About the Author
Date of Birth:November 30, 1835
Date of Death:April 21, 1910
Place of Birth:Florida, Missouri
Place of Death:Redding, Connecticut
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Autobiography of Mark Twain
By BENJAMIN GRIFFIN, HARRIET ELINOR SMITH, Victor Fisher, Michael B. Frank, Amanda Gagel, Sharon K. Goetz, Leslie Diane Myrick, Christopher M. Ohge
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Mark Twain Foundation
All rights reserved.
Autobiogarphy of Mark Twain
Dictated March 1, 1907
Reminiscences of the Beecher family — Miss Clara Clemens singing in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, a place noted for manufacture of cheap jewelry — Anecdote of the feather-duster man, told to Mr. Clemens by Professor Sloane.
Isabella Beecher Hooker is dead. I first made her acquaintance about forty years ago; she and her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, were near neighbors of ours in Hartford during eighteen years. I knew all the Beecher brotherhood and sisterhood, I believe. The men were all preachers, and all more or less celebrated in their day. I knew Reverend Henry Ward, Reverend Thomas K., Reverend Charles, and Reverend James, very well; they all rank as conspicuously able men, but of course none of them was as able, or as internationally famous, as Henry Ward, that first of American pulpit orators. They are all dead. There was not an ungifted Beecher among all those brothers and sisters, and not one that did not make a considerable name.
But the Beecher talent is all gone now; the last concentration of it went out of the world with Isabella Beecher Hooker. I knew Reverend Thomas K. Beecher intimately for a good many years. He came from Connecticut to Elmira in his early manhood, when he was a theological fledgling, to take charge of a Congregational church there whose chief financial support was Jervis Langdon, my to-be father-in-law, and he continued in that charge until he died, a few years ago, aged seventy-four. He was deeply versed in the sciences, and his pulpit eloquence fell but little short of that of his great brother, Henry Ward. His was a keen intellect, and he was brilliant in conversation, and always interesting — except when his topic was theology. He had no theology of his own, any more than has any other person; he had an abundance of it, but he got it all at secondhand. He would have been afraid to examine his subject with his own fine mind lest doubts should result, and unsettle him. He was a very frank, straightforward man, and he told me once, in the plainest terms, that when he came on from Connecticut to assume the pastorship of that Elmira church he was a strenuous and decided unbeliever. It astonished me. But he followed it with a statement which astonished me more; he said that with his bringing up he was aware that he could never be happy, or at peace, and free from terrors, until he should become a believer, and that he had accepted that pastorate without any pangs of conscience for the reason that he had made up his mind to compel himself to become a believer, let the cost be what it might. It seemed a strange thing to say, but he said it. He also said that within a twelvemonth or two he perfectly succeeded in his extraordinary enterprise, and that thenceforth he was as complete and as thorough a believer as any Christian that had ever lived. He was one of the best men I have ever known; also he was one of the best citizens I have ever known. To the end of his days he was looked up to in that town, by both sinner and saint, as a man whose judgment in matters concerning the welfare of the town was better and sounder than any one else's, and whose purity and integrity were unassailable. He was beloved and revered by all the citizenship.
Isabella Beecher Hooker threw herself into the woman's rights movement among the earliest, some sixty years ago, and she labored with all her splendid energies in that great cause all the rest of her life; as an able and efficient worker she ranks immediately after those great chiefs, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mrs. Livermore. When these powerful sisters entered the field in 1848 woman was what she had always been in all countries and under all religions, all savageries, all civilizations — a slave, and under contempt. The laws affecting women were a disgrace to our statute book. Those brave women besieged the legislatures of the land, year after year, suffering and enduring all manner of reproach, rebuke, scorn and obloquy, yet never surrendering, never sounding a retreat; their wonderful campaign lasted a great many years, and is the most wonderful in history, for it achieved a revolution — the only one achieved in human history for the emancipation of half a nation that cost not a drop of blood. They broke the chains of their sex and set it free.
Clara is singing in New England. I have a letter from the stage management in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, asking me in a matter-of-course way — not to say in a commanding way — to come up there and introduce her to her audience, gratis, of course. I think that that must be their idea, because they did not ask me for my terms; still that may be only an oversight, so I have sent the terms — five thousand dollars — but I don't hear from those people, although they have had a good three days in which to jump at my offer. Maybe they don't want me after all; but I don't care; I don't want to go, anyway. However, the North Attleboro letter has brought that town back to my mind after an interval of twenty or twenty-five years, during which spacious spread of time its name has never happened to drift across the field of my memory, so far as I recollect.
Away back there at the further verge of that vast interval, I had a talk about North Attleboro one day with Professor William M. Sloane, then of Princeton, now of Columbia University. He told me that North Attleboro was a place apart: that it was the centre of a unique industry — an industry not to be found elsewhere in the United States; an industry whose office was to furnish cheap gimcrack jewelry to our nation — jewelry of a flashy and attractive aspect, jewelry built out of fictitious gold and real glass; and sold honestly as imitationry. He said that the jewelry factories were many and large, and employed hundreds and hundreds of girls and boys and men — in fact the bulk of the community; he said that in the city of New York there was a vast warehouse stocked from roof to cellar with that jewelry, and that from that building this product was forwarded to every State in the Union, and in truly surprising quantity. Then he told me this curious tale.
One day he was passing by that New York building and he entered it, out of curiosity, to see what he might see. He found much jewelry on exhibition in show-cases; on the outside of each parcel there was a sample of the parcel's contents, and also the parcel's price in figures. It was a villainous March day — muddy, slushy, damp, misty, drippy; and cold and raw. Presently, meek and drooping, entered a sad-faced man of about forty, who seemed to be a tramp. His shoes were broken, and down at the heel, and soaked with slush; his hat was a battered and shapeless slouch; the rest of his clothing was poor and threadbare and patched; altogether he was a pathetic spectacle. Under his left arm he carried four feather-dusters of the commonest and cheapest pattern. He came timidly forward to a show-case near which Sloane was standing, and pointed to a parcel marked $7.00 — but only pointed, he didn't say anything. The clerk got it out and handed it to him without saying anything; the tramp put it in his pocket and handed out seven dollars, still without saying anything; then he moved, meek and drooping, to the door and disappeared. It was a great surprise to Sloane to see such a looking creature as that transact business; and not only transact it but concrete the transaction with cash; and not only cash, but an entire seven dollars' worth of it. Sloane was interested, and he said to the clerk,
"You don't seem surprised. Do you know that tramp? Have you ever seen him before?"
"Oh yes," said the clerk, "we know him; he is called the Feather-Duster Man; he is a regular customer of ours."
"Tell me about him, won't you?"
But the clerk couldn't. He said it would be a breach of confidence; that the feather-duster man did not wish to be known.
I cannot now remember by what arts Sloane got hold of the man, a little later, and won his confidence and got his story out of him, but I can well remember the story, as the man told it to Sloane. It was about like this:
The Man's Story.
I am not a tramp, but I dress the part for business purposes. I earn a good and sure living in my occupation; I own property, and I have a good balance always in the bank. My business is not followed in exactly my way by any other person in the land; I planned it out myself; I practised it upon the people; I revised it, corrected it, improved it, and finally perfected it; and now I never change it, for it needs no change. I sell pinchbeck jewelry, and pinchbeck jewelry alone; I peddle it on foot far and wide, sometimes as far west as Ohio and as far south as the Gulf; at first I used to go out with a good many kinds of jewelry, so as to meet the requirements of all tastes, but gradually I discarded one kind and then another, as experience suggested, until at last my plan was perfect and unimprovable, and my stock was weeded down to just two articles — two, and no more; and since then I have never peddled any but just those two — engagement rings and wedding rings. That market never slacks; people never stop getting engaged, and they never stop getting married. It's a trade that's like undertaking — sure and steady, no fluctuations in good times or bad, the demand always the same.
Sloane interrupted to say,
"But aren't you forgetting about the feather-dusters?"
No, the man said, that is only a blind. I always carry them with me; I always offer them for sale, but never urgently, for I don't want anybody to buy; now and then I can't help it; somebody buys a duster and I have to stand it, but it's an inconvenience, because I've got to send and get another one to put in its place. The duster is a good protection. A tramp, pure and simple, is an offence, and he drives his trade in a thick atmosphere of prejudice and aversion all the time, whereas everybody is favorably inclined toward a ragged and hungry poor fellow who has something to sell, and who is apparently doing the best he can to earn an honest living. These feather-dusters are an invaluable protection to me; they keep off prejudice the same as an umbrella keeps off rain; nobody ever receives me ungently.
The feather-duster man's story continued. He tells how he engraves skewered hearts and initials on wedding rings.
I've got a trade — engraving on silversmiths' work — but it furnished me only a poor living and I gave it up, ten years ago, in order to try commerce, for I felt that I had a talent for commerce. From that day to this I have walked the earth distributing North Attleboro jewelry to the farmers and villagers of our country. You saw me buy twelve dozen very good-looking wedding rings for seven dollars — say about five cents apiece; they have good weight, they have dignity, they are handsome, and they have a convincing 24-carat aspect; if they were gold, they would be worth ten dollars apiece, retail. To begin with, I take them home and engrave two sets of initials on the inside of them, with two hearts on a skewer between. Those hearts are very fetching. I have tried other devices, but for business, out in the country, where sentiment reigns and has its home, they are worth all the rest of a person's viscera put together, lungs and all; skewered with an arrow, you know; you would think hearts skewered on a fork would be exactly the same thing, but it's not; the trade would go to hell in a minute. It shows the power of sentiment; it shows what human beings are, out in the country — and I know all about them by this time; I don't make any mistakes with my customers.
I always engrave the skewered hearts in the wedding rings, and I always put initials on each side of them; any initials will answer; I could use the same ones all the time if I wanted to; you will presently see that it wouldn't hurt the business any. I do use variety in the matter of initials, but it's only to rest myself; it isn't necessary. You notice I bought only twelve dozen this time; it's because I shan't go any distance from New York for a couple of weeks till I'm ready to start South when April comes and the sunshine; I'll lay in a big stock then, and be gone two months. You didn't see me buy any engagement rings. It is because I've got a bucketful or two at home. When you buy several thousand at a time you get them at a large discount, and it's worth while. Each engagement ring has a small glass diamond in it, and is a very pretty thing, and captivating to the eye of young persons who are dangling on the brink of matrimony. If the ring was genuine, it would be worth seventy-five dollars; what I can get for it over fifteen cents is profit, and I always suit the price to the emotions of the customer; sometimes his emotions reach fifteen dollars, but if I land him for seven, or eight, or nine, I am satisfied, for where a young person's heart is engaged I couldn't be any way but tender if I tried; it's the way I am made. I myself have loved, and I know how it feels.
You might think the engagement ring was the daisy in this trade, but you would be mistaken; it's a close second, but the wedding ring stands first, for business, and I will tell you why: you may run a geodetic survey of farm-houses for a week on a stretch and not strike more than two or three engagements, or such a matter, but it's a most unusual circumstance when you strike a farmhouse where there's no trade for a wedding ring. Then take a village, for instance: an ordinary village won't fetch more than three or four engagements, and maybe not be worth more than forty dollars to me; you can hunt them out and supply them in a day, as a rule — unless it's down South amongst the niggers; then the village trade is better; it's because in the North a man won't buy an engagement ring until he's engaged, but a nigger will take one anyway, so as to be prepared for the worst. Yes, you can work off all the engagement trade of a village in a day, but sometimes I've had to put in a whole week to supply just one village with wedding rings. I remember one village out in Indiana that had only eight hundred and forty grown-up people in it, but amongst them they took two hundred and sixty-four wedding rings.
Sloane broke in with,
"Do you mean to say that there were two hundred and sixty-four married women in so small a community as that that had never been provided with the certification and protection of a wedding ring?"
I never said that, did I? The statistics look strange to you at present, but they won't look strange after I have got done explaining.
The feather-duster man's story concluded.
You see, the procedure is this: for instance, I am languoring along a village street looking tired, and maybe discouraged; if it's a little muddy and drizzly and dismal, all the better, for then you are most likely to catch the womenkind at home — at home, and maybe one or another of them sitting by the window sewing. If there's a woman sitting by the window sewing, it means that in this modest cottage they are able to keep a hired girl; but they'll not interrupt her work to tend door. Understand, a hired girl at the door is well enough if you can't do any better, but you can't depend on her being worth more than about 25 per cent of what the average woman of the household would be. Of course you don't throw a hired girl over your shoulder, which would be flying in the face of Providence, and could bring bad luck; no, you accept what is sent, and be thankful, and don't grumble; you learn this kind of philosophy in the course of time. Very well, while you're moping along apparently absorbed in your cares, you've got a furtive eye out for business, and you see the woman at the window before she sees you; she's there to see what she can, and she doesn't get much to look at. There's a little yard in front of the cottage, and a paling fence, and a gate, and a walk that goes straight through to the front door, about five steps. Just as you are passing the gate, and looking your saddest, your face suddenly lights up, and you stoop down and apparently snake something eagerly out of the mud. The woman sees that episode — you needn't glance at her to make sure, you know by experience that she's always taking care of her end of the dramatics. You examine that thing you've found, on the sly, she watching you all the time and you apparently not aware of it; then you slip it into your vest pocket and start briskly along; but when you've gone only two or three steps you stop and begin to reflect — you begin to look doubtful; you do a kind of struggle with your conscience, showing that you have been brought up in a godly family and are wavering between the right and the wrong at this moral crisis of your life — understand, the woman has her eye on you, and she is interpreting it all — then you kind of straighten up and heave a return-to-virtue expression into your style, and turn and go reluctantly back. Along at first, you can't do a really good sample of reluctance, but after a little practice you can do it so well, you can give it such a genuine aspect, that sometimes you deceive yourself; sometimes you really think for a moment that you are reluctant. Now when you strike that gait you know that your education is complete, and that you are all right for the future. As I was saying, you go back reluctantly and fumble the gate a little, in an undecided way; finally you enter and approach the door; you knock; if it was another person he would have to wait till that woman puts her sewing in the basket and sets it aside before she comes to the door, but in your case it is different; she is there already, and the minute you knock she opens, and her face is full of interest, and expectancy too. But you mustn't see that; no, you are intent upon another matter, and you don't observe it; you are going to disappoint her — that's the game. You begin to tell her, meekly and humbly, how long you have been without anything to eat, and haven't been able to find any opening for a feather-duster, and how many children you've got depending on you — arranging the number, of course, to suit the circumstances and the weather — and whether your wife is sick or not, and what is the matter with her, and what the chances are — and all that kind of thing — which doesn't interest the woman because her mind is on your vest pocket; and meantime you're taking each feather-duster in its turn and giving it a shake before her face and explaining how much better it is than any other feather-dusters that are on the market now, and how cheap these feather-dusters are, and so on, and so on. At last, when you a give her a chance to get in a word edgeways, she says just what you were expecting her to say, and just what you wanted her to say, to wit: that she doesn't need a feather-duster; she's sorry; she wishes she did need one, for she would like to help any honest poor person who is in trouble; and she follows that right up by offering to give you a feed. This is your chance. You turn sadly away, thanking her deeply, fervently, with considerable emotion in it, but saying it would not be right for you to eat bread which you had not earned; that you may have to come to it, but you feel it would not be honorable in you to succumb while you have yet strength to go on and seek further for a customer. This is very fetching, and it works that woman hard, but you don't let on to see it; you turn sorrowfully away and proceed toward the gate, feeling the gaze of her pitying eye beating upon your back, and — well, you mustn't carry it too far; half way to the gate is far enough; she is trying to pull her resolution together and shut the door and try to forget you and your sick children, and your other sorrows, and if you go one step too far she'll manage it; no, just at the right time, as determined for you by experience, you turn and go back and begin to fumble in your vest pocket as you go, which makes you welcome. You say,
"Madam, I am under sore temptation, but have been mercifully granted strength to resist. I have found a heavy gold wedding ring just outside your gate; I cannot keep it, it is the property of another. You have been kind to me; your sympathy has done me good; it's probably yours; if so I know you will grant a poor fellow some little reward for returning it. I was once a goldsmith's journeyman, in my better days, and I am aware that the ring must have cost ten or twelve dollars."
Excerpted from Autobiography of Mark Twain by BENJAMIN GRIFFIN, HARRIET ELINOR SMITH, Victor Fisher, Michael B. Frank, Amanda Gagel, Sharon K. Goetz, Leslie Diane Myrick, Christopher M. Ohge. Copyright © 2015 Mark Twain Foundation. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Dictations,
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN,
The Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript,
Samuel L. Clemens: A Brief Chronology,
Clemens's 1873 Autobiographical Notes, and Biographical Sketch by Charles Dudley Warner,
Clemens's 1899 Autobiographical Notes, and Biographical Sketch by Samuel E. Moffett,
Proposition for a Postal Check,
Ralph W. Ashcroft to John B. Stanchfield, 30 July 1909,
Note on the Text,
Word Division in This Volume,