6 degrees of Mark Twain

In Funny Stories Told by Phineas T. Barnum, the showman recalls that he once told Ulysses S. Grant he must be “the best known American living.” “By no means,” Grant replies. “You beat me sky-high, for wherever I went, in China, Japan, the Indies, etc., the constant inquiry was, ‘Do you know Barnum?’ I think, Barnum, you are the best known man in the world.”

Frederick Douglass praised Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as having “baptized with holy fire myriads who before cared nothing for the bleeding slave.” Stowe consulted Douglass while writing the book and referred to excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, one of his autobiographies, in response to claims she had invented the horrors of slavery.

Throughout the 1870s, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ulysses S. Grant were stars of the Chinese Educational Mission, an opportunity for Chinese students to attend New England schools and interact with famous American figures. (Mark Twain, a friend of the program’s founder, Yung Wing, had persuaded Grant to ask the Chinese government to fund the program.) Years later, minister Henry Ward Beecher, Stowe’s brother, delivered Grant’s eulogy.

Mark Twain
P.T. Barnum Barnum Icon
Nikola Tesla Tesla Icon
Helen Keller Keller Icon
Frederick Douglass Douglass Icon
Harriet Beecher Stowe Stowe Icon
Ulysses S.
Ulysses S. Grant Grant Icon

Mark Twain rubbed shoulders with some of history’s greats.
Click on a portrait to explore each famous friendship.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known to the world as Mark Twain, once remarked that “the kernel, the soul … the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.” All great things are the stardust of others, he believed — of past inventions, people, and dreams. In some ways, such is true about the timeless author himself. Throughout this project, we explore six of Twain’s notable friendships, tracing the grooves they left behind. (See how their lives intersect.) We pull from the vast collection of The Bancroft Library’s Mark Twain Papers & Project — home to the world’s largest collection of Twain’s private writings and manuscripts — as well as the deep expertise of its editors.

Support the Mark Twain Papers & Project.

P.T. Barnum Barnum Icon

P.T. Barnum

Humor and humbug: Entertaining the masses

Barnum circus advertisement

P.T. Barnum founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus with James Bailey in 1881. He is widely credited with the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” (Courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers & Project)

In 1842, P.T. Barnum dazzled the nation with a great, spectacular ruse: Barnum’s American Museum, set in New York City and filled with giants, magicians, and “freaks.”

A roaring showman, Barnum had an uncanny ability to capture the curiosities of a generation — and found in this a unique companion and admirer in Mark Twain.

“I have never tried … to help cultivate the cultivated classes,” Twain writes to a literary critic in 1889. “I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger game — the masses.

“I have seldom deliberately tried to instruct them, but I have done my best to entertain them.”

Barnum painted his show as a feast of the world’s strangest and finest wonders. The real and the fake coexisted in that space, with exotic animals featured beside such hoaxes as the Fiji mermaid — a preserved monkey head stitched onto a fishtail.

“I don’t believe in ‘duping the public,’” Barnum writes to a publisher in 1860. “But I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.”

In his heyday, Barnum was one of the most famous entrepreneurs in the world.

“I mean to come to see the show,” Twain tells him on Feb. 3, 1875. “But to me you are the biggest marvel connected with it.”

A carousel of ‘curious begging letters’

A letter from P.T. Barnum to Mark Twain postmarked July 31, 1874, in which Barnum promises to save strange letters for the author. (Courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers & Project)

Twain and Barnum built a friendship throughout the 1870s, when Barnum, at Twain’s urging, would send Twain batches of the “queer literature” he would receive from strangers wanting to join the circus.

“I have destroyed bushels of curious begging letters,” Barnum tells Twain in an 1874 letter held by the UC Berkeley Library. “Hereafter they shall all be saved for you.”

(One such letter is a solicitation from M.L. Badger, a woman in Worcester, Massachusetts. A lonely housekeeper, the woman asks Barnum if he might introduce her to a “travling Gentelman that wantes a companion for the winter,” saying she will be “verry devoted to any one that will be kinde to me.” Barnum sent Twain the 1876 letter with a note: “You are the only ‘travling Gentelman’ whom I know.”)

The two had planned to publish the letters in an anthology that would, as Barnum put it, form a “new page in the volume of human nature.” The project never panned out, but became priceless fodder for an author fascinated with the humanity around him.

“Clemens is interested in the way real people speak — which is, you see, part of what he does in a literary sense,” says Bob Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Papers & Project at The Bancroft Library. “He’s interested in the way people in his lifetime talk, and he works hard at representing that.”

“I beseech you,” Twain tells Barnum in 1876, “don’t burn a single specimen, but remember that all are wanted & possess value in the eyes of your friend.”

‘And the people! … Why, they were nothing but rabbits.’

Barnum circus advertisement

An illustration from Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court depicts King Arthur as a lion and the townspeople of Camelot as rabbits. The main character “draws on Twain’s sense of Barnum,” says Bob Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Papers & Project. (Call no. PS1308 .A1 1996)

The main character of Twain’s 1889 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, was inspired partly by Barnum — who believed that, deep down, people wanted to be fooled.

In the novel, a man named Hank Morgan wakes up one day in sixth-century Camelot. Equipped with modern-day knowledge of science and technology, Morgan masquerades as a powerful wizard. He claims to smother the world in darkness the day of a solar eclipse and explodes Merlin’s tower with gunpowder just as a thunderstorm brews.

“The people who are the readiest and eagerest and willingest to swallow miracles are the very ones who are hungriest to see you perform them,” Morgan says.

Or as Barnum once put it: “The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it .”

Mark Twain as Tom Sawyer, the ultimate showoff

Barnum and Twain shared a profound flair for the dramatic — a side of the author let loose in America’s favorite literary rascal.

“Tom Sawyer is a showoff — I don’t think there’s any question that that is part of Mark Twain’s personality,” Hirst says. “He makes literature out of this.”

Continue to Nikola Tesla | Back to top

Nikola Tesla Tesla Icon

Nikola Tesla

The magician’s assistant

Mark Twain, photographed in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory in 1894, holds a loop of wire through which high-voltage current flows, sparking incandescence. Tesla can be seen in the background. (The Century Magazine, Vol. 27, March 1895; courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers & Project)

“An inventor is a poet — a true poet,” writes Mark Twain in an 1870 letter to his sister, Pamela, celebrating their brother Orion’s new drilling contraption.

Twain maintained a lifelong enchantment with technology and the soul of invention, to him an art form of the highest order. This fascination would lead him to Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, who moved to New York from Croatia in 1885.

Tesla transformed society’s relationship with electricity, conjuring new means for its production, transmission, and use. In a notebook entry dated Nov. 1, 1888, Twain accurately predicts that Tesla’s alternating current motor would “revolutionize the whole electric business of the world.”

Twain and Tesla became friends in the 1890s, as two bright, eccentric souls equally dazzled by the other’s light.

Tesla had admired Twain’s artistry since boyhood. Often sick and bedridden as a child, Tesla found healing in Twain’s stories. “One day I was handed a few volumes of new literature unlike anything I had ever read before and so captivating as to make me utterly forget my hopeless state,” the inventor writes in My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla. “They were the earlier works of Mark Twain and to them might have been due the miraculous recovery which followed.

“Twenty-five years later, when I met Mr. Clemens and we formed a friendship between us, I told him of the experience and was amazed to see that great man of laughter burst into tears.”

Twain occasionally visited Tesla in his Fifth Avenue laboratory, where he would take part in various odd experiments.

In one infamous visit, Twain stood on a vibrating plate that, according to Tesla, would relieve Twain of his chronic digestive blocks.

“Without further ado, Twain stepped aboard as Tesla tried to stop his assistants from chuckling,” writes Marc J. Seifer in the biography Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla. “As Twain had been so enthusiastic, Tesla neglected to inform him that peristaltic action is induced almost immediately.” A moment later, Twain jumped off the platform to “find his way swiftly to the lavatory.”

A weapon to end all wars

In an 1898 letter, Mark Twain asks Nikola Tesla to let him sell patents to Tesla’s new war machine. (Courtesy of the Nikola Tesla Museum, in Belgrade, Serbia)

Among Tesla’s more unusual inventions was a battery-powered vessel that could sneak across the sea unmanned — directed and controlled remotely by radio waves.

It was the late 1890s, and America was still reeling from the Spanish-American War. To Tesla, the most obvious application for his invention would be battle, as a precursor of sorts to drone warfare. Tesla believed that the mere threat of such technology would keep whole armadas at bay.

He had, in his mind, created something so treacherous as to render war itself obsolete.

“The greatest value of my invention will result from its effect upon warfare and armaments,” the inventor writes in the patent, filed in November of 1898, “for by reason of its certain and unlimited destructiveness it will tend to bring about and maintain permanent peace among nations.”

Tesla offered the patent to the U.S. Army, but was turned down. Twain, transfixed, saw an opening. He wrote a letter to Tesla, urging him to let Twain sell patents to his new “destructive terror” in England and Germany.

“Here in the hotel the other night when some interested men were discussing means to persuade the nations to join with the Czar & disarm,” Twain writes, “I advised them to … invite the great inventors to contrive something against which fleets & armies would be helpless, & thus make war thenceforth impossible.

“I did not suspect that you were already attending to that, & getting ready to introduce into the earth permanent peace & disarmament in a practical & mandatory way.”

(The U.S. Navy financed some trials in 1916, but the invention ultimately went nowhere.)

An easy heart and a slippery wallet

The Paige Compositor, one of Mark Twain’s biggest investments, is pictured in Scientific American. The last surviving compositor lives in the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. (Scientific American, March 9, 1901)

Twain found himself easily infatuated by inventions of all kinds. The bigger their promises, the better.

His great love and loss was the Paige Compositor, an elaborate machine meant to replace the tedious work of human typesetters. With 18,000 separate pieces — bearings, clutches, shafts, gears, levers, arms, and more — the sensitive beast could not keep up with Linotype, the more robust competitor. By the time inventor James Paige had finished adorning his darling, Linotype had already conquered the market.

“It is easy to see now that Mark Twain and Paige did not make a good business combination,” writes Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain’s official biographer. “When Paige declared that, wonderful as the machine was, he could do vastly greater things with it, make it worth many more and much larger fortunes by adding this attachment and that, Clemens was just the man to enter into his dreams and to furnish the money to realize them.”

After the Paige fiasco, Twain invested thousands in a protein powder called Plasmon that he believed would help solve world hunger. Twain — supposedly swindled — was vice president of the company’s American branch when it filed bankruptcy in 1907.

“You’d think, once bitten twice shy, but no — for the rest of his life, he cannot resist,” says Bob Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Papers & Project at The Bancroft Library. “Various inventions come along and tempt him to invest.”

Twain was ultimately forced to sell his Hartford, Connecticut, mansion. A fellow offered him a mysterious set of railroad bonds as payment. Intrigued, Twain turned to a friend, Henry H. Rogers, of Standard Oil, for advice.

It’s easier to stay out of trouble than get out, Rogers told him.

“(Twain) needs people,” Hirst says. “We all need people to help us out.”

Continue to Helen Keller | Back to top

Helen Keller Keller Icon

Helen Keller

‘Nothing like it in heaven’

Helen Keller and Mark Twain are photographed together in 1895; Twain’s handwriting lines the bottom of the portrait. Of their friendship, Twain tells Keller in 1903 “there is nothing like it in heaven; and not likely to be, until we get there and show off.” (Courtesy of the Franklin J. Meine Collection, University of Chicago, and the Mark Twain Papers & Project)

If magic exists, it is in the charming, radiant friendship between Mark Twain and Helen Keller. When Twain writes about Keller, in fact, it is as if the author disappears — replaced by a sort of prophet sent to sing o’er a mountain about the miracle that is Helen Keller.

“She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare, and the rest of the immortals,” Twain writes in his autobiography. “It has taken all the ages to produce a Helen Keller — and a Miss Sullivan.”

Keller lost the ability to see and hear when she was 18 months old. Mentored closely by Anne Sullivan, Keller learned to communicate through specialized sign language and, in time, her own voice. To listen, she would place her fingers lightly to a speaker’s lips and throat, instantly translating vibrations and rhythm int0 speech.

From slight movements such as these, Keller could discern the musicality of life. On Jan. 17, 1907, Keller and Sullivan visited Twain’s home. When his secretary performed on the orchestrelle, a kind of organ, “Helen’s face flushed and brightened on the instant, and the waves of delighted emotion began to sweep across it,” Twain recalls in his autobiography. “Her hands … sprang into action at once, like a conductor’s, and began to beat the time and follow the rhythm.”

“Seen once, the moving and eloquent play of emotion in her face is forever unforgettable,” Twain writes. “I have not seen the like of it in any other face, and shall not, I know.”

(Twain dictated his entire autobiography, leaving behind 5,000 typewritten pages of memoirs. Editors at The Bancroft Library’s Mark Twain Papers & Project compiled and annotated the memoirs, publishing the full, authoritative edition in three volumes, starting in 2010. Twain — who died April 21, 1910 — had asked that the text not be published until 100 years after his death, allowing him to “speak freely from the grave.”)

Keller devoted a chapter of her autobiography Midstream: My Later Life (1929) to her friendship with Twain, describing their first meeting on a Sunday in 1894: “During the afternoon several celebrities dropped in, and among them Mr. Clemens. The instant I clasped his hand in mine, I knew that he was my friend.”

The reluctant optimist

“I have been in Eden three days and I saw a King. I knew he was a King the minute I touched him though I had never touched a King before,” writes Helen Keller in Mark Twain’s guest book from his home in Redding, Connecticut, held by the UC Berkeley Library. The night before, Twain had read Keller his work “Eve’s Diary,” in which Eve instantly recognizes and names things she has never seen before. (© 2001 Mark Twain Foundation)

Keller, too, perceived something extraordinary in Twain — even when he could not. While Twain would indulge the bitterness of old age, Keller would insist on his inevitable knack for hope.

“It’s not just that she’s great, but she brings out something in him,” notes Bob Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain project. “There’s no question about that, in my view.”

Keller graduated from Radcliffe College, then the sister campus of Harvard University, in 1904. (Twain had convinced Standard Oil magnate Henry H. Rogers to fund her entire education.) She became a noted author and activist for suffrage and disability rights and, in 1906, inspired Twain to serve as chairman of the New York State Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind.

Before the association’s first meeting — focused on securing work opportunities for the blind — Keller wrote a letter to Twain, held by the UC Berkeley Library, that included a speech for him to read at the gathering on her behalf.

“You cannot bring back the light to the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the sightless along their dark pilgrimage,” she writes. “They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in darkness.”

Keller ends her letter, dated March 27, 1906, with a note to Twain:

“You once told me you were a pessimist, Mr. Clemens; but great men are usually mistaken about themselves,” she says. “You are an optimist. If you were not, you would not preside at the meeting. For it is an answer to pessimism.

“It proclaims that the heart and the wisdom of a great city are devoted to the good of mankind, that in this the busiest city in the world no cry of distress goes up, but receives a compassionate and generous answer.”

A birthday toast to the ‘best of friends and champions’

(Courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers & Project)

For Twain’s 70th birthday — he was born Nov. 30, 1835 — Keller wrote a letter to Twain, held by the Library and shown here. It is typed, like most of her letters, and signed in her hand.

“Your birthday shall always be a Thanksgiving Day to me,” Keller writes. “Indeed, I have thanked you a thousand times for a bright laugh that is like a drop of honey in things bitter that we must all taste.”

A case of ‘mental telegraphy’

Twain and Keller met in the spring of 1894, when Keller was 14 years old. Twain recalls the interaction in his autobiography, describing a supernatural scene between the pair.

The passage is read here by Hirst, head of the Mark Twain project.

Continue to Frederick Douglass | Back to top

Frederick Douglass Douglass Icon

Frederick Douglass

Friendship and freedom on the Underground Railroad

In a letter dated Nov. 9, 1870, Frederick Douglass sends condolences to Olivia Langdon, Mark Twain’s mother-in-law, following the death of her husband. (Courtesy of the Mark Twain House & Museum, Hartford, Connecticut.)

The date was Sept. 3, 1838. Frederick Douglass — disguised as a free sailor — made his escape, boarding a train en route to a new life.

On the way, he was sheltered by Jervis and Olivia Langdon, ardent abolitionists whose home near Elmira, New York, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Years later, Mark Twain married the Langdons’ daughter Livy, entwining himself irrevocably in the family’s close circle of friends — including Douglass.

“If I had never seen nor heard of Mr Langdon since the days that you and himself made me welcome under your roof in Millport, I should never have forgotten either of you,” Douglass writes to Olivia Langdon in the letter. “Those were times of ineffaceable memories with me, and I have carried the name of Jervis Langdon with me ever since.”

The Langdons were movers and shakers in the years surrounding the Civil War. When the local church refused to condemn slavery, they started a new one in 1846: the Park Church of Elmira, led by Thomas K. Beecher, author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother. And when the Langdons’ maids refused to serve Douglass during one of his visits, they were fired on the spot — “as they knew they would be,” says Bob Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Papers & Project at The Bancroft Library.

“Racism is not something that is parked in the South — it’s everywhere,” Hirst says. “And it’s in really virulent form. If it was known you were sheltering slaves, they’d burn your house down.”

Douglass moved the world as an author, orator, and abolitionist — eventually becoming marshal of the District of Columbia. In 1881, just before President James Garfield’s inauguration, Twain wrote to Garfield to ask that he keep Douglass in office.

“I offer this petition with peculiar pleasure & strong desire, because I so honor this man’s high & blemishless character & so admire his brave long crusade for the liberties & elevation of his race,” Twain writes. “He is a personal friend of mine, but that is nothing to the point — his history would move me to say these things, without that. And to feel them, too.”

‘The shame is ours … & we should pay for it’

Mark Twain sits with his longtime friend John T. Lewis, caretaker of the Langdons’ Quarry Farm, in 1903. In August of 1877, Lewis saved the lives of Twain’s relatives, leaping into the path of a runaway horse and buggy. “They … said (Lewis) was beautiful,” Twain recalls in a letter. “It was so, too—& yet he would have photographed exactly as he would have done any day these past 7 years that he has occupied this farm.” (Library of Congress USZ62-60538)

Twain grew up in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri, where slavery underpinned much of the town’s busy port life. Twain’s parents owned and leased slaves throughout his childhood, and his uncle owned a nearby farm with 20 slaves, where Twain spent many summers.

(Daniel Quarles, a slave on that farm whose “sympathies were wide and warm and whose heart was honest and simple,” inspired Jim’s character in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, according to Twain’s autobiography. Jim’s character was probably also informed by Twain’s friendship with John T. Lewis, pictured above, according to some scholars.)

As a boy, Twain was mostly ambivalent toward slavery. “I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it,” he writes in his autobiography. “The local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing.”

His views changed fundamentally as an adult, and, in his later life, Twain tried to make amends. An early advocate for reparations, Twain helped put a black man through Yale Law School and sponsored a black painter’s apprenticeship in Paris.

“I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger,” Twain writes to Francis Wayland, the dean of Yale Law School, in 1885. (The UC Berkeley Library holds several letters exchanged between the pair.) “But I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it.”

Huck Finn’s journey: Between fact and flapdoodle

In an illustration from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim, the escaped slave, is distraught, thinking he has lost young Huck on the river. (HathiTrust and Project Gutenberg 32325)

The author’s most impactful takedown of racism came in the form of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), a thrilling tale of friendship between Huck, a ragtag white teenager, and Jim, a sweet-natured but savvy runaway slave.

In the novel, Huck and Jim both run away. They eventually link up, helping each other survive the twists of the Mississippi River and the miscreants they find along the way. Eventually, the two get bamboozled, and Jim is captured. Huck, believing his misfortune to be divine punishment for helping a slave escape, writes a letter to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson, revealing his whereabouts.

He pauses, thinking of “how near I come to being lost and going to hell.” He goes on thinking, imagining their time on the river “a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing.”

“I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it,” says Huck, the story’s narrator. “I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ — and tore (the letter) up.”

Twain reflected often on the failures of the human conscience. In a notebook entry from 1895, Twain discusses Huck’s dilemma in the book, where “a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.”

“In those old slave-holding days the whole community was agreed as to one thing — the awful sacredness of slave property,” Twain writes in the unpublished notebook, one of many surviving at the Library. “To help steal a horse or a cow was a low crime, but to help a hunted slave … was a much baser crime, & carried with it a stain, a moral smirch which nothing could wipe away.

“That this sentiment should exist among slave-owners is comprehensible — there were good commercial reasons for it — but that it should exist & did exist among the paupers, the loafers the tag-rag & bobtail of the community, & in a passionate & uncompromising form, is not in our remote day realizable,” he continues. “It shows that that strange thing, the conscience — that unerring monitor — can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early & stick to it.”

Continue to Harriet Beecher Stowe | Back to top

Harriet Beecher Stowe Stowe Icon

Harriet Beecher Stowe

A most frightful faux pas

Harriet Beecher Stowe jokes with Mark Twain in a letter dated Oct. 21, 1874, held by the UC Berkeley Library. (Courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers & Project)

One fall morning in 1874, Mark Twain walked across his yard to visit Harriet Beecher Stowe, his neighbor in the tight-knit community of Nook Farm, near Hartford, Connecticut.

When Twain returned, his wife, Livy, asked where he had been, her voice full of fear.

“At Mrs. Stowe’s,” Twain replied, as recalled in a letter to a friend.

“O, dear, dear!” Livy said. “It couldn’t happen to anybody but you — do you know that you haven’t any cravat on?” (A cravat is a short, wide tie.)

“I saw that I had made a breach of manners which was too many for her, so to speak; she didn’t know how to devise a remedy,” Twain writes.

Quick-witted, Twain wrote a letter to Stowe explaining that, in fact, it was his custom to “never go visiting in entirely full dress, lest the effect be too strong upon the person visited.”

Twain sent the letter, accompanied by a cravat, on a silver platter, to which Stowe promptly replied: “You have discovered a principle — you probably don’t know it — nor didn’t Sir Isaac Newton when the apple fell — but you have. You have discovered that a man can call by installments.”

Years later, a woman in Massachusetts named Alvora Miller heard about the tale. She wrote a letter to Twain, held by the UC Berkeley Library, saying: “When I read about your going over to Mrs. Stowe’s with collar and tie in hand I laughed till I cried I think. I think you should be thankful to the Lord for giving you the ability to make people laugh, (a good, wholesome, hearty laugh) in this world where there are so many tears.”

‘The doors always stood open’

The Clemenses’ mansion stands out in the Nook Farm neighborhood. Mark Twain spent some of his happiest years in this house, raising three children with his wife, Livy, and writing some of his most famous works. (Courtesy of the Mark Twain House & Museum, Hartford, Connecticut, and the Mark Twain Papers & Project)

Twain and Stowe were neighbors for 18 years, with no fence in between.

Twain’s family lived in a lavish mansion, designed by renowned architect Edward Tuckerman Potter and decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany, design director at Tiffany & Co. Across the yard stood Stowe’s home, a more conservative 12-room Victorian cottage.

“The doors always stood open in pleasant weather,” Twain recalls in his autobiography. “Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it.”

“Sometimes we would hear gentle music in the drawing-room and would find her there at the piano singing ancient and melancholy songs with infinitely touching effect,” he adds.

In her later (somewhat senile) years, Stowe would spend many a day wandering into the Clemenses’ greenhouse, gathering blooms and vexing the gardener. She often combed the neighborhood for wildflowers to give away.

Livy Clemens recalled one of Stowe’s visits in her diary, which survives in the UC Berkeley Library, in an entry dated June 7, 1885.

“(Stowe) asked if I would like some flowers, of course I said that I should,” Livy Clemens writes. “She handed them to me thanking me most heartily for taking them. Said she could not help gathering them as she walked but that when she took them home the daughters would say ‘Ma what are you going to do with them, everything is full.’

“Mrs Stowe is so gentle and lovely.”

Literature of a high order

“I sometimes call this the most important letter he ever wrote,” says Bob Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Papers & Project at The Bancroft Library. At 29, Twain says he will try his hand at literature. Listen to Hirst talk about the letter below. (Photo by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

By the time Twain moved to Nook Farm in 1871, Stowe had long been one of the most famous women in the world. Her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published years before the Civil War, had set the nation on fire, sparking ire and indignation throughout the South.

The novel follows the life of Uncle Tom, a middle-aged slave who faces constant, violent abuse but continues to protect other slaves and encourage their escape. Stowe wrote the book in the 1850s, as an appeal to fellow Northerners to defy a law requiring runaway slaves be caught and returned to their owners.

“Nothing could have better suited the moral and humane requirements of the hour,” writes renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass of the work, in an autobiography. “Its effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a global success, selling more than a million copies in its first year of publication. It was one of the best-selling works of the century, second only to the Bible.

To Twain, Stowe’s accomplishment — to write something meaningful and successful — was extraordinary. It was literature of a high order, the sort he had long thought to be out of his reach.

“I have had a ‘call’ to literature, of a low order — i.e. humorous,” Twain writes in a letter to his brother in October of 1865. “It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit.”

“If I were to listen to that maxim of stern duty which says that to do right you must multiply the one or the two or the three talents which the Almighty entrusts to your keeping, I would long ago have … turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures,” he writes. “Poor, pitiful business!”

Of course, 20 years later — while living in Nook Farm — Twain would write Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered the Great American Novel.

The mysterious stranger in Nook Farm

Right outside of the city’s bustle, the community of Nook Farm was home to some of the most illustrious writers, politicians, reformers, and pastors of the day.

They were all very straight-laced, noble, and proper. And Twain, in all his cigar-soaked glory, did his best to fit in.

“Here’s this wild man from the Midwest — he shows up with no backing, no one saying, ‘This is a good guy,’” Hirst says. “And he wins their loyalty.”

Continue to Ulysses S. Grant | Back to top

Ulysses S. Grant Grant Icon

Ulysses S. Grant

In life and death, one last victory

Henry Ward Beecher, a famous minister and friend of Mark Twain’s, delivered Ulysses S. Grant’s eulogy after his death in 1885. In this 18-page letter to Beecher, held by the UC Berkeley Library, Twain extols Grant’s loyalty, kindness, and gentleness. “He was the most lovable great child in the world,” Twain writes. (Courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers & Project)

For all of Mark Twain’s financial missteps, he was still more shrewd a businessman than at least one person: Ulysses S. Grant.

By the early 1880s, Grant had lost a fortune to bad investments and an embezzler. Twain urged Grant — the leading Union general during the Civil War and U.S. president from 1869 to 1877 — to write a memoir. Modest about his writing ability, Grant initially refused. But in the summer of 1884, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer. Desperate, he turned to the Century Co. for a book deal.

They would offer him only 10 percent of the royalties. Twain, aghast, put a stop to it.

“If I had not been acquainted with the Century people I should have said that this was a deliberate attempt to take advantage of a man’s ignorance and trusting nature, to rob him,” Twain writes in his autobiography. “But I do know the Century people and therefore I know that they had no such base intentions as these but were simply making their offer out of their boundless resources of ignorance and stupidity.”

Twain convinced Grant to publish the memoir with his own publishing house, Charles L. Webster and Co., instead — but the two quibbled over royalty payments, each refusing to profit at the other’s expense.

“He would not listen to terms which would place my money at risk & leave his protected — the thought plainly gave him a kind pain, & he put it from him, waved it off with his hands, as one does accounts of crushings & mutilations,” Twain writes to Henry Ward Beecher, brother of the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In the last months of his life, Grant toiled away with the memoir. Twain details the ordeal to Beecher:

He sat thinking, musing, several days — nobody knows what about; then he pulled himself together & set to work to finish that book, a colossal task for a dying man. Presently his hand gave out; fate seemed to have got him checkmated. … So he sent for a stenographer, & dictated 9,000 words at a single sitting! … He dictated again, every two or three days — the intervals were intervals of exhaustion and slow recuperation. … Then he lost his voice. … He patiently continued, a few lines a day, with pad and pencil, till far into July, at Mt. McGregor. One day he put his pencil aside, and said he was done — there was nothing more to do. If I had been there I could have foretold the shock that struck the world three days later.

Twain published Grant’s memoir in 1885 to an enormous audience. It was an instant success, eventually earning Grant’s widow, Julia Grant, around $400,000 — and a fair amount for Twain, too.

‘No filigree, no flowers, no nothing’

In 1881, Grant wrote a letter to Twain, in which he apologizes for taking so long to respond to the author’s previous letter. Grant’s excuse? He had put it in his pocket and forgotten.

“It’s so Grant,” Hirst says. “Grant is known for his directness — his clarity of statement. He doesn’t mess around. That’s part of what Clemens likes about him: He’s so blunt and honest.

“Plain statement is something that Mark Twain does: no filigree, no flowers, no nothing. You know, he states it in simple words.”

‘The sceptered thieves of Europe’

Ulysses S. Grant writes of “the vast Chinese business” in a letter to Mark Twain dated April 1, 1881, held by the UC Berkeley Library. (Courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers & Project)

Twain first met Grant in Washington, D.C., in 1866. The two became friends in the years after Grant’s presidency, exchanging views on the world and America’s role in it.

Across the pond, Europe’s influence was spreading throughout Asia. After losing the Second Opium War to the French and the British in 1860, China was forced to throw open its trading ports. Merchants, missionaries, and officials from Europe flooded in, creating a patchwork of foreign colonies.

In an 1881 letter to Twain, Grant tells Twain he has written to a powerful Chinese diplomat to assure him China has “nothing to fear from the United States in the way of interference in their home affairs.”

“The Viceroy understands very well that with Europeans if given an ‘Inch they will take an ell,’” Grant writes. “They are domineering in their intercourse with the Eastern powers.”

Twain — as ever — sided with the underdogs. In 1900, Chinese insurgents staged the violent Boxer Rebellion, triggered by years of Western dominance and religious oppression. At the time, Twain remarked publicly that “The Boxer is a patriot; he is the only patriot China has.”

“My sympathies are with the Chinese,” Twain tells his close friend Joseph Twichell in August of 1900. “They have been villainously dealt with by the sceptered thieves of Europe, and I hope they will drive all of the foreigners out and keep them out for good.”

Justice for all: Twain targets American imperialism

In the essay “On the Philippines” — written circa 1901 and unpublished during his lifetime — Mark Twain calls America’s military intervention in the Philippines a “wanton war and robbing expedition.” Scholar Jim Zwick published the manuscript, held by the UC Berkeley Library, in the 1992 work Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War. (Courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers & Project)

While often cast as the quintessential American, Twain was also deeply critical of the so-called land of the free.

During the last decade of his life, as vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League, Twain railed against America’s colonial pursuits, penning several scathing essays.

In the 1901 work “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Twain blasts America’s reign of terror in the Philippines, which had only just escaped Spain’s control following the Spanish-American War.

“The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: ‘There is something curious about this — curious and unaccountable,’” Twain writes. “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.”

Twain received an outpouring of hate mail for the article, which he saved. Many of the letters survive in the Library.

“We were terrible, and Clemens knows that if he writes about this critically, it will affect his income,” says Bob Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Papers & Project at The Bancroft Library. “And, sure enough, it does.

“But before he publishes ‘To the Person Sitting in Darkness,’ which is the first terrific critique of our behavior, he asks Livy, ‘Is it OK? Can I do this?’” adds Hirst. “They’d just come out of bankruptcy. … And she says ‘OK.’”

In the Moro Crater Massacre of 1906, in the southwestern Philippines, U.S. troops killed between 600 and 1,000 Moros, or Filipino Muslims — including women and children.

“We abolished them utterly,” Twain writes in his autobiography. He described the attack during a gathering that included Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, who recalled Twain’s fury in her autobiography.

“Upon these military exploits Mr. Clemens poured out a volume of invective and ridicule,” Keller writes. “Only those who heard him can know his deep fervor and the potency of his flaming words.

“All his life he fought injustice wherever he saw it.”

Back to top