Wild To Move: Mark Twain in Cleveland

In the years following the Civil War, Cleveland was one of the wealthiest and largest cities in America. Its prime location on Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River made it ideal for manufacturing and transportation. Its population grew alongside its industries.

The U.S. Gilded Age was good for the city. As business and people took root, so did cultural institutions and neighborhoods. 

It was this booming American city that the country’s soon-to-be most famous writer visited in 1868, and several other times over the years. Not only did Samuel Clemens visit Cleveland, the city he almost called home served a pivotal role in his life. 

Mark Twain’s relationship with the city of Cleveland is explored in my new book, Mark Twain’s America Then and Now, published in October 2019 by Pavilion Books.

Cleveland is one of more than 69 significant places in Clemens’ life journey that are visited in the book. Together, they tell the story of man for whom a sense of place, and home, was of utmost importance. A man who wrote “I am wild with impatience to move — move — Move,” to his mother in 1867. At the time, he was preparing for a formative international voyage, the Quaker City cruise to Europe and the Holy Land.

Little did he know, this man wild to move, that he was just in the early chapters of his biggest adventure: a lifelong journey to reinvent American literature while making Mark Twain the most famous pen name in the world. It was for this reason that tracing Clemens’ biography through the geography of his life made sense. 

Many of the most essential places in Clemens’ life are well known: Hannibal, Mo.; Virginia City, Nevada; Hartford, Ct.; Elmira, NY.  But his life passage was filled with many formative stops, from Buffalo, NY to Keokuk, Iowa, to New Orleans, and, yes, Cleveland.

Clemens’ first visit was linked to that fortuitous Quaker City cruise. 

Mary Mason Fairbanks

While on the Quaker City, Clemens befriended a wealthy society matron named Mary Mason Fairbanks. Though she was only seven years older than him, he dubbed her Mother Fairbanks. She was the wife of Abel Fairbanks, the co-owner of the Cleveland Herald, Cleveland’s first daily newspaper. She was a college educated woman, mother of two, and a writer herself. She was also a member of Cleveland’s burgeoning upper class, which included families such as the Rockefellers and Hannas and Mathers and other residents of Millionaires’ Row. This world famous stretch of Euclid Avenue was compared to the Champs-Élysées and Fifth Avenue for its collection of wealth and beauty.

On the Quaker City, Mary Fairbanks was traveling under her nom de plume, Myra. She and Clemens quickly bonded. “Mother Fairbanks” was far more than just a wealthy wife. Sam called her the “most refined, intelligent and cultivated lady on the ship.” He trusted her so much that he let her edit the dispatches he was sending back to the Alta California. She was traveling with another wealthy Cleveland matron, Emily Severance, and came to view both Clemens and 17-year-old Charley Langdon as young “cubs” in need of her advice — in life, love and writing.

It was a friendship that would last 32 years. Mother Fairbanks’ influence on Clemens was extensive in the early years of their relationship. 

So it was no surprise that when Clemens was struggling with his writings about the Quaker City as well as trying to woo Livy Langdon, who would eventually become his wife, he turned to the other writer he had met on the cruise.

But this wasn’t just a social visit. Clemens had decided to throw himself full-force into his new lecturing career. He lined up an extensive 26-date tour that began in Cleveland.

The choice was not random. Given his newspaper connections, Clemens felt he could earn good reviews in town, something that would help boost the tour.  

He did, and not just from the Herald

“The most popular American humorist since the death of poor Artemus (Ward), made his first bow in Cleveland Public…Mark Twain has reason to feel gratified pride at the pleasant and satisfactory impression he made upon the immense audience,” raved The Plain Dealer.

Clemens spent the better part of two months in Cleveland, preparing for his November lecture debut. 

Mother Fairbanks provided much guidance, on how to court a refined lady and conduct oneself in society, but more importantly on his Quaker City stories, which would eventually become The Innocents Abroad.  Clemens had lined up his schedule without his talk yet written. He had given a lecture called Pilgrim Life, Being a Sketch of His Notorious Voyage to Europe, Palestine, Etc,. earlier that year, but wasn’t sure if he wanted to do the same again.  

He decided to rewrite Pilgrim, which had been criticized for its irreverent portrayal of the Holy Land, and retitle it The American Vandal Abroad. With his book slated for an early 1869 release, the tour would be an ideal way to promote it, too.

Mother Fairbanks agreed, in theory.  The refined lady had strong opinions on Clemens’ mean-spirited article about the trip in the New York Herald, as well as some of his book drafts. She thought he should rein in his more sarcastic tendencies that were likely to offend the passengers, the audience  …and herself.  

She proved a benign influence, toning down Clemens’ baser instincts and impetuousness, leading to a leaner, funnier and more benevolent narrative. Clemens allowed her to read and edit his draft several times as he worked in the Fairbanks’ St. Clair Avenue house. He also allowed her to throw a reception in his honor, introducing him to Cleveland society as “reformed prodigy.” He would spend more than a few nights carousing with the younger male residents of Millionaire’s Row thanks to her introductions. 

The Fairbanks helped Clemens promote the speech he would eventually deliver on November 17 at Case Hall, a 1,200 seat Victorian-Italianate lecture hall built in 1867, on Superior Avenue, not far from the Herald. Previous speakers at the hall included Horace Greeley and Henry Ward Beecher.

In the Herald, Mary Fairbanks was even more effusive than The Plain Dealer in one of three stories on Mark Twain’s Cleveland lecture. (Conflicts of interest were apparently not of concern.)

 “For nearly two hours he held them by the magnetism of his varied talent,” she wrote. “We shall attempt no transcript of his lecture, lest with unskillful hands we mar its beauty, for beauty and poetry it certainly possessed, though the production of a profound humorist.”

This glowing review helped Mark Twain add more dates across the country. Eventually, it would grow from 26 dates to 40, through March of 1869.

In just one year, the Herald would again figure prominently in Clemens’ life when he made a bid to become co-owner with Abel Fairbanks. 

“Livy, I guess that after all I shall become interested in this ‘Herald,’ and then you shall be managing editor – that is to say, you’ll manage the editor,” Twain wrote from Cleveland on Dec. 30, 1868. “I think we’ll live in Cleveland, Livy…But I don’t think we’ll live in the Avenue yet a while, Livy – we’ll take a back seat with Mrs. Fairbanks, in St. Clair street.”

Alas, Abel Fairbanks raised the asking price and Clemens was forced to pursue other career paths. The paper ended up closing in 1885, two years after the Fairbanks sold their interest before moving to Omaha, Nebraska. 

It was a deal that clearly worked out well for Clemens who went on to much greater things that running a midwestern newspaper – after a stint at the Buffalo Express, which his father-in-law bought a stake in following Clemens’s 1870 marriage to Livy Langdon. Clevelanders today must wonder what their city might have been like if Mark Twain had made it his permanent home. 

Though he chose not to live in Cleveland, Clemens did return to the city that played an important role in his formative years in 1895. Again, the visit was of high significance. Facing bankruptcy, Clemens had been forced to return to the road to repay his debts. 

An ambitious international speaking tour of Australia, New Zealand,  India and Africa was planned. But it began on familiar territory. Very familiar territory.

Mark Twain kicked off his world speaking tour on July 15 at the Music Hall in Cleveland, the city that had served him so well launching his 1868 tour.  Opening night would be followed by 140 other dates and would take more than a year. Domestic tour dates were billed as Mark Twain Reading and Talking. Overseas, the lecture was called Mark Twain at Home.

The show was announced in The Plain Dealer on July 7.  His old friends Abel and Mary Mason Fairbanks were long gone, so he couldn’t count on a rave review from her to boost the tour. Clemens stayed at the new Stillman Hotel on Erie Street while he prepared. 

Music Hall, opened a decade earlier on Bond and Erie streets,  was the town’s largest gathering place, a steep, foreboding building that could seat 4,000; it burned down just three years later

Clemens needn’t have worried about the press. Raved The Plain Dealer, “His immense shock of hair has turned nearly white, but his humor is just as vigorous and his style as entertaining as ever.”

Once again, Cleveland had helped launch Mark Twain.

Laura DeMarco is the author of Mark Twain’s America Then and Now (2019), Lost Cleveland (2017), and Cleveland Then and Now (2018). She is an arts and culture reporter for the Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio. 

For more on the many places across the country that helped shape and inspire Mark Twain, from small-town Missouri to Mississippi river cities to the Wild West, Hawaii and the great cities of the East, check out Mark Twain’s America Then and Now (Pavilion Books, 144 p) The book features 69 locations, with more than 200 vintage and new photos.