At age 59, Mark Twain fell on hard times. His health was bad and he was deep in debt. Despite not feeling well, he decided to make a world lecture tour to pay off his creditors. Ticket prices ranged from 25 cents to $1. It was actually a stand-up comedy tour, more than lecture.
Before the tour ended, he was debt free and left a trail of humor, witticisms and wisdom that endure to this day.
The tour was triggered by the Panic of 1893 that caused his investments to fail and his debts to soar up to $70,000 — nearly $2 million today.
His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens and at that time he was living in Paris with his wife Olivia (Livy) and daughters Suzy, Clara and Jean. They returned to America and he hired James B. Pond as his tour manager,
His first gig was in Cleveland. He made 23 appearances across America before arriving in the Pacific Northwest.
At the Opera House in Spokane, a reporter asked him what his favorite story was. With a hearty laugh Twain said “The jaybird story by all odds …
“It was over three years after ‘Roughing It’ was published when I picked up a newspaper and read that sketch,” Twain continued. “I thought it was funny until I remembered that I had written it. A friend of mine suggested that this would be a good thing for the platform. I embodied it in one of my lectures — and the audience fell asleep!”
After Spokane, Twain delighted audiences in Portland, Olympia, Tacoma, Whatcom (now Bellingham), Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria.
The summer of 1895 was a grim time in the Pacific Northwest. The region was suffering from severe economic woes and the skies were filled with smoke from forest fires. All the time Mark Twain was there, he couldn’t see Mount Rainier.
He made light of the smoke however, telling city fathers in Olympia, “I don’t mind. I am a perpetual smoker myself,” and joked to a Tacoma reporter, “Really, your scenery is wonderful. It’s quite out of sight.”
On top of all that, he wasn’t feeling well due to a cold and sore throat but still smoked 10 cigars a day. He also had a painful abscess on his neck, and was worried about his semi-invalid wife and the serious illness of two of his three daughters.
Despite his troubles, he soldiered on and his audiences got their money’s worth.
His comedy style was deadpan.
“While his audience roars with laughter, he simply pulls his mustache and scowls,” the Tacoma Daily News said. “Sentences and phrases that, dull and commonplace emanating from other lips, provoke paroxysms of mirth when uttered by him.”
And the Seattle Times wrote, “That he is funny no one can deny; that his exaggerations are grotesque is also true … Mr. Clemens’ studied awkwardness of manner helps what he says wonderfully, and his peculiar tone of voice is a potent adjunct to his fun. The audience was greatly amused.”
On Aug. 23, 1895, Twain, his wife, Livy, and middle daughter, Clara, along with tour manager James B. Pond and wife Martha boarded the SS Warrimoo steamship and the tour headed for Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), South Africa, England, Austria, Hungary and then back to England.
Health issues notwithstanding, before he left Victoria, Twain bought 3,000 cigars to last him the journey.
The tour ended in New York in October 1900, and Twain’s manager called it “the most delightful tour I have ever made with any party.”
Clemens was born in Florida, Mo., in 1835 just as Halley’s Comet was passing overhead. A few years later, the family moved to Hannibal, nearly 40 miles northeast on the Mississippi.
The port town would be the inspiration of the fictional “St. Petersburg” in his famous novels — “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
He was the sixth of the seven Clemens children, with only three surviving to adulthood.
Young Samuel never had a formal education, but taught himself by hanging out at libraries. Then when he was only 11, his father died of pneumonia.
For years he worked as a printer’s apprentice in several Midwestern states, and at age 18, visited New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
But his goal was to become a steamboat pilot — duty he considered better than being captain. He later wrote that the pilot had to “get up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred miles; and more than that, must ... actually know where these things are in the dark.”
It took him two years to earn his pilot’s license.
“Mark Twain” was a term he learned during his Mississippi steamboat pilot days. The shifting depth of the river and submerged obstacles were a constant hazard, and frequent depth soundings were required. The paddle-wheelers needed at least two fathoms (12 feet) depth to operate safely.
A crewmember checking the depth would toss a weighted and marked line into the water. If the marker showed two (twain) fathoms, he’d holler “Mark Twain.”
And that led to how Samuel Langhorne Clemens chose the pen name Mark Twain.
He had other pen names that he used from time to time before that — Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom or W. Apaminondas Adrastus Blab.
During the Civil War, Twain was stranded back in his hometown of Hannibal, where he brie?y joined a local Confederate militia unit to avoid being forced to serve as a pilot on Union Army troopships.
Back in civilian life, he headed for California and penned a story about a frog jumping contest called “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” It first appeared in the New York Saturday Press in 1865 and was an instant success.
A string of short stories followed. Then came the novels — among them “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today” (1873), “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876), “The Prince and the Pauper” (1881), “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884), “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889), “Pudd’nhead Wilson” (1894) and “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” (1896).
Most remember Mark Twain for Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but Twain loved traveling and writing about what he saw. He was fascinated most by India — crossing the sub-continent by train from Bombay to Darjeeling, witnessing all the color, all the chaos and the countless poor, along with the pomp and circumstance of maharajahs and imperial British rule.
He loved the Taj Mahal.
His first travel novel was “Innocence Abroad” (1869), written after a trip to the Holy Land, followed by “Roughing It” (1872), and “Old Times on the Mississippi” (1876).
Mark Twain’s endearing stories have become staples of American literature, but they are joined by his enduring witticisms that have no doubt changed the direction of many a life:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than open it and remove all doubt.”
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that — but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
Mark Twain was born as Halley’s Comet was making its 75 or 76-year appearance. In 1909, he said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks — they came in together; they must go out together.’”
On April 21 the following year as Halley’s Comet was crossing the sky, the great writer and humorist died of a heart attack at his country home in Redding Connecticut. He was 74.
America lost a literary giant.
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Mark Twain’s tour manager…
James Burton Pond was an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, earning the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Baxter Springs. Returning to civilian life, he became a successful lecture manager whose clients included Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Henry Morton Stanley who found missing missionary and explorer Dr. David Livingston in the heart of Africa.
Twain the Ghostbuster…
Mark Twain had a life-long premonition about dying the next time Halley’s Comet passed overhead. He developed an ongoing interest in parapsychology and was one of the first members of the Society for Psychical Research. The Society still researches paranormal phenomena.
“An unusually fine audience assembled Wednesday night to hear Mark Twain’s new lecture. Mark shambled out on the stage, bowed to the audience, and then stood perfectly still for about five minutes, as though waiting for a sufficient supply of words to commence his speech with. Finally he spoke in a nasal voice, which from its twang was of itself amusing. For this lecture, which took an hour and fifteen minutes, Mr. Clemens received $125 — or nearly two dollars per minute.”
— Jackson Weekly Citizen: 1871
“In his time, Mark Twain was considered the funniest man on earth. Yet he was also an unflinching critic of human nature, using his humor to attack hypocrisy, greed and racism….also one of the greatest writers in American history.”
— Ken Burns, film maker
Twain both expat and American icon…
As much as Mark Twain was an American icon, he spent a great deal of his life overseas as an expatriate writing his travel stories. His home was in Hartford, Connecticut before moving to France. His last home was a mansion in Redding, Connecticut, called “Stormfield,” but he lived there only two years before he died. He also lived in Sweden, Germany and Italy.
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