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Young Mark Twain, on the cusp of fame as an author, worked as a D.C. journalist for several months in 1867 and 1868. While he’s closely linked to the banks of the Mississippi and his home in Connecticut, Twain’s time as a capital correspondent is often overlooked. We find out how his short stay in the city shaped his career and trademark satirical style, and discover shadows of Twain’s D.C. in the modern District.
- John Muller Author, "Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent"; associate librarian, Washingtoniana Division at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent” by John Muller. Copyright © 2013 by John Muller. Excerpted by permission of The History Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFamous worldwide as the creator of Huck Finn, Mark Twain is closely tied in readers' minds to the Mississippi shores and waterways of his youth. The Connecticut home, turned museum, where his family lived while he wrote his most famous works and even his travels abroad, but few scholars and enthusiasts have turned their attention to the time Mark Twain spent here in Washington, D.C. As a young journalist he spent mere months working in the District, but even though his time here was short, a local author contends it had an important influence on his career. Here to tell us about Twain's adventures as a capital correspondent is John Muller.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's a journalist and associate librarian with the Washingtonianan Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. He's also the author of several books, the latest of which is, "Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent." John Muller joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us.
MR. JOHN MULLERThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation if you've got questions about Mark Twain's time in Washington. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you noticed any allusions or outright references to D.C. in your favorite works? If you happen to be a big Mark Twain fan, give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. John, you write about his very first visit to D.C. as Samuel Clemens, that "when the young Twain first arrived in the city in February 1854, both were rough around the edges and of dubious potential." What was D.C. like then and are there any echoes of that city that we see in current-day Washington?
MULLERWell, thank you for having me on the air this morning, Kojo, to discuss the book. So everyone kind of knows Mark Twain is a famous novelist, famous man in a white suit, but not many people know that he spent time here in Washington as a capital correspondent during a very interesting time when Andrew Johnson was being impeached. But as an intro to the book I talk about when Twain -- he basically runs away from his home in Hannibal, Mo. and heads east. He goes to St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, and comes down to Washington.
MULLERAnd he kind of was following in the tradition of Charles Dickens, Alexander de Tocqueville, also other American writers who would come to Washington, kind of as this fascination as this planned capital city. Because before Washington the capital kind of moved around, so Washington was a planned city. And it was the capital before it was a city. So when Twain comes to Washington wild animals still roamed the streets. It was kind of the city of magnificent distances. You had these kinds of very classical Greco Roman buildings, but there was really nothing in between -- there were a lot of vacant lots and Pennsylvania Avenue was not built up very much.
MULLERAnd as you mentioned in the introduction, when Twain is here, and when he's 18 years old, he tries to catch the omnibus. And the omnibus was the precursor to the streetcar, which streetcar begat Metro. And he kind of has a similar experience that many Red Line commuters have had in recent weeks or anyone who's taken public transportation in this city for years has had. He waits for the omnibus and he waits and waits and waits.
MULLERAnd then when it finally comes around it's basically overcrowded and it kind of kicks up dust in his face and then rides off. And then so he decides he'll just actually walk it. So some of the experiences that people have today with public transportation, those are similar experiences that Twain had as an 18-year-old.
NNAMDIAfter a brief early visit as a teen, that visit when the Metro escalators were broken (laugh) Clemens returned as Mark Twain to work as a journalist. And while interest in Twain is still strong more than a century after his passing and the significance of nearly every other place he lived or even visited, much chronicled by scholars, this time he spent in D.C. has been largely overlooked. Why is that?
MULLERWell, there have been -- Volume II of Mark Twain's autobiography, just recently published by the University of -- or U.C. Berkley. Volume I was published a couple years ago and was an unexpected bestseller. So Mark Twain is still very omnipresent. He's still kind of very much permeates the public consciousness. And there have been books written about his travels to Europe and San Francisco and Nevada. Nothing really about his time here as a capital correspondent. And it's really kind of curious because out of his experiences as a journalist in Washington he writes "The Gilded Age," which in 1873 is his first novel.
MULLERSo with all that said, a couple years ago I had stumbled upon a book that talked about how some famous American authors had been journalists. And it mentioned that Twain had been a journalist. And then a couple years later I discovered that he had been a Washington journalist. Then I became kind of a local Washington journalist myself, so it was always kind of on the back of my mind as something I wanted to look into.
MULLERAnd so when I looked into Twains time in Washington, I found that it was a lot more formative than has been told in kind of the Mark Twain narrative. There have been some Pulitzer Prize winning biographies. There are hundreds and hundreds of anthologies of his letters, his writings.
MULLERAnd so when Twain comes to Washington his fame is not yet determined. He's still basically a working journalist. He's writing furiously because he's kind of like a freelancer. He writes for a newspaper in Nevada, The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper in California, the Daily Alta California. He writes for the New York Tribune, the Chicago Republican. So he's still kind of freelancing all over the place so he can get enough money to figure out -- or basically even to pay rent. And when he's in Washington he's not yet engaged. This is kind of his last days as a Bohemian. And after the Civil War, a lot of…
NNAMDIWell, our listeners may not know this, but except for the Bohemian part you're basically describing your own life here as a journalist.
MULLERWell (laugh) my mother who -- I guess I'll give a shout out to. I know she's listening. She's been my editor through my whole kind of come-up as a local journalist and author. And when she was looking at some of this material she said, oh, there are a lot of similarities between you and Twain. But Twain was kind of a jerk. I hopefully try to maintain good cordial relationships with people. So I think there are some differences.
NNAMDIBut it does underscore the fact that young journalists write for a variety of publications, and in these days a variety of media as freelancers in order to make a living. And that's what he was doing in the middle of the 19th century.
NNAMDIWe're talking with John Muller. He's a journalist and associate librarian with the Washingtoniana Division at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial library here in Washington. He's also the author of several books. We're discussing the latest. It's called, "Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent." And inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. While Mark Twain's time here was short, you say it's arguably one of the more pivotal episodes in his career. You already mentioned that it was influential in him writing "The Gilded Age," but talk about that.
MULLERWell, one of the things that is really a turning point in his life -- and I want to give a shout out to Don Bliss. Don Bliss is the descendant of Twain's original publisher with the American Publishing Company. And while Twain is in Washington he actually receives an offer from Elijah Bliss Jr., who was the head of the American Publishing Company, which was a subscription-based publishing company. And Twain gets this letter in December of 1867 and he had come to Washington to work as a secretary for William Stewart, who was a senator from Nevada, who some people might know from Stewart's Castle in Dupont Circle.
MULLERHe kind of had a falling out with Stewart so he was juggling his government position, freelancing for a number of newspapers, but then he has his publishing contract. So he kind of is trying to decide what to do. So he stays in Washington, starts to compile the first manuscript pages of, "The Innocence Abroad." And when he's in Washington -- I have discovered an old newspaper, The Daily Morning Chronicle, that Twain's first book -- which was kind of self-published by Twain and a friend of his, Charles Henry Webb -- was actually sold at French and Richardson's Bookstore on Pennsylvania Avenue.
MULLERAnd it's still kind of unclear exactly how this book was sold in a Washington bookstore -- and I say that because by Twain's own admission this first book only sold 4,000 copies. So it was very curious that it was here in Washington. My speculation is that Twain went to the bookstore, said hey, here's my first book. You should sell it.
MULLERSees the ads in the newspapers. He has his publishing contract. He kind of gets a little freshness to his step, if you will. And he actually decides to leave as Andrew Johnson -- his impeachment trial moves from the Congress to the Senate, Twain actually skips out of town. Now for a journalist, for a newspaper writer, this would have been one of the biggest stories…
NNAMDIA heresy, yes.
MULLER…some of the biggest stories to cover. But Twain was more dedicated or wanted to become known as the man of letters, as a novelist, so he decides to leave town because all of his fellow journalists were saying, hey, let's hit the bar. We've got this reception we're going to go to, you know, you should come with us. And Twain says, no. I need to get out of town because I want to complete his first book. So he leaves, goes to San Francisco and negotiates the rights to these letters. And then his first book comes out and that kind of launches his career. But the genesis to that publishing offer was here in Washington.
NNAMDIA lot of journalists head towards town when there's an impeachment trial (laugh), he left town. So it was clear that he was more interested in being a published author than in continuing a career as a journalist. On to the telephones. We go to Michael, in Chevy Chase, Md. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHi, thanks, Kojo. I just wanted to share something that we did as a family two summers ago. We have two boys. At the time they were in fourth and sixth grade and we drove along the Great River Road in Missouri and ended up in Hannibal, Mo. for two days, which is Mark Twain's hometown. And just had a tremendous time, just a terrific time. We hit his boyhood home and the museum and, you know, the whole area of Hannibal has been preserved, several blocks, as a historic town.
NNAMDIAnd all that time you had no idea that Mark Twain had actually lived right here in Washington, D.C., right?
MICHAELExactly. I didn't (laugh) know that. But it comes really as no surprise considering his tremendous wit and his insights on American politics and everything. And while we were at the museum we bought a book full of quotes and things and for the next couple of hours, as we were driving along, I was reading these to my husband. And we roared with laughter. They were just tremendous.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. John Muller, he was born Samuel Clemens, known to readers as Mark Twain. He may have written under other names, as well. Who, pray tell, is Scuppernong.
MULLERThat's a great question, Kojo. And I’m glad that you asked. Well, during my research -- and I'm kind of a new school researcher, in terms of I use a lot of digital sources, but I also do hit the Library of Congress and the National Archives. So I do some old school techniques. But with the digitalization of all these newspapers a lot of things can be keyword searched. So I found an article that was published in The New York Times on November 30, 1867. And it was a Washington letter from Scuppernong. And it was reprinted a day later in the evening telegraph out of Philadelphia. And the letter was reprinted, but it had the byline of by Mark Twain.
MULLERWell, this past summer there was an article published in the Mark Twain Journal by a gentleman named Kevin Mac Donnell, who's a Twain scholar and antiquarian book dealer. And Mac Donnell posits that the Mark Twain pen name actually comes from an 1861 article in Vanity Fair. Now, Vanity Fair was then a humor magazine out of New York City, published by Artemas Ward, not the current Vanity Fair. But the Vanity Fair article is a burlesque on five kind of Southern mariners and they are protesting the compass because the compass always points north. And so the fives name of the mariners -- one is Mark Twain. Another one is Lee Scupper.
MULLERSo this summer the article comes out that posits Twain's pen name actually comes from this Vanity Fair article, not necessarily some of the origins that Twain claimed it came from. So in this book -- when I found this discovery, there's an international network of Twain scholars. So I kind of sent it through the list serve, got some feedback from some folks. And the revelation that I share in the book is that Twain possibly wrote this letter under the name Scuppernong, and it's kind of a burlesque of he's a Washington correspondent, fresh to the scene, and he knows that the first thing for all Washington letter writers is to track down members of the Army.
MULLERSo he goes to General Grant's house. General Grant, at that time, was staying on Douglas Row. And he tries to interview him and Grant is very reticent and doesn't say anything. And it kind of goes through this back and forth, which is very similar to some articles that Twain later wrote where he said he interviewed General Grant. But it hasn't been flushed through the -- let's say Mark Twain police (laugh) the cannon of Mark Twain studies. But it's something that I tried to treat very carefully in the book, but I think it is something that possibly is an undiscovered Mark Twain writing.
NNAMDIMark Twain, a.k.a. Scuppernong. We go to Richard, in Rockville, Md. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHARDHi. Good morning, Kojo. Thanks for allowing me on the line.
RICHARDWell, I work in Georgetown and I have occasion to walk across the bridges that span the C&O Canal and there have been times when crossing the bridge I would see a horse-drawn barge going down. And one time when I was witnessing this, there was a young man perched on the bow of the boat wearing a straw hat and shorts and looking very much like the 19th century man mining a barge. And I called out to him. And I said, so, young man, what's that book you're reading? And he looked up at me and he said, oh, it's a book by this new guy, Mark Twain. (laugh)
MULLERSo he was very much in character.
RICHARDVery much in character. That's all I wanted to share with you. Thank you.
NNAMDIVery good. Good story, Richard. Thank you very much for sharing it. We move on to Larry, in Washington, D.C. Larry, your turn.
LARRYYeah, thank you. You know, the question you started the show with -- and I very much enjoy your show -- was how did Mark Twain's time in Washington affect his writing? And I had the opportunity to read an anthology of his works awhile back. The title of the anthology is "A Pen Warmed Up in Hell." And it's all of his political writing. And to my experience, his political writing has an intensity and a sense of outrage that only people that have kind of peaked behind the curtain and realized there really is no wizard in Washington, there is no secret room where all the smart guys make policy.
LARRYI mean he had that sense of intensity and purity in his frustration with how the elites govern the rest of the masses. And I think that anthology, when you -- just those political documents together, it kind of brings that out more than reading his assemble of whole collection.
NNAMDII guess, John Muller, not only his time as a journalist, but the brief period he spent working in a senator's office had an influence on him.
MULLERYeah, I mean, Twain really got to see kind of how inside baseball is played in Washington. And coming from the West he kind of knew some of the more, let's say, desperadoes or kind of some of the more scoundrels or some of the more kind of lively characters, if you will. And one of the things that -- for example -- Twain said is that if there was someone coming from a territorial government, California, Arizona, Nevada -- these were all territorial forms of government before they became states. When they would come to Washington they would charge the government for travel to Washington and back, but once they got to Washington they would never, ever go back.
MULLERSome of these kind of lighter things he would make fun of, but the previous caller's right. There's a certain intensity and just almost controlled rage, if you will, at kind of how Washington worked.
NNAMDIOn to -- and thank you for your call, Larry. On to Victoria, in Washington, D.C. Victoria, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
VICTORIAHi. Yes, thank you. I'm really interested in this. I'm a novelist and for my last book I read a lot of the Mark Twain journalism pieces from the San Francisco Daily Morning Call, in 1864. And was really surprised -- I mean, and it's typical of the day, but there's a really sort of harsh and flip attitude towards things like a ship load of Chinese women who are brought in for prostitution being seized.
VICTORIAAnd rape cases and things like this that are really kind of dismissed. And I wonder if you can talk a little about the evolution of Twain as a writer to the, you know, the writer we know with more racial sensitivity of later years. But his -- you know, and there was anti-Chinese sentiment at the time, as well.
NNAMDIIs that something you can talk about, John Muller?
MULLERYes. Thank you for your question. I mean, Mark Twain -- I previously did a book about Frederick Douglas. And Frederick Douglas's later years is someone's who kind of -- you can easily like Frederick Douglas. I mean studying and being the kind of grandfather, mentor, friend that he was. Mark Twain's a little more prickly.
MULLERHe's a little more harsh and especially when it comes to Washington. He actually turns -- his 33rd birthday is in Washington and he's not yet kind of smooth around the edges. He's still really rough. He actually meets his wife, Olivia Langdon. He meets her in New York while he's staying in Washington. His wife kind of really calmed him down.
MULLERI mean Twain really felt he had a certain like license or privilege to basically kind of abuse anybody that he wanted to. And he would be friends with someone one minute, the next minute he would lacerate them in public. So in terms of Twain's kind of attitudes towards -- Twain's writing on Native Americans, Twain's writing on Chinese immigrants, Twain's writing on black folks, there's a lot of debates, in terms of where Mark Twain's, let's say, sympathies laid, but he definitely did evolve as a writer, as a person. But, yeah, in Washington he's still kind of that local reporter in San Francisco. He's still a little vicious.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. John Muller is a journalist and associate librarian with the Washingtoniana Division at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in D.C. His latest book is called, "Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent." John, will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore on January 4th, at 1:00 p.m., reading from and signing this book. And you can keep an eye on his website for other upcoming area events, at which he'll be talking about this book. You can also find a link at our website, kojoshow.org. John Muller, thank you so much for joining us.
MULLERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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