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Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Tale of the Silver Scribe

By Michael Mauro DeBonis

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved by the author

Part 1: Lonely Man…Big City

It is an early, autumn day in October of 1908. The leaves on Manhattan’s many trees have only recently begun to go from green to yellow, orange and red. A tall thin man wearing an immaculate white suit and smoking a cigarette makes his way into a lonely dimly lit Fifth Avenue saloon. The man’s eyes flash lightning and pride…but they do not exude arrogance or superiority. His wavy-tufted mane of silver-stranded hair and his equally sable moustache make him resemble an aged lion, though now somehow faded, but still very much mighty. He casually sits down on a stool at the bar and he is instantly recognized by the tavern-keeper as Mark Twain, the American novelist, and comedian, par excellence.

What these two discuss we’ll never know. But these things are certain: Mark Twain speaks directly and clearly. His words are always as sharp as his wits…and Twain’s wits are always razor sharp. In this early autumn, Mark Twain has already entered the winter of his life. Yet the ghost of this man is not ready to die. Mark Twain still has one more story left to tell.

He was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in the small Missouri village of Florida, on November 30, 1835. Four years later, Clemens’ father, John Marshall Clemens, moved his family to the rural riverside town of Hannibal, also in Missouri. Sam and his brother Orion spent countless hours roaming the countryside there, fishing and wandering in the woods. Samuel Clemens was magnetized to the great Mississippi River, which dominated and bordered his little hometown. The Mississippi’s many steam-powered paddle wheelers haunted the young Clemens’ mighty imagination. When Samuel came of age, he would become quite a skilled pilot of these now fabled water vessels.

At eighteen, Sam fully completed an apprenticeship on a newspaper Orion had worked on, as well. After a decade of steady newspaper journalism and riverboat piloting, the Civil War broke out, and everything in Samuel Clemens’ life forever changed. The War Between the States closed the Mississippi and Clemens’ job as a riverboat pilot (not an easy occupation for anyone) came to an abrupt end. Immediately thereafter, Samuel joined the Confederate Army. He resigned and swiftly left his unit after two weeks. Clemens was not willing to endure the hardships of military combat and fight for a cause he did not believe in (slavery).
From 1862 on, Clemens was no longer a Missouri man. He took to the southwest United States. He did a stint as a silver miner and gold prospector, but he had very bad results. Before 1862 was over, Clemens once more found himself a newspaperman. Working as a writer for the Virginia City (Nevada) periodical called the Territorial Enterprise, Sam quickly gained a good reputation as a journalist and a humorist. By February 1863, Clemens adopted the pen name, which was to immortalize him, Mark Twain, a sailing term meaning“two fathoms deep.”

As the Civil War raged in the east, Mark Twain was establishing himself as a writer of note in the west. His first success came in 1865 with the production of the short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. The Celebrated Jumping Frog put Mark Twain on the map as a new brilliant writer of fiction. His story became widely published all over the country, and Samuel Langhorne Clemens became a rising literary superstar.

Mark Twain, once the son of poor transplanted Virginians who then went west with the rest of American pioneers, and had wound up in Missouri, was on his way. He spent a short time in California before becoming a travel writer and relocating to Hawaii. Even there, Twain was not to stay long. His writing gigs were paying off, in spite of Clemens’ free-spiriting personality. By 1866, Mark returned to Virginia City to give a lecture. He would subsequently lecture a few more times in Nevada and its environs, before leaving the West behind him permanently.

Part 2: The Right Woman.

In 1867, Mark Twain engaged on a travel assignment to the Holy Land aboard the American steamship Quaker City. This very unique excursion was later transmuted into novelized form as The Innocents Abroad. This writing venture also was successful and it brought Twain much acclaim and wealth. It was on the Quaker City that Twain met his future brother-in-law, a certain Mr. Charles Langdon. Langdon showed Mr. Twain a picture of his sister, Olivia (Louise) Langdon. Twain was instantly smitten with the woman’s portrait and he (of course) arranged a meeting with her, via her brother Charles, after returning from his travels in the Middle East.

Initially, the lovely Olivia Langdon rebuffed Samuel’s saccharine advances. The frail, but intelligent “Livy,” as her friends and family called her, eventually warmed up to the journalist turned novelist. In 1870, after a brief but meaningful courtship, Samuel Clemens married the Elmira, NY native. Olivia Clemens was born and Mark Twain was now married to the love of his life. They would be truly happy lovers and soul mates for the next 34 years until Olivia died in 1904. Olivia was an outstanding thinker and feminist. She was also a dedicated social reformer who came from a very well to do progressive family. Her parents were well-known abolitionists, who had made much money in coal and timber businesses.

Livy, at Samuel’s request, would carefully and industriously review and edit all of Twain’s written material until her last breath. She never failed him. Back in Elmira, the Clemens would live on and off (switching locales in New York for those in Hartford, Connecticut) until Samuel himself died in 1910. But Samuel was extremely fond of both of these locales. Mark Twain and Olivia’s marriage was essentially a pleasant and productive one. Livy was not only in charge of the children and the household, but she was for a very long while, in command of the couple’s finances. This was so…especially in Mark Twain’s later years when he lost tens of thousands of dollars due to bad business investments. Twain and Livy worked themselves to the bone to eradicate their huge debts. Both were triumphant…and their fully democratic and egalitarian marriage was solely responsible for this positive outcome.

Part Three: The End is Near.

Yet Livy was of a frail and fragile health for most of her life. She suffered from severe chest pains in her final years and she had a terrible heart attack in 1902. The Clemens family lived for a time in Europe in a desperate effort to improve Livy’s health, towards the end of 1903. It did not work. Olivia Langdon Clemens passed away in June of 1904, at Florence, Italy. Twain was horribly wounded by his wife’s death. Sam and Livy had tragically lost three of their children to several different illnesses, each before their kids reached adulthood. Only Mark Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens was to arrive at old age.

Twain’s later life was a somber and weary one. He finished little of what he wrote at this juncture…and without Livy in his life to cheer him on and to critique his work, Sam’s creative output dwindled. His one work of note from this period is said to be the novel The Mysterious Stranger. It has a dreary tone and plot, which were alien things to Samuel Langhorne Clemens for most of his long literary career. Mark Twain was a habitual optimist and dreamer. This personal philosophy firmly established Sam Clemens as an American literary giant and it also saved him from financial ruin.

Mark Twain died in Redding, Connecticut on the 21 April 1910. He subsequently buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in his beloved Elmira, NY. Elmira was always a place of great beauty and solace for the Missouri native. The Chemung River reminded Sam of his beloved Mississippi. Twain’s eyes would light up every time he saw a steamboat sail by, as he watched from above, in his study. Clemens’ rustic home he called Quarry Farm. It was perched above the Chemung River Valley. Samuel described his Elmira residence as “the quietest of all quiet places.” Twain wrote some of his best-known novels there, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Prince and the Pauper.

Sam’s study from Quarry Farm was designed and built to resemble an interior of a pilot’s compartment, found aboard a classic paddle wheeler. Sam was an enthusiastic inhabitant of this study. Years later, the chamber was relocated to the grounds of Elmira College, where it has served as a museum ever since.

Yet let’s return to that Manhattan saloon for just one last moment, in the beginning of fall, in 1908. Sam is hard away, smoking his cigarettes and drinking his whiskey. But a crowd of people soon surrounds him. Mark Twain is not worried about them, at all. He is a true man of the people. He does not shy from his visitors, as would Nathaniel Hawthorne. Instead, Clemens intensifies the level of loudness in whatever he is saying, as well as its duration. All who come to hear and to see Clemens must do so without hindrance. Clemens is that sort of fellow, and he speaks to be heard. He makes no mention of his waning strength or of his imminent death. But whatever Mark Twain does tell to his eager audience must be counted as historic.

About the Author: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, NY. A graduate of SUNY Stony Brook (B. A. English), Michael’s work first appeared in the Village Beacon Record and the Brookhaven Times newspapers. Michael’s latest work may be found in the New York History Review (poetry and prose) and the New York History Blog (prose only). Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the rich and diverse history of New York State.

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