American Consequences - December 2017

The year was 1885, and Mr. Clemens had it all... He was 50 years old and had achieved everything he ever wanted. He was fabulously wealthy. He and his wife had inherited a fortune from her family and had three lovely daughters. Oh, and he was also the best-known author on Earth. By that time, Samuel Clemens – known to the world, of course, by his pen name Mark Twain – had already published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , which established him as a major author, as well as the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper . On top of that, Clemens’ publishing company – Charles Webster & Co. – had secured the rights to President Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs. That went on to be the best-selling book in the history of American publishing up to that point. Figuring he’d reached the point where he could do what he wanted... and having tired of life on the lecture circuit... he retired to his palatial Connecticut mansion. As the money poured in from his publishing company and the royalties of his own books, Clemens settled into a lifestyle of lush consumerism. As filmmaker Ken Burns noted in his 2002 documentary Mark Twain ... the Clemens household was spending $30,000 a year on expenses and generously supported charities and extended family in an era where the average annual wage was less than $500.

“If there is one person who is more thoroughly and unceasingly happy than I am,” he wrote around this time, “I defy the world to produce him.” In 1889, Clemens published his fifth novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It was a commercial and critical flop. Claiming not to care, Clemens called the book his swan song, retired the “Mark Twain” name, and gave up writing as a commercial enterprise. He no longer needed the “Mark Twain” brand... After all, he was a proven success in the business world. Clemens went on to invest $25,000 in a steam-generator venture. He threw another $25,000 at steam pulleys, placed another $25,000 bet on a maritime telegram, and $50,000 on a new engraving venture. Meanwhile, Clemens’ publishing company signed up Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman, General Custer’s widow, and Pope Leo XIII in an effort to replicate the success of Grant’s memoirs. Clemens’ big bet was on the Paige Compositor, an electronic typesetter that had 18,000 moving parts and could do the job of six men. Clemens bought half the company and bragged “[This machine] can do everything a human could do, except drink, smoke, and go on strike.” Always the dreamer, Clemens filled the margins of his manuscripts with calculations of how many Paige machines they’d have to build to meet global demand.

By Porter Stansberry

“If there is one person who is more thoroughly and unceasingly happy than I am,” he wrote around this time, “I defy the world to produce him.”

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