The Young Mark Twain: Amusing Scoundrel, Storytelling Genius, or Both?

When writing under his pseudonym “Mark Twain,” Sam Clemens liked to present himself as an amusing scoundrel: self-centered, irreverent, often blasphemous, and thoroughly lazy.

Readers believed he was none of these things. The sheer volume of his literary output argued for his industry. And anyone who read his works knew the author was a broadminded humanitarian, earnestly concerned for the downtrodden of the world. True, he had a cynical streak and was blisteringly critical of religions, but no one doubted his devotion as a husband and father.

But that was the mature writer. As a young man, Clemens often showed traits that more closely resembled the comical Twain. According to the man with whom Clemens shared a cabin and silver mine, the 26-year-old Twain was indolent, irresponsible, and self-serving — but entertaining.

Michael J. Phillips’ Post article, “Mark Twain’s Partner,” which appeared in 1920, cites Calvin Higbie’s reminiscences of young Sam Clemens.

In 1861, Clemens unexpectedly showed up at Higbie’s cabin. He’d been sent by his older brother, Orion, to work a mine Orion and Higbie jointly owned.

To Higbie, Twain seemed brash, presumptuous, and lazy. He spent his days on the upper bunk bed — which had been Higbie’s before Twain appropriated it — telling one story after another. Higbie couldn’t stay irritated with the young man, though, because the stories were so entertaining. In fact, Higbie found he was spending so much time listening to Twain he wasn’t getting his own work done.

Twain wasn’t idle, however. In these days, he began writing pieces that were published in the Virginia City Enterprise. Some of them were recycled in the book Roughing It, Twain’s account of his life in the west.

He wrote how he and Higbie had made and lost a fortune when he failed to file a claim on a rich mine.

As Twain tells it, Higbie left him a note in their cabin directing him to file the claim, but Twain found it too late. Before he could reach the county office, others had claimed the mine.

Higbie’s version disagrees. He claims that Twain first agreed to file the claim, but then became distracted and simply forgot to complete the paperwork.

Who are we to believe?

We don’t know Higbie, but we know Twain and his genius for storytelling. Roughing It isn’t autobiographical, but rather a creative work that contains travel writing, anecdotes, and tall tales.

Both men claim Twain was responsible for losing the mine, but it didn’t appear to ruin their friendship. In the Post article, Higbie offered a good excuse for Twain not filing a deed for the mine. Twain, for his part, dedicated Roughing It to Higbie, “an honest man, a genial comrade, and a steadfast friend.”

Read the original story of Mark Twain’s partner, Calvin Higbie, in this September 11, 1920 issue of the Post.

Featured image: Library of Congress

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.