The Literary Hill, December 2013, p. 116 – 117
By: Karen Lyon
Samuel Clemens’ first trip to Washington in 1854 was less than auspicious. Like any tourist, the 18-year-old complained about the ankle-deep mud and slow buses, and admired the statues and fine buildings. His description of a visit to the Capitol, however, hinted at things to come: “In the House, nearly every man seemed to have something weighing on his mind on which the salvation of the Republic depended, and which he appeared very anxious to relieve himself of.” By the time he returned to the nation’s capital in November of 1867, Mark Twain had honed his wit to a sharp-tongued edge.
In “Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent,” historian John Muller focuses on Twain’s brief tenure here, which included a stint as private secretary to Senator William Stewart, a job as correspondent to a dozen newspapers, and a short turn as a committee clerk. He even enjoyed a ‘momentary’ appointment as doorkeeper of the Senate until his attempts to join in the debate on the floor led to his being restrained by the Sergeant-at-Arms and “impeached.”
Twain left DC in March of 1868, but his few months here were productive. He wrote more than two dozen articles and laid the groundwork for his first novel, “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today,” co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner. He also collected a lifetime’s worth of material on politics and politicians. As Muller writes, Twain “was a literary powder keg ready to explode upon the world” and it was here in DC where “the match was lit to spark the fuse.”
Using archival photographs, letters, newspaper articles, and scores of entertaining anecdotes, Muller lends both historical context and a heady flavor to the author’s time in the national capital. The story of him selling somebody else’s dog to a man outside the Ebbitt House is vintage Twain. And who couldn’t sympathize with the poor landlady who complained that he smoked cigars in bed all night and “ruined my best sheets”?
Thanks to Muller, we can now take pride in Washington’s role in the development of an author who would become one of American’s most beloved novelists and its first global celebrity.
John Muller is a librarian, journalist, and playwright whose first book, “Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia,” was selected as DC Public Library’s 2013 DC Reads. Join him for a book signing at the University Club of Washington, D.C., Dec. 4, 5pm; and book talks and signings at the George Washington University Bookstore, Dec. 5, 10am and at Politics & Prose, Saturday, January. 4, 1pm.