“Honor is a harder master than the law”

They thought Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) was too old to pay everybody back

Sam Clemens, true to his word.

Sam Clemens left his family’s Paris residence, went to New York, and on Wednesday afternoon, April 18,1894 filed for bankruptcy. “Cheer up,” he wrote his wife Livy, “the worst is yet to come.”

Although his travel books and novels were immensely popular, and he had published the bestselling memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Clemens (which is how one refers to him about his personal life) was a poor businessman. Moreover, he invested such profits as he made in inventions which didn’t pan out. The worst was a typesetter invented by James W. Paige, an example of which can be seen in the Mark Twain Home, Hartford, Connecticut. If this typesetter had worked, it would have been a wonder, but it was so complicated that it could never be kept working for long. What hopes Clemens had of averting bankruptcy were dashed during the Panic of 1893 when some 16,000 businesses failed.

Clemens owed 96 creditors $94,000, plus $65,000 of his wife’s money which had been loaned to these ventures. This was an overwhelming amount of debt.

At the time of his bankruptcy, Clemens was 58 and in ill health, so his prospects for paying the debts looked bleak. He was fortunate that a friend, Henry Rogers, a partner in Standard Oil, offered to help deal with creditors and handle his finances. One of Rogers’ achievements was to keep the literary copyrights out of creditor negotiations and in Livy’s name. The Clemens and Rogers agreed that the creditors must be repaid in full. As Clemens explained, “honor is a harder master than the law.”

By February 1895, Clemens finished two books: Tom Sawyer, Detective and Joan of Arc. He told Rogers, “I am in a sort of physical collapse.”

Rogers negotiated the publishing contracts, but it soon became clear that publishing income alone wouldn’t be enough to keep creditors at bay. Clemens had to go back on the lecture circuit which he had done successfully before. A world tour was the best bet to pay off his creditors, but such tours were exhausting. Travel was slow. There were many connections to make, and every connection meant hauling lots of luggage, especially for women – because of Sam’s poor health, it made sense for him to have Livy and daughter Clara along.

“Most grime on clothing was external, caused by street filth and air pollution,” explained scholar Robert Cooper who chronicled the itinerary of the world tour in Around the World with Mark Twain (2000). Horse-drawn vehicles splashed clothes with mud. Horse droppings, which were hard to avoid, and the dirt and mud of the streets, then mostly unpaved, soiled trouser cuffs or the hems of long dresses. Coal smoke, from cooking and heating as well as from industrial users, smudged clothes as well. So the Victorian custom of changing for the evening meal was not an affectation…

“When washing or cleaning a dress, it was common practice to open up the seams, even elaborate garments with forty or fifty yards of fabric, lay out all the sections on a clean table, smooth out the creases, scrub each side with soapy water and then rinse (or, if the dress could not be washed, apply a cleaning agent such as gin), before sewing the sections back together. Since cleaning was often time-consuming, travelers had to pack enough garments so that they could wear clean clothes while dirt was being removed from the soiled ones.” As a result, a tour such as Clemens contemplated meant going around the world with 16 pieces of hand luggage and many large steamer trunks.

His daughter Clara later recalled how he anguished about “the hellish struggle it was to settle on making that lecture trip around the world? How we fought the idea, the horrible idea, the heart-breaking idea…I am almost an old man, with ill health, carbuncles, bronchitis and rheumatism…with patience worn to rags, I was to pack my bag and be jolted around the devil’s universe…”

Clemens wrote his friend James B. Pond, one of America’s most successful lecture who had arranged a previous tour for him in 1884 and 1885. Pond agreed to range another one across the northern United States and to accompany him, so he could concentrate on his presentations. Pond would get a quarter of the profits. As biographer Justin Kaplan reported in Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966), “confined to his bed for three weeks with carbuncles and gout and half expecting to start his travels on a stretcher, Clemens prepared his programs and worked over his itinerary.” He said, “I am confident that if I live I can pay off the last debt within four years.

What would the program be? A lecture? A reading? Earlier in his career, he recalled in his autobiography (Charles Neider edition), “I supposed it would only be necessary to do like Dickens – get out on the platform and read from the book. I did that and made a botch of it. Written things are not for speech; their form is literary; they are stiff, inflexible, and will not lend themselves to happy and effective delivery with the tongue – where their purpose is to merely entertain, not instruct; they have to be limbered up, broken up, colloquialized and turned into the common forms of unpremeditated talk – otherwise they will bore the house, not entertain it…I memorized those pieces, and in delivering them from the platform they soon transformed themselves into flexible talk, with all their obstructing preciseness and formalities gone out of them for good.”

He added, “in reading from the book you are telling another person’s tale at secondhand; you are a mimic and not the person involved; you are an artificiality, not a reality; whereas in telling the tale without the book, you absorb the character and presently become the man himself, just as is the case with the actor.”

Fred W. Lorch, whose book The Trouble Begins at Eight (1968) chronicled Mark Twain’s lecture career, reported that he knew “people wanted a lecturer to give them something solid, something educational, something that would improve them. And that was what he had come to do. He proposed to teach morals by the use of illustrations. He had a theory that a person should prize as priceless every crime, every transgression he commits – that is, the lesson he derives from it. By impressing the lesson of the crime upon his mind and heart, a person would never commit that crime again…

“Mark Twain then proceeded to illustrate some of the principles which he asserted he had learned in his own rise toward moral perfection (he was now, he said, more than two-thirds on his way up there and had not much further to go) by introducing various stories and anecdotes from his own writings.” Since he would be scheduled to lecture two or three times in some cities and towns, he needed an adequate repertoire of stories.

“The Jumping Frog and the story of the Mexican Plug,” Lorch continued, “were offered to teach a person never to put faith in a passing stranger; Jim Baker’s Blue Jay, whatever you do, do with all your heart; The History of a Campaign Trail That Failed, discretion is the better part of valor; Tom Sawyer’s Crusade To Rescue the Holy Land, don’t argue matters beyond your comprehension; the Corpse in His Father’s Office, learn to gauge you courage early; The Awful German Language, the necessity of teaching patience; Huck Helps Jim Escape, a sound heart is better than a deformed conscience; The Christening of Mary Ann, don’t jump to conclusions; The Smallpox story, a fellow has to start early in life if he wants to do right…”

On July 14, 1895, Sam, Livy and Clara Clemens boarded a train from Elmira, New York, where the family spent summers, to Cleveland where the tour would begin the next day. Then they went to Sault Ste. Marie, Mackinac and Petoskey, Michigan; Deluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Butte, Anaconda, Helena, Missoula and Great Falls, Montana; Spokane, Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. Ill health plagued Clemens much of the way, and he missed many dinners which had been planned in his honor. But he played to packed houses, sometimes over a thousand people at a time, and by the time he was done with the U.S. leg of his tour he was able to remit some $5,000 to his creditors.

People welcomed him everywhere, which helped lift his spirits amidst the crisis of bankruptcy. Everybody knew his books Innocents Abroad (1869), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). And of course, Mark Twain had become a famous attraction on the lecture circuit ever since his first lecture in San Francisco back on October 2, 1866. As he told a newspaper reporter at the end of his U.S. tour, “Lecturing is gymnastics, chest-expander, medicine, mind healer, blues destroyer, all in one.”

Mark Twain on stage was quite a sight. According to Lorch, “For a man sixty years of age and recently ill, his appearance was truly impressive. Bushy white hair circled his head like a halo. The brows were shaggy and thick, the mustache dropped, strongly aquiline, the thin delicate nostrils suggesting nervous sensibility. The eyes, wonderfully keen and piercing, looked out gently from a furrowed, intellectual face. He appeared in full evening dress with a wide unornamental expanse of white shirt, and it occurred to some in the audience that he looked far too civilized to be the author of Roughing It.

“Emerging from the wings, his left hand thrust deep into his trouser pocket, he sauntered slowly toward the reading stand like a man out for a stroll who presently looks up and finds he has company. At times he walked out on stage carrying a glass of water in such a casual and unstudied way as to appear that it was a perfectly natural thing for him to do. Then, stepping to the side of the stand, he stood with folded arms gazing at the audience with quizzical look that betrayed no hint of a smile, and waited for the audience to quiet down…

“His speech was so distinct, clear, and penetrating that he could be heard everywhere in the hall, except occasionally when he lowered his voice. What impressed his audiences most, however, about his manner of speech was his slow, leisurely drawl (a Yankee drawl, as reporters characterized it) and his measured manner of speaking, never repeating or withdrawing a word once uttered.”

From Victoria, British Columbia, the Clemens sailed for Australia. They stopped at Hawaii but couldn’t get off the ship because of a cholera outbreak in Honolulu. Carlyle G. Smythe, one of Australia’s best-known theatrical managers, had arranged a lecture tour through the British Commonwealth. The Clemens arrived in Sydney, Australia on Monday, September 16, 1895. He performed there, in Melbourne, Adelaide, Horsham, Stawell, Ballarat, Bendigo, Maryborough, Geelong and Prahan. On to New Zealand where he performed in Invercargill, Dunedin, Timaru, Oamaru, Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington. Then back to Melbourne and Sydney for more “At Homes.” According to biographer Kaplan, the first two weeks in Australia netted $2,200 for creditors.

“Foreign audiences, like those at home,” Lorch wrote, “were greatly impressed by the distinguished humorist’s subtle and masterful resources for capturing and holding audience interest. They noted, for example, the skillfully used pause, after which invariably followed a graphic word or a meaningful phrase purposely withheld; the serious, imperturbable demeanor; the dead pan expression; the occasional groping for a word, though no one imagined that the word was not instantly at his command; and finally the complete naturalness and simplicity of manner by which he concealed the devices which made them laugh.

“Try as they might, reporters confessed they found it almost impossible adequately to describe the effect which Mark Twain’s performance exerted upon them. What was the magic, they asked themselves, which enabled him for nearly two hours to keep them under his sway? As a lecture it was so utterly out of the ordinary, so unique in material, so delightfully rambling and inconsequential in treatment that no standard came to mind with which it could be critically compared. Even if one were to reproduce his talk verbatim, the magic would be lost; for the reporters quickly sensed that the charm was not primarily in the stories themselves, but rather in the manner of telling, in the techniques and in the whole speaking personality of the humorist. All these blended themselves together so simply and naturally and effortlessly that no amount of specification could supply a true and adequate notion of the effect.

“That Mark Twain was not merely a funny man, a mere laughter-maker, they also perceived. This man sensed the tears in human affairs. He perceived the acute suffering that afflicted the souls of men."

Especially on his overseas tour, Clemens insisted on having time between performances when he could go sight-seeing, because he intended to write a book about his experiences, expected to bring in some money. His book Innocents Abroad, about a tour he took to the Holy Land, had been his first bestseller. Roughing It (1872), another chronicle of his travels, had done well.

At every stop, Clemens met reporters, and many of the details of his world tour came from local newspaper accounts which Fred Lorch pieced together. “The reporters,” he wrote, “frequently observed that he spent a great deal of time in collecting information about the localities he visited and in writing and assembling his notes.”

He found it tough to work because so many people wanted to meet him. Lorch reported, “American consular agents, prominent local and state officials, high ranking military personnel, clubs and organizations which had sponsored his lectures – all invited him to dinners, receptions, and other affairs, often late in the evening after the lecture. If he accepted, it usually meant exhausting hours that robbed him of rest and drained his energies.”

From Australia, the Clemens sailed to Colombo (Ceylon), then India. He performed in Bombay, Poona, Baroda, Allahabad, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Muzaffapur, Lucknow, Cawnpore, Agra, Lahore and Rawalpindi. On to South Africa and performances in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Krugersdorp, Bloemfontein, Queenstown, King William’s Town, East London, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Kimberly and Cape Town.

The Clemens sailed for Southampton, England on July 15, 1896. Three weeks after they arrived, there was terrible news: daughter Susy, who with her sister Jean had remained in the states with their aunt, had died of meningitis at their Hartford, Connecticut home. She was just 24. Clemens didn’t have the heart to give any more lectures. “It is one of the mysteries of our nature,” he said, “that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live.”

He poured his energies into Following the Equator which he finished in May 1897. More than 30,000 copies were sold, and Clemens remarked, “Land, we are glad to see those debts diminishing. For the first time in my life I am getting more pleasure from paying money out than from pulling it in.” Clemens repeatedly thanked Rogers for his help.

By January 1898, Rogers cabled Clemens: “The creditors have all been paid a hundred cents on the dollar.” So Clemens had stepped up to take responsibility for his financial crisis and come through it with his integrity and peace of mind.

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