On August 27, 1870, a sketch appeared in the Leavenworth Daily Commercial with Mark Twain’s byline. So far as I can tell, this sketch, “The Texan Steer,” has never appeared in any collection of Twain’s work or been discussed by scholars or biographers. There are several potential explanations for this oversight, including the inaccessibility of the archives of small-town and rural newspapers prior to recent digitization efforts. There is also the possibility that, despite the byline, this sketch was not written by Mark Twain at all.
Leavenworth is a town in the Missouri River Valley, a part of the country in which Mark Twain was very popular. Gossipy reports about Twain’s travels and performances appeared regularly in the Commercial, as well as excerpts from his published works. Reporting upon an appearance in Chicago (a city of 300,000) the correspondent from Leavenworth (a town of 18,000) speculated that Twain “would attract a large, first-class audience here.”
Nineteenth-Century American newspapers, particularly those in small markets, depended upon each other for content to fill their columns. Twain’s meteoric rise to fame during the late 1860s is actually closely associated with the practice (which would be prosecutable plagiarism by today’s standards). The humorous stories he wrote for papers in New York and California found their way to every corner of the interior. Twain’s stories proliferated like social media memes, although much slower, as each newspaper that “shared” them increased the likelihood that another from a neighboring city would do the same.
“The Texan Steer” did not appear only or originally in the Commercial. Between August and October of 1870 it showed up in at least a dozen papers hailing from Florida, Indiana, Kansas, New York, and Ohio. It was usually, though not always, attributed to Mark Twain. When Twain was not named, the Buffalo Express was, and Mark Twain was well known to be not only a contributor, but a partial owner of the Express.
“The Texan Steer” is inspired by events which had recently transpired in Buffalo. On August 8th, two bulls had escaped near the New York Central Depot and stampeded through the streets of Buffalo, killing at least one person and injuring several more, causing an uproar that was widely publicized even beyond the city. The tragic-comical nature of this incident does make it seem a likely target for Twain’s often twisted sense of humor.
The sketch appeared in the Express on August 18th with no byline, but this is not necessarily proof that the editors at the Commercial and elsewhere were mistaken. Twain, like other correspondents throughout the nation, frequently published unsigned articles, including several for the Express during this period (as can be found in Joseph McCullough and Janice McIntire-Strasburg’s collection Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express). Fellow editors at the Commercial, the Junction City Weekly Union, Florida Peninsular, and elsewhere may have had inside knowledge of the article’s true authorship, or they may have simply presumed, correctly or incorrectly, that it was the work of the Express‘s famous humorist.
Slightly complicating matters is the fact that we don’t know exactly where Samuel Clemens was on the date the article was published. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, died in Elmira early in August and the Clemenses attended the funeral on the 8th. It is unclear when they returned to Buffalo, though they were certainly back by the 30th (when he postmarked a letter from there).
Considering that wiring “dispatches” from great distances was part of what had made Twain famous during the preceding years, the 150 miles from Elmira to Buffalo was hardly an impediment to publication. Not including “The Texan Steer,” Twain published at least two articles in the Express, both unsigned, during this period, including his obituary for Jervis Langdon (the other was “Domestic Missionaries Wanted”). Nor would Twain’s failure to observe the stampede have prevented him from burlesquing it. He frequently drew inspiration from newspaper reports and the Langdon family, with their multitude of business interests throughout New York State, subscribed to several of the Buffalo papers.
One also might speculate that writing such an article would be in particularly bad taste during a time when Sam Clemens was supposed to be mourning the father-in-law for whom he held great esteem. But, as Joseph Csicsila has shown, Clemens consistently dealt with grief by throwing himself into his work, even at the expense of seeming callous to family and friends. Jerome Loving marvels that during this period
“Sam kept right on working on promised projects…he suffered along with the rest of the family…but he nevertheless managed to write. It is hard to imagine, even today, how he functioned as a humorist, but the Galaxy [a monthly humor column Twain wrote for the magazine headquartered in Buffalo] is hard evidence of his success.”from The Adventures of Samuel Clemens (2010)
Barring the discovery of relevant records or correspondence, we may never be able to definitively support or debunk the attribution of the “The Texan Steer.” However, there are some clues within the text which explain why it was reasonable to connect it to Twain. Perhaps most evidently there is the narrator, whose affectation is that he is a naturalist scientifically observing and recording the behaviors of the Texan steer when readers, especially those familiar with the recent events in Buffalo, know he is just cowering in a tree to avoid being gored. What we might characterize as the “pretentious idiot” is a persona which Twain took on frequently in his burlesque sketches and, perhaps most famously, in episodes from The Innocents Abroad.
Also, Twain was not above reusing material with minor variations. The use of “corned” as a synonym for drunkenness (and a culinary pun) would reappear, complete with quotation marks, in his 1872 speech, “The Union, Right or Wrong.” His fondness for the word cussed and all its derivations is evident throughout his career. My personal favorite invocation, from an 1868 letter sent from Washington DC: “Cuss this cussed place.”
As that letter, with its berating of “stupid old muffs of Generals & Senators,” suggests, Twain never tired of inventing creative invectives for politicians. Aldermen were not spared. In fact, they may have been fresh in his mind, as Twain had corresponded on his father-in-law’s behalf in a dispute with a municipal board in Memphis the preceding year. Among the many places where he wreaked his vengeance upon alderman, regardless of municipality, is in Life on the Mississippi, when he says of Dominique You, a hero of the War of 1812, “He was a pirate with a tremendous and sanguinary history; and as long as he preserved unspotted the dignity of his ancient calling, homage and reverence were his from high and low; but when at last he descended into politics and became a paltry alderman, the public ‘shook’ him, and turned aside and wept.”
It is my own “expert opinion” that this is either a sketch written by Mark Twain or an excellent counterfeit. It is, undeniably, evidence of how much of a celebrity Twain had become, even as early as 1870. The extensive network of US newspapers, nearly 6,000 of them in 1870, stretching from coast to coast, was primed to disseminate anything and everything associated with him. Even when he chose not to put his famous nome de plume in the byline, they did it for him.
UPDATE: Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com offers another plausible possibility, that “The Texan Steer” may have actually been the work of Frank Manly Thorn, another regular contributor to the Express who usually signed his work “Hy Slocum” or “Carl Byng.” Twain accused Thorn of being a “habitual plagiarist” and tried to have him banned from the Express when he became part owner, but Twain himself believed that some of Thorn’s work was still being published in his paper at least as late as January of 1871. Schmidt has written an informative profile of Thorn which I recommend. While I feel no more confident attributing “The Texan Steer” to Thorn than I do to Twain, the conflict between them shows that Twain believed there were writers imitating his style well enough to fool the public.