Mark Twain’s Letters— Volume 5 (1901-1906)

Author: Mark Twain

XL Letters of 1901, Chiefly to Twichell. Mark Twain as a Reformer. Summer at Saranac. Assassination of President McKinley

An editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal, early in 1901, said:
"A remarkable transformation, or rather a development, has taken
place in Mark Twain. The genial humorist of the earlier day is now
a reformer of the vigorous kind, a sort of knight errant who does
not hesitate to break a lance with either Church or State if he
thinks them interposing on that broad highway over which he believes
not a part but the whole of mankind has the privilege of passing in
the onward march of the ages."

Mark Twain had begun "breaking the lance" very soon after his return
from Europe. He did not believe that he could reform the world, but
at least he need not withhold his protest against those things which
stirred his wrath. He began by causing the arrest of a cabman who
had not only overcharged but insulted him; he continued by writing
openly against the American policy in the Philippines, the
missionary propaganda which had resulted in the Chinese uprising and
massacre, and against Tammany politics. Not all of his efforts were
in the line of reform; he had become a sort of general spokesman
which the public flocked to hear, whatever the subject. On the
occasion of a Lincoln Birthday service at Carnegie Hall he was
chosen to preside, and he was obliged to attend more dinners than
were good for his health. His letters of this period were mainly
written to his old friend Twichell, in Hartford. Howells, who lived
in New York, he saw with considerable frequency.

In the letter which follows the medicine which Twichell was to take
was Plasmon, an English proprietary remedy in which Mark Twain had
invested—a panacea for all human ills which osteopathy could not

To Rev. Joseph Twichell, in Hartford:

14 W. 10TH ST. Jan. 23, ’01. DEAR JOE,—Certainly. I used to take it in my coffee, but it settled to the bottom in the form of mud, and I had to eat it with a spoon; so I dropped the custom and took my 2 teaspoonfuls in cold milk after breakfast. If we were out of milk I shoveled the dry powder into my mouth and washed it down with water. The only essential is to get it down, the method is not important.

No, blame it, I can’t go to the Alumni dinner, Joe. It takes two days, and I can’t spare the time. Moreover I preside at the Lincoln birthday celebration in Carnegie Hall Feb. 11 and I must not make two speeches so close together. Think of it—two old rebels functioning there—I as President, and Watterson as Orator of the Day! Things have changed somewhat in these 40 years, thank God.

Look here—when you come down you must be our guest—we’ve got a roomy room for you, and Livy will make trouble if you go elsewhere. Come straight to 14 West 10th.

Jan. 24. Livy says Amen to that; also, can you give us a day or two’s notice, so the room will be sure to be vacant?

I’m going to stick close to my desk for a month, now, hoping to write a small book.
Ys Ever

The letter which follows is a fair sample of Mark Twain’s private
violence on a subject which, in public print, he could only treat
effectively by preserving his good humor. When he found it
necessary to boil over, as he did, now and then, for relief, he
always found a willing audience in Twichell. The mention of his
"Private Philosophy" refers to ’What Is Man?’, privately published
in 1906; reissued by his publishers in 1916.

To Rev. J. H. Twichell, in Hartford:

14 W. 10th Jan. 29, ’01. DEAR JOE,—I’m not expecting anything but kicks for scoffing, and am expecting a diminution of my bread and butter by it, but if Livy will let me I will have my say. This nation is like all the others that have been spewed upon the earth—ready to shout for any cause that will tickle its vanity or fill its pocket. What a hell of a heaven it will be, when they get all these hypocrites assembled there!

I can’t understand it! You are a public guide and teacher, Joe, and are under a heavy responsibility to men, young and old; if you teach your people—as you teach me—to hide their opinions when they believe the flag is being abused and dishonored, lest the utterance do them and a publisher a damage, how do you answer for it to your conscience? You are sorry for me; in the fair way of give and take, I am willing to be a little sorry for you.

However, I seem to be going counter to my own Private Philosophy—which Livy won’t allow me to publish—because it would destroy me. But I hope to see it in print before I die. I planned it 15 years ago, and wrote it in ’98. I’ve often tried to read it to Livy, but she won’t have it; it makes her melancholy. The truth always has that effect on people. Would have, anyway, if they ever got hold of a rag of it—Which they don’t.

You are supposing that I am supposing that I am moved by a Large Patriotism, and that I am distressed because our President has blundered up to his neck in the Philippine mess; and that I am grieved because this great big ignorant nation, which doesn’t know even the A B C facts of the Philippine episode, is in disgrace before the sarcastic world—drop that idea! I care nothing for the rest—I am only distressed and troubled because I am befouled by these things. That is all. When I search myself away down deep, I find this out. Whatever a man feels or thinks or does, there is never any but one reason for it—and that is a selfish one.

At great inconvenience, and expense of precious time I went to the chief synagogue the other night and talked in the interest of a charity school of poor Jew girls. I know—to the finest, shades—the selfish ends that moved me; but no one else suspects. I could give you the details if I had time. You would perceive how true they are.

I’ve written another article; you better hurry down and help Livy squelch it.

She’s out pottering around somewhere, poor housekeeping slave; and Clara is in the hands of the osteopath, getting the bronchitis pulled and hauled out of her. It was a bad attack, and a little disquieting. It came day before yesterday, and she hasn’t sat up till this afternoon. She is getting along satisfactorily, now.
Lots of love to you all.

Mark Twain’s religion had to do chiefly with humanity in its present
incarnation, and concerned itself very little with any possible
measure of reward or punishment in some supposed court of the
hereafter. Nevertheless, psychic investigation always interested
him, and he was good-naturedly willing to explore, even hoping,
perhaps, to be convinced that individuality continues beyond death.
The letter which follows indicates his customary attitude in
relation to spiritualistic research. The experiments here
mentioned, however, were not satisfactory.

To Mrs. Charles McQuiston:

March 26, 1901. DEAR MRS. McQUISTON,—I have never had an experience which moved me to believe the living can communicate with the dead, but my wife and I have experimented in the matter when opportunity offered and shall continue to do so.

I enclose a letter which came this morning—the second from the same source. Mrs. K---- is a Missourian, and lately she discovered, by accident, that she was a remarkable hypnotiser. Her best subject is a Missouri girl, Miss White, who is to come here soon and sustain strictly scientific tests before professors at Columbia University. Mrs. Clemens and I intend to be present. And we shall ask the pair to come to our house to do whatever things they can do. Meantime, if you thought well of it, you might write her and arrange a meeting, telling her it is by my suggestion and that I gave you her address.

Someone has told me that Mrs. Piper is discredited. I cannot be sure, but I think it was Mr. Myers, President of the London Psychical Research Society—we heard of his death yesterday. He was a spiritualist. I am afraid he was a very easily convinced man. We visited two mediums whom he and Andrew Lang considered quite wonderful, but they were quite transparent frauds.

Mrs. Clemens corrects me: One of those women was a fraud, the other not a fraud, but only an innocent, well-meaning, driveling vacancy.
Sincerely yours,

In Mark Twain’s Bermuda chapters entitled Idle Notes of an Idle
Excursion he tells of an old sea captain, one Hurricane Jones, who
explained biblical miracles in a practical, even if somewhat
startling, fashion. In his story of the prophets of Baal, for
instance, the old captain declared that the burning water was
nothing more nor less than petroleum. Upon reading the "notes,"
Professor Phelps of Yale wrote that the same method of explaining
miracles had been offered by Sir Thomas Browne.

Perhaps it may be added that Captain Hurricane Jones also appears in
Roughing It, as Captain Ned Blakely.

To Professor William Lyon Phelps;

NEW YORK, April 24, 1901. MY DEAR SIR,—I was not aware that old Sir Thomas had anticipated that story, and I am much obliged to you for furnishing me the paragraph. t is curious that the same idea should leave entered two heads so unlike as the head of that wise old philosopher and that of Captain Ned Wakeman, a splendidly uncultured old sailor, but in his own opinion a thinker by divine right. He was an old friend of mine of many years’ standing; I made two or three voyages with him, and found him a darling in many ways. The petroleum story was not told to me; he told it to Joe Twichell, who ran across him by accident on a sea voyage where I think the two were the only passengers. A delicious pair, and admirably mated, they took to each other at once and became as thick as thieves. Joe was passing under a fictitious name, and old Wakeman didn’t suspect that he was a parson; so he gave his profanity full swing, and he was a master of that great art. You probably know Twichell, and will know that that is a kind of refreshment which he is very capable of enjoying.
Sincerely yours,

For the summer Clemens and his family found a comfortable lodge in
the Adirondacks—a log cabin called "The Lair"—on Saranac Lake.
Soon after his arrival there he received an invitation to attend the
celebration of Missouri’s eightieth anniversary. He sent the
following letter:

To Edward L. Dimmitt, in St. Louis:

AMONG THE ADIRONDACK LAKES, July 19, 1901. DEAR MR. DIMMITT,—By an error in the plans, things go wrong end first in this world, and much precious time is lost and matters of urgent importance are fatally retarded. Invitations which a brisk young fellow should get, and which would transport him with joy, are delayed and impeded and obstructed until they are fifty years overdue when they reach him.

It has happened again in this case.

When I was a boy in Missouri I was always on the lookout for invitations but they always miscarried and went wandering through the aisles of time; and now they are arriving when I am old and rheumatic and can’t travel and must lose my chance.

I have lost a world of delight through this matter of delaying invitations. Fifty years ago I would have gone eagerly across the world to help celebrate anything that might turn up. IT would have made no difference to me what it was, so that I was there and allowed a chance to make a noise.

The whole scheme of things is turned wrong end to. Life should begin with age and its privileges and accumulations, and end with youth and its capacity to splendidly enjoy such advantages. As things are now, when in youth a dollar would bring a hundred pleasures, you can’t have it. When you are old, you get it and there is nothing worth buying with it then.

It’s an epitome of life. The first half of it consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity.

I am admonished in many ways that time is pushing me inexorably along. I am approaching the threshold of age; in 1977 I shall be 142. This is no time to be flitting about the earth. I must cease from the activities proper to youth and begin to take on the dignities and gravities and inertia proper to that season of honorable senility which is on its way and imminent as indicated above.

Yours is a great and memorable occasion, and as a son of Missouri I should hold it a high privilege to be there and share your just pride in the state’s achievements; but I must deny myself the indulgence, while thanking you earnestly for the prized honor you have done me in asking me to be present.
Very truly yours,

In the foregoing Mark Twain touches upon one of his favorite
fancies: that life should begin with old age and approach strong
manhood, golden youth, to end at last with pampered and beloved
babyhood. Possibly he contemplated writing a story with this idea
as the theme, but He seems never to have done so.

The reader who has followed these letters may remember Yung Wing,
who had charge of the Chinese educational mission in Hartford, and
how Mark Twain, with Twichell, called on General Grant in behalf of
the mission. Yung Wing, now returned to China, had conceived the
idea of making an appeal to the Government of the United States for
relief of his starving countrymen.

To J. H. Twichell, in Hartford:

AMPERSAND, N. Y., July 28, ’01. DEAR JOE,—As you say, it is impracticable—in my case, certainly. For me to assist in an appeal to that Congress of land-thieves and liars would be to bring derision upon it; and for me to assist in an appeal for cash to pass through the hands of those missionaries out there, of any denomination, Catholic or Protestant, wouldn’t do at all. They wouldn’t handle money which I had soiled, and I wouldn’t trust them with it, anyway. They would devote it to the relief of suffering—I know that— but the sufferers selected would be converts. The missionary-utterances exhibit no humane feeling toward the others, but in place of it a spirit of hate and hostility. And it is natural; the Bible forbids their presence there, their trade is unlawful, why shouldn’t their characters be of necessity in harmony with—but never mind, let it go, it irritates me.

Later.... I have been reading Yung Wing’s letter again. It may be that he is over-wrought by his sympathies, but it may not be so. There may be other reasons why the missionaries are silent about the Shensi-2-year famine and cannibalism. It may be that there are so few Protestant converts there that the missionaries are able to take care of them. That they are not likely to largely concern themselves about Catholic converts and the others, is quite natural, I think.

That crude way of appealing to this Government for help in a cause which has no money in it, and no politics, rises before me again in all its admirable innocence! Doesn’t Yung Wing know us yet? However, he has been absent since ’96 or ’97. We have gone to hell since then. Kossuth couldn’t raise 30 cents in Congress, now, if he were back with his moving Magyar-Tale.

I am on the front porch (lower one—main deck) of our little bijou of a dwelling-house. The lake-edge (Lower Saranac) is so nearly under me that I can’t see the shore, but only the water, small-pored with rainsplashes—for there is a heavy down-pour. It is charmingly like sitting snuggled up on a ship’s deck with the stretching sea all around—but very much more satisfactory, for at sea a rain-storm is depressing, while here of course the effect engendered is just a deep sense of comfort and contentment. The heavy forest shuts us solidly in on three sides there are no neighbors. There are beautiful little tan-colored impudent squirrels about. They take tea, 5 p. m., (not invited) at the table in the woods where Jean does my typewriting, and one of them has been brave enough to sit upon Jean’s knee with his tail curved over his back and munch his food. They come to dinner, 7 p. m., on the front porch (not invited). They all have the one name—Blennerhasset, from Burr’s friend —and none of them answers to it except when hungry.

We have been here since June 21st. For a little while we had some warm days—according to the family’s estimate; I was hardly discommoded myself. Otherwise the weather has been of the sort you are familiar with in these regions: cool days and cool nights. We have heard of the hot wave every Wednesday, per the weekly paper—we allow no dailies to intrude. Last week through visitors also—the only ones we have had— Dr. Root and John Howells.

We have the daily lake-swim; and all the tribe, servants included (but not I) do a good deal of boating; sometimes with the guide, sometimes without him—Jean and Clara are competent with the oars. If we live another year, I hope we shall spend its summer in this house.

We have taken the Appleton country seat, overlooking the Hudson, at Riverdale, 25 minutes from the Grand Central Station, for a year, beginning Oct. 1, with option for another year. We are obliged to be close to New York for a year or two.

Aug. 3rd. I go yachting a fortnight up north in a 20-knot boat 225 feet long, with the owner, (Mr. Rogers), Tom Reid, Dr. Rice, Col. A. G. Paine and one or two others. Judge Howland would go, but can’t get away from engagements; Professor Sloane would go, but is in the grip of an illness. Come—will you go? If you can manage it, drop a post-card to me c/o H.H. Rogers, 26 Broadway. I shall be in New York a couple of days before we sail—July 31 or Aug. 1, perhaps the latter,—and I think I shall stop at the Hotel Grosvenor, cor. l0th St and 5th ave.

We all send you and the Harmonies lots and gobs of love.

To Rev. J. H. Twichell, in Hartford:

AMPERSAND, N. Y., Aug. 28. DEAR JOE,—Just a word, to scoff at you, with your extravagant suggestion that I read the biography of Phillips Brooks—the very dullest book that has been printed for a century. Joe, ten pages of Mrs. Cheney’s masterly biography of her fathers—no, five pages of it—contain more meat, more sense, more literature, more brilliancy, than that whole basketful of drowsy rubbish put together. Why, in that dead atmosphere even Brooks himself is dull—he wearied me; oh how he wearied me!

We had a noble good time in the Yacht, and caught a Chinese missionary and drowned him.
Love from us all to you all.

The assassination of President McKinley occurred September 6, 1901.
Such an event would naturally stir Mark Twain to comment on human
nature in general. His letter to Twichell is as individual as it is
sound in philosophy. At what period of his own life, or under what
circumstances, he made the long journey with tragic intent there is
no means of knowing now. There is no other mention of it elsewhere
in the records that survive him.

To Rev. J. H. Twichell, in Hartford:

AMPERSAND, Tuesday, (Sept. 10, 1901) DEAR JOE,—It is another off day, but tomorrow I shall resume work to a certainty, and bid a long farewell to letter-scribbling.

The news of the President looks decidedly hopeful, and we are all glad, and the household faces are much improved, as to cheerfulness. Oh, the talk in the newspapers! Evidently the Human Race is the same old Human Race. And how unjust, and unreflectingly discriminating, the talkers are. Under the unsettling effects of powerful emotion the talkers are saying wild things, crazy things—they are out of themselves, and do not know it; they are temporarily insane, yet with one voice they declare the assassin sane—a man who has been entertaining fiery and reason— debauching maggots in his head for weeks and months. Why, no one is sane, straight along, year in and year out, and we all know it. Our insanities are of varying sorts, and express themselves in varying forms —fortunately harmless forms as a rule—but in whatever form they occur an immense upheaval of feeling can at any time topple us distinctly over the sanity-line for a little while; and then if our form happens to be of the murderous kind we must look out—and so must the spectator.

This ass with the unpronounceable name was probably more insane than usual this week or two back, and may get back upon his bearings by and by, but he was over the sanity-border when he shot the President. It is possible that it has taken him the whole interval since the murder of the King of Italy to get insane enough to attempt the President’s life. Without a doubt some thousands of men have been meditating the same act in the same interval, but new and strong interests have intervened and diverted their over-excited minds long enough to give them a chance to settle, and tranquilize, and get back upon a healthy level again. Every extraordinary occurrence unsettles the heads of hundreds of thousands of men for a few moments or hours or days. If there had been ten kings around when Humbert fell they would have been in great peril for a day or more—and from men in whose presence they would have been quite safe after the excess of their excitement had had an interval in which to cool down. I bought a revolver once and travelled twelve hundred miles to kill a man. He was away. He was gone a day. With nothing else to do, I had to stop and think—and did. Within an hour—within half of it— I was ashamed of myself—and felt unspeakably ridiculous. I do not know what to call it if I was not insane. During a whole week my head was in a turmoil night and day fierce enough and exhausting enough to upset a stronger reason than mine.

All over the world, every day, there are some millions of men in that condition temporarily. And in that time there is always a moment— perhaps only a single one when they would do murder if their man was at hand. If the opportunity comes a shade too late, the chances are that it has come permanently too late. Opportunity seldom comes exactly at the supreme moment. This saves a million lives a day in the world—for sure.

No Ruler is ever slain but the tremendous details of it are ravenously devoured by a hundred thousand men whose minds dwell, unaware, near the temporary-insanity frontier—and over they go, now! There is a day—two days—three—during which no Ruler would be safe from perhaps the half of them; and there is a single moment wherein he would not be safe from any of them, no doubt.

It may take this present shooting-case six months to breed another rulertragedy, but it will breed it. There is at least one mind somewhere which will brood, and wear, and decay itself to the killing-point and produce that tragedy.

Every negro burned at the stake unsettles the excitable brain of another one—I mean the inflaming details of his crime, and the lurid theatricality of his exit do it—and the duplicate crime follows; and that begets a repetition, and that one another one and so on. Every lynching-account unsettles the brains of another set of excitable white men, and lights another pyre—115 lynchings last year, 102 inside of 8 months this year; in ten years this will be habit, on these terms.

Yes, the wild talk you see in the papers! And from men who are sane when not upset by overwhelming excitement. A U. S. Senator-Cullom—wants this Buffalo criminal lynched! It would breed other lynchings—of men who are not dreaming of committing murders, now, and will commit none if Cullom will keep quiet and not provide the exciting cause.

And a District Attorney wants a law which shall punish with death attempts upon a President’s life—this, mind you, as a deterrent. It would have no effect—or the opposite one. The lunatic’s mind-space is all occupied—as mine was—with the matter in hand; there is no room in it for reflections upon what may happen to him. That comes after the crime.

It is the noise the attempt would make in the world that would breed the subsequent attempts, by unsettling the rickety minds of men who envy the criminal his vast notoriety—his obscure name tongued by stupendous Kings and Emperors—his picture printed everywhere, the trivialest details of his movements, what he eats, what he drinks; how he sleeps, what he says, cabled abroad over the whole globe at cost of fifty thousand dollars a day—and he only a lowly shoemaker yesterday!—like the assassin of the President of France—in debt three francs to his landlady, and insulted by her—and to-day she is proud to be able to say she knew him "as familiarly as you know your own brother," and glad to stand till she drops and pour out columns and pages of her grandeur and her happiness upon the eager interviewer.

Nothing will check the lynchings and ruler-murder but absolute silence— the absence of pow-pow about them. How are you going to manage that? By gagging every witness and jamming him into a dungeon for life; by abolishing all newspapers; by exterminating all newspaper men; and by extinguishing God’s most elegant invention, the Human Race. It is quite simple, quite easy, and I hope you will take a day off and attend to it, Joe. I blow a kiss to you, and am
Lovingly Yours,

When the Adirondack summer ended Clemens settled for the winter in
the beautiful Appleton home at Riverdale-on-the-Hudson. It was a
place of wide-spreading grass and shade-a house of ample room. They
were established in it in time for Mark Twain to take an active
interest in the New York elections and assist a ticket for good
government to defeat Tammany Hall.


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Chicago: Mark Twain, "XL Letters of 1901, Chiefly to Twichell. Mark Twain as a Reformer. Summer at Saranac. Assassination of President McKinley," Mark Twain’s Letters— Volume 5 (1901-1906), ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in Mark Twain’s Letters—Volume 5 (1901-1906) (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024,

MLA: Twain, Mark. "XL Letters of 1901, Chiefly to Twichell. Mark Twain as a Reformer. Summer at Saranac. Assassination of President McKinley." Mark Twain’s Letters— Volume 5 (1901-1906), edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in Mark Twain’s Letters—Volume 5 (1901-1906), Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Twain, M, 'XL Letters of 1901, Chiefly to Twichell. Mark Twain as a Reformer. Summer at Saranac. Assassination of President McKinley' in Mark Twain’s Letters— Volume 5 (1901-1906), ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, Mark Twain’s Letters—Volume 5 (1901-1906), A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from