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 own words:

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 work.

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 should fight.

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 honesty:

"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 Abroad.

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 proposed beneficiary:

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.

Said he:

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 from them.

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."