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Inventing Mark Twain
The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens
By Andrew Hoffman

Chapter One: Inventing Sam Clemens

Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.

--"Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar" (1894)

Two months premature and weighing five pounds, the baby born to John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens on November 30, 1835, in the frontier hamlet of Florida, Missouri, had the worst possible prospects. "A lady came in one day," Jane Clemens wrote later, and "said you don't expect to raise that babe do you. I said I would try. But he was a poor looking object to raise."

The most auspicious element in the child's birth was the presence of Halley's Comet in the sky. The Clemenses and Jane's extended family, the largest and most prominent among the local pioneers, were literate people, but that didn't stop them from subscribing to a host of superstitions. No one had yet heard of Charles Darwin; the mysterious complexity of life seemed more a result of contesting angels and demons than of predictable laws discernible by science. Such powerful forces as electricity had been investigated, but not tamed, and even the most learned among Missouri frontiersmen believed that a little luck, courted by the right ritual, would take a person further than the latest scientific knowledge. The presence of the comet seemed an omen to the Clemens clan, though whether for their new son or their new home they could not guess. Jane's family--her sister, father, uncle, brother-in-law, cousins, nephews, and nieces--brought their jovial warmth to bear on making the comet's lucky powers apply to both Sam and their town. Without them, the boy would almost certainly have followed the fate of the Clemenses' third child, Pleasant, born half a dozen years before and dead within three months.

John Marshall Clemens named his son Samuel Langhorne; his wife felt so hopeless about the child's survival that she relinquished her usual claim to name him. "Samuel" came from John's father, who had died when John was a boy. In a search for new land, cheaper and less settled than in Virginia, the Clemenses had crossed the Appalachian Mountains to Kentucky. Only two years later, the senior Samuel had died, crushed in an accident at a house-raising. John never forgot feeling slighted that his father had not kissed him before he left that day. His mother was soon remarried, to a man who took little interest in the children of her first marriage. John, in a hurry to leave that household, accepted an offer for an apprenticeship back in Virginia from a relative named Langhorne. After a few years, however, John dolefully returned from the land his father had left to the hills of Kentucky; he had been a conspicuous failure in the Old Virginia territory toward which settlers farther west looked with pride and nostalgia. Now back on the frontier, even farther west, John Marshall Clemens bestowed the ambiguous names Samuel Langhorne on a child he expected to die. The names would bury John's own failure in Virginia and his father's default as a pioneer and free him to look to the future in Missouri. He did not think what a haunting burden they might be to his son, if the child had the fortune to survive.

Writing as Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens would claim that Florida, Missouri, "contained a hundred people and I increased the population by one per cent. It is more than the best man in history ever did for any other town." In 1835, the hamlet consisted of just two dusty roads and as many shacks as were needed to house a few hundred people a day's horse-ride away from the nearest Mississippi River community. Laid out in 1831, Florida sat on high, fertile ground where the north and south forks of Salt River joined thirty land miles from the Mississippi and seemed a likely spot to mill and ship the products of the outlying farms. By 1835, the first horse-powered mill gave way to a few water-powered ones; small, flat-bottomed boats carried produce the eighty river miles down to the town of Louisiana, Missouri, where Salt River joined the Big Muddy.

John Clemens brought big dreams to this tiny place. A lawyer who entered the bar in Kentucky in the fall of 1822, he tried to help two brothers named Lampton forestall their bankruptcy. Though he was unsuccessful in court, he wooed Benjamin Lampton's elder daughter Jane--a vivacious redhead, a notable dancer with a laconic way of talking and a peculiar sense of humor. Like the Clemenses, the Lamptons were refugees from Virginia, but they carried an even higher distinction, a shadowy claim to British nobility; family legend held that Benjamin's father William had left England after a fight with his father, the earl of Durham. The Lamptons often acted the role of gentry, whether or not they had the property to back up the claim. When Jane's distinguished maternal grandfather died in 1816--memorably, he was buried sitting upright in the chair to which he'd been confined for years--he left Ben Lampton with a disappointing inheritance. In October 1818, when Jane was fifteen, her mother died, and the Lamptons' debts slowly but stubbornly brought them to financial ruin. Desperate, Jane jumped into a marriage with the somber young lawyer John Clemens. A bit eccentric, given to flightiness and flamboyance, Jane later claimed that a failed romance with someone more promising had driven her to accept the cadaverous John Clemens "in a pet." The marriage between Jane and John Clemens was "courteous, considerate and always respectful, and even deferential," their son Sam remembered; "they were always kind toward each other, but ... there was nothing warmer."

The couple lingered in Jane's hometown of Columbia, Kentucky, for a few years, but then moved on, first to Gainesboro, Tennessee, where on July 17, 1825, Jane gave birth to Orion--named by his mother, with the stress on the first syllable. The family crossed the Cumberland Mountains to a sandy patch of ground called Jamestown, the seat of a new county. By 1827, John Clemens' studiousness and Virginian ways impressed his Tennessee neighbors sufficiently for them to appoint him county commissioner and court clerk of Fentress County. He opened a store and dispensed legal advice. He began buying land, thousands of acres of it, encouraging his and Jane's relatives to buy in, too. The land Clemens bought, however, could grow nothing more than potatoes. Also, after settling some early land disputes, Clemens got very little legal work. Men gathered at his Jamestown store to drink and talk, but not to transact much business. As the town's growth stalled, he developed the habit of pouring a drink for himself whenever he poured one for a customer. Soon, though, frightened by his drinking, John Clemens swore off alcohol.

The family grew: a daughter, Pamela--emphasis on the second syllable, again named by Jane--in 1827; the short-lived Pleasant Hannibal a little over a year later; and Margaret in 1830. A year later, the Clemenses moved nine miles north to Pall Mall, Tennessee, for better farmland. There, Benjamin, the Clemenses' fifth child, arrived on June 8, 1832. The failure of Jamestown, the expanding clan, and the tightening resources combined to bring debilitating migraines upon John Clemens, which he termed "sun-pain." The Clemenses' promising future quickly became a desperate present. By 1834, with his vast acreage around Jamestown representing value only when Tennessee grew, the Clemenses looked west, to Missouri. They believed in the westward dreams of America, and the land beyond the Mississippi seemed capable of accommodating John Clemens' vision. Jane's sister, Martha Ann, whom she called Patsy, had married a robust pioneer named John Quarles, who kept a store in Florida, Missouri. Their father had followed with his second wife after settling his debts. They all harmonized on the same theme: "Come!"

Florida gave John Clemens a new beginning. Soon after he arrived, he adopted the project of raising money to straighten and dredge Salt River. Though the town's economic future depended on opening the river to navigation, its political future depended on its becoming the county seat. John Clemens, experienced in constituting new counties, fought hard for Florida through 1835. The town lost to a more central one, but the defeat did not dampen Clemens' civic energy. He lobbied the state legislature to establish the Salt River Navigation Company, which could raise money necessary for his main project. Operating a store with his brother-in-law John Quarles, Clemens began to practice law again.

Pregnant when they arrived in Florida, Jane busied herself setting up frontier housekeeping in this new town, a task she had accomplished without much help twice before. Now she had family around. While John Clemens was cramped and unforgiving, Jane was expansive and boundlessly optimistic. To Jane, Florida felt like a return to the warm family circle of her Kentucky days in Columbia, before the loss of fortunes and beloved relatives. Though the house in which Sam Clemens came prematurely into the world had little to recommend it, being nothing but a two-room cabin with a lean-to kitchen, the village's promise and his mother's relatives made that cabin a hopeful starting point for the family's new life. Though Jane remembered that Sam spent his first several years under the threat of death--and she avidly read all the health publications she could find, and employed their often painful cure-alls--the Lampton clan provided continual amusement and attention for the children.

The Lamptons and Quarleses possessed good fellowship in abundance. Old Ben Lampton had a reputation as a singer. Jane loved to dance and always was ready to turn the simplest gathering into a full-blown party. Patsy set a prodigious table, and John Quarles was a garrulous storyteller. As in John Clemens' earlier store, the new concern could always provide another shot of the locally produced whiskey. The store was the town's social center, and the Lamptons attracted other members of the community to their circle. The town's thriving ambition--as well as Sam's unexpected survival into childhood--built up great hope for the future. Only the March 1837 death of Jane's father, Ben, dampened the settlers' enthusiasm. On November 6, 1837, John Clemens became a judge in the Monroe County Court. Good news kept coming for the Lampton sisters, too: They were both pregnant, both due in June of 1838. The sisters' simultaneous pregnancies promised to bind their families even closer together in the coming success of their town.

Young Sam, steeped in the family's endless storytelling, confessions, musings about their aspirations, and bickering about politics, seemed destined to become happy and convivial, so different from his siblings Orion and Pamela, their early years dominated by the hardscrabble, joyless life in Tennessee isolated from any family beyond their parents, whose kind but loveless union did not provide much. In John Quarles and Ben Lampton, Sam saw adult men who met life with joy, as opposed to his own father's rigor and seriousness. John Clemens had drive, dignity, and the respect of his community, all personal assets that Sam would eventually crave, but his uncles and cousins preferred the brighter qualities of wit, playfulness, and delight. Nurtured by the attentions of his older siblings and cousins and the ministrations of his worried mother, Sam developed a taste for center stage. He early picked up skills in occupying more of the limelight, like his languorous style of speech, adopted from his mother. His slow talk, seeming both labored in its deliberateness and effortless in its calm, always made people laugh.

Jane's family began to trickle into Missouri shortly after 1820, when the sparsely settled territory became a state as part of the Missouri Compromise. The young union had nearly broken up over the issue of slavery, until Congress agreed to admit Missouri as a slave state and to separate Maine from New Hampshire and admit it as a free state. That preserved the balance of representation and kept the fragile Republic together, but at a high cost. The Missouri Compromise also required that Congress not entertain any legislation relative to slavery. As the years passed, the conflict the Compromise had intended to quell burned ever hotter, and what could not get a public airing in Washington became an issue for feverish debate in the states. The Bible justified slavery, or so Sam heard in the sermons preached on Sundays at Florida's churches. Most Missouri settlers came from slaveholding states, and they believed that organic differences between the races made equality unthinkable. In rural Missouri in the 1830s, abolition was not only a theoretical and impractical notion, but also a harsh threat to economic survival.

Born into this slave culture, Sam Clemens assimilated the belief that difference in skin color meant a difference not only in caste but in fundamental rights. His household included a slave, Jennie, who had been with them since Jane and John's marriage and who served as nursemaid to young Sam and his siblings. The Quarleses also owned several slaves, mostly blood relatives, and the slave community in the Florida area formed a separate society that Sam enjoyed. He had a special affection for a slave in the Quarles household, Uncle Dan, about thirty in 1835 and a father figure for the boy. The slaves watched over the children, overseeing the supervision of the younger ones by the older. During busy planting and harvesting seasons, the children watched the slaves work. They all had free run of the small town, but the places where the slaves gathered were the parts Sam liked best--within limits. Blacks and whites never ate together; this type of segregation was total. Whites could interrupt blacks with impunity, but blacks could never interrupt whites. All his life, Sam remembered one harrowing incident that represented the brutal power relations underlying the caste differences. Once, when Jane and Jennie bickered, Jennie raised her hand to strike Jane. John Clemens intervened; he dragged Jennie outside, bound her hands with a bridle, and whipped her as six-year-old Sam watched. It would take him decades to escape his tangled feelings about race and slavery.

In Missouri in the 1830s, however, owning slaves did not ensure success. Economic vagaries could derail even the soundest investments. John Clemens' hopes for Florida, Missouri, suffered immense reversals just as he achieved his greatest personal success. The battle that the determinedly democratic President Andrew Jackson waged against the business-backed Bank of the United States rose to a crisis when the bank fought back by strangling its own financial resources. The bank refused aid to the government and called in other loans, leading to a nationwide monetary collapse in 1837. The same year, to protect the state from the national crisis, the Missouri Legislature established a State Bank to print money, but only in denominations above ten dollars; sums less than that had to be in gold or silver. Suddenly, the legal tender people used for their everyday debts had no value.

Because of these economic contractions, there was no money for John Clemens' Salt River Navigation Company, despite the rapid growth of Missouri's population. In only a few years, Missouri had ceased to be the newest frontier; now it was only the gateway to the West, first to Santa Fe, then to California, and at last to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. By 1835, St. Louis boasted more than ten thousand inhabitants and the state as a whole more than fifty thousand. New towns sprang up everywhere, many of them founded upon one utopian social principle or another. For a short while, Missouri was a land where hope grew even more rapidly than hemp or grain or pigs. The seeming permanence of the state, however, with its elected officials, public buildings, and dozens of newspapers, was only an economic mirage brought about by the promise of wealth from the West, a promise erased by the nation's first massive economic shutdown. The financial disaster erased many Missouri towns--like Florida.

The Clemenses and the Quarleses looked to escape the dying town. John Quarles bought farmland toward the North Fork of Salt River. John Clemens went back to Tennessee in the fall of 1838 to attend to his property there, and when he returned to Florida, he opened a general store across the street from the Quarleses', a separation of assets preparatory to Quarles' move into farming. Though Jane and Patsy stayed together during their bittersweet pregnancies and the nursing afterward of Henry, Jane's last child, the breakdown in relations between the brothers-in-law contaminated Jane Clemens' relationship with her extended family. When the Quarleses moved to their family farm, the family amity Jane found so delightful ended.

The prolonged absence of his father and the birth of Henry Clemens had a disturbing effect on Sam, now three. He was accustomed to his position as the center of family attention, and the breakdown in family cohesiveness and the sudden appearance of a competitor started explosions of unprovoked rage. By day, Sam became wild and unmanageable, except during his periods of illness, which diverted Jane's attention from the rival child, Henry. At night, he began sleepwalking, almost always toward Jane's bed. The world that Sam knew had shattered. Every day, friends and family abandoned Florida; his father's departure seemed permanent to him. His favorite spots fell still: The mills stopped; the flat-bottomed boats remained tied up at the wharf. The slaves, anxious about their fate in the new order, shunned Sam. These events deeply unsettled the little boy.

Then came an incident that cemented the development of the boy's young psyche. His mother Jane, who perceived Sam as a sickly, sensitive boy, saw his sleepwalking as evidence of second sight. She believed he was clairvoyant; his survival after his birth during the presence of Halley's Comet indicated supernatural abilities. A handsome child, noted for excitability and his red curls, Sam played to this perception. Even before his fourth birthday, he provided his family a disturbing confirmation of his special abilities. One August night, in 1839, Sam rose and walked, still asleep, into the room where his sister Margaret, nine, lay ill. With his small hand, he plucked at the coverlet of his sister's bed, a gesture associated in the Missouri folk-mind with imminent death. A few days later, Margaret died. The family concluded that Sam had foreseen the event.

Sam did not understand the odd way everyone looked at him after his sister's death; he confused his supposed foreknowledge of Margaret's death with a responsibility for it. In his own mind, he became the instrument of his sister's demise. By confirming his mother's belief that he had a clairvoyant's gift, Sam also created a profound and reflexive guilt in himself. Though his later religious training emphasized guilt, his direct experience with it made those feelings endure vividly into adulthood, long after Sam Clemens had discarded almost every other trapping of his original religion. Throughout his life, that powerful, almost primal, guilt would resurface when anyone close to him died.

The removal of the family from Florida a few months after Margaret's burial deepened Sam's feelings of responsibility. Coming so soon after Margaret's death, the move seemed to Sam the direct result of it. With this one change, Sam lost not only his cousin-playmates, but his goodhearted and expansive Uncle John and the wise and tender slave Uncle Dan. In return for these losses, he gained only the regular presence of the taciturn and unbending John Clemens. Jane, mourning both Margaret and the loss of her family's support, relinquished most of her joy. John Clemens traded his local holdings for a few small housing lots and a new hotel in the Mississippi river town Hannibal, a magnet for Missouri's disaffected, from washed-out utopians, like those of Marion City, to recession-frozen hopefuls, like the Clemenses of Florida. Since most of the human personality is formed before the age of five, Florida was as fundamental to Samuel Langhorne Clemens as Mark Twain would later make Hannibal appear. In the eyes of a four-year-old, the move from the safe and convivial Florida felt like a payment for his ambiguous responsibility for the death of his sister, a banishment from Eden. It was an imitation of death. Later, in his fiction, Mark Twain named his imaginary blend of Hannibal and Florida St. Petersburg, for the heaven that stands closed off behind the gates Saint Peter guards.

© 1997 Andrew Jay Hoffman

William Morrow and Company, Inc.

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