Some authors live to write, and some write to live. Others fall somewhere in between, and a few just seem to fall into it.
Mark Twain, author of multiple Great American Novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, encapsulates all of those traits, yet somehow also exists outside of them, or, perhaps, above them.
In this episode we will learn how Mark Twain’s legendary career as an author began from the man himself. I am Arthur McMahon and this is Paracosms.
Now known as one of America’s greatest novelists, Mark Twain came from humble beginnings, and he lived quite an adventurous life before finding his success.
Born as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Twain was raised in Missouri where he learned to pilot steamboats on the Mississippi River.
At a young age, Twain lost his father to pneumonia. Several of his siblings passed away before they had reached their teenage years, and he lost his 20 year old brother Henry in a steamboat explosion, a boat that Twain himself was aboard. He lived in a time when slavery was legal, and he briefly fought in the war that abolished it.
As an adult, Mark Twain travelled across America working as a journalist, typesetter, and coal miner in places like New York, Philadelphia, Virginia, and Utah before moving to San Francisco where he found his first great success as a writer at when he was 30 years old.
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is a short story about a gambling man named Jim Smiley. It was a simple tale that brought Mark Twain national attention, a little story that started the man’s illustrious career. The novels that followed after Jumping Frog’s success propelled Twain’s fame to outstanding heights, and his ability to capture his childhood, that specific slice of American history: it’s culture, the time, the people, the setting— has immortalized his best works, made them enduring pieces of literature that stand the test of time.
In his autobiography, Twain dedicated a chapter to describing the circumstances around getting his first story published. It’s in the public domain now, and I think it’s well-worth sharing. In this brief chapter you can witness his emotions: the excitement, struggle, and fear that Twain felt about the process, and it also shows the effort, the tenacity he needed to put forth in order to make sure his work actually did get published.
BY MARK TWAIN.
My experiences as an author began early in 1867. I came to New York from San Francisco in the first month of that year and presently Charles H. Webb, whom I had known in San Francisco as a reporter on The Bulletin, and afterward editor of The Californian, suggested that I publish a volume of sketches. I had but a slender reputation to publish it on, but I was charmed and excited by the suggestion and quite willing to venture it if some industrious person would save me the trouble of gathering the sketches together. I was loath to do it myself, for from the beginning of my sojourn in this world there was a persistent vacancy in me where the industry ought to be. (“Ought to was”[Pg 450] is better, perhaps, though the most of the authorities differ as to this.)
Webb said I had some reputation in the Atlantic States, but I knew quite well that it must be of a very attenuated sort. What there was of it rested upon the story of “The Jumping Frog.” When Artemus Ward passed through California on a lecturing tour, in 1865 or ’66, I told him the “Jumping Frog” story, in San Francisco, and he asked me to write it out and send it to his publisher, Carleton, in New York, to be used in padding out a small book which Artemus had prepared for the press and which needed some more stuffing to make it big enough for the price which was to be charged for it.
It reached Carleton in time, but he didn’t think much of it, and was not willing to go to the typesetting expense of adding it to the book. He did not put it in the waste-basket, but made Henry Clapp a present of it, and Clapp used it to help out the funeral of his dying literary journal, The Saturday Press. “The Jumping Frog” appeared in the last number of that paper, was the most joyous feature of the obsequies, and was at once copied in the newspapers of America and England. It certainly had a wide celebrity, and it still had it at the time that I am speaking of—but I was aware that it was only the frog that was celebrated. It wasn’t I. I was still an obscurity.
Webb undertook to collate the sketches. He performed this office, then handed the result to me, and I went to Carleton’s establishment with it. I approached a clerk and he bent eagerly over the counter to inquire into my needs; but when he found that I had come to sell a book and not to buy one, his temperature fell sixty degrees, and the old-gold intrenchments in the roof of my mouth contracted three-quarters of an inch and my teeth fell out. I meekly asked the privilege of a word with Mr. Carleton, and was coldly informed that he was in his private office. Discouragements and difficulties followed, but after a while I got by the frontier and entered the holy of holies. Ah, now I remember how I managed it! Webb had made an appointment for me with Carleton; otherwise I never should have gotten over that frontier. Carleton rose and said brusquely and aggressively,
“Well, what can I do for you?”
I reminded him that I was there by appointment to offer him my book for publication. He began to swell, and went on swell[Pg 451]ing and swelling and swelling until he had reached the dimensions of a god of about the second or third degree. Then the fountains of his great deep were broken up, and for two or three minutes I couldn’t see him for the rain. It was words, only words, but they fell so densely that they darkened the atmosphere. Finally he made an imposing sweep with his right hand, which comprehended the whole room and said,
“Books—look at those shelves! Every one of them is loaded with books that are waiting for publication. Do I want any more? Excuse me, I don’t. Good morning.”
Twenty-one years elapsed before I saw Carleton again. I was then sojourning with my family at the Schweitzerhof, in Luzerne. He called on me, shook hands cordially, and said at once, without any preliminaries,
“I am substantially an obscure person, but I have at least one distinction to my credit of such colossal dimensions that it entitles me to immortality—to wit: I refused a book of yours, and for this I stand without competitor as the prize ass of the nineteenth century.”
It was a most handsome apology, and I told him so, and said it was a long-delayed revenge but was sweeter to me than any other that could be devised; that during the lapsed twenty-one years I had in fancy taken his life several times every year, and always in new and increasingly cruel and inhuman ways, but that now I was pacified, appeased, happy, even jubilant; and that thenceforth I should hold him my true and valued friend and never kill him again.
I reported my adventure to Webb, and he bravely said that not all the Carletons in the universe should defeat that book; he would publish it himself on a ten per cent. royalty. And so he did. He brought it out in blue and gold, and made a very pretty little book of it, I think he named it “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches,” price $1.25. He made the plates and printed and bound the book through a job-printing house, and published it through the American News Company.
In June I sailed in the Quaker City Excursion. I returned in November, and in Washington found a letter from Elisha Bliss, of the American Publishing Company of Hartford, offering me five per cent. royalty on a book which should recount the adventures of the Excursion. In lieu of the royalty, I was offered the alternative of ten thousand dollars cash upon delivery of the manuscript. I consulted A. D. Richardson and he said “take the royalty.” I followed his advice and closed with Bliss. By my contract I was to deliver the manuscript in July of 1868. I wrote the book in San Francisco and delivered the manuscript within contract time. Bliss provided a multitude of illustrations for the book, and then stopped work on it. The contract date for the issue went by, and there was no explanation of this. Time drifted along and still there was no explanation. I was lecturing all over the country; and about thirty times a day, on an average, I was trying to answer this conundrum:
“When is your book coming out?”
I got tired of inventing new answers to that question, and by and by I got horribly tired of the question itself. Whoever asked it became my enemy at once, and I was usually almost eager to make that appear.
As soon as I was free of the lecture-field I hastened to Hartford to make inquiries. Bliss said that the fault was not his; that he wanted to publish the book but the directors of his Company were staid old fossils and were afraid of it. They had examined the book, and the majority of them were of the opinion that there were places in it of a humorous character. Bliss said the house had never published a book that had a suspicion like that attaching to it, and that the directors were afraid that a departure of this kind would seriously injure the house’s reputation; that he was tied hand and foot, and was not permitted to carry out his contract. One of the directors, a Mr. Drake—at least he was the remains of what had once been a Mr. Drake—invited me to take a ride with him in his buggy, and I went along. He was a pathetic old relic, and his ways and his talk were also pathetic. He had a delicate purpose in view and it took him some time to hearten himself sufficiently to carry it out, but at last he accomplished it. He explained the house’s difficulty and distress, as Bliss had already explained it. Then he frankly threw himself and the house upon my mercy and begged me to take away “The Innocents Abroad” and release the concern from the contract. I said I wouldn’t—and so ended the interview and the buggy excursion. Then I warned Bliss that he must get to work or I should make trouble. He acted upon the warning, and set up the book and I read the proofs. Then there was another long wait and no explanation. At last toward the end of July (1869, I think), I lost patience and telegraphed Bliss that if the book was not on sale in twenty-four hours I should bring suit for damages.
That ended the trouble. Half a dozen copies were bound and placed on sale within the required time. Then the canvassing began, and went briskly forward. In nine months the book took the publishing house out of debt, advanced its stock from twenty-five to two hundred, and left seventy thousand dollars profit to the good. It was Bliss that told me this—but if it was true, it was the first time that he had told the truth in sixty-five years. He was born in 1804.
For as good of a writer he was, even Mark Twain had to put up a fight to get published. However, once he found success, fame came with it, and he learned that he didn’t like it very much. It brought him trouble and critical opinions from people he did not know.
Here are a couple of stories he shared regarding his fame. Perhaps with this knowledge younger in life he would have approached his career differently.
There on that bench we struck out a new phrase—one or the other of us, I don’t remember which—”submerged renown.” Variations were discussed: “submerged fame,” “submerged reputation,” and so on, and a choice was made; “submerged renown” was elected, I believe. This important matter rose out of an incident which had been happening to Stevenson in Albany. While in a book-shop or book-stall there he had noticed a long rank of small books, cheaply but neatly gotten up, and bearing such titles as “Davis’s Selected Speeches,” “Davis’s Selected Poetry,” Davis’s this and Davis’s that and Davis’s the other thing; compilations, every one of them, each with a brief, compact, intelligent[Pg 458] and useful introductory chapter by this same Davis, whose first name I have forgotten. Stevenson had begun the matter with this question:
“Can you name the American author whose fame and acceptance stretch widest in the States?”
I thought I could, but it did not seem to me that it would be modest to speak out, in the circumstances. So I diffidently said nothing. Stevenson noticed, and said—
“Save your delicacy for another time—you are not the one. For a shilling you can’t name the American author of widest note and popularity in the States. But I can.”
Then he went on and told about that Albany incident. He had inquired of the shopman—
“Who is this Davis?”
The answer was—
“An author whose books have to have freight-trains to carry them, not baskets. Apparently you have not heard of him?”
Stevenson said no, this was the first time. The man said—
“Nobody has heard of Davis: you may ask all around and you will see. You never see his name mentioned in print, not even in advertisement; these things are of no use to Davis, not any more than they are to the wind and the sea. You never see one of Davis’s books floating on top of the United States, but put on your diving armor and get yourself lowered away down and down and down till you strike the dense region, the sunless region of eternal drudgery and starvation wages—there you’ll find them by the million. The man that gets that market, his fortune is made, his bread and butter are safe, for those people will never go back on him. An author may have a reputation which is confined to the surface, and lose it and become pitied, then despised, then forgotten, entirely forgotten—the frequent steps in a surface reputation. At surface reputation, however great, is always mortal, and always killable if you go at it right—with pins and needles, and quiet slow poison, not with the club and tomahawk. But it is a different matter with the submerged reputation—down in the deep water; once a favorite there, always a favorite; once beloved, always beloved; once respected, always respected, honored, and believed in. For, what the reviewer says never finds its way down into those placid deeps; nor the newspaper sneers, nor any breath of the winds of slander blowing above. Down there they never hear of these things. Their idol may be painted clay, up then at the surface, and fade and waste and crumble and blow away, there being much weather there; but down below he is gold and adamant and indestructible.”
This is from this morning’s paper:
MARK TWAIN LETTER SOLD.
Written to Thomas Nast, it Proposed a Joint Tour.
A Mark Twain autograph letter brought $43 yesterday at the auction by the Merwin-Clayton Company of the library and correspondence of the late Thomas Nast, cartoonist. The letter is nine pages note-paper, is dated Hartford, Nov. 12, 1877, and it addressed to Nast. It reads in part as follows:
Hartford, Nov. 12.
My Dear Nast: I did not think I should ever stand on a platform again until the time was come for me to say I die innocent. But the same old offers keep arriving that have arriven every year, and been every year declined—$500 for Louisville, $500 for St. Louis, $1,000 gold for two nights in Toronto, half gross proceeds for New York, Boston, Brooklyn, &c. I have declined them all just as usual, though sorely tempted as usual.
Now, I do not decline because I mind talking to an audience, but because (1) travelling alone is so heart-breakingly dreary, and (2) shouldering the whole show is such cheer-killing responsibility.
Therefore I now propose to you what you proposed to me in November, 1867—ten years ago, (when I was unknown,) viz.; That you should stand on the platform and make pictures, and I stand by you and blackguard the audience. I should enormously enjoy meandering around (to big towns—don’t want to go to little ones) with you for company.
The letter includes a schedule of cities and the number of appearances planned for each.
This is as it should be. This is worthy of all praise. I say it myself lest other competent persons should forget to do it. It appears that four of my ancient letters were sold at auction, three of them at twenty-seven dollars, twenty-eight dollars, and twenty-nine dollars respectively, and the one above mentioned at forty-three dollars. There is one very gratifying circumstance about this, to wit: that my literature has more than held its own as regards money value through this stretch of thirty-six years. I judge that the forty-three-dollar letter must have gone at about ten cents a word, whereas if I had written it to-day its market rate would be thirty cents—so I have increased in value two or three hundred per cent. I note another gratifying circumstance—that a letter of General Grant’s sold at something short of eighteen dollars. I can’t rise to General Grant’s lofty place in the estimation of this nation, but it is a deep happiness to me to know that when it comes to epistolary literature he can’t sit in the front seat along with me.
This reminds me—nine years ago, when we were living in Tedworth Square, London, a report was cabled to the American journals that I was dying. I was not the one. It was another Clemens, a cousin of mine,—Dr. J. Ross Clemens, now of St. Louis—who was due to die but presently escaped, by some chicanery or other characteristic of the tribe of Clemens. The London representatives of the American papers began to flock in, with American cables in their hands, to inquire into my condition. There was nothing the matter with me, and each in his turn was astonished, and disappointed, to find me reading and smoking in my study and worth next to nothing as a text for transatlantic news. One of these men was a gentle and kindly and grave and sympathetic Irishman, who hid his sorrow the best he could, and tried to look glad, and told me that his paper, the Evening Sun, had cabled him that it was reported in New York that I was dead. What should he cable in reply? I said—
“Say the report is greatly exaggerated.”
He never smiled, but went solemnly away and sent the cable in those words. The remark hit the world pleasantly, and to this day it keeps turning up, now and then, in the newspapers when people have occasion to discount exaggerations.
The next man was also an Irishman. He had his New York cablegram in his hand—from the New York World—and he was so evidently trying to get around that cable with invented softnesses and palliations that my curiosity was aroused and I wanted to see what it did really say. So when occasion offered I slipped it out of his hand. It said,
“If Mark Twain dying send five hundred words. If dead send a thousand.”
Now that old letter of mine sold yesterday for forty-three dollars. When I am dead it will be worth eighty-six.
This has been an episode of Paracosms. This chapter reading of Mark Twain’s autobiography is all thanks to Project Gutenberg. If you don’t already know, Project Gutenberg is a nonprofit, all volunteer effort to provide free ebooks and audiobooks of public domain works. There are currently over 54,000 free books available spanning all of the world’s greatest literature at www.gutenberg.org. Visit the site and if you find Project Gutenberg useful please consider donating a small amount on their website to help improve Project Gutenberg’s programs and offerings.
Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this world and I look forward to seeing you at the next.