I’ve now been on the archival prowl for mentions of Mark Twain’s time in Washington for a matter of weeks. Here and there I’ve been fortunate enough to stumble upon some great material such as this 1889 New York Herald article of Twain looking back on his time in Washington.
An interview with the Famous Humorist.
HE CHATS OF PAST AND PRESENT.
His Life as a Reporter – Some Interesting Reminiscences of the Senate Press Gallery in the Old Days – How He Wrote His First Book – Doubles Who Have Got Him Into Trouble.
I met Mark Twain the other day wandering around Washington and looking at pictures fifty years old as if they were new and inspecting with the interest of a rustic stranger the vivid bronze doors whose Columbian glories had bleared his eyeballs more than two decades ago. He strayed into the press gallery, threw back his gray overcoat, adjusted his gold spectacles on his nose and looked around.
“A good deal changed,” he said, glancing at the life size photographs of Whitelaw Reid and younger editors which now decorate the walls, “and it seems a hundred years ago.”
I asked when he was there.
“I had a seat in the press gallery,” he mediated, “let’s see – in 1867 – and now I suppose all the veterans are gone – and the newspaper fellows who were here when I was – Reid and Horace White and Ramsdell and Adams and Townsend.”
“The ones you name happen all to be gone,” I admitted, “some to the control of newspapers and some to the places where Dr. Potter says there are no newspapers, but some of the real veterans are still here. On those pegs in the corner some of the ancients hang up their coats.”
THE OLD DAYS
“Yes; some of these men I never knew in Washington; a few of them were here before my time. In fact, I was rather new and shy, and I did not mingle in the festivities of Newspaper Row. Probably most of the men you mentioned were perfectly unconscious of my existence. The Morning Call, and Virginia City Enterprise did not make much of a commotion in the United States.
“I roomed in a house which also sheltered George Alfred Townsend, Ramsdell, George Adams, and Riley, of the San Francisco Alta. I represented the Virginia City (Nevada) Enterprise. Also, I was private secretary to Senator Stewart, but a capabler man did the work. A little later that winter William Swinton and I housed together. Swinton invented the idea – at least it was new to me – of manifolding correspondence, I mean of sending duplicates of a letter to various widely separated newspapers. We projected an extensive business; but for some reason or other we took it out in dreaming – never really tried it.”
Here Mark walked into the gallery and looked down on the vacant Senatorial seats.
“I was here last,” he went on, “in 1868. I had been on that lark to the Mediterranean and had written a few letters to the San Francisco Alta that had been copied past all calculation and to my utter astonishment, and a publisher wanted a book. I came back here to write it.
“Why, I was offered an office in that ancient time by the California Senator – Minister to China. Think of that! It wasn’t a time when they hunted around for competent people. No, only one qualification was required – you must please Andy Johnson and the Senate. Nearly anybody could please one of them, but t0 please both – well, it took an angel to do that. However, I declined to try for the prize. I hadn’t anything against the Chinese, and, besides, we couldn’t spare any angels then.”
WRITING UNDER DIFFICULTIES
“A pretty good place to write,” I remarked, as we took seats.
“Some things,” he said, “but an awfully bad place for a newspaper man to write a book, or at any rate for such a newspaper man as I was to write such a book as the publisher demanded. I tried it hard, but my chum was a story teller and both he and the stove smoked incessantly. And as we were located handy for the boys to run in, the room was always full of the boys, who leaned back in my chair, put their feet complacently on my manuscript and smoked till I could not breathe.”
“Is that the way you wrote ‘Innocents Abroad?'” I asked.
“No; that is the way I didn’t write it. My publisher prodded me for copy which I couldn’t produce, till at last I rose and kicked Washington behind me and ran off to San Francisco. There I got elbow room and quiet.”
“It was apparently a wise move,” I concurred, “but you could write here now, and this is exactly the place for man like you. More intellectual society is attainable here than in any other city of the world. The only big mistake of your successful life, Clemens – for only his intimate friends address him as ‘Mark’ – is not coming to Washington to live. Why, all over the United States people of leisure and culture are -”
“Yes, I know, I know,” broke in Clemens, “but don’t tantalize me. Do you take a fiendish enjoyment in making me suffer? I know perfectly well what I am about, and I appreciate what I am losing. Washington is no doubt the boss town in the country for a man to live who wants to get all the pleasure he can in a given number of months. But I wasn’t built that way. All of us are always losing some pleasure that we might have if we could be everywhere at once.”
“I lose Washington, for instance, for the privilege of saving my life. My doctor told me that if I wanted my three score and ten, I must go to bed early, keep out of social excitements, and behave myself. You can’t do that in Washington. Nobody does. Look at John Hay. Just fading away, I have no doubt; amid these scenes of mad revelry. My wife, you know, is practically an invalid too, so that neither of us could keep up with the procession. No, the best place for us is quiet and beautiful Hartford, though there is a good deal of society of Washington that I should delight in.”
PIRATES AND IMPOSTORS
“I suppose you have been pirated a good deal,” I said to Mr. Clemens. “I do not mean by illegal publication of your works, but by private individuals claiming to write your writings?”
“Oh yes, he said, “considerably – some scores of cases, I suppose. One ambitious individual in the West still claims to have written the ‘Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and another is sure that he produced that classic work known as ‘Jim Wolfe and the Cats.’ I suppose either would face me down with it; and their conduct has led me to conjecture that man may possibly claim a piece of property so long and persistently that he at last comes honestly to believe it is his own. You know that poor fellow n New Jersey, so weak minded as to declare that he wrote “Beautiful Snow,’ and going down to the grave with tearful protests? And you know about Colonel Joyce and Ella Wheeler and ‘laugh and the world laughs with you?’
“But I haven’t been been bothered that way so much as I have by personators. In a good many places men have appeared represent that they were Mar Twain and have corroborated the claim by borrowing money and immediately disappearing. Such personators do not always borrow money. Sometimes they seem to be actuated by a sort of idiotic vanity.
“Why, a fellow stopped at a hotel in an English city, registered as Mark Twain, struck up an acquaintance with the landlord and guests, recited for them and was about to accept a public dinner of welcome to the city, when some mere accident exposed him. Yet I myself had stopped for weeks at the same inn and was well known to the landlord and citizens. His effrontery was amazing.”
“Did he resemble you?”
“I do not know. I hope and believe that he did not. Parties whom I have since been inclined to regard as my enemies had the indecency to say that he did.
“TRADING ON CREDULITY”
“The same thing happened in Boston and several other cities. It was not pleasant to have bills coming in for money lent to me in Albany, Charleston, Mexico, Honolulu, and other places, and my calm explanation that I was not there bringing sarcastic letters in reply with, “Oh, of course not! I didn’t see you with my own eyes, did I? &c., and I resolved that I would follow up the next swindler I heard of. I had not long to wait. A despatch came from Des Moines, Iowa: –
“‘Is Mark Twain at home?’
“‘Yes, I am here and have not been away.’ I answered.
“‘Man personated you – got $250 from audience – shall I catch him?’ came back, bearing the signature of a lawyer.
“‘Yes.’ I telegraphed in reply; ‘have sent you a check for expenses.’
“He was a good while catching him – some weeks, perhaps months – and then he made me an elaborate report, giving the route of the labyrinthine and serpentine chase of the swindler, the money he had expended, and the formation that he did not entirely and completely catch him, though he ‘got near him several times.’ I was out some hundreds of dollars.
“I was disgusted; and when I got another despatch – from New Orleans, I think it was –
”’Man swindled audiences with pretended lectures here last night, claiming to be you. What shall we do? I telegraphed back unanimously ‘Let him go! Let him go!’
“I’d give $100, though, to see one of these doppelgangers who personate me before me an audience, just to see what they look like.”
Mark Twain goes down every winter to work for the passage of an international copyright law in conjunction with Edward Eggleston, Gilder, and other authors. Senator Reagan, of Texas, a friend of Mark’s but an opponent of his pet measure, greeted him cordially last winter with “How are you, Mark?” How are you? Right glad to see you! Glad to see you! Hope to see you every session as long as you live!”
One of Mark Twain’s favorite amusements they say, is turning himself into an amateur guide and explaining to his friends that various objects of interest in the Capitol. He is particularly facetious over the pictures in the rotunda and the stone people in “Statuary” Hall. Arriving opposite on the marble statue of Fulton, seated and intently examining the model of a steamboat in his hands, he indulges in a wide sweeping gesture and exclaims: – ‘This ladies and gentlemen, is Pennsylvania’s favorite son, Robert Fulton. Observe his easy and unconventional attitude. Notice his serene and contented expression caught by the artist at the moment when he made up his mind to steal John Fitch’s steamboat.”
The humorist dresses a good deal more carefully than formerly. This is made necessary by his increasing amplitude, his vast shock of gray hair, by his boisterous and ungovernable mustache and by his turbulent eyebrows that cover his gray eyes like a dissolute thatch. And when he talks he talks slowly and extracts each of his vowels with a corkscrew twist that would make even the announcement of a funeral sound like a joke.
* This article is reprinted in Louis J. Budd’s Critical Essays on Mark Twain, 1867 – 1910, p. 83 – 86. (G. K. Hall & Co.: Boston, MA. 1982)