By Martin Northway
A confluence of anniversaries has brought Mark Twain into public consciousness this year, an apt time to recall that America’s greatest author—born and reared in neighboring Missouri—was a pretty frequent visitor to Chicago.
Further, one of the best-traveled Americans of his time—perhaps our nation’s first international celebrity—spent one of the most important evenings of his life here.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was welcomed by his Virginia- and Kentucky-native parents in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835. Born during the transit of Halley’s Comet, he died 74 years later upon its return. Thus 2010 marks not just the 175th anniversary of his birth but the 100th anniversary of his death.
Coinciding with these events, the University of California Press is releasing the first of three volumes of his long-awaited autobiography; a previous version appeared long ago under the editorship of Charles Neider, but that much-shorter edition is not just incomplete but too “sanitized” to shine a bright light on its author. The book has become this season’s literary sensation, returning Twain to the bestseller lists, with six printings and more than 275,000 copies in circulation.
The new edition includes dictated material from the end of his life he deemed too distressing to many readers to see the light for at least 100 years. Now that century is up, and early critiques confirm a view of a more pessimistic Twain than the image projected by the kind of author who wrote “Adventures of Tom Sawyer”—a “Dark” Twain joining the “Mark” Twain we thought we knew so well.
Fortunately, another hometown Hannibal boy, journalist and biographer Ron Powers, had already offered a deeper, richer version of the author’s psychology predicated on his view of Clemens’ tragedy- and violence-laden childhood in “Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain” (1999). We had always heard that in riverboat parlance, Clemens’ pen name “Mark Twain”—a water depth of two fathoms or twelve feet—meant “safe water.” But Powers suggested that whether two fathoms should be considered safe water or “dangerous water” depends entirely on whether the river is getting deeper or shallower, offering a river man’s parallel to the conundrum of the half-full or half-empty glass of water.
Two-thousand-ten also marks the 150th anniversary of the presidential election leading to the American Civil War—2011 will be the anniversary of the first battles. After serving briefly as a young Rebel soldier, Clemens “lit out for the territory”—fleeing into Nevada Territory; it was the beginning of the making of the writer and personality known to the world as “Mark Twain.”
As a Missourian and as a riverboat pilot on the Lower Mississippi River before the war, Clemens experienced the booming prosperity of the city of St. Louis—then after the war witnessed its eclipse by Chicago as the great regional metropolitan power.
While yet a newly minted author (his pen name was only eight years old) and near the beginning of his years of lecturing, Mark Twain visited Chicago only a couple months after the 1871 Great Fire. Jerome Loving’s just-published biography, “Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel Clemens,” notes that Twain wrote his wife Livy back in Hartford, Connecticut: “There is literally no Chicago here. I recognize nothing here, that I ever saw before.”
“The wild humorist of the Pacific Slope,” as he was known, was on a long lecture tour and in Chicago previewed for his audiences some of the adventures and wild-eyed tales from Nevada and California that became part of his book “Roughing It.” He lectured on December 18 at the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church just south of 22nd Street—the farthest reach of the fire—and on December 19 at the Union Park Congregational Church on the West Side.
He made a big impression. The Chicago Evening Post reported in great detail his entrance before the standing-room only crowd of more than six hundred at the Baptist church. The “lank, lantern-jawed and impudent Californian [sic] bestrode the stage as if it were the deck of a steam-boat, and, getting to the middle of the front, rubbed his bony hands, and gazed around. A thin man of five feet ten, thirty-five, or so, eyes that penetrate like a new gimlet, nasal prow projected and pendulous, carroty, curly hair, and mustache, arms that are always in the way, expression dreadfully melancholy, he stares inquisitively here and there, and cranes his long neck around the house like a bereaved Vermonter who has just come from the death-bed of his mother-in-law, and is looking for a sexton. For something like a minute, he says not a word, but rubs his hands awkwardly, and continues the search. Finally, just as the spectators are about to break into giggles, he opens his capacious mouth, and begins in a slow drawl,—about three words a minute by the watch.”
The reporter seems to have caught Twain’s very diction, as if it were a virus, noting his “fascinating nasal snarl” and a delivery like an “embarrassed deacon.” His style seemed spontaneous and “The jokes are uttered as if he had just thought of them a minute before, and didn’t perceive the point of them quite as soon as his audience.”
The Tribune reported, “While truly eloquent in his glowing descriptions of California scenery, he was infinitely droll in his yarns of life on the Pacific slope. His endless stories and happy hits kept the audience convulsed with laughter, yet gave much solid information.”
Only eight years later, on November 13, 1879, he may have been the only former Rebel in the room when 500 former Union soldiers gathered at a banquet in the Palmer House to honor ex-president and former general in chief of the Union armies Ulysses S. Grant. The occasion was a reunion of veterans of the Army of the Tennessee. Chicago had already witnessed a parade of 80,000 former Union soldiers.
The same week, Twain had gathered about him his favorite Chicago newspapermen at Captain James Sims’ saloon on Clark Street, and berated them yet again that he thought it shameful Chicago did not have a press club; and so from out of that loud and happy feast sprang the Press Club of Chicago.
Already known to the world as a humorist and to these men as a former Rebel, Twain was the fifteenth and final speaker on the general’s banquet program. For six hours Grant sat implacably amidst the cigar smoke and alcohol and listened to each speaker offer toasts and exalt Grant’s brilliant military leadership and courage.
But at two o’clock in the morning, Mark Twain wanted to talk instead about the “babies.” He reminded in his laconic drawl how all people, great and small, had started out as infants and that somewhere among the millions of cradles in America there was probably another future leader—maybe even another great military commander.
Someplace, Twain went on, “the future illustrious commander-in-chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind at this moment to trying to find some way to get his big toe into his mouth, an achievement which, meaning no disrespect, the illustrious guest of this evening turned his entire attention to some fifty-six years ago…”
There was a hush in the room as he paused.
“…And if the child is but a prophecy of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded.”
The whole room erupted with laughter at the image of the great general as an infant trying to shove his foot into his mouth; it absolutely dissolved Grant himself into helpless tears of laughter, and as his old comrades saw his collapse there were more gales of laughter.
Grant had sat through the other speeches “like a graven image,” Twain reported later. But “I fetched him!” he bragged.
It was the beginning of a remarkable friendship. Later Twain repeatedly urged Grant to complete his memoirs, and in order to secure more favorable royalties had his own publisher conclude a favorable contract that assuredly rescued Grant’s estate from debt after the Union war hero died from cancer only days after completing his memoir in 1885.
The brevity of Clemens’ own service in the pro-Southern Missouri State Guard—considerably fictionalized in his 1885 account “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed”—was often a sore spot for him. (In the “Private History,” Twain also recounts his Rebel outfit’s near-brush with then-Colonel Grant’s invading 21st Illinois regiment but has taken considerable artistic license with the timing.
The friendship with Grant may have helped soothe Twain’s shame about his role in the war. Loving credits another biographer with this insight: “Justin Kaplan suggests that Twain was intoxicated with Grant’s military courage and saw their friendship as a surrogate to his own lack of valor.”
In any case, the outcome was a spectacular one for American literature. Mark Perry, author of “Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America” (2004), emphasizes: “…[A]s Grant was struggling to write the story of his life, he was helped in his final battle by a man who had just completed the story of his.
“Within that single fifteen-month period—perhaps the most creative in American literary history—Grant would not only write his ‘Personal Memoirs,’ Twain would reach the peak of his career with the publication of ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’ Those two books, perhaps the finest work of American nonfiction ever written and the greatest of all American novels, defined their legacy.”
During the 1880s, Twain also reported the signal change clearly indicating St. Louis’ falling star compared with Chicago’s comet-like arrival. In 1882 he returned to the Gateway City for his first tour of the Lower Mississippi River since he piloted it before the war. The memoir of his piloting and the reportage of this tour would result in his book “Life on the Mississippi.”
In his book, Twain recalled how every Hannibal boy’s dream had been to work on the river, and it had been his good fortune—though for only two years—to achieve princehood on the lower river by joining the exclusive ranks of steamboat pilots. St. Louis’ placement at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi made it the capital of steamboat transportation; at the outset of the Civil War it was the eighth largest U.S. city and half again as populous as Chicago.
But the expansion of rails was altering everything. Of 1882 St. Louis, Twain writes, “the change of changes was on the ‘levee.’ … Half a dozen sound-asleep boats where I used to see a solid mile of wide-awake ones. This was melancholy, this was woeful. … [The] occupation [of the pervading and jocund steamboatman] is gone, his power has passed away, he is absorbed into the common herd, he grinds at the mill, a shorn Samson and inconspicuous.”
In 1870, the populations of the two cities were nearly equal at around 300,000; by the turn of the century Chicago was the second largest U.S. city with triple St. Louis’ population. In 1866, St. Louis boomers had actually campaigned to move the national capital there; all such talk had long since ceased by century’s end.
Besides his lectures, Twain came to Chicago to check on progress on the typesetting invention in which he invested heavily. As a former hand compositor, he saw the chance to make a great fortune with a successful machine; but in that technological race, he put his money on the wrong Chicago horse. Instead of betting on the winner, Mergenthaler, he lost $190,000 on Paige. One Chicago visit coincided with the 1893 world’s fair, the Columbian Exposition.
It is part of Hyde Park lore that Mark Twain at least once stayed at the old Bryson Hotel at 4932 South Lake Park Avenue. The Bryson was a gracious palace built in the 1880s, and it would make sense that Twain might have stayed there in 1893 because of its proximity to the fair.
As it happens, Twain saw to it that the model of the Paige typesetter was delivered to the fair but could not deliver himself. He was felled for days by a severe cold. But even though he could not make the fair, the ironic juxtaposition of a sponsored event like the Congress of Religions with the by-then established reputation of corruption in Chicago was not lost upon him. Later he suggested a visiting Hindu might have marveled, “Ah, the country of the great man—Washington; and of the Holy City—Chicago.”
The Bryson was torn down long ago, but in the early 1970s this writer stood in the suite reportedly occupied by Twain. And even though the Bryson had fallen onto hard times as a residential apartment building, with rooms decorated in cheap institutional paint, this suite had an aura about it. At that time, it was occupied by a former Israeli official who had embarked on a middle-age dream to become a visual artist.
Maybe Mark Twain’s ghost was a helping wind for him. I could only marvel as I gazed about the room with Shlomo’s colorful, prolific art occupying every available surface, glittering bright against the mint-green walls. It was a vision that would have fetched Mark Twain too.