Taken For A Ride: Around the Midwest on a Triumph Bonneville

In an earlier issue (May/June 2018), I mentioned I would be taking a solo motorcycle trip south along the Mississippi River on my 1974 Triumph Bonneville. Several Post readers wrote asking if they could join me, one of whom was a woman wanting to know whether I was married and if I might like a little company. Apparently, there is nothing like a motorcycle trip to excite the imagination.

I’m pleased to report the trip was a success, though it went nothing like I had planned. When Rod Collester, my friend and a vintage Triumph expert, learned my intentions, he advised me not to ride a 44-year-old motorcycle with an oil leak rivaling the Exxon Valdez halfway across the country. Fortunately, I also own a new Triumph Bonneville that from a hundred yards away looks a lot like my old Triumph Bonneville, which, as we say in Indiana, is close enough for government work, so I rode it instead.

Then two friends, Ned and Mike, heard of my trip and asked if they could come along, and I said yes, even though they ride a Honda and a Harley Davidson. While I never hold someone’s gender, religion, race, national origin, or sexual orientation against them, I have been known to look down my nose at people with so little regard for Triumph motorcycles that they would ride something else. But I swallowed my pride and invited them to join me, provided they refrain from making snide comments about the size of my motorcycle (900cc) compared to theirs (1300 and 1800 ccs). They kept their word for the first hundred miles, and then Ned referred to my bike as a “moped” and Mike laughed so hard he snotted himself.

By some quirk of fate, we left on our trip the same day the tropical cyclone Alberto hit landfall in the Gulf Coast, spawning storms and record rainfall along our intended route. Instead of heading south, we rode northwest 350 miles to Galena, Illinois, where Ulysses S. Grant was living when the Civil War broke out, working as a clerk at his father’s store, a job he despised but took because he was broke. If you ever feel like giving up, it might help to remember that in 1857, Grant pawned his watch to buy Christmas gifts for his family, then 10 years later was a national hero, well on his way to the presidency. (Grant was so virtuous, I can’t help but think that if the motorcycle had been invented then, he would have ridden a Triumph Bonneville.) We spent the night at the DeSoto House Hotel, built in 1855 and named after Hernando De Soto, who was purported to have discovered the Mississippi River on May 8, 1541, much to the surprise of the Native Americans who were already there, many of whom he promptly killed.

In Olney, a storm struck from the northwest, and I prayed it would give birth to a tornado and kill me dead.

The next morning, dodging Alberto’s offspring, we rode south along the Great River Road to Fort Madison, Iowa. If you’ve ever eaten Armour bacon, then in a roundabout way you’ve visited Fort Madison, too, since their processing plant is southwest of town along Highway 61. The scent of meat hangs over the place, a not altogether unpleasant aroma. Every town should be so fortunate to smell like bacon. We stayed the night in a Super 8 motel owned by a man from India who, though unintelligible, was thoroughly helpful. I’m not sure why so many Indians own hotels in America, and I don’t care so long as the rooms are clean and they have a TV channel that shows The Andy Griffith Show and Gunsmoke.

The next day found us in Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown of Mark Twain, which we would never have figured out except for the Mark Twain Hotel, the Mark Twain Restaurant, the Mark Twain Cave, the Mark Twain Antique Shop, the Mark Twain Museum, Mark Twain Avenue, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home, the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, and the Mark Twain Brewing Company, where Mike, against our advice, danced on a table. Continuing southward, we eventually crossed the Mississippi on the Golden Eagle ferry, motored seven pleasant miles across the Brussels peninsula, ferried across the Illinois River, and stayed the night at the Pere Marquette State Park Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. The next time someone tells you the government can’t do anything right, take them to the Pere Marquette State Park Lodge six miles west of Grafton, Illinois, and show them what America did when it had intelligent and visionary leaders.

If on the Judgment Day I am sentenced to hell, I will appeal the verdict by pointing out that I have already been there, on U.S. 50 crossing Illinois from Lebanon to Lawrenceville, an unrelentingly boring stretch of road 119 miles in length that felt like a thousand. In Olney, a storm struck from the northwest, and I prayed it would give birth to a tornado and kill me dead. Alas, I was not so fortunate and entered Indiana at Vincennes, the hometown of my parents and, coincidentally, Ned’s residence while serving as a district superintendent for the United Methodist Church during his years of checkered employment. I asked Ned if he wanted to go off the bypass and ride through town and he said “God, no,” or something to that effect. I could only conclude that when he left Vincennes, he had been asked never to return.

A lighthouse on a grassy cliff
Hannibal’s hero: The Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse was built in 1935 for Twain’s 100th birthday. Much of Hannibal, Missouri, is named after its famous resident. (Shutterstock)

We continued east on U.S. 50 through Amish country down to French Lick, hometown of basketball legend Larry Bird, where we stopped for dinner at the West Baden Hotel and ate grilled cheese sandwiches, the only thing on the menu we could afford. From there, we rode through the countryside to our farmhouse in Young’s Creek, built by my wife’s grandfather, Linus Apple, in 1913 and restored 98 years later by my wife and me before I spent all our money on motorcycles.

The next day found us heading north toward home, a formerly bucolic drive until Indiana’s governor, three governors ago, had the bright idea to turn a perfectly good state highway into an interstate, transforming a two-hour jaunt into a four-hour Sisyphean slog. I rolled into our garage five days and 1,123 miles after our departure and remain, to this day, a jaded and weary man, worn down by the road and my association with two dubious characters. Next year, I am informed, we will tackle the Natchez Trace Parkway through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. I can hardly wait.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and author of 22 books, including the Harmony and Hope series featuring Sam Gardner.

This article appears in the November/December 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Summer Road Trips: Bookish Travel

The call of the open road is as booming as ever. As far as domestic leisure travel is concerned, more Americans are opting to go by way of the automobile. Whether it’s due to the flexibility of packing heavy and stopping at will along the way or the nostalgia of highway getaways, road trips are back!

To satiate your bookworm wanderlust, take the great American road trip inspired by great American literature.

1. Walden Pond

Henry Thoreau's cabin
Walden Pond State Reservation, Miguel Vieira

The site where transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau spent two years in a log cabin is only a half-hour drive from Boston. The pond once hosted an amusement park with concessions, swings, a dancing hall, and a baseball diamond that burned down in 1902, but now all that remains is a replica of Thoreau’s cabin. The grounds are a Massachusetts state park perfect for swimming, hiking, and contemplating “the tonic of wildness.”

Read “An Unlikely Hero in the Fight for Personal Liberty”

2. Amherst

The homestead and the evergreens
Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

The property on which Emily Dickinson was born and spent most of her life as a recluse is a portal to the past. Though a prolific poet, Dickinson published very little during her lifetime. It was on this property in Amherst, Massachusetts that she wrote scores of short, solemn poems that would later be acclaimed for their value to literary scholarship. Both Dickinson houses serve as museums of the prominent family, and the gardens on the property grow the same flowers and shrubs that featured prominently in Dickinson’s poetry.

3. Harlem

Harlem in 1920
Harlem in 1920, James Augustus Van Der Zee

The Manhattan neighborhood known for an African-American artistic flourishment in the 1930s and ’40s was home to literary greats like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Claude McKay. Langston Hughes’s longtime home, now in the National Register of Historic Places, is the site of an arts collective, and Madam C.J. Walker’s building is now a public library branch. The Schomburg Center for African-American Culture, once the site of the American Negro Theater, hosts a large collection of books and artifacts pertaining to the Harlem Renaissance.

Read Langston Hughes in the Post

4. Eatonville

1991 zora neale hurston festival
An open pit barbecue at the 1991 Zora Neale Hurston Festival, Riki Saltzman

Eatonville, Florida was the home of Zora Neale Hurston as well as the inspiration for much of her work centering around the African-American experience in the South. Each year, The Zora! Festival of the Arts and Humanities celebrates the author’s life with concerts and presentations on the themes of Hurston’s work. A previously unpublished manuscript by Hurston, based on her interviews with a man who came to the country on a slave ship, was recently released after 90 years in the dark.

Read “The Conscience of the Court” by Zora Neale Hurston

5. Key West

hemingway house
Hemingway House, Roman Boed

Eccentric and lavish, the French Colonial house of Ernest Hemingway sits a few blocks from the southernmost point of the continental U.S. Driving to Key West grants drivers at once stunning views and terrible traffic, and the Hemingway House offers a glimpse into the quirky life of one the country’s most talented writers. He loved his polydactyl cats (the descendants of which still roam the house), and he built a backyard pool at a time when it would have cost over 300,000 in today’s dollars.



6. Monroeville

old Monroeville courthouse
Old Monroeville Courthouse, Andrea Wright

The “literary capital of Alabama” was home to both Truman Capote and Harper Lee (they were neighbors), and it inspired the southern settings of their fiction. Maycomb, the segregated setting of To Kill a Mockingbird, was practically modeled on Monroeville, and each year the town’s theater troupe stages the play adaptation. The first half is played in an amphitheater, and the second half takes place inside the town’s old courthouse. The same courthouse houses a museum featuring Capote’s old letters and childhood possessions.

Read “Capote Writes for the Post

7. Indianapolis

Kurt vonnegut mural
Indianapolis mural by Pamela Bliss

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote bountifully of his hometown of Indianapolis, “where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin,” and they’ve memorialized him with the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. You can walk down the same streets as the fictional Kilgore Trout and look up at buildings designed by Vonnegut’s father and grandfather, Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. and Bernard Vonnegut.

Read “Vonnegut Lives!”

8. Hannibal

Mark Twain's boyhood home
Mark Twain’s boyhood home

Samuel Langhorn Clemens’s childhood town sits on the Mississippi River, where his work on steamboats gave him his pen name, Mark Twain. The name adorns a substantial amount of attractions in Hannibal, Missouri, too: the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, the Mark Twain Lighthouse, Mark Twain Cave. You can even ride on the Mark Twain Riverboat for a dinner cruise.

Read “The Surprising and Familiar Mark Twain”

9. Red Cloud

Willa Cather Prairie
Willa Cather Prairie

“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away,” Willa Cather wrote of the western prairie. The O Pioneers! and My Ántonia author is memorialized with 600 acres of never-before-plowed prairie near her childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska. The native grasses and wildflowers return visitors to an untouched version of the Great Plains.

10. Salinas

Salinas Valley
Salinas Valley, BrendelSignature at English Wikipedia

John Steinbeck molded the working class and migrant characters of his stories from his experiences working on ranches outside his hometown, Salinas, California. The house Steinbeck grew up in stands at the center of town just a few blocks from the National Steinbeck Center museum. Although the author moved away young and travelled often, Salinas Valley is so prevalent in his fiction that the area is often called “Steinbeck country.”

Read “Why Steinbeck Almost Didn’t Win the Nobel Prize”

Memories of Mark Twain

Mark Twain stands outside his boyhood home on Hill Street in Hannibal, Missouri. (Photo via Library of Congress)

In a way, Mark Twain never left Hannibal, Missouri. All his books reflect the voice and outlook of a man who grew up in a small antebellum river town. And his best-known books, Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, reflect his childhood adventures on and around the Mississippi River.

When a Post reporter visited Hannibal in 1900, when the famous author was 65, he found several of Twain’s boyhood friends still alive. They recalled young Samuel Clemens as a voracious reader who’d entertain his friends by reciting stories from the Arabian Nights. They also recalled his Tom Sawyer-like behavior as a youth: He was apparently a frequent fugitive from Sunday school, and the fearless explorer of the cave and a treasure island, both made famous in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

One of the boyhood friends named in the article below was Tom Blankenship. Late in life, Twain identified him as the model for Huckleberry Finn. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person — boy or man — in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us. And as his society was forbidden us by our parents the prohibition trebled and quadrupled its value, and therefore we sought and got more of his society than any other boy’s.”

The Friends of Mark Twain’s Boyhood

“The Friends of Mark Twain’s Boyhood ” by Homer Bassford, September 22, 1900

By Homer Bassford

Originally published on September 22, 1900

Most of the boys who went to school with Mark Twain are dead; but in the hills of northeast Missouri one may yet come across white-bearded, pleasant mannered old fellows who played the pranks and knew the hairbreadth ’scapes of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Only a few weeks ago The Saturday Evening Post’s Paris correspondent set forth the interesting fact that Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are on the friendliest of terms with the youth of France. These boys, along with thousands upon thousands of our own boys, will be happy to know that nearly all of the atmosphere that surrounded Huck and Tom is just about as it was fifty years ago, when the boys ranged the hills, the river, the islands and the Cave. Scores of other “Hucks” and “Toms” have come and gone, and many others are doing pretty much the same thing, right now, that the originals did.

If you were to go to Hannibal today and make inquiry for some of the “boys” who went to school with Sam Clemens you would probably be directed to Ed Pierce and Charley Curts. When you hear them spoken of as “Ed” and “Charley” you feel that they must be youngsters yet, and that some trick of time has kept them just as they were when they used to row up to the island and scratch for the Frenchman’s gold. Mr. Curts told me the other day that he was more than seventy years of age. He is over six feet in height, very straight, very carefully dressed and very classical in facial outline. We were standing near the little park of the town when Mr. Curts pointed to a spot in the centre of it.

Where Tom and Becky Were Lost

“Right here,” he said, “stood a one-story, frame schoolhouse. The teacher was Miss Newcomb. Sam Clemens and I learned to spell in that schoolhouse, and on Sundays we went there to church and Sunday-school — when we couldn’t sneak away. That was when we were round about ten and fifteen years old. In the period when we were older Sam and I ran off a good deal and went to the Cave, the same Cave that you read about, the Cave in which Tom and Becky were lost. We always took some fire with us, carefully guarding it from the wind. We managed to get candles somehow, and after we got lighted up we would climb the hill and crawl through the little hole that let light into the long, narrow passage leading to the main part of the mysterious place. We spent hours and hours there, day after day. Sam never tired of exploring the wonderful hallways, rooms and walks. To this day there are portions of it known only to Sam Clemens. Once in a while we hear that Mark Twain is lazy and that as a youngster he put all the work on the other fellow. This isn’t true. He not only did his share of all the work there was to do, but he lent another aid that was beyond the gifts of the others. He used to get a lot of the boys — Ed Pierce, Bill Nash, Ben Coontz, ’Gene Freeman, Ruel Gridley, Tom Blankenship and Joint Meredith — and tell the Arabian Nights stories to us. His father, John M. Clemens, owned the only copy of the book in town, and after Sam had digested it thoroughly he related the whole thing to us, decorated in his own way.”

“Did Mr. Clemens aspire to authorship at that time, or do you recall that he gave any indication of his future course?” I asked Mr. Curts.

“He was the best story-teller among the boys—the best boy story-teller I ever knew; but he wasn’t thinking much about authorship. One time some one patted him on the shoulder and asked, in the usual way:

“What are you going to be, Sammie, when you grow up?’

“‘Haven’t thought much, sir,’ said Sam, ‘but I suppose I’ll grow into a man.’”

One of Mark Twain’s Early Pastime

Mark Twain’s boyhood friends from left to right: standing, Norval L. Brady, Dr. B.Q. Stevens, J.L. Robards; sitting, Moses D. Bates and Elizabeth Frazer. (Photo by Jean Thomlinson Frazer via Library of Congress)

Edward Pierce is a bit younger than Mark Twain, but he always managed to be present when the Arabian Nights stories were going around, and many a time he helped to dig for gold on Treasure Island. When Ed Pierce, Sam Clemens, Bill Nash and Ruel Gridley were boys together there was a mill near which the youngsters loved to gather. This mill was in the centre of a narrow valley, and at the top of the long, steep inclines that ran away from it were great stones, tossed there in bygone ages by the wondrous hand of Nature.

“Sam Clemens and the others of us used to tear those stones loose,” said Ed Pierce on a recent Sunday, “sometimes working days and nights together to get a particularly big one free. Then we’d start her down the hill. One time we cut loose a whaler, and, when we saw the course it was taking, we began to in our boots. It would hit the mill. Once the stone struck a flat place on the slope and we held our breathing in the hope that it would stop. We grabbed each other by the shirt-sleeves and strained our eyes as the great rock paused, wobbled, struck a smaller rock and then, with a whirl to one side, set off to the bottom with a speed that would have filled our hearts with joy if the mill “ad not been there.

“Mebbe she’ll hit something an’ turn out,’ Sam suggested.

“Sure enough, at that instant the rolling stone struck a small boulder and shot twenty feet down a side course, but our relief was of short life, for there was yet another boulder in just the right position to restore the course of our big one. While we were watching, the head miller appeared at one of the doors. He grasped the situation in an instant and, calling his helpers out, he and the others ran for their lives. Sam and I waited for the stone to strike. It went through the wall and landed far inside the mill. Then we got away. Many times we sent rocks down that hill. As I look back at it, I wonder that we didn’t kill some one.”

Mark Twain’s Broad Range of Studies

Not many years ago – less than fifteen perhaps —Mr. Clemens went to Hannibal for the purpose of spending a short time amid the scenes of his boyhood. In the course of his visit he was much in the company of his lifelong friend, Colonel RoBards, who is one of the pillars of the community. With Colonel RoBards he made a tour of the churches one bright Sunday morning, taking particular interest in the children. At the place of his first visit the host told the Sunday-school Superintendent that the distinguished visitor would be glad to address the little folks. Mr. Clemens at once grew reminiscent. He was glad to be home again, back among the hills of his early youth, where he knew every rock and gully. It was good to be in the old home Sunday school again. Here Colonel Robards and the Superintendent exchanged glances of doubt.

“Yes,” continued the speaker, “ and you must know how it delights me to be in this Sunday-school where every bench is to me as an old friend. I sat right over there where the stove used to be—right in that seat where the little girl with the red dress is now. Ah, how it all comes back to me!”

Then Colonel Robards pulled at the famous man’s coat-tails and indicated that it was time to hurry on. At the next Sunday school Mr. Clemens was soon on his feet.

“My dear friends,” he said, “ I’m so happy to be here again, close to scenes I once knew so well, for right there, within twenty feet of where I stand, is the seat in which I used to sit with Charley Curts “ (or some one equally well known). “ How well I remember it all!”

Colonel Robards blushed for his guest and begged a pressure of time as an excuse for leaving. When the two were safely out of The church, Colonel Robards turned on him.

“See here, Sam,” he said, “you never went to Sunday-school in that church. It wasn’t there when you lived in Hannibal, or the other one, either, for that matter.”

“Goodness me! Can that be so?” Mr. Clemens exclaimed. “ How time does fly!”

Then the two visited a third church, a spic and span new one of which the congregation was very proud. Mr. Clemens, as soon as his presence became known, was duly pressed for a few remarks.

“I can only say,” he said, “ that I am very happy to be here this morning. The sight of this magnificent edifice recalls to my mind other days than this. It brings to my thoughts another group of youngsters, hardly as well dressed as these bright-faced boys and girls, but all quite as anxious to become good men and women. I was one of them. My seat was over there near where the boy with a red necktie is sitting. Indeed, I think it must be the same seat.”

Then, walking closer, as if to scrutinize the place more carefully, he said, “ Yes, it’s the same.”

“Come on,” said Colonel Robards. “ It’s time to go to dinner.”

The Surprising and Familiar Mark Twain

He was America’s best known author when he died, as he is today. But in the 101 years since his death, Mark Twain’s reputation has been so polished by admiring generations that it’s taken on a rich, unnatural luster. It’s hard to distinguish the man from the legend.

Fortunately we have contemporary accounts of Twain, which give a touch of human dimension to the Great Man. One of these contemporaries was the drama critic Brander Matthews. In 1920, he wrote his “Memories of Mark Twain” for the Post, which told of their 30-year friendship.

Much of his account agrees with the popular image of the man. For example, there is his ready wit in public speaking:

A score of American men of letters were invited [to a dinner with Andrew Carnegie] and half a dozen of us were summoned to stand and deliver. When Mark’s turn came, he soared aloft in whimsical exaggeration, casually dropping a reference to the time when he had lent Carnegie a million dollars.

Our smiling host promptly interjected: “That had slipped my memory!”

And Mark looked down on him solemnly, and retorted, “Then, the next time, I’ll take a receipt.”

He referred to Twain’s love of tobacco:

He was an incessant smoker, yet he was wont to say that he never smoked to excess— that is, he never smoked two cigars at once and he never smoked when he was asleep. But [William Dean] Howells has recorded that when Mark came to visit him, he used to go into Mark’s room at night to remove the still lighted cigar from the lips of his sleeping guest.

But Matthews also saw aspects of Twain that are less well known, such as his desire to be taken seriously.

Many of those who have written about him have dealt with him solely as a humorist, overlooking the important fact that a large part of his work is not laughter-provoking and not intended to be.

[He once told me] “I’m glad that you…have been telling people that I am serious. When I make a speech now, I find that they are a little disappointed if I don’t say some things that are serious; and that just suits me—for I have so many serious things I want to say!”

And there was a surprisingly resentful side to Twain, which nearly ended his friendship with Matthews. After Matthews had publicly taken a position different from Twain’s—

I soon heard from more than one of our common friends that Mark was acutely dissatisfied; and when I next met him, he was distant in his manner—and I might even describe it as chilly. Of course, I regretted this; but I could only hope that his fundamental friendliness would warm him up sooner or later.

Twain with Brander Matthews and the editor of Harper's Magazine, Laurence Hutton

I knew that Mark had a hair-trigger temper and that he was swift to let loose all the artillery of heaven to blow a foe from off the face of the earth. I was aware moreover that a professional humorist is not infrequently a little deficient in that element of the sense-of-humor which guards a man against taking himself too seriously. I had been told also that Mark, genial as he was, and long suffering as he often was, could be a good hater, superbly exaggerating the exuberance of his ill-will. His old friend, Twitchell, once wrote him about a piece of bad luck which had befallen a man who had been one of Mark’s special antipathies; and Mark wrote back:

“I am more than charmed to hear of it; still, it doesn’t do me half the good it would have done if it had come sooner. My malignity has so worn out and wasted away with time and the exercise of charity that even his death would not afford me anything more than a mere fleeting ecstasy, a sort of momentary, pleasurable titillation, now—unless of course, it happened in some particularly radiant way, like burning or boiling or something like that. Joys that come to us after the capacity for enjoyment is dead are but an affront.”

But this was Twain being outrageous—something he did well and something he was encouraged to do. In fact, Twain could barely manage to hold a grudge very long. Not a year passed before Twain put aside his resentment when he met Matthews again at an artist’s retreat.

Within a week after our arrival Mark stepped up on our porch, as pleasantly as if there had never been a cloud on our friendship,

“I hear you play a French game called piquet,” he began. “I wish you would teach me.” And we taught him, although it was no easy task, since he was forever wanting to make over the rules of the game to suit his whim of the moment—a boyish trait which I soon discovered to be entirely characteristic.

Waiting for the Next Twain

Halley’s Comet appears in 1835; Mark Twain is born.

Halley’s Comet returns in 1910; Mark Twain dies.

Halley’s Comet re-appears in 1986—perhaps to interfere with the course of American humor again.

For all we know, the next great American humorist was born with its return and is now 23 years old. Since Mark Twain didn’t achieve national fame until he was 34, we’ll have to wait for 2020 to see if a comet-influenced successor has arrived.

Until the next Twain shows up, Americans must content themselves with the 24 volumes of the original’s complete works and the scores of books that contain his letters, speeches, and notes. That should be plenty, but it’s not. Even after 99 years, America’s enthusiasm for Twain doesn’t appear to be fading.

Scholars at The Mark Twain Papers, housed at the University of California at Berkeley, have been hunting through his works, which include 600 unpublished manuscripts. But after years of searching, it doesn’t appear that they’ll discover another Innocents Abroad or Huckleberry Finn.

Still, there’s always the hope a new Twain will emerge from America’s young writers.  Again and again, publishers have hailed some new humorist as “the next Mark Twain,” though the reputations of many of these contenders barely outlived them. Who, today, reads George Ade, Irvin Cobb, Kin Hubbard, John Kendrick Bangs, and Ellis Parker Butler?

Will Rogers looked like a promising successor in the 1920s, but he was more of a successful columnist than a “literary humorist.” Then there was H. L. Mencken, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, S. J. Perlman, Dorothy Parker, Art Buchwald, Erma Bombeck, and on, and on—all expected to be the next Mark Twains.

The line of contenders stretches clear out of one century and into another. More recently, critics have nominated humorists like Calvin Trillin, Veronica Geng, Dave Berry, Ian Frazier, Roy Blount, and of course, Garrison Keillor. But Keillor, like the others, doesn’t want to be another humorist’s successor, as flattering as that might be. No humorist wants to walk in another’s shadow any more than they want to be the second person to tell a funny story.

We need to love the humorists we’ve got because we’re not likely to see another Mark Twain. Any successor would have to be truly funny to several generations—and this rules out most contenders. The successor would have to attempt great things and risk failure to make humor do what it had never done before, to raise laughs and raise awareness. Finally, the successor would have to convey Twain’s sense of fresh enjoyment—the way he makes reader feel the joy he experienced when he was writing.

So what is the connection between Mark Twain and the Post?

Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, said The Saturday Evening Post played a vital role in the humorist’s early career. Back then, Sam Clemens was a teenage boy, years away from adopting his pen name. Working for his brother’s newspaper, Paine says, when he inserted a poem without his brother’s permission:

“It was addressed ‘To Mary in Hannibal,’ but the title was too long to be set in one column, so he left out all the letters in Hannibal, except the first and the last, and supplied their place with a dash, with a startling result. Such were the early flickerings of a smoldering genius. Orion returned, remonstrated, and apologized. He reduced Sam to the ranks. In later years he saw his mistake.

“‘I could have distanced all competitors even then,’ he said, ‘if I had recognized Sam’s ability and let him go ahead, merely keeping him from offending worthy persons.’

“Sam was subdued, but not done for. He never would be, now. He had got his first taste of print, and he liked it. He promptly wrote two anecdotes which he thought humorous and sent them to the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post. They were accepted—without payment, of course, in those days; and when the papers containing them appeared he felt suddenly lifted to a lofty plane of literature. This was in 1851.

“‘Seeing them in print was a joy which rather exceeded anything in that line I have ever experienced since,’ he said, nearly sixty years later.”

We must thank Mr. Twain for the compliment, but it never happened. When he dictated his memoirs to Paine in 1907, the Post was the nation’s most successful magazine, and Twain liked to think it had printed his fledgling work long, long ago.

Alas, the Post didn’t have that honor. By way of reparation, we now offer the piece we should have run in 1851. It tells of a fire that started next door to the newspaper office and the gallantry of the printer’s “devil” (apprentice). You may find the voice of the 16-year-old Sam sounds surprisingly similar to the adult Twain.

The Gallant Fireman

At the fire, on Thursday morning, we were apprehensive of our own safety, (being only one door from the building on fire) and commenced arranging our material in order to remove them in case of necessity. Our gallant devil, seeing us somewhat excited, concluded he would perform a noble deed, and immediately gathered the broom, an old mallet, the wash-pan and a dirty towel, and in a fit of patriotic excitement, rushed out of the office and deposited his precious burden some ten squares off, out of danger. Being of a snailish disposition, even in his quickest moments, the fire had been extinguished during his absence. He returned in the course of an hour, nearly out of breath, and thinking he had immortalized himself, threw his giant frame in a tragic attitude, and exclaimed, with an eloquent expression: “If that thar fire hadn’t bin put out thar’d a’ bin the greatest confirmation of the age!”

(from Early Tales and Sketches: 1851-1864 by Mark Twain, University of California Press, 1979.)