- Historic Sites
Our Neighbor Mark Twain
The years the famous writer spent in their town were magic to a young boy and his sister.
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
I went to the Umpawaug Chapel as soon as I could and borrowed Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc . At first I thought that Mr. Grumman, the librarian, had made a mistake. The title page stated that the book was by the Sieur Louis de Conte, Joan of Arc’s page and secretary, and that it was a translation from the French. But it was not a mistake. Mr. Grumman explained that the Sieur Louis de Conte was another pen name for Mark Twain. But the secret was soon out. A few literary notables, including William Dean Howells, the Harper’s staff, and Andrew Lang in England, were “in the know,” and besides, the character of Paladin was a French incarnation of Tom Sawyer.
The book had puzzled critics and readers alike. What had happened to Mark Twain? Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was not a satiric spoof of the Middle Ages. His medieval France was sufficiently accurate as history, and he had canonized the Maid of Orleans a quarter of a century before her liturgical canonization. He had “come to comprehend and recognize her for what she was —the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only one,” to quote the fictional Sieur Louis de Conte, Mark Twain’s mask.
I enjoyed Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc as a boy. It was high romance, far more dramatic and interesting than The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer , or Huckleberry Finn , which I also enjoyed. I have read it several times since and greatly enjoy it still. It was the only one of his books dedicated to his adored wife—in honor of their twentyfifth wedding anniversary.
Often he wore his cap and gown as he sat smoking and thinking up savage things to say.
On June 26, 1907, Oxford University conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Literature. Henry James had to wait several years for a like distinction. Mark Twain was immensely proud of the honor and frequently wore his gown and cap—at Clara’s wedding, for instance—and often enough when only sitting on his terrace or in the loggia, smoking and thinking up savage things to say about the human race—to be published fifty years after his death.
One day in 1909 my little sister Adelaide, who claimed full ownership of our goat, disappeared with the beast for several hours. Mother was frantic, imagining an accident. When Adelaide reappeared, she was greatly excited. “Mama, I went to see Mr. Mark Twain to give him a ride with Billy and he had on a black nightgown over his clothes and was wearing a square black hat with a gold tassel.”
“You must have interrupted him when he was doing something important,” Mother chided.
“No, Mama, he was just sitting on his porch, smoking. He was very glad to see me and he had a long ride in Billy’s wagon, almost down to Miss Lyon’s house and back. He said he enjoyed it very much and had his butler bring out some carrots for Billy and a chocolate candy for me.”
“I would love to have seen that,” said my mother. “He must have been miserable, cramped up in that goat wagon.”
“No, he wasn’t,” Adelaide said. “He laughed and laughed and said he wished he had a picture of it.”
He told my father that the goat ride with Adelaide’s Billy had pleased him more than anything since his Oxford degree, surely a gross exaggeration.
Early in the morning of December 24, 1909, Jean Clemens died in her bathtub after her usual morning ride to West Redding for the mail. The family doctor attributed her sudden death to heart failure. It was a great blow to all of us who loved her. We heard the news that evening en route to Georgetown in Ben Banks’s carryall to perform in a Nativity cantata in the Congregational church. We cried all the way but we had to sing, nevertheless. I had the role of the herald angel and had to sing a long aria that went up and down the soprano scale. I loved to sing, but not that night.
Mark Twain did not recover from that blow. After writing The Death of Jean , a beautiful tribute and threnody, he went to Bermuda for several weeks. Suffering from a heart condition, he soon returned to Redding, but we never saw him again. He died the twenty-first of April 1910 in his home, Stormfield. He left all his books to the library he had promoted except those that Clara might want to keep. She chose only a few, those she and her sisters had studied or enjoyed, and a collection of her father’s first editions. All the rest are in the Mark Twain Library, dedicated to the memory of Jean.
We in Redding were somewhat prepared for Mark Twain’s death. He had predicted that he “would go with Halley’s comet” since he had been born with it. The great comet appeared shortly after his death, remaining for many months. We children used to watch the beautiful new thing in the heavens with its long tail filling the evening sky. For us it was Mark Twain’s star.