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Mark Twain In Hartford: The Happy Years
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
So Samuel Clemens had reached the half-century mark; reached it in what seemed the fullness of success from every viewpoint. If he was not yet the foremost American man of letters, he was at least the most widely known—he sat upon the highest mountain-top. Furthermore, it seemed to him that fortune was showering her gifts into his lap. His unfortunate investments were now only as the necessary experiments that had led him to larger successes. As a publisher, he was already the most conspicuous in the world, and he contemplated still larger ventures: a typesetting machine patent, in which he had invested, and now largely controlled, he regarded as the chief invention of the age, absolutely certain to yield incalculable wealth. His connection with the Grant family [Twain’s firm had published the General’s memoirs] had associated him with an enterprise looking to the building of a railway from Constantinople to the Persian Gulf. Charles A. Dana, of the Sun, had put him in the way of obtaining for publication the life of the Pope, Leo XIII, officially authorized by the Pope himself, and this he regarded as a certain fortune.
Twain had most of his money invested in the Paige type-setting machine and the Charles L. Webster Publishing Company. Katy Leary tells of his hopes for the machine:
Well, now I’ll tell you about the type-setting machine. That’s a long story. Mr. Clemens’ heart was just set on that, he believed in it so. He was expecting such wonderful things from it. Why, he thought he could buy all New York. He was asking how much it would take to buy all the railroads in New York, and all the newspapers, too—buy everything in New York on account of that type-setting machine. He thought he’d make millions and own the world, because he had such faith in it. That was Mr. Clemens’ way.
Howells explains the eventual end of these hopes:
He was … absorbed in the perfection of a type-setting machine, which he was paying the inventor a salary to bring to a perfection so expensive that it was practically impracticable. We were both printers by trade, and I could take the same interest in this wonderful piece of mechanism that he could; and it was so truly wonderful that it did everything but walk and talk. Its ingenious creator was so bent upon realizing the highest ideal in it that he produced a machine of quite unimpeachable efficiency. But it was so costly, when finished, that it could not be made for less than twenty thousand dollars, if the parts were made by hand. This sum was prohibitive of its introduction, unless the requisite capital could be found for making the parts by machinery, and Clemens spent many months in vainly trying to get this money together. In the meantime simpler machines had been invented and the market filled, and his investment of three hundred thousand dollars in the beautiful miracle remained permanent but not profitable. I once went with him to witness its performance, and it did seem to me the last word in its way, but it had been spoken too exquisitely, too fastidiously. …
Twain confided to his notebook his exasperation with the machine and its inventors:
December 20, 1890. About three weeks ago the machine was pronounced “finished” by Paige, for certainly the half-dozenth time in the past twelve months. Then it transpired—I mean it was discovered—that North had failed to inspect the period, and it sometimes refused to perform properly. But to correct that error would take just one day, and only one day—the “merest trifle in the world.” I said this sort of mere trifle had interfered often before and had always cost ten times as much time and money as their loose calculations promised. Paige and Davis knew (they always know, never guess) that this correction would cost but one single day. Well, the best part of two weeks went by. I dropped in (last Monday noon) and they were still tinkering. Still tinkering, but just one hour, now, would see the machine at work, blemishless, and never stop again for a generation; the hoary old song that has been sung to weariness in my ears by these frauds and liars!
Twain’s publishing house was also in distress, for the much-vaunted life of the Pope had proved a commercial failure. Clara wrote:
A few years before he had sunk most of his earnings in the Charles L. Webster Publishing Company, for a time a successful concern. Owing to bad business years, bad investments and mismanagement, however, the publishing house was rapidly losing ground. Its fall would cause my father financial losses, grave losses, indeed. Therefore, it was decided we should go to Europe, where we could live more reasonably until something should be done to improve our straitened situation.
An Idyl’s Tragic Ending
In 1891, the family left for Europe. Paine described their last day in Hartford:
… the maintenance was far too costly for his present and prospective income. The house with its associations of seventeen incomparable years must be closed. A great period had ended. … The day came for departure and the carriage was at the door. Mrs. Clemens did not come immediately. She was looking into the rooms, bidding a kind of silent good-by to the home she had made and to all its memories.
Three years later, Twain’s publishing house went bankrupt. On April 20, 1894, the Hartford Courant reported:
MARK TWAIN’S FAILURE Talk of the Street—Some Rumors set Right.