Although short-lived, Mark Twain’s time in Washington City in the winter of 1867-1868 put him in the rarefied air and exclusive fraternity of American journalists known as “Row Boys.” (There were women journalists in Washington at this time but I’ve yet to come across a reference to “Row Girls” or “Row Ladies.”)
The scribes who haunted the galleries and halls of Congress and the “Row” included the ostentatious George Alfred Townsend, Henry V. Boynton, John Henry Riley, Hiram J. Ramsdell, William Swinton, Horace White and many others whom history has largely forgotten.
Twain scholars from Paine to Justin Kaplan have alluded to Twain’s time in Washington while other works such as Donald Ritchie’s award-winning Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents and Mark Wahlgren Summer’s The Press Gang: Newspapers and Politics, 1865-1878, have diagnosed and analyzed the culture and community of journalists in Washington City following the Civil War. The recent work by Donald Tiffany Bliss, Mark Twain’s Tale of Today: Halley’s Comet Returns–The Celebrated Author Critiques American Politics, is the most thorough accounting of Twain’s more than half-century relationship with Washington, D.C. in the context of juxtaposing Twain’s critiques of Congress and the United States government to the political gridlock, pronounced partisanship and scandals of today.
When Twain was in Washington City as a Capital Correspondent his name rang bells as a journalist, not as an author. He hit the jug, he roamed the city, he attended lavish parties, he toasted and was toasted. He began work on his first book.
In early 1883, Hiram J. Ramsdell remembered Twain’s time in the city a decade and a half after the fact. Here it is in its entirety…
San Francisco Bulletin,
February 2, 1883
MARK TWAIN IN WASHINGTON.
Where, How and Why He Wrote His “Innocents Abroad.”
Well, I was going to speak of the Indiana-avenue House and Mark Twain. It was, I believe, some time in 1868 or ’69 that I happened, with my wife and child to be a boarder in that home. And shall I tell you who were the other boarders. For it was a regular Washington boarding house, with prices and accommodations slightly above the average. Well, there was George Alfred Townsend – to me a most lovable fellow at that time – and his pretty wife; and then there was the handsome and manly Jerome B. Stillson, who was one of the most brilliant of war correspondents, the most intimate friend of President Johnson at that time doing magnificent work for the New York World – dead, now poor fellow, with all his gentleness and sweetness of disposition; then there was Riley of the Alta California, a character equal to any of Dickens’ or Thackeray’s. And then there was Mark Twain in a little back room, with a sheet-iron stove, a dirty, musty carpet of the cheapest description, a bed and two or three common chairs. I had known Twain before. I was a correspondent of the New York Tribune then, and had been assigned to Washington two or three years before, in the good old days of Greeley. After Twain returned from his trip with the Christians on the Quaker City he came to Washington. He had been partly round the world and had seen a good deal. He looked at everything from the standing of a practical American and Western man, and was “green” enough to look at things through his own eyes and weight things with his own common sense. He knocked the old reverence and awe all to thunder.
But I get ahead of my story. After Twain’s return from his great trip he came to Washington. This was, I think, sometime in 1867 or early in 1868. Nobody knew him and nobody cared a rap for him. He was with Riley nearly all the time, and was addicted to John Barleycorn. He made his headquarters at the Tribune Bureau, and was not always welcome, for he was never goodnatured [sic], and was sometimes absolutely offensive, so much so that the correspondents did not always like to see him about – like George H. Butler, for example. I know that John Russell Young, who was then the managing editor of the New York Tribune, happening in Washington, dodged Twain, just as we now dodge Butler under certain circumstances. I believe he was all this time writing letters to the Alta, although Riley was the regular correspondent.
At that time we all did our work in our rooms, and when one of us got tired we went to the room of one of the others. If the other fellow was working hard he snubbed the visitor, if he was idling he welcomed him. At Twain’s room, however, the visitor was always welcomed, for by nature Twain is so lazy that he will not work if there is an excuse for loafing. He had a little back room that was a novelty, a museum, a hermit’s cave, a den for a wild animal, and the wild animal was there. In this room Clemens wrote his “Innocents Abroad.” I wish you could see it today, in the light of Mark Twain’s present reputation and his half million of money. I am rather hardened now, but I remember it shocked me at the time.
The little drum stove was full of ashes, running over on the zine sheet, which was covered all over; the bed seemed to be unmade for a week, the slops had not been carried out for a fortnight, the room was sour with tobacco-smoke, the floor, dirty enough to begin with, was littered with newspapers, from which Twain had cut his letters. Then there were hundreds of pieces of torn manuscripts which had been written and then rejected by the author. A dozen pipes were about the apartment – on the washstand, on the mantel, on the writing table, on the chairs – everywhere that room could be found. And there was tobacco and tobacco everywhere. One thing there were no flies. The smoke killed them, and I am now surprised that it did not kill me, too. Twain would not let a servant come into his room. He would strip down to his suspenders (his coat and vest, of course, being off), and walk back and forward in slippers in his little room and swear and smoke the whole day long. Of course, at times he would work, and when he did work it was like a steam engine at full head. I do believe that if Clemens had not been under contract to write for the Hartford firm his “Innocents Abroad,” he never would have done it.
Of course, at that time Townsend, Stillson, Riley and myself never thought that Twain’s book would amount to anything, and probably, he did not think it would either, but he was writing for the money his naked MS would bring him from his Hartford publisher. He needed that money, and so he wrote. He is glad that he did write now, for that “Innocents Abroad,” written in that little back room on Indiana Avenue in Washington, has been the making of the fame and fortune of Mark Twain. Whether he smokes the same stinking old pipes; whether he wears the same soiled under-shirts; where he heats his room with an old, uncleaned stove; whether he swears at his own or other people’s servants; whether he mopes and snarls and whiles – well, I don’t care. He is rich and aristocratic. He has edited a paper in Buffalo and another in Hartford. He failed in both. Editing is not his forte. Mining is not his forte. Humor is his forte, and you will excuse me if I say that coarse humor should be nobody’s forte. – H. J. R. in Philadelphia Press.