UC Berkeley press release


New book by UC Berkeley Twain scholars chronicles Samuel Clemens as he finds fame, juggles work and family

by Gretchen Kell

Berkeley -- Balancing work and family is a modern dilemma, but a new book by Mark Twain scholars at the University of California at Berkeley shows Samuel Clemens struggling with just that problem in the early 1870s as he becomes famous.

"Thirteen more days in England, & then I sail!" he writes his pregnant wife, Olivia, on Dec. 31, 1873, from a London lecture tour. "...And if ever I do have another longing to leave home, even for a week, please dissipate it with a club."

The more than 900-page "Mark Twain's Letters: Vol. 5: 1872-1873" (University of California Press, 1997) contains 309 letters written by Samuel Clemens -- best known by his pen name, Mark Twain -- and other people in his life. About two-thirds of the letters have never before been published.

The campus has the world's largest collection of Clemens's manuscripts, letters and notebooks. This ongoing series of volumes by UC Berkeley's Mark Twain Project is the first attempt to publish and fully annotate the complete letters of Clemens.

But funding woes and downsizing threaten the project's existence. In addition to the $80,000 it receives outright each year from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an additional $150,000 it receives from the NEH annually is a matching offer, and private donations are dwindling. The campus contributes by not charging the project for overhead costs.

"If we don't manage to hold this group together -- most of us have been here since the late '60s -- and to train the next generation of editors," said Robert Hirst, the project's general editor, "there won't be a complete edition of Mark Twain's writings anytime soon."

Editors Lin Salamo and Harriet Elinor Smith produced Volume 5. The letters find Clemens celebrating royalties of more than $10,000 in the first three months from his book "Roughing It," the birth of a daughter, Susy, plans for a new home in Hartford and both national and international fame.

He also starts writing "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer;" co-writes "The Gilded Age," a political satire; makes three trips to Europe and becomes a correspondent for the New York Herald.

During 1872 and 1873, said Smith, Clemens experiences "a pivotal point in his personal development. Before, he had been a shy, reticent man, afraid of how the wealthy and famous perceived him. But in these letters, he realizes he is famous everywhere."

The letters also find the Clemens family mourning the death of their first child, 18-month-old Langdon, who always had been a frail child. He dies on June 2, 1872, shortly after his sister's birth. Samuel Clemens unjustly blames himself for Langdon's death from diphtheria.

"I was the cause of the child's illness," he is quoted as saying in this volume. "His mother trusted him to my care and I took him (for) a long drive.... It was a raw, cold morning, but he was well wrapped about with furs...But I soon dropped into a reverie and forgot all about my charge. The furs fell away and exposed his bare legs...The child was almost frozen."

The family retreats to Fenwick Hall, a waterside resort on Saybrook Point, Connecticut, for the rest of the summer. It is here that 36-year-old Clemens starts writing "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

Isabel Lyon, Clemens's secretary from 1902 to 1909, writes in a letter published in this book as a footnote that Clemens "said that during all the years between boyhood and a summer spent in Saybrook, Connecticut -- 'about 1872' -- when he definitely began to write a book about those boys, he had 'never lost sight of the magic and freedom and careless young life on the river.'"

Later that summer, with plans to write a book about England, Clemens leaves for London. Instead of being able to quietly gather information, he is mobbed by the English, who consider him "by long odds the most widely known & popular American author among the English," he writes his wife.

According to one English newspaper account of Clemens's visit, "all literary London set themselves the task of giving him a good time....He was the sensation of the day. When he rose to speak on these occasions he was greeted with wild cheers."

In October, enjoying England but getting homesick, Clemens attempts to resolve his work/home conflict by writing his wife that "...one of 2 or 3 things must be done: either you must come right over here for 6 months; or I must go right back home 3 or 4 weeks hence & both of us come here April 1 & stay all summer. But I am not going abroad any more without you. It is too dreary when the lights are out and the company gone."

Postponing a lecture series and any further research on his book, he returns home in early November. Back in Hartford, Clemens finds another outlet for his literary skills and humor -- firing off letters and articles to various newspapers on topics including street repair, safety at sea, incompetent juries and political corruption.

On March 30, 1873, he writes the Hartford Courant telling a fictitious story to advocate an end to constant street repairs. In his letter, a group of people trying to maneuver their wagon through Hartford get trapped in "grading and gas-laying improvements, which have been going on in that street since the inauguration of the Christian era" and drown in a sea of water and mud.

Clemens's heightened interest in social issues also prompts him to co-write, with Charles Dudley Warner, "The Gilded Age," a political satire inspired by reports of government corruption and scandal in New York and Washington.

In May 1873, Clemens sails again to England, this time with his family. In addition to researching and lecturing, he also wants to establish residency in Great Britain in order to obtain a valid British copyright.

The Clemenses return to Hartford on Nov. 4, but Samuel Clemens heads back to England alone less than a week later to finish his lecture tour.

"He obviously is concerned about Olivia, who is pregnant, but it's perfectly clear that he's not about to change his plans," said Salamo. "Business is business. He has a book to see through publication and lectures to give."

Sailing overseas was Clemens's way of "focusing on himself and his career," said Salamo. "He spent a lot of his life on a ship going across the Atlantic. It's amazing how often he is away from home. But since the beginning of his life he's been comfortable on ships. Each time, he's gone 10 days to two weeks. He meets people, socializes, feels at ease. For him, it's like being adrift, with his life and home concerns on hold temporarily."

Olivia Clemens wasn't necessarily upset with her husband's absences from home. Not only did she have a large support network of family and friends, but, said Salamo, "she had a very different personality from her husband. Her inclination was not to be in social situations."

Letters helped keep the long distance couple together, and Clemens sometimes wrote to his wife daily.

"If I'm not homesick to see you," he wrote her on Dec. 11, 1873, again in London, "no other lover ever was homesick to see his sweetheart.

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