This book begins the first multi-volume biography of Samuel Clemens to appear in over a century. In the succeeding years, Clemens biographers have either tailored their narratives to fit the parameters of a single volume or focused on a particular period or aspect of Clemens’s life, because the whole of that epic life cannot be compressed into a single volume. In The Life of Mark Twain, Gary Scharnhorst has chosen to write a complete biography plotted from beginning to end, from a single point of view, on an expansive canvas. With dozens of Mark Twain biographies available, what is left unsaid? On average, a hundred Clemens letters and a couple of Clemens interviews surface every year. Scharnhorst has located documents relevant to Clemens’s life in Missouri, along the Mississippi River, and in the West, including some which have been presumed lost. Over three volumes, Scharnhorst elucidates the life of arguably the greatest American writer and reveals the alchemy of his gifted imagination.
About the Author
Gary Scharnhorst is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of New Mexico. He is the author or editor of fifty books, including Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics: Letters to the Editor. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Read an Excerpt
He was well born ... and that's worth as much in a man as it is in a horse.
— Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was descended from a long line of lower-cas(t)e protestants, dissenters, and rapscallions, so it is fair to say that he was to the manner born. According to family tradition, some of his forefathers "were pirates and slavers in Elizabeth's time. But this is no discredit to them," he explained in his autobiography, because piracy was "a respectable trade then" and like his character Tom Sawyer he "had desires to be a pirate myself." Among his ancestors may also have been a certain Gregory Clement, a London merchant, member of Parliament, and one of the judges who in 1649 signed the death warrant for Charles I. Clement was expelled from Parliament three years later for becoming "too publick a Fornicator." After the Restoration in 1660, Gregory Clement went into hiding but was soon discovered, decapitated, and disemboweled, his lands seized and his head displayed on a pike atop Westminster Hall in Charing Cross. Still, Gregory (or Geoffrey, as Sam mistakenly called him) "did what he could toward reducing the list of crowned shams of his day." Sam even noted in his journal in 1890, as if in tribute to his Roundhead kinsman, that the "assassination of a crowned head whenever & wherever opportunity offers should be the first article of all subjects' religion." Unfortunately, while Gregory's son James Clement immigrated to America in 1670, there is no hard evidence that he sired any of Sam's doggedly middle-class and middlebrow ancestors, the Clemenses of Virginia. Sam was nevertheless convinced that "Clement the martyr-maker was an ancestor of mine" and he always regarded the regicide "with favor, and in fact pride."
Sam often boasted that he was descended from English nobility and the First Families of Virginia. As he declared with an assumption of privilege in 1900, "I was born into the leisure class," and he was not far wrong. The earliest Clemens related to him who is known to have lived in the New World was Samuel B. Clemens, who married Pamela Goggin in Bedford County, Virginia, in 1797. She was the granddaughter of Stephen Goggin, an Anglican who emigrated from Ireland in 1742, and the daughter of Stephen Goggin Jr., who served in the Revolutionary Army and married Rachel Moorman in 1773; a Quaker, she was disowned for marrying outside the faith. After his wedding to Pamela Goggin, Samuel B. Clemens paid a thousand dollars for two slaves, four hundred acres of land near Goose Creek, and a mahogany sideboard, and then went to farming. Their first child, John Marshall Clemens, the father of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was born in August 1798. Four years after Samuel B. Clemens was killed in a house-raising accident in 1805 his widow married her childhood sweetheart and resettled in Adair County, Kentucky.
When Marshall Clemens reached his majority in 1819, by the laws of primogeniture he inherited three of his father's ten slaves, the mahogany sideboard, and pride in his putative descent from Virginia cavaliers. He was also presented with a bill for almost nine hundred dollars by his stepfather for the expense of raising him and his siblings. He began to study law in the office of the county attorney in Columbia, Kentucky, the seat of Adair County, and earned his license to practice in October 1822. He married Jane Casey Lampton, the mother of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the following May. Her dowry consisted of three slaves. That is, all four of Sam Clemens's grandparents and both of his parents were slaveholders. Marshall Clemens soon sold one of the slaves Jane brought to the marriage, a seventeen-year-old man named Green, to William Lester of Mississippi for $250. He did not need the cash, but apparently wanted to reduce his household expenses and, from his perspective, was overstocked with inventory. Lester paid him with an IOU.
Jane Clemens's lineage was more distinguished than her husband's, though not as distinguished as she thought. According to family tradition, her paternal grandfather William Lampton immigrated to Virginia with his older brother Samuel around 1740, and Samuel was the legitimate Earl of Durham who had been cheated of his rightful inheritance. As Sam Clemens averred in 1891,
My mother is descended from the younger of two English brothers named Lambton, who settled in this country a few generations ago. The tradition goes that the elder of the two eventually fell heir to a certain estate in England (now an earldom), and died right away. This has always been the way with our family. They always die when they could make anything by not doing it. The two Lambtons left plenty of Lambtons behind them; and when, at last, about fifty years ago, the English baronetcy was exalted to an earldom, the great tribe of American Lambtons began to bestir themselves — that is, those descended from the elder branch.
Sam's purported cousin Jesse Leathers, the great-grandson of Samuel Lampton, repeatedly tried to prove his claim to the Lambton fortune throughout his life to no avail. Still, it was an endeavor Sam occasionally aided and abetted with gifts of money. Not that he put much stock in the family tradition. Henry Watterson, the longtime editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Sam's distant relation by marriage, remembered that the two of them "grew up on old wives' tales of estates and titles, which — maybe it was a kindred sense of humor in both of us — we treated with shocking irreverence." In fact, William and Samuel Lampton were descended not from the Earl of Durham but from Mark Lampton, a Maryland tobacco farmer, who established the family line in America.
Despite all the genealogical hairsplitting, Jane Lampton Clemens was in fact distantly related through her father to the genteel Lambtons of Durham and through her mother to an officer in George Washington's army and to Indian fighters who immigrated to Kentucky with Daniel Boone. Born there in 1803, she was the daughter of Benjamin Lampton, a yeoman farmer, dry goods merchant, and slaveholder. As Sam Clemens writes of the family in the fragment "Hellfire Hotchkiss" (1897), "for more than two centuries they have been as good as anybody about them; they have been slave-holding planters, professional men, politicians — now and then a merchant, but never a mechanic. They have always been gentlemen. And they were that in England before they came over."
Jane's courtship by Marshall Clemens was a whirlwind affair. She was by all accounts a beautiful, vivacious Southern belle, an accomplished rider, "the handsomest girl and the wittiest, as well as the best dancer, in all Kentucky," according to Albert Bigelow Paine. After her death in 1890 Jane Clemens was described by her minister as "a woman of the sunniest temperament, lively, affable, a general favorite." Sam idealized her and subscribed to the conventional mid-Victorian ideologies of gender — the cult of true womanhood and the mythology of the "angel in the house" — in his portrayals of her. She had "a large heart; a heart so large that everybody's griefs and everybody's joys found welcome in it and hospitable accommodation," he wrote shortly after her death. "She was of a sunshiny disposition, and her long life was mainly a holiday to her. She always had the heart of a young girl. Through all of the family troubles she maintained a kind of perky stoicism." She once prevented a "vicious devil" from lashing his young daughter by giving him a tongue-lashing of her own, and he eventually "asked her pardon, and gave her his rope." She was a cat lover, according to her son, feeding and caring for nineteen of them in 1845 and inspiring Sam's own lifelong affection for felines. "She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work," Sam also remembered. She lived to the age of nearly ninety years "and was capable with her tongue to the last — especially when a meanness or an injustice roused her spirit. She has come handy to me several times in my books," including The Gilded Age (1873), his first novel, where she is re-created in Mrs. Hawkins, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), where she figures as Aunt Polly. His mother, Sam recalled,
was the most eloquent person whom I have met in all my days, but I did not know it then, and I suppose that no one in all the village suspected that she was a marvel, or indeed that she was in any degree above the common. I had been abroad in the world for twenty years and known and listened to many of its best talkers before it at last dawned upon me that in the matter of moving and pathetic eloquence none of them was the equal of that untrained and artless talker out there in the western village, that obscure little woman with the beautiful spirit and the great heart and the enchanted tongue.
Unfortunately, she married Marshall Clemens not because she loved him but because she was on the rebound from her first suitor. Richard Ferrel Barrett, a young medical student, began to woo her when she was eighteen. They broke up as the result of a misunderstanding, and she wed Marshall Clemens, a clerk in her uncle's law office, in a pique.
As a result, though their marriage lasted twenty-four years, it was hardly a warm and reverential one. "All through my boyhood," Sam remembered,
I had noticed that the attitude of my father and mother toward each other was that of courteous, considerate, and always respectful, and even deferential, friends; that they were always kind toward each other, thoughtful of each other, but that there was nothing warmer; there were no outward and visible demonstrations of affection. ... [T]he absence of exterior demonstration of affection for my mother had no surprise for me. By nature she was warm-hearted, but it seemed to me quite natural that her warm-heartedness should be held in reserve in an atmosphere like my father's.
"Stern" and "austere" were the adjectives Sam used most often over the years to describe his father, sometimes in conjunction with "taciturn," "irritable," "dour," and "humorless." He described the character Judge Carpenter (modeled on Marshall Clemens) in his "Villagers of 1840–3" (1897) as a "stern, unsmiling" man who "never demonstrated affection for wife or child." The judge had learned that his wife had married him "to spite another man. Silent, austere, of perfect probity and high principle; ungentle of manner toward his children, but always a gentleman in his phrasing." Similarly, in Following the Equator (1897) Sam wrote, "My father was a refined and kindly gentleman, very grave, rather austere, of rigid probity, a sternly just and upright man." Like Judge Driscoll in The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), Marshall Clemens was proud of his Virginia ancestry because to "be a gentleman ... was his only religion." According to a historian in Hannibal, Missouri, he was also known for his "vigorous and scathing pen ... when he chose to write for the papers," though nothing he published is known to survive. But he was not particularly well-read. Sam noted in 1870 that the only poem his father enjoyed during "the long half century that he lived" was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Hiawatha. Yet even this claim betrays the flexibility of Sam's memory: his father died in 1847, eight years before Hiawatha was published. Marshall Clemens became the model for Judge Thatcher in Tom Sawyer, Judge Griswold in the unfinished Simon Wheeler, Detective (ca. 1877), and Colonel Grangerford in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).
The year after their marriage, Marshall and Jane Clemens settled in Gainesboro, the seat of Jackson County in east Tennessee, on the Cumberland River, near the homes of one of Jane's cousins and her sister Patsy. This was the first in a series of moves that led nowhere but to misery and destitution. John Adams Quarles, four years younger than Marshall Clemens, married Patsy Lampton in Gainesboro in June 1825. He shared the freethinking ways of his brother-in-law and flirted with such heretical ideas as Universalism. He became Sam's favorite uncle and the model for Uncle Silas Phelps in Huckleberry Finn. Much as Sam declares in his autobiography that "I have not come across a better man" than John Quarles, Huck insists that Silas was "the innocentest, best old soul I ever see" and "a mighty nice old man." The Whiggish Clemens, who was named for John Marshall, the Virginian who served as secretary of state and the fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was eager to launch a law practice in Gainesboro. But instead of increasing their income, the Clemenses only increased their expenses with the birth of their first child, Orion, in July 1825.
They soon pulled up stakes and cast their lot forty miles east, in Jamestown, Tennessee, on the Obed River in Fentress County, a region known as "the Knobs." Though Sam never visited the village, he depicted it as Obedstown in The Gilded Age. During his first months there, Marshall Clemens reached the pinnacle of his legal career. He opened a small store, practiced law, was elected county commissioner, helped to design and build the county courthouse, served as clerk of the circuit court and occasionally as the acting attorney for Fentress County, and bought thousands of acres of land timbered with virgin yellow pine for little more than one cent per acre. In The Gilded Age, Silas Hawkins, the character Sam based on his father, "proudly boasts of its potential to increase in value, saying, 'the whole tract would not sell for over a third of a cent an acre now, but some day people will be glad to get it for twenty dollars, fifty dollars, a hundred dollars an acre! What would you say to ... a thousand dollars an acre.'" All that was required to maintain title to the land was to "pay the trifling taxes on it yearly — five or ten dollars." The size of the tract, some twenty miles south of Jamestown between the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, has been variously estimated: Sam later claimed in his autobiography that his father purchased upwards of seventy-five thousand acres for about four hundred dollars. While the Clemens acreage in Tennessee was substantial, it never amounted to the stupendous tracts cherished in family lore. A more careful and recent examination of the county records reveals that Marshall Clemens actually acquired about twenty-six thousand acres piecemeal over a period of twelve years. Still, who would have imagined that such an asset would become a liability, less a boon than a family curse? The land "influenced our life" for "more than a generation," Sam later complained. "It kept us hoping and hoping during forty years. ... It put our energies to sleep and made visionaries of us — dreamers and indolent. We were always going to be rich next year — no occasion to work." It was, he noted, "not worth while to go at anything in serious earnest until the land was disposed of and we could embark intelligently in something." As Washington Hawkins, Silas's son, declares in The Gilded Age, the land
began to curse me when I was a baby, and it has cursed every hour of my life to this day. ... I have chased [fortune] years and years as children chase butterflies. We might all have been prosperous, now; we might all have been happy, all these heart-breaking years, if we had accepted our poverty at first and gone contentedly to work and built up our own wealth by our own toil and sweat.
Unfortunately, Jamestown failed to prosper during the months the Clemens family lived there. As Paine writes, it grew "almost immediately" to a village "of twenty-five houses — mainly log houses — and stopped." There was little need there for the services of a lawyer. The store also failed, and all the while the Clemens clan increased in number, with the births of daughters Pamela in September 1827 and Margaret in May 1830, and a son, Pleasant Hannibal, in 1828 or 1829. Almost nothing is known about this child. He was so frail he lived only about three months, probably because he was born prematurely, perhaps because he was born deformed. His birth is not recorded in the family Bible, an indication he was never christened, and Sam never afterward mentioned this brother he never knew. As Stephen Crane writes of Maggie's baby brother Tommie in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), he simply "went away" in an "insignificant coffin."
Excerpted from "The Life of Mark Twain"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations xi
Chapter 1 Ancestry 3
Chapter 2 The Villages 11
Chapter 3 Hannibal 35
Chapter 4 Journeyman Printer 75
Chapter 5 The River 97
Chapter 6 The War 129
Chapter 7 The Mines 139
Chapter 8 Virginia City 171
Chapter 9 From Virginia City to San Francisco 211
Chapter 10 San Francisco 259
Chapter 11 The Sandwich Islands 319
Chapter 12 San Francisco Redux 343
Chapter 13 New York 369
Chapter 14 The Voyage 403
Chapter 15 Washington, D.C. 439
Chapter 16 The West Revisited 461
Chapter 17 Hartford, Elmira, and Buffalo 471
Chapter 18 Buffalo Exitus 533