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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

(continued from page 1)

* * *

Upon returning to the United States at the turn of the century, Mark Twain had certainly become more worldly, more famous and more cynical. The difference between the private Clemens and the public Twain became less clear. Boyer calls Twain the first "true celebrity in the modern sense. He was a person whose opinion was sought every day on every subject. He was now recognized across America as a legitimately powerful public citizen."

Because of his fame, he no longer needed to hide, nor could he hide, behind a pseudonym. He no longer felt required to cloak his essays in humor. "His social criticism went largely unnoticed beforehand, but now he felt much more free to write pieces that were direct social criticism," Boyer says.

Perhaps the most critical issue to Clemens was race. In his 1876 classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Clemens deals with racial issues through a veneer of humor and satire. The book is still in the news today because it contains the word "nigger." Some argue that the book should not be taught in public schools because of that word, but Boyer, whose group held a forum for educators on how to teach Huckleberry Finn, believes it is relevant and valuable, especially to young people, if it is taught the right way.

"The teacher must provide the historical context of what was going on in the 1870s and 1880s, and make sure to be attuned to the realities of the 1990s," Boyer says. "The book provides very clearly a series of moral decisions made by a young boy who discovers that it's more important to learn from his own experience than from what people tell him. You make your own decision in the end." The point is that Huck learns on his own that Jim is an individual and not a stereotype.

The reason Clemens was sensitive to racial issues has to do with the times in which he lived. "He was of that generation," Boyer says, "that was frank about their Southern, white guilt." Clemens was disappointed about the failure of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War. He believed that the rebuilding effort was providing a remedy to past inequality only to see it "snuffed out" by politics.

In the intensely controversial presidential election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes became the 19th president of the United States. Hayes, a hero of the Union Army, had lost the popular vote, and the outcome was challenged by both parties in four states. Only after long and acrimonious negotiation that came to be known as the Compromise of 1877—or in some quarters as "the betrayal of the Negro" (Hayes was on record as favoring the withdrawal of remaining federal troops from the Reconstructed South)—did a special committee appointed by Congress award Hayes a hotly disputed, one-vote electoral college victory over Samuel Tilden. "[Clemens] was very angry," Boyer says. "America truly served for Twain what was most resilient, noble and renewing, but also venal, corrupt and tragic."

Tragedy followed Clemens as well. Of his four children, he was survived only by his middle daughter Clara. His 19-month-old son, Langdon, born prematurely and sickly all his brief life, died of diphtheria in 1872. Langdon had taken ill shortly after catching a chill during a carriage ride with his father; Clemens blamed himself.

His wife, Olivia, died in Florence, Italy, in 1904. The family had sold the Hartford home (at a huge loss for $27,500) and moved to Italy a year earlier, seeking a more temperate climate for Olivia on the advice of her doctors. But there was little comfort for Olivia, who had lived a life beset by frequent illness. Toward the end, Clemens was not allowed into her room during much of the day because she was too weak and needed rest. This was torture for him, but it was not the last he would suffer.

On Christmas Eve in 1909, his youngest daughter, Jean, died at 29 in Clemens' new home in Redding, Connecticut. She had had an epileptic seizure while taking a bath and died of heart failure. "I lost Susy thirteen years ago," wrote Clemens the day of Jean's death. "I lost her mother—her incomparable mother!—five and a half years ago; Clara has gone away to live in Europe; and now I have lost Jean. How poor I am, who was once so rich!"

* * *

But Clemens would not allow himself to turn completely to melancholy. In his later years, he abandoned the black suits that were then the fashion, deeming them too depressing. He began wearing the white serge suits that would become his trademark. His passion for his other trademark, cigars, continued unabated.

Clemens would often smoke while visiting with other notables of his day, such as Ulysses S. Grant (whose memoirs Clemens published). Clemens had visited Grant in 1885 after reports that the former president and Civil War general had taken ill. "The last time I had been at his house he told me that he had stopped smoking because of the trouble with his throat, which the physicians had said would be quickest cured in that way," Clemens recounted in his autobiography. Grant told Clemens that he no doubt had cancer and Clemens was "both surprised and discomfited. I am an excessive smoker, and I said to the general that some of the rest of us must take warning by his case."

Image courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum. Samuel Clemens on the porch of Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York. Clemens was not just an "excessive smoker;" his cigar habit shocked most who came in contact with him. His taste in cigars was, well, odd. Some reports said that he would buy Havanas when he could afford them, even though he once wrote, "Nearly any cigar will do me, except a Havana." He sampled the better cigars available in those days, but seemed unsatisfied. So, the story goes, he found a New York tobacconist, whom he insisted provide him with his worst cigar. He was delighted.

"No one can tell me what is a good cigar—for me," Twain wrote in "Concerning Tobacco," an essay published in the early 1890s. "I am the only judge. People who claim to know say that I smoke the worst cigars in the world. They bring their own cigars when they come to my house. They betray an unmanly terror when I offer them a cigar; they tell lies and hurry away to meet engagements which they have not made when they are threatened with the hospitalities of my box. Now then, observe what superstition, assisted by a man's reputation, can do. I was to have twelve personal friends to supper one night. One of them was as notorious for costly and elegant cigars as I was for cheap and devilish ones. I called at his house and when no one was looking borrowed a double handful of his very choicest; cigars which cost him forty cents apiece and bore red-and-gold labels in sign of their nobility. I removed the labels and put the cigars into a box with my favorite brand on it—a brand which those people all knew, and which cowed them as men are cowed by an epidemic. They took these cigars when offered at the end of the supper, and lit them and sternly struggled with them—in dreary silence, for hilarity died when the fell brand came into view and started around—but their fortitude held for a short time only; then they made excuses and filed out, treading on one another's heels with indecent eagerness; and in the morning when I went out to observe results the cigars lay all between the front door and the gate. All except one—that one lay in the plate of the man from whom I had cabbaged the lot. One or two whiffs was all he could stand. He told me afterward that some day I would get shot for giving people that kind of cigars to smoke."

Clemens' cigars so offended others that a reporter for the New York World was mystified by the "long, black, deadly-looking cigars" that Clemens smoked during an interview in 1902. "Their mere appearance compels comment," the reporter wrote. "You express surprise that the first one was not guilty of murder."

Two years before his death in 1910, Clemens "had an undisguised attack of angina pectoris," writes biographer Kaplan. "He said it was 'tobacco heart' and he tried to cut down his cigars from forty to four a day."

Yet Samuel Langhorne Clemens—Mark Twain—lived to 74, and was, by his own report, always in excellent health. Through-out his life, cigars were his muse, his comfort and his constant companion. It was in smoking a cigar that he found "the best of all inspirations."


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