I own Twain's set of James Russell Lowell's LETTERS, in which he wrote a
marginal note about his early gesture toward suicide. His memory was
triggered by a letter in which Lowell discussed his own thoughts of suicide.
Twain remembered the date as 1866 in his note, but in a conversation with
Robert Hirst of the MTP, I learned that the date remembered by Twain was
wrong (Twain's memory often played tricks in his last years; I have a
photograph of Twain taken in 1896 that he inscribed about 1903 saying it was
taken when he was 40 years old --1875!). Perhaps Bob Hirst can tell us the
correct date -- I can't recall at the moment. But the precise date does
matter. And it may also matter just as much that Twain later remembered it
as happening just as he was preparing to leave SF for NY to seek a publisher
for his first book, etc.
Mac Donnell Rare Books
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Austin TX 78730
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----- Original Message -----
From: "richard_reineccius" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Thursday, March 04, 2004 11:47 PM
Subject: Kipen of the Chron's Twain Suicide thought article
> OK by him to send to forum -Richard Reineccius <[log in to unmask]
> www.sfgate.com Return to regular view
> Twain's most chilling time was a fall in San Francisco
> -David Kipen
> Tuesday, February 3, 2004 ©2004 San Francisco Chronicle
> Sometime in 1866, probably in his lodgings at the Occidental Hotel
> near Sutter and Montgomery, an impecunious freelance journalist named
> Samuel Clemens put a pistol to his head. We know this, or think we do,
> because of a marginal note he scribbled into a book the year before he
> died under his other name, Mark Twain.
> What we don't know is why he came so close to suicide in San
> Francisco in 1866, or why, thank God, he came no closer.
> After even a haphazard study of all the Twain material hitting
> bookstore shelves lately, the wonder isn't that Twain almost punched his
> own ticket. The wonder is that he claims to have considered it only
> Twain is much in the air these days, but when isn't he? This April
> will see the publication from UC Press of "Dangerous Intimacy: The
> Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years," by Karen Lystra, whose sound
> academic bona fides at Cal State Fullerton tend to belie that rather
> spicy title. Recent months have also brought the California Legacy
> Project's tasty reissue of "Mark Twain's San Francisco" by Bernard Taper
> from Heyday Books and Santa Clara University, and a decent if
> unremarkable new biography, Fred Kaplan's "The Singular Mark Twain."
> In addition, the redoubtable Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley has
> been throwing open the sluice gates lately, releasing both a revised
> scholarly edition of "Huckleberry Finn" and the overlooked play '"Is He
> Dead?" in late 2003. They've also just begun republishing several
> volumes of Twain's letters over the next couple of years in e-book form.
> (An unreconstructed technophile who nearly bankrupted himself trying to
> patent a typesetting contraption, Twain would have loved that.)
> In the case of any other writer, one would see all this activity
> and immediately smell a centenary. For Twain, a notably unround 94 years
> after his death, half a dozen books in as many months amounts to little
> more than business as usual. Type "Twain" into Amazon and sort by
> publication date, and the titles roll out from here to 2015.
> How to get a handle on such profusion? One answer -- perhaps
> counterintuitive for America's greatest humorist, perhaps not -- may be
> to zero in on Twain's lifelong preoccupation with death. A cheerful
> approach it isn't, but a careful scrutiny of Twain's life and career
> discloses a man fascinated with suicide, murder, funerals, wakes,
> corpses, damnation and reincarnation to a degree well beyond mere
> morbidity. Rumors of Mark Twain's obsession with death cannot possibly
> be exaggerated.
> Ultimately, of course, death is one of the few things we all have
> in common. However, Twain survived a youth more shadowed by mortality
> than many, and they were deaths of a particularly immediate and grisly
> Not only did his forbidding father, Judge Clemens, die of pneumonia
> when Twain was 11, but Twain is said to have witnessed the autopsy
> through a keyhole. Not only was he at his "sinless" brother Henry's
> bedside as he lay dying after a steamboat explosion, but Twain would
> forever blame himself for getting Henry his fateful job on board.
> In both cases, guilt sharpened Twain's bereavement. Whether all
> sons occasionally wish their fathers dead is one for the Freudians to
> sort out, but Twain had more excuse for wishing it than most. And Twain
> had argued himself ashore in a dispute with Henry's captain days before
> the steamboat explosion, thereby ensuring a portion of survivor's guilt
> to go along with the oedipal kind.
> Death and laughter
> Sometimes it's hard to understand how Twain got out of adolescence
> with any sense of humor at all, never mind one that eventually cracked
> up half the world, and still convulses legions daily. The mistake here
> would be to forget that Twain's humor is probably what got him through
> these traumas in the first place.
> Another, deeper error would be to suppose that comedy and death are
> in any way antithetical. We tend to think of black comedy as a postwar
> phenomenon that came in with Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, but
> writers like those would have been lost without Twain's example.
> Even before Twain, comedy was never all cross-dressing and cream
> pies. Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata," the earliest surviving comedy
> ever to succeed at longer than skit length, takes place in the middle of
> thePeloponnesian War. So it shouldn't surprise us that, throughout
> Twain's entire corpus, laughter isn't just a palliative to death and
> dying, but their ubiquitous familiar.
> The most intrepid, Post-It-equipped critic, were he fool enough to
> try flagging every reference to death in Twain's work, would cause an
> uptick in 3M's price-to-earnings ratio long before he ever came near
> finishing the job. Still, just to refresh the case, consider a few
> examples. There's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," an
> ostensible children's book that ends in a scene of Jacobean slaughter,
> in which the hero brings to bear all the mayhem of 19th century ordnance
> on a comparatively defenseless medieval army. There's the
> just-rediscovered play, "Is He Dead?,'' which concerns a struggling
> painter's scheme to inflate the value of his work by faking his own
> demise. And there are all of Twain's countless aphorisms on the subject,
> of which a personal favorite remains, "Let us endeavor to live so that
> when we come to die, even the undertaker is sorry."
> But the uncanniest evidence for Twain's fixation on mortal matters
> is simply this: that in his two most enduring books, "The Adventures of
> Huckleberry Finn" and its habitually underrated junior partner, "The
> Adventures of Tom Sawyer," both title characters essentially attend
> their own funerals. Tom lucks into his version of this perennial
> childhood fantasy, while Huck characteristically takes matters into his
> own hands. Inadvertently presumed dead, Tom sneaks back into town and
> has the archetypally delicious experience of secretly watching family,
> friends and sweetheart all cry their eyes out for him. Huck, on the
> other hand, deliberately fakes his own death to escape his father -- who
> soon afterward, in a scene terrifying enough even for readers who don't
> know about Twain's brother, turns up dead aboard "a steamboat that had
> killed herself on a rock."
> To paraphrase Ian Fleming: Once is happenstance, but twice is enemy
> action. For Twain to use this scenario twice attests to the spell it
> always held over him. That he could use it to create two such different
> moods -- the one robustly comic, the other "powerful lonesome" -- only
> confirms his incomparable gift.
> Living vicariously
> The Sierra-born writer and Twain scholar David Carkeet, author of
> the uproarious Twain-reincarnating novel "I Been There Before,"
> elaborated on the idea of Twain's preoccupation with mortality in a
> recent e-mail: "I too have always been struck by the fact that the same
> scene is more or less repeated in those two books -- witnessing the
> mourning attending one's death. In Tom's case it's a brash and
> egotistical enjoyment of the moment, whereas Huck experiences a somber
> consequence of his faked death, and that difference captures the
> essential difference between the two boys. As I recall, Huck doesn't
> even observe sadness in the faces of the people on the riverboat looking
> for his body -- just curiosity. That's life, it all seems to say.
> "These two scenes make me think of Clemens' brother Henry's death
> from a steamboat explosion, for which Twain blamed himself, as he was
> quick to do all the time. ... Henry was the family favorite (probably
> irksome to Sam), and the family grief was mighty. Sam conceivably
> coveted the tears, and then vicariously got them for himself through the
> main characters in those two books."
> All of which leads us back to the image of Twain at 31, holed up in
> his room at the Occidental. Was he imagining his funeral too? Was he
> consoling himself with visions of friends unstrung with grief, of
> previously aloof maidens professing their love too late?
> Nobody knows. All we have to go on is Twain's marginal reference to
> the year 1866. In "The Sagebrush Bohemian: Mark Twain in California,"
> author Nigey Lennon doubts even that, giving the date a "[sic]" and
> suggesting that Twain is misremembering a low ebb from 1864, just after
> he left the San Francisco Morning Call's employ.
> Hardly any scholars have attempted to pin Twain down as to exactly
> when in 1866 he contemplated suicide, possibly because academic caution
> discourages most guesswork that is unsusceptible to proof.
> Laboring under no such compunction, I'd put the incident with the
> pistol sometime in the fall -- after his return from Hawaii in
> mid-August but before Oct. 2, when his first public lecture drew a
> rapturous reception and led to his first speaking tour.
> Why September? Because, to employ a bit of circular reasoning, the
> evidence is scarce to the point of incrimination. The Mark Twain
> Project's definitive edition of his correspondence admits that, from
> Aug. 25, "No letters are known to survive for the next two months."
> Other sources echo this frustrating sense of September 1866 as a
> comparative black hole in the available record. We have little in the
> way of contemporary sources beyond a couple of press clippings whose
> dates of composition are uncertain, some horse- racing stuff datelined
> Sacramento, and Twain's extravagantly morose journal entry upon his
> return to San Francisco from Hawaii: "Home again. No -- not home again
> -- in prison again, and all the wild sense of freedom gone. The city
> seems so cramped and so dreary with toil and care and business anxiety.
> God help me, I wish I were at sea again!" In a state like that, who'd
> feel up to writing letters?
> More tellingly, Twain's authorized biographer writes that "Clemens
> once declared he had been so blue at this period that one morning he put
> a loaded pistol to his head, but found he lacked courage to pull the
> In context, "this period" refers implicitly to the interval between
> Hawaii and Twain's first lecture. If we accept September 1866 as the
> logical month for Twain's flirtation with self-murder, the next question
> becomes why. Not penury because his Hawaii dispatches had left him
> uncharacteristically flush. Too much fog, after a summer in the tropics?
> Without belaboring the suicide angle, most scholars suggest a depression
> triggered by Twain's return to the grind of penny journalism, compounded
> by homesickness, and aggravated by published mockery from a few old
> newspaper rivals.
> Then there was the wreck of the Hornet.
> Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Twain made one of his first big
> splashes as a reporter with an account of survival at sea. He brought
> back from Hawaii an exclusive about the Ferguson brothers, who together
> with their shipmates from the disabled Hornet presented a story replete
> with disaster, cannibalism and unsurpassed courage. Twain soon sold it
> to Harper's and earned his first byline in a national magazine, but the
> triumph was undercut by a cruel typo. As Twain ruefully recounts in "My
> Debut as a Literary Person," the piece was credited to "Mike Swain." An
> industrious few have speculated that the misprint was intentional and
> Twain's own because the article was so atypical of the sort of writing
> he hoped to do.
> There's another factor at work, though, one surely touched on
> somewhere in the literature, if nowhere I've yet found. It's this: One
> of the shipwrecked Ferguson brothers died in August, shortly after
> arriving at San Francisco with Twain. Such a cruel stroke would have
> been rough enough on Twain, who'd transcribed the young man's story and
> stood to profit from it, at least indirectly. On top of everything,
> Twain already had his own nightmarish memories of shipboard gore. But
> there's one other element that Twain leaves strangely unmentioned, a
> coincidence that he'd be sure to notice even if no one else did. You
> could look it up: The Ferguson brothers' names were Henry and Sam.
> Spooky? Definitely. Deranging, either by itself or in concert with
> other emotional reagents? Not so fast.
> No apologies
> Letters and journals are hard enough to come by 140 years down the
> road; feelings leave even fewer traces. In the end, we're left mainly
> with Twain's own marginalia to go on, quoted here at last: "I put the
> pistol to my head but wasn't man enough to pull the trigger. Many times
> I have been sorry I did not succeed, but I was never ashamed of having
> tried. Suicide is the only really sane thing the young or old ever do in
> this life."
> Spoken like a man too self-aware ever to disavow completely his own
> actions -- or inactions. It's precisely this long, forgiving memory that
> enabled Twain to write about childhood without ever condescending to it.
> Whether fantasizing his own funeral at 10 or contemplating suicide
> at 30, Twain seems to say, I did both and don't apologize. I'm not any
> smarter just because I'm older, but I'm only older because I didn't
> When Twain put the pistol to his head that day in San Francisco, he
> couldn't know that he was holding the future of American literature at
> gunpoint. No man in that position ever knows just how much one bullet
> can wing. As always, best not to chance it.
> E-mail David Kipen at [log in to unmask]
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