The Literary Shipyard

Those wishing for a glimpse of the real Mark Twain must stand in line behind Twain himself, and there seems no better place to join the queue than The Prince and the Pauper, published in 1881. During a push to finish the book in the spring of 1880, Twain wrote a friend about his passion for his calling:

I don’t see how a man who can write can ever reconcile himself to busying himself with anything else. There is a fascination about writing, even for my waste-basket, which is bread & meat & almost whiskey to me—& I know it is the same with all our craft. We shall find more joy in writing—be the pay what it may—than in serving the world in ways of its choosing for uncountable coupons.

If a ‘Note to Self,’ it was one often and easily lost. Twain understood that book-writing was rarely smooth or sustained sailing, noting in his Autobiography that there had never been a time—this included The Prince and the Pauper, which had been drydocked for several years—”when my literary shipyard hadn’t two or more unfinished ships on the ways, neglected and baking in the sun.” What Twain could not understand or abandon, to his puzzlement and regret, was the habit of sailing off in any number of uncertain, non-literary directions, often on little more than a whim.

The Prince and the Pauper, Twain’s first historical novel, is set in mid-sixteenth-century England. With the book just published and his enthusiasm for English history still lingering, Twain devised a lawn game to teach the kings and queens. “I had to measure from the Conquest to the end of Henry VI three times over,” he noted after one eight-hour day setting out stakes, “& beside I had to whittle out all those pegs.” The lawn game evolved to a board version; patented two years later, Twain’s “Memory Builder” was marketed with no success.

The Prince and the Pauper also marks Twain’s first adventure into self-publishing. The book was a financial failure, partly because Twain insisted on subscription marketing and partly because Twain insisted on using his expensive new Kaolatype engraving method. Convinced that the production refinements he had himself introduced to the Kaolatype process would allow it to “utterly annihilate & sweep out of existence” all rival engraving methods, Twain had purchased many shares and become company President; the cover illustration for The Prince & the Pauper, shown here, was its only use ever.

The novel led Twain in other misdirections. One was an attempt at a stage adaptation which ended in a lawsuit and more broken friendships. Another was a plan to write a vengeful “biography” of a newspaper critic who, Twain thought, had it in for him; the project was abandoned after weeks of writing when a little research revealed that the critic’s “almost daily attacks” were non-existent.

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