Believing in Miracles

Mark Twain had a streak of riverboat gambler, a belief that he could find, spot, or invent a winner. This was often harmless (pictured below, the 1871 patent drawing for his simple “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments,” never produced). But Twain lost his shirt on the Paige Compositor, a “mechanical miracle” which seldom worked. The only surviving model of the typesetting machine now sits in the basement of Hartford’s Mark Twain House & Museum, the assembly of its 18,000 moving parts so complicated that it can’t be moved.

Salon.comTwain put his first money down on the Compositor in 1880, and continued to do so until the investment triggered his financial collapse in 1894. He kept faith with James Paige through an endless series of break-downs and tinkerings, always believing that “a final and permanent revising and perfecting” was at hand: “After patiently and contentedly spending more than $3,000 a month on it for 44 consecutive months, I’ve got it done at last and it’s a daisy.” That is from a letter to William Dean Howells in 1888; this is from one to his wife Livy in 1894, Twain now returning to New York from Europe in order to finally throw in the towel on the Compositor and the venture capital habit:

When the anchor is down, then I shall say: “Farewell—a long farewell—to business! I will never touch it again!” I will live in literature, I will wallow in it, revel in it, I will swim in ink!

The farewell declaration was only temporary. After Livy’s death, Twain returned to his addiction, investing (or having to be talked out of investing) in a long list of unproven or unbuilt products, from health foods to Mexican railways. Incredibly, and just three years after Paige, Twain tried to sell his financial advisor on the prototype for a complicated new weaving machine, the opportunity of a lifetime: “I’ve landed a big fish today. He is a costly one, but he is worth the money….”

This tendency in a writer who lived on the innocence-gullibility theme and who had documented The Gilded Age has intrigued all Twain’s biographers, as it seems to have intrigued Twain himself. In a long reflection on Paige in his Autobiography, Twain praises (“He is a poet… the Shakespeare of mechanical invention”), curses (“If I had him in a steel trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died”), and tips his hat to another gifted in jumping-frog persuasion: “What a talker he is. He could persuade a fish to come out and take a walk with him….”


Steve King contributes Daybook to the Barnes & Noble Review and teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at http://www.todayinliterature.com.

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