Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mark Twain: After a Century, even more Cantankerous and Bawdy

During this centenary year of his death, Mark Twain is everywhere!

While we were researching the 4th of July post, we also found a small note about Mark Twain in 1876.

Though we don't know the earliest appearance of Twain in Salem news, we do know at least he was on the radar back then. He had already published a few books, but not yet the ones for which he was most famous, so it's likely he had a minor reputation as a humorist about the wild west.

Here's a note buried in the Patriotic Newsbits in the Statesman of July 4th, 1876. It mentioned a new book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Apparently it wasn't sold in the US until December that year. Securing a British copyright by publishing first there was not unusual; but a six-month gap was.

At this time, Twain had published The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867), The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), and The Gilded Age (1873).

It's hard to know how significant Twain was out here in 1876. Probably not very. It's risky drawing inferences from ink, but we'll do it anyway: Twain got the same amount of ink as Sam Adolph's beer, a little less than Catholic Temperance, and much less than a statue of Alexander von Humboldt. Salem wasn't very cosmopolitan.

Moreover, in 1876 we were still suffering from the depression that followed the Panic of 1873. If a mortgage bubble caused the panic of 2008 and our "great recession," a railroad bubble caused the panic of 1873 and the "long depression."

Just a year before, about the wild west Twain had written in Roughing It (1872):
for a time, the lawyer, the editor, the banker, the chief desperado, the chief gambler, and the saloon-keeper, occupied the same level in society, and it was the highest. The cheapest and easiest way to become an influential man and be looked up to by the community at large, was to stand behind a bar, wear a cluster-diamond pin, and sell whisky. I am not sure but that the saloon-keeper held a shade higher rank than any other member of society. His opinion had weight. It was his privilege to say how the elections should go.
Ashael Bush was banker and editor, and clearly the big cheese here. Because Salem was also a state capital, the gambler, desperado, and saloon-keeper were of less importance. And yet, Salem was a little bit of a frontier town.

We know that there wasn't really big money in Salem during the 1870s because the Bush House is as fancy as it got. And by gilded age standards, the Bush House wasn't grand. For Salem, yes, but by national standards it was small potatoes. Tiny fingerling potatoes. For Salem was a minor provincial capital.

34 years later, on April 21st, 1910, Twain died. He stipulated that his autobiography could not be published in full for 100 years - and guess what? A century has passed!

But even by the time Twain died in 1910 his reputation was much enlarged. It's interesting the ways that view was correct in the big picture, but still wrong on the details.

The Capital Journal calls him "America's Greatest Humorist" and both the Journal and the Statesman are clear that Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer would be the works for which his name would be known, though it notes Innocents Abroad is his best known book. The Statesman noted that his books had sold more than 500,000 copies and had been translated into six languages.

Longer obituaries noted his role in publishing Ulysses S. Grant's Memoirs, and his support for women's suffrage.

The day after Twain's obituaries appeared, the Statesman ran a little piece about Theodore Roosevelt's reaction.
It is with sincere grief that I learned of the death of this great American author. His position, like that of Joel Chandler Harris, was unique, not only in American letters, but in the literature of the world.
Roosevelt mentioned Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer at two favorites, important enough to take to the jungle. Harris we barely remember as the author behind Br'er Rabbit and the Uncle Remus tales. Today, their reputations are far from equal.

Since Twain's is secure, now we get the dirt.

Back in May, we first heard about the unexpurgated autobiography also from a British source. The news is now hitting American papers. It's the Tom Sawyer syndrome! What's up with the Brits scooping Americans?

The expanded autobiography looks plenty juicy. Apparently it's got vintage sex toys, name-calling, and other naughtiness!
One thing's for sure: by delaying publication, the author, who was fond of his celebrity status, has ensured that he'll be gossiped about during the 21st century. A section of the memoir will detail his little-known but scandalous relationship with Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, who became his secretary after the death of his wife Olivia in 1904. Twain was so close to Lyon that she once bought him an electric vibrating sex toy. But she was abruptly sacked in 1909, after the author claimed she had "hypnotised" him into giving her power of attorney over his estate....

"Most people think Mark Twain was a sort of genteel Victorian. Well, in this document he calls her a slut and says she tried to seduce him. It's completely at odds with the impression most people have of him," says the historian Laura Trombley, who this year published a book about Lyon called Mark Twain's Other Woman.
This is great! We are all for Sam Clemens to raise a little ruckus from the great beyond.


  1. I would argue that Bush House was not "as fancy as it got." Many of the homes in the Piety Hill neighborhood, which was demolished to make room for the current Capitol Mall, were much more grand than Bush House.

    Breyman Home:

    Murphy House:

    Patton House:

  2. Ha! You're right. The Cooke-Patton House appears to be a significant counter-example.

    According to the photo collection captions (which, alas, are far from 100% accurate), the Breyman house was built in 1887, Murphy house in the early 1880s, and the Cooke-Patton house between 1868-70.

    Our point was that there wasn't much fancy residential construction in 1870s Salem, especially during the depression that followed the panic of 1873. By the 1880s, the economy had recovered some, so it's not surprising the Breyman & Murphy houses are fancier.


    We had errantly assumed the Cooke-Patton house was another of the 1880s manses on Piety Hill. So yeah, if the dating is correct, you are right, this does qualify our claim that the Bush house was as fancy as it got in the 1870s - although it would have been built before the Panic of 1873. Thank you for the correction!

    Do you know of other fancy homes built before the Bush House? We found a newspaper article from 1890 that talks about Piety Hill, but it's a report about a barn burning. It also mentions that three other barns had burned down in the area. The district looks very much in transition - pretty rural still. So rightly or wrongly, we think of the residential development of Piety Hill as more late 19th century - not shortly after the Civil War.

  3. In the NY Times Garrison Keillor totally pans the autobiography!

    "The book turns out to be a wonderful fraud on the order of the Duke and the Dauphin in their Shakespearean romp, and bravo to Samuel Clemens, still able to catch the public’s attention a century after he expired....

    there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation....

    [it] only reminds the reader that the general [US Grant] wrote a classic autobiography, and you tried to and could not."