Mark Twain’s adventures in Washington, D.C.: Biographer John Muller to speak at Politics and Prose

January 2, 2014
This is how Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and his ’stache looked in 1867, part of which he spent living in Washington. (Abdullah Freres, Library of Congress) This is how Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and his ’stache looked in 1867, part of which he spent living in Washington. (Abdullah Freres, Library of Congress)

Think back to the worst roommate you ever had. Maybe he was a slob who stayed up all night, drinking your booze and smoking in bed. Or he tormented your landlady and nearly got the both of you evicted.

Mark Twain did all that and worse while bunking with his boss — Nevada Sen. William Stewart — in a downtown D.C. boarding house. (Stewart and Twain parted ways, and Twain went on to annoy other hosts.)

“Twain was not necessarily the most likeable of guys,” says John Muller, author of “Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent.” “He was kind of a jerk.”

Twain was, of course, a very talented jerk, and Muller will be speaking at Politics and Prose on Saturday about how the great American satirist found his calling during a stint in D.C. from late November 1867 to early March 1868.

While working, nominally, as personal secretary to Stewart, Twain spent most of his time as a beat reporter, filing political stories for papers around the country. He wrote more than two dozen newspaper articles — and they didn’t always hew to the facts, Muller says.

In one tall tale published in the New York Citizen, Twain claimed he had worked as the doorkeeper on the Senate floor and was fired for charging lawmakers an entrance fee. In the story, Twain goes on to win an appointment to the (fictional) “Senate Committee on Conchology” and attends a presidential cabinet meeting.

“Somebody who is naive might think this really happened, but anyone who knows the workings of Washington would know it’s satire,” Muller says.

Twain’s success as a humorist, combined with the rush of getting his first real book deal while in D.C., made him realize his future lay in literature, not journalism. So as reporters flooded the city to cover President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, Twain headed to San Francisco and finished writing the book that would launch his literary career, “The Innocents Abroad.”

At least one person was probably not sad to see him go: His former roommate.

Sound familiar?

Mark Twain was not a fan of D.C. He took issue with:

The unpredictable weather: “There is too much weather. … It is tricky, it is changeable, and it is to the last degree unreliable.”

Buses that skip your stop: “You may stand in a puddle of water, with the snow driving in your face for fifteen minutes or more, before an omnibus rolls lazily by; and when one does come, ten to one there are nineteen passengers inside and fourteen outside, and while the driver casts on you a look of commiseration, you have the inexpressible satisfaction of knowing that you closely resemble a very moist dish-rag.”

The food: In one lecture, Twain compared “the proportion of arable land to desert in Syria, to that of that of the absolute lemon in the pies known as lemon pies, at his Washington hotel,” according to the Evening Star newspaper. In a letter home, Twain wrote, “Shabby furniture & shabby food — that is Washn.”

Verbose lawmakers: “In the House, nearly every man seemed to have something weighing on his mind on which the salvation of the Republic depended, and which he appeared very anxious to relieve himself of.”

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sat., 1 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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