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NEW YORK, March 5. -- When a friend who knows Mark Twain asked me casually a few days ago: "Would you like to meet Mark?" I repeated parrot-wise: "Would I like to meet _____" and was brought up short for want of any forcible comparison by which I could best demonstrate that I would like to do as well as meet Mark Twain. "Well, naturally, I would; but let's talk of bare possibilities such as the eventual capture of DeWet or the intervention of the man in the moon." For Mark Twain has of late become increasingly difficult of approach, has withdrawn from the busy haunts of autograph hunters, has foresworn most banquets, all lectures and is consistently not 'at home' to interviewers. Therefore the audacity of my friend's proposition staggered me, but he merely looked wise and the conversation veered.
Some days later I had a letter from him inclosing a bolt from the blue. A note of cordial invitation from Mr. Clemens himself together with a printed card of instructions by the careful following of which the designing stranger who desired to be within his gates might ultimately arrive there provided he had a master's certificate in navigation combined with a large natural bump of locality. The date fixed was for some days ahead, and never moved the wheels of the calendar so slowly. At last came the day itself and with it the season's biggest blizzard. It utterly demoralized New York and isolated the suburb. The railroad service was topsy-turvy, some trains hours late, others cancelled altogether. But though the chances of reaching Riverdale-on-Hudson seemed of a slimness verging on the scrawny we deemed it well worth the attempt, and success as usual crowned temerity. Mr. Clemens had mentioned the vague possibility of a hack being in waiting at the station, an exceptional condition proving the rule of the necessity of walking. Fortunately it was there, and a quarter of an hour's burrowing through and climbing over snow-drifts brought us to his premises.
First Glimpse of "Mark."
|The Clemens household is installed in the wide-halled, hospitable old mansion of the Appleton family, situated in a spacious park of gently rising ground and commanding a magnificent view up and down the river and valley. The tugging horse emerged from one last drift and paused before a closed-in porch. The driver remarked in an important, cicerone tone, "Here y' are to Clemenses." and the storm-door opened outwards revealing a cordiality of welcome from Mr. Clemens himself. The first glimpse of him was, I think, the most characteristic of a side never obtainable under the less intimate circumstances of an interview in a hotel lobby or a chance meeting at a 'crush.' It was Mark Twain in his own home, unceremonious, kindly, with a touch of the southwest in his slow drawl, and all of the south in his genial hospitality.||
The Cordiality of His Greeting.
"Oh, yes, I anticipated the blizzard when I made your appointment, but forgot that weather wouldn't scare Canadians -- only make them homesick. I am very old and very wise, but alas, only editors are omniscient. It was my mistake! Now, come into the dining-room where I've been shamelessly loafing all day long, but the spectacle from the windows was too magnificnet to tear away from. What Emerson calles the 'tumultuous privacy of the storm.' And certainly the scene justified his enthusiasm.
The dining-room, a long apartment running the width of the house has one end practically of clear glass, through which protected one looked out on the wind and snow-swept valley of the Hudson, spread in a vast panorama from one's feet to the horizon.
"Smoke" he queried. I supposed everybody has heard of the variety of tobacco affected by Mr. Clemens, and the impossibility of getting anything quite black and strong enough for him, excepting perhaps the Parisian "one sou" cigar. Those proffered were not they, but of some collateral branch of the Stogie tribe, loose and shaggy as to wrapper and with quaint bends and kinks in construction; and, as their owner guaranteed "rank and cheap and devilish." He habitually understates from fear of exaggeration -- they were more than devilish.
"Yes, all that oiutside is a good excuse but its terribly hard for me to work any way with all the disadvantages I've struggled under all my life. How did the other fellows do it. St. Peter and Sir Walter Raleigh and John Bunyan and the rest. A grateful government put them in prison where there were no views or anything else to interrupt, and they just had to work to pass the time. I thought it was a great scheme. I picked out my prison with care and attention to all its advantages of situation and society, and applied for membership. They black-balled me. Yes, sir -- said that jails were getting too common anyway, but they were gong to keep that one select. And think of some of the other men who have left a mark on literature and science. Stevenson and Darwin and Hunter. There was not a disease they did not have, nor a pain they had not tried and of course they had to work to forget it. If I could contract smallpox or go into a decline it would be a great help, but I'm always in rude health. Pitiful, pitiful!"
His Remarkable Knowledge.
Mark Twain As He Is To-day
Specially drawn for the Free Press
There were books lying about in the comfortable confusion which testified to their being read, with a recently published biography of Pasteur on the top of the pile. This seemed to deeply interest Mr. Clemens and he and my scientific companion were soon deep in a discussion of all the "ologies" comprehending everything in invention and discovery from patent invalid-couches to the measurement of the stars, whilst I seized the opportunity to make sketches on my cuff-ends. Mark Twain's knowledge and grasp of detail of metallurgy, biology and astronomy; subjects seemingly in no way connected with his literary work, and to which it would appear he could not afford time to devote for study is really remarkable. In a life croweded with incessant action, in travel, lecturing, writing and the business details incidental to publishing, he has made time to keep hmself abreast with the serious thought and the general progress of our civilization. It is not alone the Mark Twain familiar to the public as a humorist and raconteur, but Samuel Clemens, thinker and student which comes to the surface in the privacy of his home. The pressure of work on him has been enormous. He has the journalistic instinct of touching on all things of interest to him, tersely summing up the important points, expressing his personal opinion and dismissing them after a single attack. He is a consistent anti-Imperialist and has written and spoken some very candid advice to the American people in reference to their drifiting Philippine policy, and at once he is deluged with appeals and arguments and demands for more than he is able to give. His one letter of vivisection, he complains, nearly resulted in the vivisection of himself by enthusiasts of the Anti-vivisectionist crusade who desired sheafs of letters on the subject. His one "slam" at Christian Science gave an impetus to the ridicule heaped upon the sect's prophetess which nearly boomeranged back at him, he being, people maintained, the man best fitted to expose Mrs. Eddy thoroughly. He has the will to do all these things and more, but to him in no greater degree than to the rest of mankind has been granted elasticity of time, and to accomplish three days' work in the twenty-four hours is to Mark Twain not one whit easier than to less gifted mortals. Indeed he resents the assumption that his pen is essentially a thing of cap-and-bells, a humorously iconoclastic weapon at everybody's service for the demolition of each passing fad and fraud. What he considers needful he will do in his own time and way. Too often indeed his readers are prone to miss the real point of the pithy commentaries he contributes on events of the day. Though he treats serious subjects in a genially-satiriical vein, accentuating or slightly distorting prominent features to achieve the striking effect which similary makes the caricature the most telling portrait; the intention is fundamentally serious and one must not overlook in appreciation of the quaintness and humor of his style, the underlying solid bed of cool logic and shrewed philosophy.
In His Happiest Mood.
But now the sun had gone down behind the 'Palisades' and a white dusk crept over the snow-carpeted valley. It was already six o'clock and time for us to regretfully take our departure. It is possible that we should have effected a retreat in good order had not both Mr. and Mrs. Clemens commandeered us to stay to dinner, and sufficient until the thereafter should be the evil of catching or waiting for snowbound trains. Under the circumstances it can be readily imagined that our resistance was half-hearted. We demanded not even conditions of surrender but capitulated with almost an unbecoming haste. At his own mahogany, surrounded by his family and friends more even that at great banquets aglow with the concentrated wit of famous after-dinner orators is Mark Twain in his happiest of moods. Reminiscences followed fast -- a chance allusion to a battle of the Cromwellian wars suggested the sobriquet of a once famous journliast and lecturer of the Central States. Mark Twain had known him intimately and related with inimitable gravity of humor the story of "X's" (for so one must call him) manipulation of a certain western newspaper in the days when journalism in that region and the literary tastes of its people were at an equally low ebb. "X" was on one occasion pointing out to him the principal sights of the city of his great achievements, and paused impressively before one conspicuously prominent edifice.
"Look at that newspaper building, beautiful architectural adornment to this town and state, yes, sir! It's well equipped throughout. Up-to-date and first class in every particular detail, a superb property, by George! Well -- it's mine! On, os-ten-sibly its Robinson's. He thinks it is. I sold it to him for a big figure on the grounds of its certified circulation of 200,000. And he began 'improving' and kept on 'improving' until its just so much Greek and Hebrew to the citizens of this metropolis and they won't have it for waste-paper. No, sir!" Every improvement of Robinson's knocks off two or three thousand of the circulation. I'm here and waiting. In a month he'll come a-crawling and give it to me with something to book to take it mercifully off his hands!"
"X" had done this time and again with that particular paper, knowing exactly the crude tastes and blind prejudices of the community he could boom it up to high-water mark in a few months, sell out at gilt-edged rates to some unsophisticated stranger and watch the machine run down until it came into his hands again for a mere song.
In His Study.
Reading from the M.S. of a new story.
Many, many quips and anecdotes, enrich my memory of Mr. Clemens' dining table, but, alas! The great majority were of a nature too intimate and personal for quotation. Towards an interviewer he is forewarned and forearmed, and says only what he intends to appear in public print, but the confidences of the host to the guest are of a sacred character, not lightly to be violated. Over the chimney-piece of this room hangs a fine portrait in oils of Mark Twain, painted by a Greek artist, in Vienna. The only one, he says, which represents him as a tame, domesticated white man. All others have protrayed him in some more or less impenetrable savage disguise. In his study there are many original sketches and books reminiscent of his European residence and particularly interesting are the scraps of freshly written manuscript on the broad writing table, peeping out of a chaotic upheaval of letters and clippings and magazines. But the drawing room, more than any other apartment of the house, is crowded with exquisite little souvenirs of his sojournings in many lands. A beautifully wroought silver key presented by an English corporation at the opening of a public library, lies beside a curious betel-nut cutter from farthest India. Together with gems of bric-a-brac in copper and glass and ivory from Austria, Italy and the East, each suggesting some interesting recollection of the land of its nativity. Then entered the pride of the household, "Her Ladyship's Elephant," the colossal, rough-coated St. Bernard, whose clumsy effusiveness threatened destruction to the bijouterie at every sweep of his feathery tail. His nocturnal activity suggested emulation on our part and the propriety of seeking out the Jehu of that prehistoric hack which had aforetime conveyed us. He came with a blast of cold air, a quaint crusty character of the type Washington Irving has familiarized us with in this same stage setting.
"Humph!" he grumbled, I'd sooner take a lickin' than drive on such a night for any body else."
The compliment not being directed at us, of course, but as a tasteful reference to our host. He is resigned to it. "I never take trouble nor make trouble now. I never have to do anything. The other people do it. I'll know better than to work so hard in the next world with everybody else so eager and willing to oblige. So kind of you. Good-night." And with a keen impression of the warmth and geniality of his fireside scene fresh with us, the blizzard without, the uncertainty of hacks and of railraoad schedules seemed trivial and unheeded incidents in connection with experience of unqualified charm.
R. H. M.