A Family Sketch and Other Private Writings

A Family Sketch and Other Private Writings

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520959637
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/07/2014
Series: Jumping Frogs: Undiscovered, Rediscovered, and Celebrated Writings of Mark Twain , #5
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 200
File size: 11 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Benjamin Griffin is an editor at the Mark Twain Project, which is housed within the Mark Twain Papers, the world’s largest archive of primary materials by this major American writer.


Date of Birth:

November 30, 1835

Date of Death:

April 21, 1910

Place of Birth:

Florida, Missouri

Place of Death:

Redding, Connecticut

Read an Excerpt

A Family Sketch and Other Private Writings

By Mark Twain, Livy Clemens, Susy Clemens, BENJAMIN GRIFFIN


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95963-7



A Family Sketch

Susy was born in Elmira, New York, in the house of her grandmother, Mrs. Olivia Langdon, on the 19th of March, 1872, and after tasting and testing life and its problems and mysteries under various conditions and in various lands, was buried from that house the 20th of August, 1896, in the twenty-fifth year of her age.

She was a magazine of feelings, and they were of all kinds and of all shades of force; and she was so volatile, as a little child, that sometimes the whole battery came into play in the short compass of a day. She was full of life, full of activity, full of fire, her waking hours were a crowding and hurrying procession of enthusiasms, with each one in its turn differing from the others in origin, subject and aspect. Joy, sorrow, anger, remorse, storm, sunshine, rain, darkness—they were all there: they came in a moment, and were gone as quickly. Her approval was passionate, her disapproval the same, and both were prompt. Her affections were strong, and toward some her love was of the nature of worship. Especially was this her attitude toward her mother. In all things she was intense: in her this characteristic was not a mere glow, dispensing warmth, but a consuming fire.

Her mother was able to govern her, but any others that attempted it failed. Her mother governed her through her affections, and by the aids of tact, truthfulness barren of trick or deception, a steady and steadying firmness, and an even-handed fairness and justice which compelled the child's confidence. Susy learned in the beginning that there was one who would not say to her the thing which was not so, and whose promises, whether of reward or punishment, would be strictly kept; that there was one whom she must always obey, but whose commands would not come in a rude form or with show of temper.

As a result of this training, Susy's obediences were almost always instant and willing, seldom reluctant and half-hearted. As a rule they were automatic, through habit, and cost no noticeable effort. In the nursery—even so early—Susy and her mother became friends, comrades, intimates, confidants, and remained so to the end.

While Susy's nursery-training was safeguarding her from off ending other people's dignity, it was also qualifying her to take care of her own. She was accustomed to courteous speech from her mother, but in a Record which we kept for a few years of the children's small sayings and doings I find note—in my handwriting—of an exception to this rule:

One day Livy and Mrs. George Warner were talking earnestly in the library. Susy, who was playing about the floor, interrupted them several times; finally Livy said, rather sharply, "Susy, if you interrupt again, I will send you to the nursery." A little later Livy saw Mrs. W. to the door; on the way back she saw Susy on the stairs, laboring her way up on all fours, a step at a time, and asked—

"Where are you going, Susy?"

"To the nursery, mamma."

"What are you going up there for, dear—don't you want to stay with me in the library?"

Susy was tempted—but only for a moment. Then she said with a gentle dignity which carried its own reproach—

"You didn't speak to me right, mamma."

She had been humiliated in the presence of one not by right entitled to witness it. Livy recognised that the charge was substantially just, and that a consideration of the matter was due—and possibly reparation. She carried Susy to the library and took her on her lap and reasoned the case with her, pointing out that there had been provocation. But Susy's mind was clear, and her position definite: she conceded the provocation, she conceded the justice of the rebuke, she had no fault to find with those details; her whole case rested upon a single point—the manner of the reproof—a point from which she was not to be diverted by ingenuities of argument, but stuck patiently to it, listening reverently and regard fully, but returning to it in the pauses and saying gently, once or twice, "But you didn't speak to me right, mamma." Her position was not merely well selected and strong—by the laws of conduct governing the house it was impregnable; and she won her case, her mother finally giving the verdict in her favor and confessing that she had not "spoken to her right."

Certain qualities of Susy's mind are revealed in this little incident—qualities which were born to it and were permanent. It was not an accident that she perceived the several points involved in the case and was able to separate those which made for her mother from the point which made for herself, it was an exercise of a natural mental endowment which grew with her growth and remained an abiding possession.

Clara Langdon Clemens was born June 8th, 1874, and this circumstance set a new influence at work upon Susy's development. Mother and father are but two—to be accurate, they are but one and a tenth—and they do their share as developers: but along a number of lines certain other developers do more work than they, their number being larger and their opportunities more abundant—i.e. brothers and sisters and servants. Susy was a blonde, Clara a brunette, and they were born with characters to match. As time wore along, the ideals of each modified the ideals and affected the character of the other; not in a large degree of course, but by shades.

Both children had good heads, but not equipped in the same way; Susy, when her spirit was at rest, was reflective, dreamy, spiritual, Clara was at all times alert, enterprising, business-like, earthy, orderly, practical. Some one said Susy was made of mind, Clara of matter—a generalization justified by appearances, at the time, but unjust to Clara, as the years by and by proved. In her early years Clara quite successfully concealed some of the most creditable elements of her make-up. Susy was sensitive, shrinking; and in danger timid; Clara was not shrinking, not timid, and she had a liking for risky ventures. Susy had an abundance of moral courage, and kept it up to standard by exercising it.

In going over the Record which we kept of the children's remarks, it would seem that we set down Susy's because they were wise, Clara's because they were robustly practical, and Jean's because they happened to be quaintly phrased.

In Susy's and Clara's early days, nine months of the year were spent in the house which we built in Hartford, Connecticut. It was begun the year that Susy was born—1872—and finished and occupied in Clara's birth year—1874.

In those long-past days we were diligent in the chase, and the library was the hunting-ground—"jungle," by fiction of fancy—and there we hunted the tiger and the lion. I was the elephant, and bore Susy or Clara on my back—and sometimes both—and they carried the guns and shot the game. George, the colored ex-slave, was with us then; first and last he was in our service 18 years, and was as good as he was black—servant, in the matter of work, member of the family in the closer ties and larger enthusiasms of play. He was the lion—also the tiger; but preferably tiger, because as lion his roaring was over-robust, and embarrassed the hunt by scaring Susy. The elephant is left, and one of the hunters; but the other is at rest, and the tiger; and the hunting days are over.

In the early days Patrick McAleer, the coachman, was with us—and had been with us from our wedding day, February 2, 1870. He was with us twenty-two years, marrying soon after he came to us, and rearing eight children while in our service, and educating them well.

Rosa, the German nurse, was a part of the household in the early years, and remained twelve.

Katy was a cotemporary of hers and George's and Patrick's; was with usin Europe twice, and is with us now. To the majority of our old personal friends these names will be familiar; they will remember their possessors ,and they will remember, also, that each was an interesting character, and not commonplace.

They would not be able to forget George, the colored man. I can speak of him at some length, without impropriety, he being no longer of this world nor caring for the things which concern it.

George was an accident. He came to wash some windows, and remained half a generation. He was a Maryland slave by birth; the Proclamation set him free, and as a young fellow he saw his fair share of the Civil War as body servant to General Devens. He was handsome, well built, shrewd, wise, polite, always good-natured, cheerful to gaiety, honest, religious, a cautious truth-speaker, devoted friend to the family, champion of its interests, a sort of idol to the children and a trial to Mrs. Clemens—not in all ways but in several. For he was as serenely and dispassionately slow about his work as he was thorough in parts of it; he was phenomenally forgetful; he would postpone work any time to join the children in their play if invited, and he was always being invited, for he was very strong, and always ready for service as horse, camel, elephant or any other kind of transportation required; he was fond of talking, and always willing to do it in the intervals of work—also willing to create the intervals; and finally, if a lie could be useful to Mrs. Clemens he would tell it. That was his worst fault, and of it he could not be cured. He placidly and courteously disposed of objections with the remark—

"Why, Mrs. Clemens, if I was to stop lying you couldn't keep house a week."

He was invaluable; for his large wisdoms and his good nature made up for his defects. He was the peace-maker in the kitchen—in fact the peace keeper, for by his good sense and right spirit and mollifying tongue he adjusted disputes in that quarter before they reached the quarrel-point. The materials for war were all there. There was a time when we had a colored cook—Presbyterian; George—Methodist; Rosa, German nurse—Lutheran; Katy, American-Irish—Roman Catholic; Kosloffska, Pole, wet-nurse—Greek Catholic; "English Mary," some kind of a nonconformist; yet under George's benignant influence and capable diplomacy it was a Barnum's Happy Family, and remained so.

There was nothing commonplace about George. He had a remarkably good head; his promise was good, his note was good; he could be trusted to any extent with money or other valuables; his word was worth par, when he was not protecting Mrs. Clemens or the family interests or furnishing information about a horse to a person he was purposing to get a bet out of; he was strenuously religious, he was deacon and autocrat of the African Methodist Church; no dirt, no profanity, ever soiled his speech, and he neither drank nor smoked; he was thrifty, he had an acute financial eye, he acquired a house and a wife not very long after he came with us, and at any time after his first five years' service with us his check was good for $10,000. He ruled his race in the town, he was its trusted political leader, and (barring election-eve accidents) he could tell the Republican Committee how its vote would go, to a man, before the polls opened on election day. His people sought his advice in their troubles, and he kept many a case of theirs out of court by settling it himself. He was well and creditably known to the best whites in the town, and he had the respect and I may say the warm friendly regard of every visiting intimate of our house. Added to all this, he could put a lighted candle in his mouth and close his lips upon it. Consider the influence of a glory like that upon our little kids in the nursery. To them he was something more than mortal; and to their affection for him they added an awed and reverent admiration.

Moreover, he had a mysterious influence over animals—so the children believed. He conferred a human intelligence upon Abner the tomcat—so he made them believe. He told them he had instructed Abner that four pressures of the button was his ring, and he said Abner would obey that call. The children marveled, and wanted it tried. George went to the kitchen to set the door open, so that Abner could enter the dining room; then we rang for him, and sure enough he appeared. The children were lost in astonishment at Abner's promptness and willingness, for they had not noticed that there was something about the humping plunge of his entrance that was suggestive of assistance from behind. Then they wondered how he could tell his ring from the other rings—could he count? Probably. We could try experiments and draw conclusions. Abner was removed. Two pressures brought no Abner, it brought Rosa; three brought some one else; five got no response, there being no such ring in the list; then, under great excitement No. 4 was tried once more, and once more Abner plunged in with his suspicious humping impulse. That settled it: Abner could count, and George was the magician that had expanded his intelligence.

"How did you do it, George!"

That was the question; but George reserved the secret of his occult powers. His reputation was enlarged; Abner's, too, and Abner's needed it; if any one had gone around, before that, selecting bright cats by evidence of personal aspect, Abner would not have been elected. He was grave, but it was the gravity of dulness, of mental vacancy, his face was quite expressionless, and even had an arid look.

It will not be imagined that George became a moneyed man on his wages of thirty dollars a month. No, his money came from betting. His first speculations in that field were upon horses. It was not chance-work; he did not lay a bet until he knew all that a smart and diligent person could learn about the horses that were to run and the jockeys that were to ride them; then he laid his bets fearlessly. Every day, in the Hartford racing-season, he made large winnings; and while he waited at breakfast next morning he allowed the fact and the amount to escape him casually. Mainly for Susy's benefit, who had been made to believe that betting was immoral, and she was always trying to wean George from it, and was constantly being beguiled, by his arts, into thinking his reform was imminent, and likely to happen at any moment. Then he would fall—and report a "pile" at break fast; reform again, and fall again before night; and so on, enjoying her irritations and reproaches, and her solemn warnings that disaster would overtake him yet. If he made a particularly rich haul, we knew it by theostentatious profundity of his sadnesses and depressions as he served at break fast next morning,—a trap set for Susy. She would notice his sadness, presently, and say, eagerly and hopefully, "It has happened, George, I told you it would, and you are served just right—how much did you lose?—I hope ever so much; nothing else can teach you." George's sigh would be ready, and also his confession, along with a properly repentant look—

"Yes, Miss Susy, I had hard luck—something was wrong, I can't make out what it was, but I hope and believe it will learn me. I only won eight hundred dollars."

George reported all his victories to us, but if he ever suffered a loss on a horse-race we never found it out; if he had a secret of the kind it was not allowed to escape him, by either his tongue or his countenance.

By and by he added elections to his sources of income. Again he was methodical, systematic, pains-taking, thorough. Before he risked a dollar on a candidate or against him, he knew all about the man and his chances. He searched diligently, he allowed no source of information to escape a levy. For many years several chief citizens arrived at our house every Friday evening in the home-season, to play billiards—Governor Robinson, Mr. Edward M. Bunce, Mr. Charles E. Perkins, Mr. Sam. Dunham, and Mr. Whitmore. As a rule, one or two of the team brought their wives, who spent the evening with Mrs. Clemens in the library. These ladies were sure to arrive in that room without their husbands: because they and the rest of the gentlemen were in George's clutches in the front hall, getting milked of political information. Mrs. Clemens was never able to break up this scandalous business, for the men liked George, they admired him, too, so they abetted him in his misconduct and were quite willing to help him the best they could.


Excerpted from A Family Sketch and Other Private Writings by Mark Twain, Livy Clemens, Susy Clemens, BENJAMIN GRIFFIN. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


A Family Sketch
by Mark Twain

A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It
by Mark Twain

A Record of the Small Foolishnesses of Susie and "Bay" Clemens (Infants)
by Mark Twain

At the Farm
by Mark Twain

Quarry Farm Diary
by Livy Clemens

Mark Twain
by Susy Clemens

About the Texts
About the Illustrations
Biographical Directory
Works Cited

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