The Story of Mark Twain's Debts
by Edwin Watts Chubb
The story of "Mark Twain's Debts" is told in The Bookman by
Frederick A. King. We are permitted to tell the story in Mr. King's
An anecdote is recorded of Mark Twain and General Grant, who, in
company with William D. Howells, once sat together at luncheon, spread
in the General's private office in the purlieus of Wall Street, in the
days when war and statesmanship had been laid aside, and the hero of
battles and civic life was endeavoring to retrieve his scattered
fortunes by a trial of business.
"Why don't you write your memoirs?" asked Mark Twain, mindful of how
much there was to record, and how eager would be the readers of such a
But the General with characteristic modesty demurred, and the point
was not pressed. This was several years before the failure of the firm
of Ward and Grant, which swept away the General's private fortune,
leaving him an old man, broken in health, and filled with anxiety
about the provision for his family after he should be gone.
When the evil days at last came, some memory of the suggestion
dropped by his friend, the humorist—who could be immensely serious,
too, when need be—may have led to the task that, in added contention
with pain and suffering, constituted the last battle that the General
Whatever the influence moving General Grant to the final decision to
compose his memoirs, it happened, to his great fortune, that Mark
Twain again called, and found that the work he had long ago suggested
was at last in progress; but also that the inexperienced writer,
modestly underestimating the commercial value of his forthcoming work,
was about to sign away the putative profits. Fifty thousand dollars
offered for his copyright seemed a generous sum to the unliterary
General Grant, and it took the vehement persuasion of one who was
himself a publisher to convince him that his prospective publishers
would not hesitate at quadrupling that sum rather than lose the chance
of publishing the book.
When the conjecture was proven true, the General with characteristic
generosity, withdrew the contract from his prospective publishers and
placed it in the hands of the firm that Mark Twain headed. All the
provisions were amply fulfilled; for when Mark Twain paid his last
visit to the stricken author at the place of sojourn on Mount
McGregor, he brought to the now speechless sufferer the smile of
happiness and satisfaction by saying: "General, there is in the bank
now royalties on advanced sales aggregating nearly $300,000. It is at
Mrs. Grant's order."
The anecdote is given at this length because, taken in connection
with subsequent events dealing with General Grant's benefactor, it
points a forceful illustration of the irony of fortune. There came a
day when the very instrument by which Mark Twain was enabled to
provide a peaceful close to the life of a brave warrior, and to
guarantee affluence for his family, delivered himself a stroke that
dissipated his own fortune at a time when age is supposed to have
absorbed the vigor for a new grapple with destinies.
In 1884 the publishing firm of C.L. Webster and Company was organized
to publish the works of Mark Twain. Of this firm Mark Twain was
president; but he took little active part in the management of its
affairs. Able to conceive in broad outlines successful policies, he
was singularly deficient in the power to handle the details of their
execution. On April 18, 1894, the firm whose business enterprises had
always figured in large sums through the immense popularity of the
author-publisher's own works, the Memoirs of General Grant, and the
Life of Pope Leo, made an assignment for the benefit of its
creditors. The bankrupt firm acknowledged liabilities approximating
$80,000. What in the ordinary view of commercial affairs would have
furnished but one item in the list of failures which record the
misfortunes of ninety per cent who engage in business, became in this
instance a notable case through the eminence of the chief actor.
What might he have done?
The law could lay claim upon his personal assets. To surrender these
possessions proved no act of self-sacrifice, considering his wife's
fortune, upon which the law had no claim. His wife, however, joined
him in the act of renunciation, and they stood together penniless.
Beyond this point there could be no legal, and, to many minds, no
moral responsibility for the debts of his firm. One can speculate upon
the force of the temptation to take advantage of the position. Mark
Twain was sixty years old, and ill at that. Having sacrificed all he
possessed to meet the demands of his creditors, he might justly claim
the benefit of what remained of capacity for wealth-producing labor.
His own words in reply to a slander which insinuated that he had set
to work again for his own benefit are splendid for inspiration and
"The law recognizes no mortgage on a man's brain, and a merchant who
has given up all he has may take advantage of the laws of insolvency,
and start free again for himself; but I am not a business man, and
honor is a harder master than the law. It cannot compromise for less
than a hundred cents on the dollar."
... The great parallel case to the one here under examination is that
of Sir Walter Scott, who lost his all through the failure of his
printers, the Ballantynes, and between January, 1826, and January,
1828, earned for his creditors nearly £40,000. In the early stages of
this trial he suffered acutely from the attitude of his friends, and
he records in his diary how some would smile as if to say: "Think
nothing about it, my lad; it is quite out of our thoughts;" how others
adopted an affected gravity "such as one sees and despises at a
funeral," while the best bred "just shook hands and went on."
How the world treated Mark Twain we learn from the speech at the
banquet given by the Lotus Club on his return from his arduous journey
around the world: "There were ninety-six creditors in all, and not by
a finger's weight did ninety-five out of the ninety-six add to the
burden of that time."
"'Don't you worry, and don't you hurry,' was what they said." With the
courage of a man buffeted, but not beaten, he gathered himself up for
"one more last try for fortune and fair fame." In the latter part of
1895 he started out on a tour of the English-speaking countries of the
world to give lectures and readings from his own works.
There were misgivings, of course, as to the success of the venture.
Here was a field not absolutely untried, but not hitherto cultivated
to the point of assured success. In 1873 he had made a lecture tour in
England and in 1885 had given platform readings in company with George
W. Cable. But age had sapped the zest for public appearance, and he
was skeptical of his power to move people with interest in his books.
Moreover, there was a further thing to be considered, a possible
impediment to success among the English colonies which he proposed to
visit. His popularity with Englishmen had never been great, owing to
the liberties he had taken with that nation's people in Innocents
The latter apprehension was the more remote, however, for, starting
from New York, he had a continent to traverse before embarking for the
shores that held for him an uncertain welcome. To test his ability to
interest an audience, to "try it on the dog," as they say in
theatrical parlance, he subjected himself to the severest test
possible, crossed to Randall's Island and read before a company of
boys. Unsophisticated by the lecturer's reputation as a humorist, the
boys proved to be the organs of sincerest testimony to the permanence
of the old power to amuse, and the first public appearance in
Cleveland, Ohio, was undertaken with fewer misgivings.
From Vancouver, Mark Twain sailed for Sidney and gave readings before
the English-speaking communities of Australia; then continued on to
Tasmania, New Zealand, Ceylon, India and South Africa.
His fears as to his welcome among Englishmen were proved to be
groundless. In Australia, great as was his success as a lecturer, his
personal success outweighed even that, and the market on his books was
exhausted. We cannot follow him on this trip of mingled arduous labor
and personal satisfaction. The humorous reactions of his homely vision
upon the quaint, the bizarre, the pretentious, aspects of life in
remote parts of the world may be read in his own record of this
journey, Following the Equator. There are few things to record of
this great effort to pay his debts.
In India he was taken ill, but the disease was not severe. In June,
1897, when he had circled the globe and had settled for a time in
London, cablegrams came from that city announcing his mental and
physical collapse. The English-speaking world was stricken with
sympathy, and the New York Herald at once began a subscription fund
for his relief. The report was contradicted at once, but admiration
for the author's strenuous effort seemed to grow, and the Herald
fund was assuming generous proportions when the following
characteristic message declining to accept the relief came from the
I was glad when you instituted that movement, for I was tired
of the fact and worry of debt, but I recognized that it is not
permissible for a man whose case is not hopeless to shift his
burden to other men's shoulders.
In November of the same year a report was circulated that he was out
of debt, but from Vienna, whither he had gone to live, came a laconic
cablegram nailing the optimistic impeachment:
Lie. Wrote no such letters. Still deeply in debt.
Nearly half of the original indebtedness needed to be paid, and here,
with scarcely an opposing voice in judgment, he might have waived the
claim upon himself for his firm's responsibilities, but he avowed that
he would pay dollar for dollar.
The time of accomplishment was not long in coming. When the
undertaking was begun, it was with the resolution to clear up the debt
in three years. Allowing for the unexpected, it was feared it would
take four, then at the age of sixty-four a new start in life would be
open to the author, who might point to a considerable occupancy of
space on library shelves and regard a life work accomplished. It took
but two years and a half to pay the debt. He began the effort the
latter part of 1895 and finished it in the early part of 1898.
His return to America and his home in 1900 was, in the unromantic
procedure of our self-conscious days, of the nature of a triumph. He
was formally welcomed by the Lotus Club, and, of course, as delicately
as might be, he was praised for his honesty. His reply to compliment
was a generous recognition of social virtue, which renders easier such
an effort as he made.
Your president has referred to certain burdens which I was
weighted with. I am glad he did, as it gives me an opportunity
which I wanted. To speak of those debts—you all knew what he
meant when he referred to it, and to the poor bankrupt firm of
C.L. Webster and Company. No one has said a word about those
creditors. There were ninety-six creditors in all, and not by
a finger's weight did ninety-five out of the ninety-six add to
the burden of that time. They treated me well; they treated me
handsomely. I never knew I owed them anything; not a sign came
The story is one of simple elements, and suits the prosaic character
of our age. It does not match Sir Walter's for romance. There was no
such brain-racking work; no forcing of the phantasmal multitude of the
poet's brain to dance to pay the expenses of the funeral; no mediæval
castle to sacrifice; no tragic failure of the ultimate goal. What
there is of real romance seems obscured by the facts of more or less
safe speculation upon assured futures. It was a safe business venture.
The hero was not unworthy of the praises which his peers at the Lotus
dinner were glad to lavish. Said St. Clair McKelway:
"He has enough excess and versatility to be a genius. He has enough
quality and quantity of virtues to be a saint. But he has honorably transmuted his genius into work, whereby it has been brought into
relations with literature and with life. And he has preferred warm
fellowship to cool perfection, so that sinners love him and saints are
content to wait for him."