Scribblin' for a Livin': Mark Twain's Pivotal Period in Buffalo

Scribblin' for a Livin': Mark Twain's Pivotal Period in Buffalo

by Thomas J. Reigstad

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In August 1869, a thirty-three-year-old journalist named Samuel Clemens - or as he was later known, Mark Twain - moved to Buffalo, New York. At the time, he had high hopes of establishing himself as a successful newspaper editor of the Buffalo Morning Express in the thriving, up-and-coming metropolis at the end of the Erie Canal. In this engaging portrait of


In August 1869, a thirty-three-year-old journalist named Samuel Clemens - or as he was later known, Mark Twain - moved to Buffalo, New York. At the time, he had high hopes of establishing himself as a successful newspaper editor of the Buffalo Morning Express in the thriving, up-and-coming metropolis at the end of the Erie Canal. In this engaging portrait of the famous author at a formative and important juncture of his life, Thomas J. Reigstad—a Twain scholar—details the domestic, social, and professional experiences of Mark Twain while he lived in Buffalo.

Based on years of researching historical archives, combing through microfilm of the Express when Twain was editor, and even interviewing descendants of Buffalonians who knew Twain, Reigstad has uncovered a wealth of fascinating information. The book draws a vivid portrait of Twain's work environment at the Express. Colorful anecdotes about his colleagues and his quirky work habits, along with original Twain stories and illustrations not previously reprinted, give readers a new understanding of Twain's commitment to full-time newspaper work.

Full of fascinating vignettes from the illustrious writer's life, as well as rare photographs, Scribblin' for a Livin' will appeal to Mark Twain enthusiasts, students and scholars of American literature, and anyone with an interest in the history of Western New York.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The mythic king of American satire is given a new examination in this close study of the 18 months (1869-1871) Mark Twain lived in Buffalo, New York. Although widely acknowledged as a critical period in his personal life—with his marriage to Olivia Langdon and the birth of their first child—Twain's time as editor of The Buffalo Express saw his creativity flounder. It is Twain scholar Reigstad's central thesis that Twain decided to turn away from newspaper "scribblin'" and instead devote his life to more literary aspirations while working for the paper. Unfortunately, any writing juxtaposed with Twain's colorful, lively voice will sound dry; as a result Reigstad's academic tone too often feels stodgy in comparison. One can sometimes feel Reigstad straining to pad out thin material into book length; detailed passages describe the decor of Twain's lavishly appointed home, each guest who visited the newlyweds, and everything they bought in their first week of marriage. However, generous appendices add much needed flavor, containing many rare and humorous pieces Twain wrote for the Express. The result is a thoroughly researched love letter to a great American city and author, primarily of interest to those die-hard Twain fans. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“[H]as to be seen as the great book some of us have quite literally waited all our lives for the definitive book about Mark Twain’s Buffalo residence.”
The Buffalo News

"Provides an in-depth look at Twain in Buffalo... [Proves] that brief though his time here was, it provides plenty of material for a story worth telling."
—Buffalo Spree

“A large piece of the biographical puzzle about Mark Twain has been put into place.”
—Dr. Alan Gribben, editor, Mark Twain Journal

 “Carefully researched and evocatively written, this study gives Mark Twain’s often-dismissed and maligned Buffalo years the sort of affectionate attention they deserve. It should quickly become the definitive source for this brief, volatile, and pivotal period in Twain’s development as a writer and public personality.”
—Mark Woodhouse, the Mark Twain Archives, Elmira College
“A rich and meticulously detailed chronicle of the place where Mark Twain spent the first years of his marriage and developed his iconic literary voice. A highly enjoyable read.”
—Laura Skandera Trombley, Pitzer College, author of Mark Twain’s Other Woman
“Reigstad reveals Twain’s activities and social connections in Buffalo in a readable narrative, fully documenting his exhaustive research.”
—David H. Fears, author of Mark Twain Day by Day

Product Details

Prometheus Books
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 Thomas J. Reigstad
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-591-0

Chapter One


In August of 1869, Mark Twain began his new job at the Buffalo Morning Express on the busiest weekend of the summer. As befitted a boomtown with a population well over one hundred thousand and growing fast, the city was buzzing with a full calendar of events that competed with Twain's journalistic debut. Horse races advertising a $30,000 purse drew huge crowds to the Driving Park. New municipal open-sided horse-drawn streetcars were bursting with ninety passengers each. The Academy of Music boasted sold-out performances of Lydia Thompson's Blondes Burlesque Troupe production of Sinbad the Pirate, which opened on Monday night, August 16. A standing-room-only throng at the opera house waited three hours for the featured sparring exhibition between Ned "The Irish Giant" O'Baldwin and Mike McCoole to finally begin. The Niagara Regatta delighted swarms of waterfront onlookers with a Saturday afternoon of yacht races and single-scull, double-scull, or four-oared outrigged boat competitions. All of this took place despite unseasonably cool weather. Longtime Buffalonians complained of sixty- to seventy-degree days all summer that had brought fall fruit (black raspberries, apples, and pears) to market stands earlier than usual.

Amid this frenzied summer weekend, Twain was welcomed into the Buffalo journalistic fraternity. On Saturday afternoon of August 14, newspapermen representing papers like the Courier, the Commercial Advertiser, the Christian Advocate, the Commercial Report and Market Review, the Demokrat, the Freie Presse, the Evening Post, and Twain's own Express gathered at Elam R. Jewett's grand estate.

Jewett, founder of the first envelope factory west of New York City and former owner and publisher of the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, had for years hosted the annual dinner meeting of the Western New York Press Club. This year's special guest was Mark Twain. Twain took full advantage of the opportunity to promote himself.

Jewett's homestead, known as Willow Lawn, sprawled across the northern edge of the city limits on Main Street, in an area formerly called the Buffalo Plains. His mansion was surrounded by 450 acres of lawns and extensive gardens. A major portion of the flatlands at the base of a slope behind his home was being transformed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted into a public greenspace soon to be named Delaware Park. Buffalo's first tomatoes are said to have been raised on Jewett's model farm. The centerpiece of the grounds was a great willow tree whose massive trunk measured six feet in diameter.

During Jewett's residency there, Willow Lawn served as a station on the Underground Railroad. Jewett was a good friend of Millard Fillmore; they had traveled to Europe together in 1856. By 1869, Jewett's home was a rendezvous for the elite and fashionable of Buffalo society. Twain was excited about the occasion and wrote about it to his publisher, Elisha Bliss, twice in two days.

At dinner, Twain rubbed elbows with his fellow reporters and editors and charmed them into promising him favorable reviews of The Innocents Abroad. He may have entertained his new colleagues by reading selections from the book—his first public reading in Buffalo. At some point, Twain strolled the grounds at Willow Lawn, picking flowers and making impromptu boutonnieres for himself and other guests.

During a recent visit to Elmira, Twain had refused to adorn his lapel buttonhole with flowers. So, shortly after the Press Club fete, he joked with Olivia about his newfound enthusiasm for boutonnieres. His letter is a masterpiece of comic exaggeration.

Twain begins by telling Olivia that at Jewett's reception (he misspells the name as "Jewell"), he decorated himself in pansies and persuaded the other journalists to join him ("We all wore them."). Then Twain claims to have ordered Jewett's gardener to pick a bouquet for every journalist as they were leaving. He closes the letter by telling Olivia that normally he wouldn't wear flowers in public because it seems "snobbish." However, he would gladly "wear a sunflower down the street if you say so," as penance for hurting Olivia's feelings in Elmira.

The press dinner capped a momentous Saturday for Twain. Earlier in the day he had closed the deal in which he purchased one-third ownership of the Buffalo Express. Jervis Langdon had forwarded $12,500 toward half the asking price of $25,000, Twain contributed $2,500 of his own toward the down payment, and Langdon guaranteed the balance. Langdon secured the services of Bowen and Rogers, a prestigious law firm, whose impressive staff had so far included a mayor, a three-term congressman, a postmaster general, a past US president, and a US president-to-be. In their offices at 28 Erie Street, the articles of agreement on the sale were drawn up and signed.

The Buffalo Express enjoyed a solid reputation and healthy circulation. Founded in 1846, it was strongly Republican and described itself on the local news page as "The Official Paper of the City." The Express appeared every morning and evening except Sundays. The evening version was published in two editions at two o'clock and four o'clock in the afternoon. The subscription rate with local delivery was sixteen cents per week. The Express was also available in a weekly format on Wednesdays for $1.50 annually. The paper came off the presses in large sheets (weekdays, four pages long; Saturdays, six pages), which newsboys then folded for sale on street corners and delivery to subscribers.

Page 1 summarized national and world events under headings such as "Washington" and "Europe." The second page consisted of legal notices, obituaries of prominent local residents, and farm and garden stories. Page 3 focused on finance and trade, featuring a list of ships and cargo arriving at Buffalo's bustling port. The fourth page contained editorials, local feature stories, and works by well-known authors.

In the mid-1860s, the Express had moved from 158 Main Street, between Seneca and Exchange Streets, to 14 East Swan Street. The block on which Twain's Express building stood was historic—it occupied the southern border of what in the earliest days of the city had been Joseph Ellicott's one-hundred-acre reservation. The building sat on city land that was part of what the British had burned down during the War of 1812. In the ensuing decades, the city had rapidly rebuilt itself, becoming a major shipping and railroad center, home of iron works, brass foundries, leather and clothing manufacturing plants, and some of the largest breweries in the country.

The Swan Street building was ideally located. The waterfront, Buffalo's commercial heart, was within easy walking distance. The Express helped form a tight geographical triangle of Buffalo's three big newspapers. Less than two blocks to the southeast, at 253 Washington Street, was the Commercial Advertiser. At 197 Main Street, the Daily Courier was less than two blocks southwest of the Express. As is so often the case with symbiotic newspaper and tavern cultures in America, there was no lack of watering holes nearby. Within the journalistic triangle, there were five saloons. William Storey's was on Swan Street, Henry Gillig's was on Washington, J. Noe's and Samuel Boas's were across from each other on Main Street, and the legendary Tiphaine's was at 245 Main Street, which was conveniently equidistant between the Express and the Courier.

The downside of 14 East Swan Street was that to call the building plain was a compliment. William Kennett, whose brother sold his Express share to Twain, remembered it as "a very tough looking affair." It was a four-story brick building just twenty-five feet wide. Along its west side, an alley bisected the block northward from Swan to South Division Street. Except for the twelve-foot-tall display windows on the ground floor and cornice trim decorating the top front, the structure was nondescript. The second-, third-, and fourth-floor fronts each had three plain rectangular windows providing bird's-eye views of Swan Street.

The interior of the Express building was unremarkable as well. The printing press was in the basement, and the business office was on the ground floor. The job-printing office ("Satisfaction Guaranteed in Every Respect," according to its ad in the Buffalo City Directory), which filled orders for posters, programs, checks, streamers, bills of lading, invitations, placards, and street bills, was on the second floor. Editorial rooms were in the front of the third floor. The top floor housed reporters and the city editor/reporter in the front and layout personnel in the back area. Rooms were unpainted, unadorned, and cheaply furnished.

The drabness of his new work environment did not dampen Twain's initial enthusiasm for his Express duties. He made himself at home, climbing the "rickety, grimy stairs" to his third-floor cubicle at the center front of the Express building, at the head of the staircase. At first he had only an old wooden chair, a plain table, a makeshift bookcase along the wall, and a wastebasket. Soon he added a comfortable, bright-yellow, wooden lounging chair with a writing board hinged on one arm and a stout, basket-woven seat. Outside Twain's small office was an open editorial work area with a crude row of bookshelves lining the wall. A long, antique, black-walnut table featured a two-quart tobacco jar of yellow earthenware in the center and had edges worn from boot heels of staffers and visitors who sat tilted back in editorial chairs, their feet "forming practically a barricade around the editor." Clay and briarwood pipes were scattered about. Twain and his coeditor often spread out proof sheets to read on this table.

Twain attacked his writing and editing chores zealously for the first six weeks. The routine shift for editorial staff was from 3:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. (The Morning Express was the paper's bread and butter). But Twain often devoted longer hours to his new job, from 8:00 a.m. until well past midnight. Except for the end of August, he worked weekends, too, through September.

During the dog days of the summer, Twain plotted a series of improvements, conferred with reporters and compositors, and wrote several stories. Sweltering heat struck by the end of Twain's first week at the Express, making working conditions uncomfortable. Colleagues recall Twain's informality as the workday progressed. He worked in shirtsleeves, smoking a meerschaum pipe, through those busy six weeks and littered his small office with clothing and papers: "Coatless, sometimes vestless, he lolled in his chair with one shoeless foot on the table and the other in the wastebasket. His collar, cuffs and tie were strewn on the floor with the papers, and his hat lay just where it happened to fall when brushed off the back of his head."

Twain's quirky behavior fit right in with the casual atmosphere at the Express. Republican pundits wandered in and out of the editorial room, kibitzing and leaving a trail of cigar smoke. In addition to Express staffers, the politicos lounging around might include the collector of the port, the postmaster, the superintendent of canals, and an assemblyman or two. Visiting celebrities added an unpredictable, festive touch to the place. At one time or another (not just during Twain's tenure), public figures such as Grover Cleveland, Millard Fillmore, Henry Ward Beecher, "Petroleum Nasby" (David Ross Locke), Oliver Wendell Holmes, and actor John Raymond stopped by. Raymond even sat in Twain's yellow chair.

On one memorable occasion in 1869, a "healer" called on the Express. Twain dropped what he was doing and consulted with the visitor. While his newspaper colleagues and other hangers-on watched, Twain held his hands above the healer's bald head. He claimed to feel a cool, curative power radiating from the polished pate. Others apparently felt it, too.

Twain even enlivened the Express in his absence. While he was out of town lecturing in December of 1869, an anonymous prankster from Chicago sent Twain a live fox care of his office at the Express.

While open to playfulness, Twain was serious about making over the newspaper in order to improve circulation and its reputation. He wanted to do for the Express what humorist and friend Petroleum Nasby was doing for the Toledo Blade. Twain had a multifaceted plan. One of his first priorities was to insist on clear writing. He intended to teach reporters to "modify the adjectives, curtail their philosophical reflections & leave out slang." He also vowed to alter the appearance of the Express by toning down dramatic headline typefaces: "I have annihilated all the glaring thunder-&-lightning headings over the telegraphic news & made that department look quiet & respectable."

Years later, reporter Earl Berry remembered that Twain instilled in his reporters a strict, rule-governed sense of correctness and simplicity when using the English language. However, Berry noticed a double standard in Twain's own Express stories. As much as Twain was a stickler with reporters about employing "plain Saxon," he himself was guilty of producing flowery prose.

As for changing the cosmetics of the Express, Twain did create a more dignified-looking front page. But it was less appealing, more "gray," to the eye. Formerly, the Express mixed type fonts (serif and sans serif) and sometimes varied all uppercase with all lowercase in the stacked headlines. Under Twain's direction, Express headlines were much smaller in type size, seldom boldface, all uppercase, and in the same font (serif) as the text of the story. In fact, the headlines and story ran together. Twain also introduced occasional italicized headlines. Overall, Twain's typographical modifications, which he said resulted from two days of consulting with layout foreman John J. Hall, made little impact, which is surprising given Twain's printing background. He did achieve a greater uniformity of appearance, especially on page 1, but made the Express look more staid than inviting for readers.

Twain aimed to revamp the Express in other ways, too. He wanted to pump new life into the stale People and Things column, which published bits and pieces of news items gleaned from newspaper exchanges. For as long as he supervised that assignment, for sixteen People and Things installments in August and September of 1869, Twain accomplished his mission. The column took on a gossipy, sarcastic, and humorous flavor. He sprinkled in editorial comments, zingers, and hyperbolic statements among the factual tidbits.

Another area that Twain successfully transformed was the coverage of police matters. Previously, news from the police blotter had been delivered straightforwardly. Under Twain's leadership, the police reporter jazzed up the stories via humor and satire. Activities of City Police Justice Isaac V. Vanderpoel's courtroom, as reported in the November to December 1869 editions of the Express, reflected Twain's new policy of spicing up police reporting.

Perhaps the most significant change Twain instituted was to shamelessly exploit the Express as his personal self-promotion machine. At times during the fall of 1869, the Express was so saturated with his name, it could have been renamed the Buffalo Morning Twainian. The August 21 issue contained Twain's "Salutatory" introduction to Express readers, "A Day at Niagara" (a lengthy front-page feature story), his People and Things compilation, and "Napoleon and Abdul" (excerpted from The Innocents Abroad). Then there was the October 9 Express, with a two-page insert reprinting thirty-nine notices of Twain's new job at the Express and favorable reviews of The Innocents Abroad. Twain was not bashful about advertising himself in his newspaper. He also launched a series of his own original feature stories in Saturday editions. On weekdays, full-column ads several inches long alerted readers to each new Saturday feature.

Along with writing and editing like a whirlwind during his first weeks at the Express, Twain also cultivated a sense of camaraderie among his new newspaper colleagues.

Twain's Express comprised an eclectic and talented crew. Among the staffers with whom he worked were academic scholars, Union Civil War heroes, painters and sculptors, poets, and career journalists. Twain referred to his Express associates as "the boys."


Twain took an instant liking to Josephus Nelson Larned, his coeditor and co-owner. Aptly named, the "learned" Larned reported on local and state political matters. Twain called Larned, a voracious reader who later wrote a five-volume history of the world, "the human encyclopedia." His twelve-volume The New Larned History for Ready Reference consisted of more than ten thousand pages and twelve million words. Larned had moved to Buffalo from his native Canada at the age of twelve. He had been at the Express for ten years and had established his solid reputation for stirring editorials during the Civil War.

Larned is usually depicted as a bespectacled senior, a serious intellectual, and a journalist of unimpeachable character. In reality, Larned was six months younger than Twain, had a sense of humor, and was a rowing and card-playing crony of Twain's. At one meeting of Buffalo's private Young Men's Association, Larned responded to jokes about his aversion to tuxedos with the quip, "Well, I might allow the dinner-coat, but it is the tails that make a monkey of the man." Despite Larned's ability to make witty remarks, Twain urged him to stick to serious political commentary. Once when Larned attempted a light story at the Express, Twain reportedly told him, "Better leave the humorous writing on this sheet to me, Larned."


Excerpted from SCRIBBLIN' FOR A LIVIN' by THOMAS J. REIGSTAD Copyright © 2013 by Thomas J. Reigstad. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Thomas J. Reigstad (Kenmore, NY) is emeritus professor of English at the State University of New York College at Buffalo. Among other publications, he is the author of many articles on Mark Twain in The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, Western New York Heritage, the Mark Twain Society Bulletin, and other publications.

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