twain is our greatest…Mark Twain. He is not, properly speaking, a novelist nor ‘just’ a journalist nor polemicist. He is simply a voice like no other.”

                                                                        – Gore Vidal (1997)

Samuel Clemens does not appear until late in Vidal’s novel, but the ascendent reputation of Mark Twain is alluded to dozens of times throughout, so that his eventual entrance is heartily anticipated. He is, as one character puts it, “a sort of God in these parts.”

The Clemens who Vidal depicts, despite enjoying unprecedented celebrity and commercial success, is despondent and depressed. He rants about the stupidity of his countrymen and characterizes democracy as an outright failure. “I can’t satirize anything at the moment,” he tells Vidal’s narrator, “I want to take a stick, an axe, a club, and smash it all to bits.”

Vidal’s narrator, Charles Schuyler, is an aging, insolvent journalist clearly envious of Twain’s string of recent successes. After meeting the mythic Twain and observing his misanthropic condition, he writes,  “It does me a world of good to pity him.” Schuyler concludes, “Whatever he might have been, he is, for now at least, hurt Caliban, a monster who has had the ill luck to see his own face mirrored in the composite looking glass of a million adoring countrymen. By cunningly playing the fool, Twain has become rich and beloved; he has also come to hate himself, but lacks the courage either to crack the mirror or to change, if he could, that deliberately common face which it so faithfully reflects.”

Vidal provides ample evidence of his narrator’s unreliability, but perhaps nothing more explicit than his denunciation of Twain. Vidal is an avowed Twainiac. He knows intimately the burden of literary celebrity and the jealousy it inspires. For him, much rides on that interjected clause: “for now at least.” Vidal knows, of course, as do many of his readers, that even as he allegedly sits with Schuyler and Jamie Bennett (Editor of the Herald) in a window booth at Delmonico’s in August 1876, Clemens has already begun working on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, transitioning into a phase of his career marked by courageous change and more incisive reflections on Americana. Like Vidal after him, Twain would “give trouble to those guardians of the national mythology.”

1876 was published with the vitriolic 1968 election, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal fresh in the minds of Vidal and his readers. 2016 may prove to be another nadir in our political history, as was 1968, 1876, 1824, etc. Vidal’s detailed demythologizing neutralizes the false impression, then and now, that we live in especially exceptional times. It does not, however, make healthy historical perspective an excuse for political apathy.

Though he did not dine at Delmonico’s during the last week of August 1876, but rather with his extended family in Elmira, Clemens was, as Vidal suggests, deeply disturbed by the 1876 election. He told William Dean Howells, “Get your book out quick, for this is a momentous time. If Tilden is elected I think the entire country will go pretty straight to Mrs. Howell’s bad place.” When the election was initially called for Tilden, he send the following telegram to Howells via Western Union:

“I love to steal awhile away

From every cumbering care,

And while returns come in today

Lift up my voice and swear.”

The disputed results led to months of judicial review and congressional negotiation, which Clemens followed dutifully. Thus, Vidal’s historical fiction raises a potent question for Twain studies. To what extent did the election of 1876 contribute to Twain’s evolving literary ethos?