by Barbara Schmidt

A History of and Guide to

Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition
Volume 15: The American Claimant and Other Stories and Sketches


Volume 15 of the Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition is The American Claimant and Other Stories and Sketches. It is same arrangement of stories that Harper and Brothers implemented in 1917 for the Author's National Edition. The title story is accompanied by most of the stories that had appeared in Merry Tales. (See Chapter 23 for a comparative listing of contents in the previous editions.) The volume features an Introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine.


THE genesis of The American Claimant was rather a curious one. Samuel Clemens's mother was a Lampton, related to an English family who bore the same name, though spelled with a "b." In the English branch of the family there is an earldom, and in the American branch a tradition, said tradition being that the earldom rightly belongs in the American family; and now and again a claimant had arisen who, either for want of resolution or backing, never seriously pressed his suit. In Mark Twain's time the claimant for the earldom of Durham was a gentle, incapable, and rather hare-brained fellow, who used to write long letters to his famous relative, sometimes inviting him to invest in a projected campaign for the English title and lands. This was not James Lampton, that lovable visionary who became Colonel Sellers in The Gilded Age, but another and more distant of the kin -- Jesse Leathers by name -- long since dead. Clemens himself never took any stock in the claim; he only amused himself with it now and then, and considered the possibility of its literary use. Once, after a letter from the "Rightful Earl of Durham," he urged William Dean Howells to make a story out of the material, declaring the claimant to be "a perfectly stunning literary bonanza."

The subject did not appeal to Howells -- not then, but two or three years later, when Clemens was in one of his playwriting fevers, Howells came down from Boston, and together they revived Colonel Sellers, made him the American claimant, and enjoyed a riotously jubilant fortnight together, working out their humors. The play was quite impossible as a dramatic production, though both of them had faith in it at the moment. They had overdone the Sellers idea, burlesqued him -- made him a lunatic, as Howells declared afterward -- instead of the gentle, lovable eccentric of his earlier appearance. John T. Raymond, who had acquired fame and fortune in the part of Sellers, refused the claimant play; other actors followed his example, and the manuscript was put aside permanently.

It was seven or eight years later -- early in 1891 -- that Clemens, digging about in his mind for book material, remembered the old play. Ever since the publication of A Yankee at King Arthur's Court there had been what was evidently a concerted movement to induce him to write a novel, with the theories of Henry George as the central idea. He now concluded to undertake such a story, linking this purpose with the old claimant idea; he would make an English nobleman renounce his holdings and set out to seek his fortune, and, of course, fall in with the American who was the true heir to his high estate.

The idea was a good one, even if time-worn. A motive in which there is a young lord who comes to America and labors with his hands, who attends socialistic meetings at which men inspired by readings of Progress and Poverty and Looking Backward address their brothers of toil, could have in it something worth while. Clemens inserted portions of some of his discarded essays on this subject, putting them into the mouths of the speakers and making them effective enough. He also inserted, with but little modification, scenes from the old discarded play with startling or grotesquely amusing results.

Rheumatism in the arm troubled him, and a considerable portion of the story was dictated to a phonograph, which Howells sent down from Boston. Clemens was always a patron of such inventions, he was the first to have a telephone in a private house, the first to use a typewriter for literary manuscripts, and he would seem to have been about the first to use the phonograph for literary dictation.

The American Claimant was one of the few books on which its author worked continuously. It was finished within two or three months from its beginning, and placed serially with the McClure syndicate in America, and the Idler Magazine in England. Mark Twain's own publishing-house (the firm of Charles L. Webster & Co.) issued it in book form in May, 1892. It has humor, and it continues to amuse many readers, but it is hardly one of Mark Twain's greater books.

The shorter pieces included in this volume each have a history, which might be given if introductory space were less limited. As it is, we may only briefly mention the more important. ''The Private History of a Campaign that Failed" is a semi-historical account of Mark Twain's military experience. He amused General Grant with the story during the old soldier's last feeble days, preparing it later for the Century Magazine. ''Meisterschaft'' was written to be performed by the German class that used to assemble in Mark Twain's home during the middle '80's, and was so given more than once, with great success.


Illustration List for Volume 15

The Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition of The American Claimant and Other Stories and Sketches features a frontispiece from a painting of Clemens by Charles Noel Flagg in 1891. The same frontispiece had been used in American Publishing Company's 1899 uniform edition of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins. The Gabriel Wells edition also features an uncredited photo of Mark Twain's Hartford home that had appeared in American Publishing Company's 1899 uniform edition of The Innocents Abroad. Two of the three illustrations by James Allen St. John from American Publishing Company's 1899 uniform edition of American Claimant are reused in the Gabriel Wells edition.

Full Text Online Availability Via Archive.Org
Volume 15



Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search