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Mark Twain: Working Class Hero and Capitalist Protégé

By Molly Miller

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Between his lavish Nook Farm home and his reckless business ventures, Mark Twain could easily come across as a greedy capitalist, a man who could care less about the thousands of workers who could lose their jobs to the Paige Compositor, so long as it could keep his wallet fat.

In Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, Justin Kaplan wrote that Twain signed an agreement in 1889 which bound him to paying James W. Paige about $160,000, plus $25,000 a year for 17 years, in exchange for all rights in the compositor, which Twain referred to as “a magnificent creature.”

Twain thought the machine would give returns of about $55 million a year.

The Paige Compositor did not pay off as Twain thought it would; instead, it left him bankrupt.

And though Twain did work his way out of bankruptcy by giving lectures and writing novels, he also got by with a little help from his friends in high places.

Henry Huttleston Rogers, for instance, helped bail Twain out of his typesetter troubles. Rogers was a chief architect of the Standard Oil trust, and despite Rogers’ questionable business practices, Kaplan wrote that Twain called him “the only man I care for in the world; the only man I would give a damn for.”

In fact, Twain admired Rogers for his faults.

“He’s a pirate all right, but he owns up to it and enjoys being a pirate,” said Twain. “That’s the reason I like him.”

Kaplan wrote that steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie spoke about  Twain’s recovery in terms of admiration and approval: “Our friend entered the fiery furnace a man, and emerged a hero.”

It may not be accurate to describe Mark Twain as a friend, or even a member of the elite.

“There were definitely people in Hartford who looked down on him because he came from a different area,” said Patti Philippon, chief curator of The Mark Twain House & Museum.

Twain married into and lived among the upper-middle class, but he still had to work to gain approval.

He was less of a friend, and more of a protégé.

Twain took the advice and earned the approval of the great robber barons, and had a hard time turning down get-rich-quick schemes.

And yet in March, 1886 at the Monday Evening Club, in the company of the most distinguished gentlemen in Hartford, Twain spoke of the worker in high esteem, and condemned the capitalist.

“Who are the oppressors?” Twain asked, according to Philip S. Foner’s account in Mark Twain: Social Critic. “The few: the king, the capitalist, and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: … they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat. Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because the laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise.”

Twain valued the consent of the governed and the power of the workers.

“If the banded voters among a laboring kinship of 45 million persons shall speak out to the other 12 million or 15 million of a nation,” Twain continued, “and command that an existing system has in that moment, in an absolutely clear and clean and legal way, become an obsolete and vanished thing, then it has utterly ceased to exist.”

In fact, Twain’s Monday Evening manifesto almost sounded Marxist in its declaration of the inevitability of a revolution, once the superstructure falls away and the working class becomes aware of its destiny.

“When all …  the myriads of toilers in whom is slumbering the reality of that thing which you call Power … when these rise … a Nation has risen,” Twain is quoted as saying in Foner’s book.  “The working millions, in all the ages, have been horses – were horses; all they needed was a capable leader to organize their strength and tell them how to use it, and they would in that moment be master.”

Privately, Twain wrote that men were “half murdered by overwork,” and condemned “capitalist-employers” who demanded that eight-hour work days should be voluntary, not mandated by legislation, according to Foner’s book.

In thought and word, Twain was a staunch supporter of the budding labor movement. According to Kaplan, he saw himself as a sans-culotte, fighting for the common man.

Twain saw himself as a working class hero, and probably a self-made man. He did his part as a writer and lecturer to elevate the workers and denounce the management, but he never put his money where his mouth was.

Instead, Twain put all of his money in the Paige Compositor, even though he knew that, if successful, the machine would put thousands of printers out of work.

He tried to research the membership and organization of printers’ and compositors’ unions, but Kaplan wrote that Twain did so through an intermediary to keep his name out.

Twain referred to capitalists as “oppressors.” Yet when he tried to make millions off of the Paige Compositor, he relied on capitalists to help him pursue his dream.

He relied on their help again after the Paige Compositor left him bankrupt.

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Mark Twain’s House Has Always Had a Certain Ring To It

Mark Twain House, July 2013

The Mark Twain House, July 2013

By Ambriel Johnson

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

    Hearing the ring of a telephone has become a regular sound in the American household, something easily taken for granted.

However, in Mark Twain’s time, the Gilded Age, this harsh ring was out of the ordinary. Only the wealthiest of households had these new-age communication devices installed in their homes.

Fascinated with modern technology, Twain himself had a telephone in his Farmington Avenue mansion. He didn’t use the phone much, though he complained about the quality of the phone calls endlessly.

The member of the household who used the phone most was the family butler, George Griffin.

The 25-room home built for Samuel Clemens, his wife and daughters – Mark Twain was Clemens’ pen name – was a showcase.

“They were an up-to-date, sophisticated family,” said Steve Courtney, author of The Loveliest Home That Ever Was: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford.

The Victorian Gothic Revival house features a breathtaking grand hall with decorative arts by designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, a glass walled conservatory overflowing with green plants, a cozy library, and a third floor billiard room where Clemens wrote his world-famous novels.

Tiffany supervised the interior decoration of the house and designed most of the glasswork.

Legend says the home was designed to look like a riverboat to mimic the theme in Twain’s masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, construction began in 1873. The house rested on a large parcel of land when Twain owned it, even more than the museum owns today.

“There was a much more rural landscape then,” Courtney said.

The family moved into the house in 1874, three years after Twain decided to build a home in Hartford.

The house in Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood had hot and cold running water, central heat, gas lighting and other modern conveniences common in the day.

“Any middle class home had indoor plumbing by 1874,” Courtney said, adding that gas lighting wasn’t new, either.

The Clemens family had all these things.

“In general, it was a time of tremendous change, a very dynamic time,” Courtney said.

Gas lighting, which eliminated the problem of smelly whale oil and weak lights that would damage the eyes, was popular.

“Central heating was pretty new,” said Courtney, as were the speaking tubes the Clemens had in their walls.

Family members used the speaking tubes to communicate with household staff in different parts of the house.

The telephone made communication with those outside the house easier.

Twain’s house was one of the first in Hartford to have a phone, Courtney said, and the listing for Samuel Clemens was one of the first in the local phone book.

Before people had phones, Courtney said, “To talk to someone, they would have to ride their horse downtown.”

Courtney said there were odd noises coming over the phone line, possibly because people didn’t know how to install the wiring.

Twain kept score, Courtney said, of the various noises he heard on the phone. He tallied them as “cannon fire” or “thunder” and subtracted the number of times he heard them from the balance of his phone bill.

“There were definitely things that went wrong,” Courtney said.

Courtney said Twain was always interested in inventing and once invented a game for his daughters so they could learn about British royalty.

Twain also invented a self-pasting scrapbook, Courtney said, that proved quite popular in his time.

Twain invested in items that were familiar to him, Courtney said, such as the typesetter and the Paige Compositor. Courtney said Twain lost $300,000 on the Paige Compositor.

Despite his interest in technological gadgets, Twain remained old fashioned when it came to his work.

Twain had a typewriter, Courtney said, and it made writing faster. But Twain didn’t like using it. He did have other people type his stories for him, Courtney said, but preferred writing in longhand himself.

“It was fashionable to have new and updated technology,” said Courtney, and Twain loved to keep up with the latest trends. “He was interested in fads.”

The Clemens family lived happily in their home until 1891, when mounting debt forced them to leave. In order to pay off his debt, Twain was forced to go on a lecture circuit.

Some of the family went with Twain on his circuit and others stayed elsewhere. They never lived there again.

In the 1920s, the home was sold to real-estate investor J.J. Wall and survived a number of different owners, including a boarding school for boys.

Katharine Seymour Day’s Friends of Hartford campaign ultimately saved it from demolition, restored it, and made it the popular museum that it is today.

In 1963, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Daughters Died of Illnesses That Can Be Treated Today

By Lina Allam

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

     Like any father, Samuel Clemens adored his children and worked hard to provide them with the life that he never had.

But during the 1800’s medicine wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and Clemens lost three of his four children at a young age to medical troubles that might have been prevented today.

susy_clemens

Susy Clemens

Clemens, famous for the writing he did under the pen name Mark Twain, lost h is first and only son, Langdon, to diphtheria around the age of 19 months.

Clemens and his wife Olivia also had three girls: Suzy, Clara, and Jane, who lived in the family’s Hartford home until their teenage years.

But when their father lost all his money from investing in the failed invention, the Paige Compositor, he traveled the world doing public speaking to pay off his debts.

When the time came for his family to return home, his oldest daughter, Suzy, then 24 years old, died of meningitis.

Meningitis is a bacterial or viral infection that attacks the brain or spinal cord. The viral strain is untreatable, but eventually the patient’s organs are able to defend the body against the virus, though it could take a week or two.

Bacterial meningitis can be treated through antibiotics, however if it is not treated, it can be fatal. This deadly type of meningitis – called meningococcal disease – causes an overwhelming infection in the body’s internal organs.

If antibiotics are given early during the infestation, the antibiotics could save a life, said Dr. Leonard Banco, a pediatrician and the chief medical officer of Bristol Hospital.

At the time Suzy died, there weren’t antibiotics available to treat the disease, according to Dr. K. Patrick Ober, an endocrinologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who has a keen interest in historical medicine.

Jean, the youngest daughter, was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 15 and suffered seizures.

Banco said epilepsy is a seizure disorder that occurs in an organism mainly because of incorrect wiring in the brain. In a person with epilepsy, this causes seizures to sometimes occur in order for the body to regain its normal state. They can include the clenching of teeth and intense shaking, Banco said, and sometimes loss of consciousness.

An epileptic episode occurs because of a large discharge of energy released by the brain, Banco said.

jean_clemens

Jean Clemens

But unlike meningitis, epilepsy cannot be cured and is often something that one is born with.

Without antibiotics and other medicine, Ober said, medical treatment during the time of Mark Twain was limited. Some medicines doctors used, including Lepomane, which is a drug like heroin and often leads to addiction, could be harmful.

Without other options, doctors also often tried to bleed the patient out in order to remove any of the “bad” or “sick” blood, Ober said.

Doctors had no way to treat meningitis in Jean’s day. Ober said there was no medicine for epilepsy. Many medical professionals at the time thought that the epileptic seizures were the cause of intense amount of stress.

Though her family tried to keep Jean calm, she died of a heart-attack brought on by a seizure in 1909. She was 29.

Today, epilepsy is most treated with anti-seizure medicine, though sometimes other treatments are used, according to information provided by the Mayo Clinic.

The Life of Labor in Hartford

By Molly Miller

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Although Mark Twain’s neighbors in Nook Farm may have represented the late 19th century Hartford aristocracy, many of them, especially former abolitionists, supported workers’ rights.

Opposition came from captains of industry, said Hartford labor historian and former union organizer Steve Thornton. In Hartford, this meant people like Albert Pope of the Pope Manufacturing Company.

In a speech given at his Monday Evening Club, Twain called the Knights of Labor “The New Dynasty.” The Knights had more than 30 people elected to the state legislature to represent the workers’ interests, said Thornton, including safety and child labor laws. They encouraged everyone to join, and were certainly powerful, but they had    no legal protection.

Workers didn’t have the right to organize into unions until 1935, and workers who would try to organize were often fired, blacklisted, or jailed for conspiracy.

In 1883, telegraph operators in the Hartford branch of the Western Union Company participated in a nationwide strike, according to Thornton.

Operators worked for 12 to 16 hours at a time. They pushed for an eight-hour day, overtime pay on Sundays, a raise to compensate for the increasing hours and profits, and equal pay for both genders.

The telegraph operators’ strike lasted for about a month, and yielded no results for the Western Union workers. Most strikers were fired, and those who weren’t were forced to sign “yellow dog contracts,” Thornton said, which prohibited them from joining a union.

According to Thornton, many workers’ issues stemmed from the transfer from farms to factories after the Civil War.

“People weren’t working for themselves anymore,” said Thornton.

Workers would commonly fight for better working hours.

“That was something everyone could fight for,” said Thornton. The slogan, Thornton said, was “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will.”

The business mantra at the time was “make more stuff more cheaply,” said Andrew Walsh, who is associate director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. The health and living conditions of the workers weren’t taken into consideration.

“They wanted to take advantage of mechanization,” said Walsh. “They wanted less skilled work.”

If the Paige Compositor – an invention Twain poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into – had been successful, Twain would have helped management take as much skill as possible out of the printing process.

The biggest issue facing workers, in Thornton’s view, is the right for unions to exist. This is somewhat similar to the concern that faced workers while Mark Twain lived in Hartford.

“There’s this all-out assault on … unions,” said Thornton, referring to recent collisions between workers and legislators around the country. “The right to exist is the first big issue.”

With Detroit hoping to cut workers’ pensions in order to aid the city’s economic recovery, and fast food employees across the country striking for higher wages and the right to unionize, the issues facing workers today are somewhat similar to those workers faced in Twain’s day.

“The people who thought that unions should never have any benefits are now in power,” said Thornton, making retirement funds “an easy scapegoat.”

However, there are many who believe that unions just aren’t as pertinent in a world where workers already have the rights they need.

Wallace Barnes, former CEO and chairman of Barnes Group Inc. and former chairman of the Connecticut Employment and Training Commission, doesn’t deny the importance of unions in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“They were very, very necessary,” said Barnes. “There was an imbalance of power between workers and management.”

But Barnes doesn’t think they are as necessary today.

“There’s still some need,” Barnes said, “but the balance has shifted. Workers have recourse now through the law that they didn’t have then.”

As a lawyer, Barnes negotiated contracts with unions. Since workers can sue, he said, there’s less of a need for organized labor.

Barnes sees Detroit’s bankruptcy as “a wake up call to all cities that they’ve got to adequately fund these pension programs,” but he says that unions needn’t be involved.

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