Like most of us, Mark Twain hated writing checks to other people. But there were times when he happily paid out large sums. Issuing a check for $200,000 drawn on the United States Bank of New York on February 27, 1886, for example, made him almost giddy. The check was made out to Julia Dent Grant, the widow of Ulysses S. Grant, the former president of the United States and commanding general of the Union Army, who had died of cancer the summer before, just after completing his remembrances of the Civil War. That payment represented the first profits from sales of volume one of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, published only a few months earlier by Charles L. Webster and Company, a start-up publishing house Twain had established two years before. He had installed a nephew, Charles “Charley” Webster, as its business manager. Webster got his name on the letterhead and a salary, but that’s about all he got out of the position, besides aggravation. Twain made all the business and financial decisions, except when he didn’t feel like it.
Twain would have been pleased to have published Grant’s memoir even if it had not broken all American publishing records for sheer profitability. Just landing the contract had required Twain to persuade General Grant to break a handshake deal with another publisher. The other publisher had offered Grant a 10 percent royalty. Twain countered by offering a royalty share unheard of then, or since: 75 percent. The other publisher offered no advance against royalties. Twain said he would pay $25,000 upfront.
This was a bold gamble—some might say a reckless investment—but it paid off. At that time, the $200,000 royalty check to Grant’s widow was the largest ever paid by an American publisher. In the months to come, Webster and Company wrote additional royalty checks to Grant’s family, bringing their earnings to $450,000, which again broke publishing records. Twain himself pocketed $200,000 for Grant’s memoirs. In our own time, that’s about $11,000,000 for Grant’s widow and $4,800,000 for Twain.
This sounds like a lot of money—and it was. Back then, a coal miner made $1.50 a day and paid $6 a month to rent a house for his wife and five children. The family’s annual food bill was $80 a month, a pound of butter cost 35 cents and a dozen eggs, 40 cents. For the urban sophisticate, a man’s suit cost $4.85, a piano could be bought for $125, and a three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan rented for $80 a month.
By the age of fifty, Mark Twain had achieved something he had dreamed of and worked for his entire life: he was rich. Raised in genteel poverty in small towns in Missouri (when Missouri was still the West), Twain as a grown man, had rubbed elbows with the greatest business tycoons of the time. As the author of The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he had seen the world, or much of it. Russian princes and English lords fawned over him. Hundreds of thousands of people bought his books and lined up to hear him speak. With his earnings—and his wife’s inheritance—he had built a startlingly opulent, twenty-five-room mansion in high-toned Hartford, Connecticut. Justin Kaplan, the author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, called the house “part steamboat, part medieval stronghold, and part cuckoo clock.”
And now, as head of his own publishing firm, making money for other authors, he felt like a great philanthropist. He could see himself as one of the true benefactors of the age. And it was an age he had named when he chose the title of one of his own best sellers: The Gilded Age.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835. For the purposes of this book, he is Mark Twain, not Samuel Clemens—and that’s final. Twain’s place of birth was Florida, Missouri, which contained a hundred people at that time. By being born there, he recalled,
I increased the population by 1 percent. It is more than many of the best men in history could have done for a town. It may not be modest in me to refer to this but it is true. There is no record of a person doing as much—not even Shakespeare. But I did it for Florida and it shows that I could have done it for any place—even London, I suppose.
In the interest of scholarly thoroughness, it should also be pointed out that Twain never did anything else for his hometown. Today, Twain tourists go instead to Hannibal, where he grew up. As of the 2000 census, there were only nine people living in Florida, Missouri. By 2010, the village was officially uninhabited, so even if any tourists did show up, there would be no one to greet them.
Perhaps more significant than where Twain was born is when. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discovered that of the seventy-five richest people in human history, fourteen were Americans born within nine years of one another. John D. Rockefeller, the richest ever, was born in 1839. Andrew Carnegie (second richest) was born in 1835, and so on down the line, through J. P. Morgan (fifty-seventh) and Jay Gould (thirty-third) and all the others. What’s going on here? Gladwell asks.
Then he tells us:
The answer becomes obvious, if you think about it. In the 1860s and 1870s, the American economy went through perhaps the greatest transformation in its history. This was when the railroads were being built and Wall Street emerged. It was when industrial manufacturing started in earnest. It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy had functioned were broken and remade.
What Gladwell’s list of rich men and their birth dates says is, “It really matters how old you were when that transformation happened.” And Twain and Rockefeller, et al., were all in their twenties and thirties when it took place. (So, of course, were untold millions of people who were born just when Gladwell recommends but died poor anyway.)
The sociologist C. Wright Mills observed much the same phenomenon decades before Gladwell and came to this conclusion: “The best time during the history of the United States for the poor boy ambitious for high business success to have been born was around the year 1835.” And Twain wasn’t born “around the year 1835,” but during it—a strategic decision of the utmost significance, suggesting an alert and eager business mind operating even in utero.
Unfortunately, Twain was not so astute in his choice of parents. His father was John Marshall Clemens, an upright and humorless man, a Virginian by birth and, by occupation, a failed storekeeper, failed boardinghouse operator, and failed lawyer. These Clemenses claimed descent from Geoffrey Clement, who in 1649 was one of the judges who sentenced Charles I to die by beheading. Twain’s mother, the former Jane Lampton of Kentucky, was a pious though lighthearted woman whose family also talked of an illustrious British ancestry. Though American by birth, one of Jane Lampton Clemens’s nephews called himself the rightful earl of Durham.
If there was gentility in Mark Twain’s background, it was of the shabby kind, at least by the time he came along. Neither of his parents brought “an over-surplus of property” into the marriage; his mother’s dowry consisted of “two or three Negroes but nothing else.” They were a slaveholding family, with a household servant or two. What the servants actually did is hard to figure. After John Clemens died in 1847, the family lived above a drugstore. Twain’s mother cooked for the druggist’s family and did their laundry. “Money is better than poverty,” Woody Allen once said, “if only for financial reasons.” Twain knew this from childhood.
The Clemens family lived in Tennessee before moving to Missouri, and it was there that their dubious patriarch made a momentous financial decision. John Clemens would become a land speculator. Resigned to the likelihood that he would never earn much money, he determined to provide for his family after his death by acquiring vast holdings in real estate. From 1826 through 1841, he bought twenty tracts in rural Fentress County, Tennessee, totaling between 35,000 and 75,000 acres. John Clemens claimed they owned 100,000 acres. Historians disagree on the precise number, which isn’t surprising since the family itself never seemed sure. He spent about $400 for the land—maybe $11,000 today—and died telling his survivors to hang on to the property until the time was right. Resist the temptation to sell it to the first bidder. If they would only be patient, they would be rich, as any fool could see.
“Whatever befalls me, my heirs are secure,” John Clemens said. “I shall not live to see those acres turn to silver and gold but my children will.” Besides the mineral wealth under the ground, there were “grazing lands, corn lands, wheat lands, potato lands, there are all species of timber—there is everything on this great tract of land that can make land valuable.”
These were boom times in America when Mark Twain’s father bought the Tennessee land. This period of economic expansion that was unleashed by laissez-faire capitalism, in the words of John Maynard Keynes, constituted “the magnificent episode of the nineteenth century.” The federal government offered for sale 28 million acres of public lands, leading to enthusiastic real estate speculation. More than a quarter of the population now lived west of the Appalachians. The way people and goods moved was changing. By 1840, locomotives owned by 300 railroad companies were rattling along 3,300 miles of iron rails. Steamboats, which plied the waters of the Great Lakes, would soon connect north and south on the Mississippi.
Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at “the phenomenal release of initiative and energy” in the men and women of John Clemens’s time. A historian with the wonderful name Garet Garrett called it “the breathless generation.” Henry Adams said, “the continent lay before [Americans] like an uncovered ore-bed.” Technological advances stimulated economic development on scores of fronts. There was Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, John Deere’s steel plow, Samuel Morse’s telegraph, and Josephine Houghton’s hand-cranked dishwashing machine. (Josephine Houghton was a Shelbyville, Illinois, housewife inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. Unfortunately, this was too late to do her much good, considering that she died in 1913.)
The same iron industry that turned out thousands of miles of rails was producing everyday items vital to settling the west—knives, axes, and plows. It also turned out thousands of revolvers, useful for cowboys shooting each other and for settlers trying to persuade Indians to abandon tribal lands that these newcomers wished to inhabit. This population boom, John Clemens said, “will henceforth increase faster than ever. My children will see the day that immigration will push its way to Fentress County, Tennessee, and then, with 100,000 acres of excellent land in their hands, they will become fabulously wealthy.”
This tantalizing prospect of great wealth bedeviled Mark Twain for much of his life. It spurred him on as few other things did. All truly ambitious people can point to something like this in their lives, and they can be resentful of it but grateful, too. “We were always going to be rich—next year,” Twain recalled. “It’s good to begin life poor; it is good to begin life rich—these are wholesome, but to begin it poor and prospectively rich! The man who has not experienced it cannot imagine the curse of it!”
And few with such a curse upon them ever appreciate how motivating it can be.
Mark Twain’s family was poor but possessed lively imaginations. They strained to burst out of their limited financial circumstances. Twain’s father put his hope in the Tennessee land, but that was not all. He also fancied himself an inventor, trying to produce a perpetual-motion machine. Twain’s older brother Orion (pronounced ORE-ee-on) spent long hours at work on a flying machine.
Although intelligent and hard-working, Orion “inherited his father’s aptitude for failure,” according to R. Kent Rasmussen, a Twain scholar. When their father died, Orion became the de facto head of the family, responsible for the Tennessee real estate investment and providing for the family day to day. To that end, he owned and edited the Hannibal Western Union newspaper, where Mark Twain was employed as a “printer’s devil,” setting type—if employed is the right word since he worked without pay.
Twain had other jobs in Hannibal and seems to have been fired from all of them. He worked in a grocery store, in a tannery, and in a blacksmith shop. He worked at an apothecary, though “my prescriptions were unlucky, and we appeared to sell more stomach pumps than soda water.” He worked in a bookstore, but that didn’t work out either, because “customers bothered me so much I could not read with any comfort.” Eventually Orion took him on in the newspaper’s print shop. In time, Twain did get paid, and it was in the Hannibal Western Union that his first literary efforts were published.
Only in retrospect does the appearance of Twain’s first writings seem like a historic occasion. He never viewed them as such, because he was not aware, then or for years to come, of any great literary calling. Self-styled “thought leaders” who say great success depends on finding one’s passion in life and pursuing it like a honey badger with a really nasty disposition will find little support in these pages. Twain’s passion wasn’t to work in a print shop, pilot riverboats, write for newspapers, or even—as he would do in his twenties—prospect for gold and silver out West. Twain’s goal was to make money and then make even more money. Writing books was just a means to an end, and in 1886, when he wrote that check for $200,000 to General Grant’s widow, he was well on his way to realizing his dream.
And now that he was amassing his fortune, he could accomplish even more. Because he was a successful publisher, he could stop writing altogether and make money off other authors’ books. He could invest in other businesses as well. He could be what we’d call an “angel investor” or venture capitalist. He could even turn his attention to his own inventions, as his luckless father and brother had tried to do with theirs, but he lacked the aptitude, connections, and financial wherewithal to make them succeed.
Twain felt there was almost nothing he could not accomplish, as he admitted to a friend just months before his first payments to Grant’s widow. “I am frightened by the proportions of my prosperity,” he said. “It seems to me that whatever I touch turns to gold.”
Alan Pell Crawford is the author of Twilight at Monticello and Unwise Passions. A former U.S. Senate speechwriter, congressional press secretary, and magazine editor, he has reviewed books on U.S. history, politics, and culture for the Wall Street Journal since 1993. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Nation, and elsewhere.
Excerpted from How Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain by Alan Pell Crawford. Copyright © (2017) by Alan Pell Crawford. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.