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Samuel Clemens and His Cigars

Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, found his muse in great plumes of cigar smoke.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

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Born in 1835, Samuel Langhorne Clemens began his lifelong affair with the cigar at a young age in Hannibal, Missouri, his childhood home. "I began to smoke immoderately when I was eight years old," he wrote in an 1883 essay called "Smoking as Inspiration." "That is, I began with one hundred cigars a month, and by the time I was twenty I had increased my allowance to two hundred a month. Before I was thirty, I had increased it to three hundred a month."

Before taking up cigars, he had tried chewing tobacco at the age of seven and reacted badly. "Of course, in Tom Sawyer, the boys are over on the island and try to learn to smoke and get quite ill from their experience," says Henry Sweets, director of the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, where Clemens' boyhood house is preserved. "When he was living in Hannibal, cigar making was a profession here. He talks about finding some stubs on the sidewalk and trying one out."

Clemens describes this episode in his autobiography: "I had not smoked for three full months, and no words can adequately describe the smoke appetite that was consuming me. I had been a smoker from my ninth year—a private one during the first two years, but a public one after that—that is to say, after my father's death. I was smoking, and utterly happy....I do not know what the brand of the cigar was. It was probably not choice, or the previous smoker would not have thrown it away so soon. But I realized that it was the best cigar that was ever made. The previous smoker would have thought the same if he had been without a smoke for three months. I smoked that stub without shame, because now I am more refined than I was then. But I would smoke it, just the same. I know myself, and I know the human race, well enough to know that."

Tobacco was grown in Missouri in the 1840s, and that provided some clear advantages. "In those days the native cigar was so cheap that a person who could afford anything could afford cigars," Clemens recalled. "Mr. Garth [the father of a friend of the young Clemens] had a great tobacco factory, and he also had a small shop in the village for the retail sale of his products. He had one brand of cigars which even poverty itself was able to buy. He had had these in stock a good many years, and although they looked well enough on the outside, their insides had decayed to dust and would fly out like a puff of vapor when they were broken in two. This brand was very popular on account of its extreme cheapness. Mr. Garth had other brands which were cheap, and some that were bad, but the supremacy over them enjoyed by this brand was indicated by its name. It was called 'Garth's damnedest.' We used to trade old newspapers (exchanges) for that brand.

"There was another shop in the village where the conditions were friendly to penniless boys. It was kept by a lonely and melancholy little hunchback, and we could always get a supply of cigars by fetching a bucket of water for him from the village pump, whether he needed water or not. One day we found him asleep in his chair—a custom of his—and we waited patiently for him to wake up, which was a custom of ours. But he slept so long, this time, that at last our patience was exhausted and we tried to wake him—but he was dead."

Clemens took more than his appreciation of cigars and his pen name from his childhood and his days as a river pilot on the Mississippi. "The environment and society in which he grew up in Hannibal were pretty much ingrained in him," says Sweets, "and was pretty much the mental and moral baggage that he took with him the rest of his life." Sweets believes, and others who have studied Clemens' life agree, that some of the tragedies he experienced as a boy in Missouri stayed with him all his life.

On one occasion, young Sam and a friend had passed some matches to a vagrant who was locked up in the local jail. The vagrant apparently used the matches to set the jail on fire and died in the blaze. In 1858, when Clemens was working on the steamboat Pennsylvania, he got into a fight and was kicked off the boat in New Orleans. His younger brother Henry remained on board and died after an explosion on the Pennsylvania just south of Memphis. Sam had gotten Henry the job on the boat and forever felt responsible for Henry's death, even believing he had presaged it in a dream. He wrote in his autobiography:

"The coffins provided for the dead were of unpainted white pine, but in this instance some of the ladies of Memphis had made up a fund of sixty dollars and bought a metallic case, and when I came back and entered the deadroom, Henry lay in that open case, and he was dressed in a suit of my clothing. I recognized instantly that my dream of several weeks before was here exactly reproduced, so far as these details went—and I think I missed one detail, but that one was immediately supplied, for just then an elderly lady entered the place with a large bouquet consisting mainly of white roses, and in the center of it was a red rose, and she laid it on his breast." Henry's death weighed so heavily on Sam that once he even tried to reach his brother through a seance. "In his age as well as his youth, these recollections filled his nights with remorse," writes Kaplan.

Early in adult life, the literary Mark Twain differed significantly from Samuel Clemens. What is widely known about the writer has made him an American icon and among the nation's most popular exports. The torments of the private Samuel Clemens, which affected the tone of his alter ego's later stories, are not as well known.

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