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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 3)

Image courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum.
The Clemens Family on their Hartford home's porch (or "umbra") with cigar. Clemens invested in the machine because he had firsthand experience with the difficulty of having to set type manually. When he was 12 he had learned the craft as an apprentice at the Missouri Courier. Clemens thought James W. Paige's machine would revolutionize printing and make millions. "Very much the best investment I have ever made," Clemens once said, but at that time he had put up only $5,000. Among other minor investors Clemens attracted was Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.

In 1881, Clemens had also set up the Charles L. Webster Publishing Co. to publish his own works, as well as the books of other writers. By 1891, Clemens had invested so much of his money that the family could no longer afford to keep its house in Hartford, with its 19 rooms and many servants, operating. The Clemenses decided to move to Europe where they could live more frugally. After the Panic of 1893 in the United States and the national depression that followed, the publishing venture failed in April 1894, $200,000 in the red. The typesetting venture crashed in October of the same year.

The economic calamity led Clemens, in 1895, to set off on a worldwide lecture tour. He regained financial stability, and later acquired considerable wealth from his writings. He even registered the name Mark Twain as a trademark and endorsed numerous products, including cigars. (He also lent the Mark Twain name to flour, a typewriter, a fountain pen, bourbon and beer. Biographer Kaplan says this might have been done more for exposure than for money.)

In 1896, while Clemens was still on tour, his 24-year-old daughter Susy died of spinal meningitis during a visit to the family home in Hartford. Clemens showed his pain in a letter to his good friend and minister in Hartford, the Rev. Joseph Twichell, referring to the house in the past tense.

"Ah, well, Susy died at home. She had that privilege. Her dying eyes rested upon no thing that was strange to them, but only upon things which they had known and loved always and which had made her young years glad....If she had died in another house—well, I think I could not have borne that. To us our house was not unsentient matter—it was heart and soul and eyes to see us...and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence."

* * *

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.


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