Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field/Author's Preface

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PREFACE

To begin with, of course, I don't claim that all these stories are absolutely first hand. I sometimes jotted down what I heard Mark say, or stored his talk in some compartment of memory, only to hear him repeat the yarn, after a space, in quite different fashion.

"You remind me of Charles II," I said to him once, referring to that confusing habit of his, and was going to "substantiate" when he interrupted.

"I can guess what you mean, but never mind, for all you know I may be Charlie's reincarnation. Charles, you wanted to say, had only three stories up his sleeve and these he told over and over again for new ones to Nell and the rest of the bunch. And varied them so cleverly and disguised them so well, that his audience never got on to the fact that His Majesty had been chestnutting. As for me, I can only hope that I will succeed as well as Charlie did."

In Berlin I once heard Susie Clemens—ill-fated, talented girl, who died so young—say to her father: "Grouchy again! They do say that you can be funny when company is around—too bad that you don't consider Henry Fisher company."

"Out of the mouth of sucklings," quoth Clements and gave Susie the twenty marks she was after, and he kissed her: "Goodby, little blackmailer, and don't tell your mamma how you worked that fool papa of yours."

Indeed, Mark was not always the humorist the public mind pictures him. Very often, for long hours at a time, in our intercourse extending over thirty years, he was decidedly serious, while at other times he grumbled at everything and everybody. His initial object in choosing me for his "bear-leader" was to add to his stock of knowledge on foreign affairs and to correct erroneous ideas he might have acquired from books. Since I had resided many years on the Continent, and had command of the languages he lacked, he asked me to pilot him around Berlin, Paris, and Vienna, and on such occasions his talk was more often deep and learned than laughter-provoking. In an afternoon or morning's work—getting atmosphere, i.e., "the hang of things" German or Austrian, as Mark called it—he sometimes dropped two or three memorable witticisms, but familiar intercourse in the long run left no doubt of the fact that a very serious vein bordering on melancholy underlay his mask of bonhomie. On the other hand a closer or more intelligent student of life never lived. He was as conscientious, as true, and as simple as Washington Irving.

Those occasional lapses into dejection notwithstanding, it struck me that Mark extracted his humor out of the bounty and abundance of his own nature. Hence his tinkling grotesquerie, unconventionally, whimsicality, play of satire, and shrieking irony, between touches of deep seriousness.

Really much of Mark's wisdom began and ended in humor and vice versa. There was originality and penetration in everything he said. Howells has said of Mark: "If a trust of his own was betrayed Clemens was ruthlessly, implacably resentful." For my part, in thirty years, I never heard him speak ill of any living person, except one or two self-appointed editors.

I first met him in Chicago during the Grant celebration, November, 1879, when I heard him give the toast on babies, but I do not remember a word of his speech, for while it lasted I was sitting next to Grant and Grant kept me busy watching and attending his immutable and eloquent silence.

When Mark and I were fellow correspondents in Berlin, I met his wife and family frequently at their home, at the Hotel Royal, and on public occasions. The three girls, Jean, Susie, and Clara, were in their teens, and both lovely and lively. At that time the late William Walter Phelps of New Jersey was American minister in Berlin. We had been friends in America and Phelps had also known Mr. Clemens in the States socially. Like everybody else, he delighted in Mark's stimulating company. Among other distinguished Americans in Berlin, in 1891, was Ward Hill Lamon, Abraham Lincoln's Springfield law partner, later his private secretary, and Marshal of the District of Columbia during Lincoln's administration. Lamon was the author of "The Life of Abraham Lincoln" and "Recollections of Abraham Lincoln." These books the Lincoln family did not enjoy.

When the Clemenses went to live in Vienna, six years later, I happened to be correspondent at the Austrian capital for Dalziel's News, London, and Galignani's Messenger, Paris, and as Mark, used to the Berlin dialect, found it difficult "to acclimatize his German, making it chime in with the Vienna variety" (his own description), I was again much in demand as interpreter, pathfinder, and general cicerone.

In later years I met Mark repeatedly during his several London seasons, for, liking his society, I called at Brown's or his apartment whenever he came to England, myself being engaged in literary work there. We were never on terms of particular intimacy—hail-fellows-well-met, yes! "Hello, Mark"—"Hello Henry W.—you here again?" We stuck verbally to the formula of the old Chicago days, and I was glad to be of use to him when it suited his fancy. Moreover, I was vastly interested in Mark's books, short stories, and essays, but found him rarely inclined to talk shop unless it was the other fellow's.

Rudyard Kipling he used to designate "the militant spokesman of the Anglo-Saxon races," and he sometimes spoke with near-admiration of Bernard Shaw, "whose plays are popular from London to St. Petersburg, from Christiania to Madrid, from Havre to Frisco, and from Frisco to the Antipodes, while mine are nowhere."

After I visited Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana he said to me: "Lucky dog, you have broken bread with the man who commands, and almost monopolizes, the thought of the world."

That the universality of his humor and its humanity made him the peer of these great writers, of all his contemporaries in fact, seemed to be far from his thoughts. His verbal humor, like his fancy, was as simple in form and as direct in application as were the army orders of the great Napoleon. He liked to hear me say that, for he knew that some of my forbears had been individually attached to the person of the Emperor. But the most he ever said concerning his authorship and other writers in his own line was this:

"I pity the fellow who has to create a dialect or paraphrase the dictionary to get laughs. Like you and Susie" (referring to his oldest daughter) "I can't spell, but I have never stooped to spell cat with a 'k' to get at your funny bone. I love a drink, but I never encouraged drunkenness by harping on its alleged funny side."

One more of his sayings: At the unveiling of a bronze tablet to Eugene Field, Mark uttered these words: "By his life he made bright the lives of all who knew him and by his books he cheered the thoughts of thousands who didn't know him."

Substitute "millions" for thousands and you have Mark Twain the Man and Mark Twain the Writer.


One afternoon, having laughed our fill with the "Belle of New York" and rejoiced in the London success of the piece (Mark, who while alive enjoyed scant luck as a playwright, yet loved to see others "win out"), our friend and the present writer happened to cross Bedford Square. Seeing the name at a street corner, Mark pulled out his note book. "Eugene Field lived somewhere around here in 1889," he said. I showed him the house, No. 20 Alfred Street.

"A dark and dismal hole," said Mark, ruefully shaking his head; "no wonder he couldn't find his 'righteous stomach' there, even in the absence of Chicago pies."

"And coffee," I interpolated. "Yours truly, too, would have died of dyspepsia if he had stayed in Chicago and continued at Henrici's coffee and pie counter, as Gene did."

Mark remained silent for a block or two. "I've got it," he said at last, "God gave Gene a good enough stomach, and English hospitality completely paralyzed what was left of his digestive powers after the Cook County coffee and pie diet. Did you see much of Gene while he was in London?"

I told Mark all I knew about Field's social and literary doings. "Bennett was right when he refused him a job on the London Herald," said Clemens. "For one thing, the Herald didn't last long, and the English climate would have cut poor Gene's life still shorter by two or three winters and falls."

Just the same, the desire for a London success, then common among American writers and artists, killed Eugene Field, the genial and lovable poet of childhood and man-about-literature's-highways-and-byways.

HENRY W. FISHER.

In the last days of
December, 1921.