How Mark Twain Worked

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert, and joining me today is Sarah Dowdey. How are you, Sarah?

Sarah Dowdey: I'm well. How are you, Katie?

Katie Lambert: Good. I'm going to start you off with a quote today by a very famous man, and you can guess who it is.

Sarah Dowdey: Awesome. Okay.

Katie Lambert: "Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he's at his very, very best, he is a soft of low grade nickel plated angel. At his worst, he's unspeakable, unimaginable and first and last and all the time, he is a sarcasm."

Sarah Dowdey: I'm gonna hazard that was Mark Twain?

Katie Lambert: Bingo. So today, we're talking about Mark Twain, Mr. Literary Genius, and we'll start with his childhood as we do.

Sarah Dowdey: Samuel Langhorn Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri in 1835. He was premature and pretty sickly for the first 10 years of his life, which contributed a lot to how his personality developed. He had to stay inside with his mother, so he was kind of coddled, but he liked to rebel with little acts of mischief and was a sweet, good natured kid though. He also had a lot of remedies that his mother would try to perform on him, which might have added to kind of some quackery that -

Katie Lambert: The guinea pig child.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, that happened later in life.

Katie Lambert: He was one of seven kids. I think he was number six of the seven.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: Orion, Pamela, Pleasant, Margaret, Benjamin and Henry, and only three of them, I believe, lived out of childhood and, obviously, Samuel was one of them. His parents had a courteous but not a warm marriage, he has said.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah and when he was a few years old, the family's fortunes kind of started to change, and they were forced to move to Hannibal, Missouri on the Mississippi River. Another thing he would talk about is he was kind of poor, but the family had this unsettling belief that they would come into money. His father owned some property in Tennessee, which I'm not sure why, but he believed that would be his fortune in the end. He later said that, "It's a fine thing to grow up rich. It's a fine thing to grow up poor. That's wholesome. But to grow up prospectively rich is not a healthy state."

Katie Lambert: Well, and kind of in between the two, even having the prospect of it behind you and also in front of you, it may not give you the most healthy attitude toward money which, as we'll see later, definitely affected him.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. But Hannibal was a nice place for a kid to grow up for a lot of ways. It had a lot of fun outdoor pursuits, and some of his favorite boyhood sites, like Glasscock's Island and McDowell's Cave, later appear in his writing. As a boy, he also read a lot, James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott. He played Robin Hood and pirates with his friends, but it wasn't all super picturesque.

Katie Lambert: No. You were telling me some gruesome stories this morning. I was looking over your notes, and it's a little disturbing.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Hannibal was sometimes a rather violent town, and just in his childhood he found a corpse in his father's office. We should say his father was a Justice of the Peace, so not quite as bad as it sounds.

Katie Lambert: Not so [inaudible].

Sarah Dowdey: He saw a man who was shot die in the street. He watched a friend drown, and a few days after that, he found a drowned and mutilated body of a fugitive slave. That all sounds like a pretty traumatic childhood, but maybe it's par for the course for a boundary state at the time. I don't know.

Katie Lambert: And I had read a story about his family owned a slave, Jenny, who acted as their nursemaid, and he saw her brutally whipped when he was about six, after a little altercation with his mother. The slavery stuff will figure in his works as well.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. And he was also influenced - during his summers, he'd go back to Florida, Missouri to stay with his uncle, and his cousins would be told tales by a slave called Uncle Daniel, who ended up being in part a model for Jim in Huckleberry Finn.

Katie Lambert: And another little fact I like about his childhood was that he was a sleepwalker, and one night when he was sleepwalking, he apparently went to his sister's room and picked up the edge of her covers, which was supposed to be superstitiously a sign that someone was going to die. And she did die the next day, which led everyone in his family to think that he had the second sight, and that was another thing that stayed with him, that idea of paranormal activity. He was interested in science and invention.

Sarah Dowdey: It seems later in life too he takes responsibility for deaths that clearly are not his fault. I wonder if that -

Katie Lambert: It started way back then.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Sarah Dowdey: But like most young boys at the time, he takes an apprenticeship and works for a printer.

Katie Lambert: And one story I really enjoy about his apprenticeship that he tells in his autobiography, which I would highly recommend. I've read the Charles Needer version, although there are a few of them out there. But when he was working as a printer's apprentice, to make something fit - a sermon - they put JC in for Jesus Christ. Obviously, the printer thought that was disrespectful and told them they had better put the full name every single time. They would not be abbreviating it, so just to be a jerk, he put Jesus H. Christ in all instances and got in quite a bit of trouble.

Sarah Dowdey: But his printing career kind of got off to start maybe after that - despite that. He was fortunate enough to have an older brother who was already established in printing and publishing. His brother, Orion, bought the Hannibal Journal and Samuel contributed sketches and articles, as well doing typesetting and printing work.

Katie Lambert: I think that's the first time he used a pseudonym.

Sarah Dowdey: It is. His first pseudonym - this might be mangled here, but W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins.

Katie Lambert: We've had a lot of troubles with their names because the entire time, we thought Orion was Orion and Pamela was Pamela, and we were wrong.

Sarah Dowdey: His mother liked different -

Katie Lambert: She liked her emphasis on different syllables.

Sarah Dowdey: Definitely.

Katie Lambert: So Sarah, as you have said, Mark Twain had entirely too many jobs for you to remember, so he went on from this newspaper job and started working at printing shops and was also writing. Then, he went to South America?

Sarah Dowdey: He was planning to go to South America. It sounds like kind of a crazy scheme, but he was gonna take a steamboat in 1857 to New Orleans, and then from there go on to South America. But he never made it because he was so fascinated by the steamboat, got to talking to the captain and persuaded the captain to take him on as a steamboat pilot apprentice, which ended up being one of his favorite jobs. He absolutely loved it, the freedom and technical skill and discipline that came with being a pilot.

Katie Lambert: And if you got your pilot license, I think it was a pretty lucrative job, although it was tough. You had to know all the different depths and marks and everything of the river, which was not easy.

Sarah Dowdey: This is also when he first hears the name Mark Twain. He lampoons a senior pilot, Isaiah Sellers, who had published some very short, to the point observations of life on the Mississippi and weather and very straightforward things. Even though Clemens kind of mocked him, he really liked this guy's pen name.

Katie Lambert: And so he kept it for his own.

Sarah Dowdey: He did. To his credit, when he started using the pen name Mark Twain, he thought that Isaiah Sellers was dead. Not true. After somebody stole your pen name, "Don't steal mine, sir."

Katie Lambert: He had to leave steamboat piloting. I think you and I had found different things. I found that it was because the war was breaking out, and the business was drying up. And I think you'd found something else.

Sarah Dowdey: I heard that he was a little worried he'd be impressed as a Union gunboat pilot.

Katie Lambert: Which, and at some point, I think he was part of a Confederate unit, so I don't think he would have enjoyed that.

Sarah Dowdey: Well, his allegiance during the Civil War is a little questionable though.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdey: His older brother, Orion, was actually a really strong Lincoln supporter, so I guess like any border state like that, he kind of -

Katie Lambert: Kind of in the middle.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: He quite the Marion Rangers, which was the volunteer Confederate unit, after two weeks, so apparently he wasn't too dedicated to the cause.

Sarah Dowdey: Not that into it.

Katie Lambert: But at this point, he took yet another job and decided that he would go mine some silver.

Sarah Dowdey: I would really like to see Mark Twain's resume.

Katie Lambert: I think there would be some gaps in there. It might be hard to explain. But he wasn't a very good miner at all.

Sarah Dowdey: No, and he also started investing in timber and silver and gold stocks at this point. We talked about his father's belief in prospecting. Mark Twain was also - or Clemens, still, at this point - was not a good businessman.

Katie Lambert: No, but part of this experience when he was mining went into his book Roughing It, so it was good for his literary career, if not for his pocketbook.

Sarah Dowdey: And during this time, he also starts writing letters to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, which are so impressive they catch the attention of the editor, who offers him a job as a reporter. He takes on his third apprenticeship in life and starts to be a journalist.

Katie Lambert: And people started to know Mark Twain's name in 1865, when he published a s hort story called Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog, which got picked up by papers all across the country, and people loved it.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, it was a story he learned while mining, actually. So his varied work experience influenced his writings.

Katie Lambert: Lucrative in a different way.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: And he got hired at a different paper and started a sort of travel writing career which, again, ended up being very lucrative for him.

Sarah Dowdey: And he was able to publish the account later as Innocence Abroad in 1869, and that was also - his traveling at that time also had another important effect, didn't it?

Katie Lambert: He met Olivia Langdon, who would become his wife, and I am kind of obsessed with her, as was he, so I'm really excited about this. She was the daughter of a wealthy coal merchant. Their family was very progressive. They were abolitionists. He once referred to her as, "my faithful, judicious and painstaking editor." He was very, very much in love with her his whole life. Sarah and I found a bunch of letters between him and wife on, where you can go read and see all the sweet things they wrote to each other.

Sarah Dowdey: And they're very sweet.

Katie Lambert: He makes his first attempt at a novel in 1873, The Gilded Age, and Tom Sawyer came out in 1876, which has not ever gone out of print. It's an extremely popular book still today.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, and Clemens are actually so taken by the character Huck Finn in Tom Sawyer that he decided that Huck needed his own narrative and started to write Huck Finn's autobiography the same summer that Tom Sawyer was published and decided pretty quickly too that it needed to written in Huck's own dialect. He worked on Huck Finn, which I think most people would consider his masterpiece. He worked on it for years and years and would take on other projects. He didn't actually publish it until 1885.

Katie Lambert: And Ernest Hemingway said of Huck Finn, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn," and then goes on to say, "There was nothing before. There has been nothing good since," so those are pretty high accolades for a book.

Sarah Dowdey: And I also this man, Hal Holbrook, who starred in a one man stage show of Mark Twain, so he obviously had a pretty intimate understanding of Mark Twain playing him for years, wrote that, "He made American speech something to be admired."

Katie Lambert: And I think that's a really good point. If you haven't read Huck Finn, I would recommend that you do so, but of course, I'm an English major, so I would. But the dialect is really interesting to read, and it does something to the book that you couldn't have gotten otherwise.

Sarah Dowdey: It's not trying to be like anything else.

Katie Lambert: No, and it really did seem like the first thing that was so just truly through and through American.

Sarah Dowdey: Truly American.

Katie Lambert: So he moves to Europe for a while and publishes some more books, A Tramp Abroad and The Prince and the Pauper among them. And it also travels up the Mississippi and starts taking notes for Life on the Mississippi, talking about Mississippi.

Sarah Dowdey: Sure enough. But he also starts making pretty bad investments at this point.

Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Sarah Dowdey: Even more bad investments, especially his support for James Paige, who was working an automatic typesetting machine.

Katie Lambert: This was the worst thing ever.

Sarah Dowdey: Over the years, he committed $200,000.00 or so.

Katie Lambert: A fortune between 1880 and 1894 to this machine. There is actually is one in the Mark Twain House Museum, but they're afraid to ever take it apart because no one might be able to put it back together again because it was notoriously finicky.

Sarah Dowdey: And he was riding so high at this point. He has a successful biography of Ulysses Grant, and he writes A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He actually thinks that that's gonna be his "swan song" to literature because he thinks his investments are all about to really start bringing in the big money.

Katie Lambert: He thought this machine - he's quoted as saying he thought it would be bigger than the train, the telephone or the cotton gin, and it turned out that the linotype machine came out and made it immediately obsolete.

Sarah Dowdey: Obsolete, yeah. So Clemens goes into huge debt, manages to transfer the rights of his literature to his wife.

Katie Lambert: His copyrights to Livy, which is think he originally didn't want to do. He thought he would just sell those and get them out of debt, and she was the one who kept trying to convince him not to, saying that's what would save them.

Sarah Dowdey: That's their investment.

Katie Lambert: That was their investment, the copyrights. And of course, she was right, so he transferred his money to her and declared personal bankruptcy in 1894. He was really bad with money. He kept investing with all the wrong people and just spending it in ways that don't make sense from a business perspective.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Since he's forced to keep working, he starts to think more about his legacy and tries to cultivate a serious tone, but this by point, he can't get away from the Mark Twain humorist persona.

Katie Lambert: Right, that's what people wanted him to be when they saw him and when they read him. They wanted him to be funny.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, and a lot of tragedies start happening at this point in his life too. In 1895, his daughter Susie dies of spinal meningitis.

Katie Lambert: She was only 24, I think, and it was absolutely heartbreaking for both him and for Livy. They had said they'd never got over it.

Sarah Dowdey: They had three daughters and despite him being away traveling a lot, he was very attached to them.

Katie Lambert: Extremely attached to all the women in his life, actually. He had also - they'd had a young son named Langdon who died, I think when he was only 19 months old, of diphtheria. So this wasn't the first sad thing to happen to their family.

Sarah Dowdey: But soon after Susie died, another daughter, Jean, was diagnosed with epilepsy, and the family spent a lot of time and money traveling to different doctors looking for a cure for her.

Katie Lambert: Which they didn't find. But to offset some of the sad stuff, I found a list of books they had in their library that their family enjoyed reading, which made me happy. Through the Looking Glass, Uncle Remus, Robin Hood, Little Lord Fauntleroy, which Sarah said she didn't know was an actual book.

Sarah Dowdey: I just thought it was an outfit.

Katie Lambert: Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the whole family liked reading together Coleridge, Kipling, Shelly, Tennyson and Longfellow. Livy really liked Jane Austen, by Mark Twain was having none of it. He really didn't like her.

Sarah Dowdey: And he starts to sort of put his finances back in order at this point, mostly thanks to the help of Henry Huddleston Rogers, who was a Standard Oil man, who helped him invest and also start building up this reputation as a moral character that we associate with him now, somebody who you can go to for these quotes that might be a little colorful or funny, but they kind of take a real strict moral stand on something.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, a lot of them start to get very political after a certain point. He's really anti-imperialist, and I think he was vice president of the Anti-Imperialist Society for a long time. He was also against anti-Semitism and slavery and was very vocal.

Sarah Dowdey: He was extremely vocal about the Belgian rule in Congo, actually.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdey: He wrote an essay regarding King Leopold and Congo that was so intense that it wasn't published anywhere.

Katie Lambert: And he got in trouble for some of these stances. He gave a really, I guess, sarcastic introduction to Winston Churchill once, and people were scandalized.

Sarah Dowdey: Because a lot of these essays are so hard line moral, a lot of people called this period his bad mood period.

Katie Lambert: Which is a bit simplistic, I think.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: That's not really what he was going for.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, he was just trying to shake off a little of the lightness of some of his earlier work.

Katie Lambert: Right. And that world lecture tour made him rich again. It was grueling, but he did make quite a bit of money on it and actually, for some people, I think became more famous for his speaking than for his actual writing.

Sarah Dowdey: And he pockets a few honorary degrees along the way too from Oxford. That was his favorite one. He liked to wear the gown around, apparently.

Katie Lambert: He did. I think he wore one of them at his daughter's wedding, which -

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, that might signal a bad turn for him.

Katie Lambert: Don't wear your fancy ornamental gown when your daughter's in her wedding dress, I would say.

Sarah Dowdey: But in 1904, Livy dies in Italy. She's been sick for a long time. She was an invalid, and again, the love of his life, so this was huge for him. In his autobiography, he says, and I quote, "She was my life, and she gone. She was my riches, and I am a pauper." He was absolutely devastated when she died. They'd been staying in this villa that he hated, and he kept thinking if he got her somewhere else, found the perfect palazzo, that she would be okay. And he found it and went into her bedroom that night to tell her about it and remembers her smiling, and then she died the next morning.

Katie Lambert: He writes Eve's Diary for her, and he tended to write poems or pieces of literature for the women in his life as they started to die to memorialize them. And his daughter Jean died a few years after that in 1909, I think connected to her epilepsy.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, she had a heart attack during an epileptic seizure, and this sort of plunges him into his last despair. Most of his family is dead by this point. He has one surviving daughter.

Katie Lambert: But she's left.

Sarah Dowdey: She's left, married and moved to Europ e. So Clemens ends up going to Bermuda after Jean has been buried. He goes to Bermuda with his biographer. And his last writing was actually humorous, back to his old style kind of, called Etiquette for the Afterlife: Advice to Paine.

Katie Lambert: And one of the last things he wrote was, "Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose revenge are for all, the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved." And he writes in his autobiography of being at the funeral of Jean and knowing that he's going to die soon after that. He was pretty convinced that it wouldn't be long.

Sarah Dowdey: And he did. He died no more than four months afterwards.

Katie Lambert: I think my favorite quote about him is actually from Livy in one of her letters when she wrote, "Life is not so interesting when you're away."

Sarah Dowdey: Because from everything we've learned, it sounds like that's pretty spot on for Mark Twain.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. So if you'd like to learn more about Mark Twain and other literary greats, please check out our website and the Stuff You Missed in History blog at

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