“Yours Ever, Sam’l Clemens”


You had better shove this in the stove,” twenty-nine-year-old Sam Clemens wrote his older brother, Orion, in 1865, “for … I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.”

The young Clemens might not have appreciated the first two volumes of Mark Twain’s Letters that have now been published by the University of California Press, but the rest of us should be grateful that neither Orion nor a good many of his brother’s other correspondents did as they were told. Both books are models of scrupulous scholarship, containing everything the reader could conceivably want to know: the gross profit of a Manhattan market in the year in which young Sam Clemens bought some fruit there; the dates of arrival and departure for every steamboat on which he served; the title and full publishing history of a book he may have sent his sweetheart.

The first volume begins with an 1853 letter, written home to Hannibal by a distinctly provincial seventeen-year-old in New York City for the first time. “I reckon I had better black my face,” he told his mother, “for in these Eastern States niggers are considerably better than white people.” And it ends in 1866, as the thirty-one-year-old writer and lecturer says good-bye to San Francisco and sets out for the East in search of a publisher.

The second volume covers just two years—1867 and 1868—during which he published his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches , and toured the Holy Land with the determinedly prayerful assemblage he would soon satirize in Innocents Abroad .

Sensibly enough he seems to have saved most of his best stuff for his journals and notebooks and for the articles and books he drew from them. But because he also seems to have been constitutionally unable to give in for long to the admonitions of those, like his mother, who urged him to “tell everything just as it is—no better and no worse—and do let nonsense alone,” his patented comic style shows through his letters often enough to keep you reading:


“I saw Lily Hitchcock in Paris & she was chief among the ten thousand American roses there & altogether lovely. I did so yearn to kiss her for her mother but it was just my luck—her mother was there herself.”

“Train stops every fifteen minutes and stays three quarters of an hour, figure out when it will arrive and meet me.”

“I am not married yet, and I never will marry until I can afford to have servants enough to leave my wife in the position for which I designed her, viz—as a companion . I don’t want to sleep with a three-fold Being who is cook, chambermaid and washerwoman all in one. I don’t mind sleeping with female servants as long as I am a bachelor—by no means … but after I marry, that sort of thing will be ‘played out.’”

Above all, the young man who wrote these letters was restless. “All I do know or feel,” he told his mother as he waited to set sail for the Holy Land, “is, that I am wild with impatience to move—move— Move! … Curse the endless delays! … I wish 1 never had to stop any where a month.”

He very nearly didn’t. During the fifteen roistering years covered by these two collections, Clemens tried printing, piloting, mining, back-room politics, newspaper reporting, short-story writing, and lecturing, and he traveled all over the West and all the way to the Sandwich Islands and back—and was never satisfied, with himself or with the work that had begun to make him famous.

Those who loved him—and he had an extraordinary gift for making friends wherever he went—worried that he would never settle down, never amount to all that he could be. Clemens seems to have agreed. “I never had but two powerful ambitions in my life,” he told Orion in the same 1865 letter he urged be destroyed. “One was to be a pilot, & the other a preacher of the gospel. I accomplished the one & failed the other, because I could not supply myself with the necessary stock in trade— i.e. religion. … I never had a ‘call’ in that direction. … But I have had a ‘call’ to literature, of a low order— i.e. humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit.”

“A good wife,” a wellrmeaning woman friend told him in December 1867, “would be a perpetual incentive to progress.” “& so she would,” Clemens answered, ”—I never thought of that before—progress from house to house because I couldn’t pay the rent. … I want a good wife—I want a couple of them if they are particularly good—but where is the wherewithal?”