Girl Meets Mark Twain
Mark Twain died today. Right on page 654, third paragraph down, three paragraphs from The End. For she who had blazed through whole decades in the summer sunshine, enjoying his singular company, smirking at the audacity on the morning commute and haunted by the acted-on restlessness through the hushed hallways of her office . . . the last pages felt like sitting at a dying loved one’s hospital bed and knowing the inevitable conclusion, but willing the breaths to still come. The turning of the pages slowed to the delicate, reluctant handling reserved for Bible paper.
He died at age seventy-four—quite lucky to have lived so long given his maniacal smoking habit, amongst other threats—as the sun set on April 21, 1910, and perhaps only hours after learning he would have a grandchild. The last, terse paragraph on page 655 ties up the sad fate of the Clemens clan: Twain’s one surviving daughter dies poor and married to a compulsive gambler, having to sell mementos from her famous father’s life to pay expenses. And that grandbaby present in utero at his death commits suicide just fifty-four years later, in 1964.
There are no heirs. There has been no one like him since. (SMT, 655)
And one sighs the Sigh of the Last Page of a Long, Illuminating Book Enjoyed. There’s that moment of denial, or proud accomplishment, when you might grasp a chunk of pages between thumb and forefinger and riffle them, their breath cool and reassuring, your eyes peeking in at the words flashing by before saying goodbye.
But what do we care about Mark Twain? Well.
Now, I know that Josh Ritter’s album The Animal Years is a work of art that stands completely on its own: it’s a mash-up, a labyrinth, a desert oasis, a Mad Lib manifesto (you fill in the blanks) of confusion and limit-pushing exploration. There’s no way to know where he and it and Mark Twain and Voltaire and frivolity and solemnity and whatever else begin or end. But I think Josh found a kindred spirit in Twain. And if you’ve read any of this blog you know that’s recommendation enough for me. So I’ve been reading, slightly bewildered that I consider literature a chief pastime and yet haven’t revisited Twain since college, when I confess Huck Finn didn’t make a deep impression. But no conclusions can be drawn from what I’m about to do. Lawyers might call it leading the witness. I call it personal vindication, for even back when I was singing without knowing the words, I knew this album would send me wondrous places. And I’d go—happily—even if I had no way of knowing I ever got anywhere.
Samuel Clemens was born to a modest family in Florida, Missouri in 1835. He did most his growing up in the port city of Hannibal and lit out without warning to New York City when he was just seventeen, sending word of his whereabouts to his mother in a letter. He drifted about Philadelphia, Washington DC, and New York working in the printing trade, then landed in Keokuk, Iowa to work as a compositor for a bit before falling restless again. Having heard about cocoa farming in South America, he got it in his head to go, but found himself without any means.
He thought about indulging his childhood wish to become a Mississippi riverboat pilot, and visited some relatives in hope of sponsorship in the purchase of an apprenticeship, but no one volunteered. Then one windy day while out walking a $50 bill blew smack into the wall of a house in front of him, but instead of disappearing off to one of those far-flung places or occupations he’d been thinking about, he went to—wait for it—Cincinnati for five months. No one is sure why, but his life is riddled with such curious actions, and to confuse or delight matters even more (depending on your perspective), he was notoriously fast and loose with the truth.
He did finally part with some of the found money (or cobbled together some borrowed or made money, for the $50 windfall may have been invented or embellished, no one knows) and bought a ticket to New Orleans, expecting to go on to the Amazon and great fortune from there. On the way down he talked his way into the pilot house of the steamboat and was offered the wheel for a gentle stretch. When he got to New Orleans he found that no ship was going to the Amazon for a very long time, so he hightailed it back through town and cornered the pilot he’d met on the southbound journey.
He persuaded one reluctant Horace Bixby to train him to be a pilot for a handsome fee of $500. The seasoned boatsman believed the only way to learn was to “get this entire river by heart.” Admittedly not a details man (otherwise he might have checked the Amazon departures schedule and never ended up in New Orleans at all), Clemens readily agreed, his romantic view of river life looming large. In Life on the Mississippi—which Josh Ritter has said greatly influenced the album The Animal Years—you can read how he was hilariously disabused of his presumptions about the easy, glamorous life of the pilot. And yet despite all the appalled raging and railing—by the demanding Bixby and the demoralized Twain—you do sense that he indeed got the river by heart, because even when disguised, that book (as far as I’ve read) is a love letter of sorts. If roles were reversed and Twain was musician, one likes to think of him penning a sweet, if ironic, tune for his muse the mighty Mississippi.
Once graduated from cub pilot status he barely got to enjoy his generous wage because the Civil War broke out and rather than choose sides he did something he often did—fled. Orion, his extraordinarily feckless but coolly-named brother, had been appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory (also known as Washoe) and Clemens decided to accompany him on the journey there. Years later he wrote the book Roughing It to capture the experience. He got bored working for Orion in Carson City pretty quick and, forever preoccupied with getting rich, turned to the surrounding mining towns fueling men’s fantasies:
I confess, without shame, that I expected to find masses of silver lying all about the ground. I expected to see it glittering in the sun on the mountain summits . . . I crawled about on the ground, seizing and examining bits of stone.
from Roughing It by Mark Twain
It’s his time on the river, bouncing west by stagecoach, walking the miles and miles of desert between mining towns, and scratching for silver that evokes The Animals Years for me. Why? Because it leads up to his transformation from Sam Clemens to Mark Twain, to his seemingly incidental discovery of his calling as writer. Because of the sense of search, journey, solitude, and self-reliance. Because of the myriad contradictions he inhabited, and the mystery of how he coped with it all in his own head. Because of the wild forms that chance took in his rich life, because of the luck and levity and ballsy insouciance.
But mining all those pages produces some more overt and rather fun clues . . .
Think of Evelyn from Here at the Right Time in light of the fact that Twain married Olivia Lewis Langdon, known as Livy, that his train was horribly late and he horribly disheveled the first time he traveled to visit her family, that at age sixteen Livy had suffered an unexplained ailment—perhaps Pott’s disease or the Victorian invention neurasthenia—that kept her virtually bedridden for at least three years and, though she recovered, was “never again to be without an aura of fragility.” (SMT, 233)
To Twain’s fervent proposal during his first visit she gave an “unequivocal no” (SMT, 233). Consider the humbly beseeching speaker in Here at the Right Time, the broken bucket, the cascading water:
“I am desperately in love with the most beautiful girl. So beautiful. Unfortunately very rich. She is quite an invalid. I have proposed & been refused a dozen times. . . . I know I’m too rough—knocking around the world. . . . I never had wish or time to bother with women, & I can give that girl the purest, best love any man can ever give her. I can make her well and happy.” (MTBus, 101-2)
She urged him, in a customary date-deflection tactic of the day, to think of her as a sister, and he soon addressed a letter to her as such, and began to win her over in carefully wrought correspondence in which they both planted secret signs, I think: He sent sweet, covert messages hinting his true feelings, testing the waters, and after refusing the marriage proposal, she sent a photograph, which seems the nineteenth century equivalent of . . . what do we have left? Anyway, it was significant: it meant Keep writing.
The best part of their love story, to my mind, is that Twain, whose charm and wit gave him prodigious powers of persuasion, had to tame and tweak his great talent in courting the very proper and devout heiress. He couldn’t have found a more ironic match to pursue. Kaplan tells us repeatedly that Livy lacked a sense of humor; she didn’t even get most his jokes. (!) So Twain was very careful, very thoughtful (and tortured) about what to say. Also, there was concern over his hard-living years in the west, his bad habits, and while, to their credit, her very wealthy parents didn’t seem to mind the stark class difference, it was obvious to all, perhaps most of all him. I think of
I’ll try my best to make a go
But I’m not sure what I don’t know
In writing to her, in having to negotiate all those obstacles while desperately, entreatingly making what seems like the case of his life, I wonder if his pen relished the challenge. This rather slays me, and sounds faintly familiar:
[Twain’s] own courtship letters were brilliant performances, encompassing a full range of tones and tactics, from passionate joy to humble supplication, from self-deprecation to overwrought praise, from heartfelt moral and religious seriousness to chatty information and occasional jokes. Hers, to his initial surprise and then total acceptance were boringly serious mini-sermons without the semblance of a joke or a touch of literary talent.” (SMT, 242)
And we’re a little off topic here, but I can’t resist this:
She thinks about me all the time, & informs me of it with Miltonic ponderosity. . . . Ours is a funny correspondence. . . . My letters are an ocean of love in a storm—hers an ocean of love in a majestic repose of great calm. (L1, 1)
Ok—and remember this
Oh chariots, if you’re out there, please swing low
Twain, turns out, sang that a lot:
From childhood on he had adored the simple songs of his midwestern world, the music of religious community, especially its hymns, and would play on the piano and sing repeatedly such songs as ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’ (SMT, 322-323)
Once Livy accepted his proposal, her father sought character references. Twain scrambled to provide some from his raucous days out west, and the results were mixed. “I would rather bury a daughter of mine than have her marry such a fellow,” wrote one well-wisher. (L3, 57) Twain took a preemptive approach, owning up to his dissipations while emphasizing his best quality: “They all like me, & they can’t help it.” (L2, 295)
I’m a good man for ya
I’m a good man
He managed—as ever—to squeak through the matrimonial sweepstakes, and they were married in 1870 and happily so for thirty-four years until Livy’s death left him despondent in 1904. They were ardent newlyweds and then steadfast and affectionate companions. They endured the death of two children. They traveled the world, lived many years abroad, and fought back from near bankruptcy brought on by Twain’s legendarily poor and overzealous investments. And all the while she read practically every word he wrote for publication as the pages piled up, her “respect and approval” being more important, Twain said, than that of the rest of the human race. (PA, 102-105)
.Twain wrote this in an unpublished notebook late in his life:
Waking, I move slowly; but in my dreams my unhampered spiritualized body flies to the ends of the earth in a millionth of a second. Seems to—& I believe, does. (NBK, 40)
I think of
And over hills and fields I flew
Wrapped up in a royal blue
Dreams and their nature preoccupied [Twain], dreams as prophecy, warning, and self-revelation, the nature of dream time and the relationship between sleep and consciousness. (SMT, 540)
And I hear
I became a thin blue stream
The smoke between asleep and dreams
And perhaps my favorite new thought regarding Thin Blue Flame: an alternative take on that elixir of life and élan vital, and surely inspiration for a future post—the full house. As you may know, Twain occasionally (and usually reluctantly) drummed up needed income by touring on the lecture circuit. When he began, as he ironed out his act and got used to the stage, the prospect of unsold seats panicked him. The phrase “full house” would have been immediately recognizable to him as a very good thing:
About a performance years later in Portland Twain reported “splendid house, full to the roof” in his notebook. (NBK, 35)
Before he took Mark Twain as a pen name, before he’d hardly published anything using his given one, Clemens submitted some letters under a curious pseudonym to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in April 1862. Unfailingly optimistic about his prospects, he’d been working full time for eight grueling months as a miner in Aurora:
Working in snow, mud, and sweltering heat, often in the same day, he dynamited, picked, shoveled, and cursed. (SMT, 98)
His money was dwindling, his promise to his family and himself to bring home a fortune nagged, his resolve to “never be [a slave] again” to work or location strong, his body aching from the physical labor. (L1, 132) Something had to give. Somehow he found time to send some writing to the newspaper in nearby Virginia City.
So how’d he sign those letters sent in from out on the desert?
They’re lost now, the letters, never to be read in this world again. But they earned Clemens the offer of a position as full-time local reporter. He began work in September in a workplace where “his temperament and ambition found a nurturing home,” the editorial leadership gave him space to find his voice, and he had instant friends in his like-minded colleagues. (SMT, 104). It’d be years before he carved out the place all his own, but by early 1863 he was Mark Twain. He was on the path—and the rest, as they say, is history.
I recently read a wonderful travelogue called “The Mark Twain Trail” by Michael Lewis. Having traveled from Carson City—in Twain’s footsteps—to Bodie, California in 2003, he finds the once-booming mining town reduced to a desolate collection of old mineshafts, dirt piles, and heaps and heaps of trash. He begins to feel wistful, and writes:
Still, we have learned something from Twain—though it is unclear if Twain ever learned it himself: The gold isn’t the thing. The thing is the search for the gold. The search leads to adventure, and adventure leads to anecdotes, and anecdotes lead to stories. The pursuit of fortune is, like the pursuit of Twain, just an excuse to get around. And that excuse leads us smack into an impossibly lucky find a mile down the highway . . . (MTT, Entry 4)
Anecdotes lead to stories, and stories to songs, though given the time and length constraints sometimes it’s left to the listener to fill in or ferret out the narrative, and wisely, too, for in interpreting and embroidering we invest ourselves.
You know who’s good for songs that do that? I’ll leave you in suspense.
I like what Michael Lewis says about being satiated by journey, about the excuse to get around. We’ll be borrowing it to lead us smack into that cozy thicket of words and sound curiously absent from this post . . . Start your stagecoach, cue the music.
Next stop: Monster Ballads.