Background of Orion Clemens
Orion Clemens, born on July 17, 1825, was ten years older than his famous brother Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). He was nearly fifteen years old when the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri. While a young man, Orion worked as a clerk in his father's general store. In the early 1840s he worked as an apprentice at a local newspaper and later moved to St. Louis, Missouri. In St. Louis, Orion began studying law under attorney Edward Bates who later served as attorney general for President Abraham Lincoln. After his father's death in 1847, Orion returned to Hannibal and purchased the local newspaper which he renamed Hannibal Western Union. Unable to make a successful living as a journalist in Hannibal, Orion relocated to Muscatine, Iowa in 1853; in 1854 he again relocated to Keokuk, Iowa.
After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Orion was appointed secretary to the new government of the territory of Nevada at a salary of $1,800 a year through the influence of his former St. Louis mentor Edward Bates. Sam accompanied Orion to Nevada territory in 1861 after the Civil War had effectively ended Sam's career as a Mississippi steamboat pilot. Sam drifted into mining and newspaper work while his brother served as territorial secretary and often as acting governor. Orion built a home in Carson City and brought his wife, Mollie, and young daughter, Jennie, to Nevada a year after his arrival. Jennie would die there in February 1864. After Nevada became a state, Orion served a brief time as an elected state assemblyman. However, the meager of salary of a legislator and his inability to develop a successful law practice led him to leave Nevada and seek work as a newspaper man on the east coast before finally relocating once again to Keokuk in the mid-1870s.
Sam Suggests the Autobiography
While Sam's career as an author and lecturer continued to rise, Orion's fortunes declined to the point where his younger brother eventually became his primary source of support. In 1880 Sam presented Orion with an unusual proposal for writing his autobiography. In a letter dated February 26, 1880, Sam wrote to Orion suggesting he write two books:
...they are so far down on my docket that I shan't get to them in this life. I think the subjects are perfectly new. One is "The Autobiography of a Coward," & the other "Confessions of a Life that was a Failure."
My plan was simple -- to take the absolute facts of my own life & tell them simply & without ornament or flourish, exactly as they occurred, with this difference, that I would turn every courageous action (if I ever performed one) into a cowardly one, & every success into a failure. You can do this, but only in one way; you must banish all idea of an audience -- for no man few men can straitly & squarely confess shameful things to others -- you must tell your story to yourself, & to no other; you must not use your own name, for that would keep you from telling shameful things, too.
There is another plan which is still better, but it will be very difficult -- it will require a mighty practised pen I suspect: -- to tell the story of an abject coward who is unconscious that he is a coward; & to tell the story of an unsuccessful man who is blissfully unaware that he was unsuccessful & does not imagine the reader sees he was unsuccessful. In these cases the titles I have suggested would not be used. This latter plan is the one I should use. I should confine myself to my own actual experiences (to invent would be to fail) & I would name everybodys actual name & locality & describe his character & actions unsparingly, then change these names & localities after the book was finished. To use fictitious names, & localities while writing is a befogging & confusing thing.
The supremest charm in Casanova's Memoires (they are not printed in English) is, that he frankly, flowingly, & felicitously tells the dirtiest & vilest & most contemptible things on himself, without ever suspecting that they are other than things which the reader will admire & applaud. That is what your coward should do. Your coward should also be, unconsciously, the meanest & lousiest of the human race,-- but he must throw in just a single sentence of detraction of immorality & irreligion here & there to enrage the reader.
Rousseau confesses to masturbation, theft, lying, shameful treachery, & attempts made upon his person by Sodomites. But he tells it as a man who is perfectly aware of the shameful nature of these things, whereas your coward & your Failure should be happy & sweet & unconscious.
Tackle one of these books, now, & send me the first chapter for suggestion & comment. Mind, you must expect to have to tear up & rewrite the opening chapters several times till you get the hang -- for a man who, at your time of life still uses such phrases as "He looks like he wants to go home," and "Suppose you go & lay down a while," plainly lacks the faculty of nice observation, & as plainly lacks literary training -- apprenticeship.
Tackle one of these books, & simply tell your story to yourself, laying all hideousnesses utterly bare, reserving nothing. Banish the idea of an audience & all hampering things. If the book is well done, theres a market for it. There is no market yet, for the one you are now writing -- it should wait. Love to Molly & all.
Yrs Sam (1)
Scholars have puzzled over Sam's suggested style for Orion's autobiography and why Orion so willingly and eagerly took on the project. Orion's biographer Philip Fanning called the suggestion a "specter of a grotesque parody of an autobiography, an exercise in literary self-abuse" (2). However, Orion liked the idea. He replied almost immediately to his brother:
'The Autobiography of a Coward' will be commenced within an hour, and the first chapter sent to you within a week. The writing will be according to your suggestions (3).
Sam and William Dean Howells Read Orion's Manuscript in Progress
Throughout March 1880 Orion corresponded with his brother and sent him manuscript pages from his autobiography in progress. Quickly tiring of proofreading Orion's manuscript, Sam wrote back on April 4 suggesting that he not mail daily batches of the autobiography but wait and send it in larger segments. On May 6 Sam wrote Orion:
|My Dear Bro --
It is a model autobiography.
Continue to develop your own character in the same gradual, inconspicuous & apparently unconscious way. The reader, up to this time, may have his doubts, perhaps, but he cant say decidedly, "This writer is not such a simpleton as he has been letting on to be." Keep him in that state of mind. If, when you shall have finished, the reader shall say, "The man is an ass, but I really dont know whether he knows it or not," your work will be a triumph.
Stop re-writing. I saw places in your last batch where re-writing had done formidable injury. Do not try to find those places, else you will mar them further by trying to better them. It is perilous to revise a book while it is under way. All of us have injured our books in that foolish way.
Keep in mind what I told you -- when you recollect something which belonged in an earlier chapter, do not go back, but jam it in where you are. Discursiveness does not hurt an autobiography in the least.
I have penciled the MS here & there, but have not needed to make any criticisms or knock out anything. (4)
Orion continued to seek Sam's encouragement and reassurance that his autobiography would find a publisher. He wrote, "If there were no point to be gained I could not endure the pain and disgust of writing and publishing my own autobiography" (5). On June 9, a few days after receiving Orion's letter, Sam Clemens wrote to his friend William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic Monthly and tried to interest him in publishing portions of Orion's autobiography.
|My Dear Howells:
Some time ago, I told Orion to sit down & write his autobiography -- & do it in a plain, simple, truthful way, suppressing none of the disagreeables -- & said that in order to be able to really accomplish this, he must use genuine names & genuine dates & localities -- & that when the thing was finished he could then lay his history in some other State, change the real dates & names to fictitious ones, use a feigned name for himself, & nobody would ever know who wrote it.
He started in -- & I think the result is killingly entertaining; in parts absolutely delicious. Im going to mail you 100 pages or so of the MS. Read it; keep his secret; & tell me, if, after surplusage has been weeded out, & I ring into the MS here & there a characteristic letter of his, youll buy the stuff for the Atlantic at the ordinary rates for anonymous matter from unknown writers.
The following day Sam put a bundle of Orion's manuscript in the mail to Howells and wrote, "I think that when this batch is culled & reduced 50 per cent, it will be worth printing, Howells -- & that is a pretty fair result for a lunatic like the author of it, poor fellow. Lord what a hard time of it he has had" (7).
Howells replied a few days later on June 14 after reading portions of Orion's autobiography.
My dear Clemens:
I have read the autobiography with close and painful interest. It wrung my heart, and I felt haggard after I had finished it. There is no doubt about its interest to me; but I got to questioning whether this interest was not mostly from my knowledge of you and your brother -- whether the reader would not need some sort of "inside track" for its appreciation. The best touches in it are those which make us aquainted with you; and they will be valuable material hereafter. But the writer's soul is laid too bare: it is shocking. I can't risk the paper in the Atlantic; and if you print it anywhere, I hope you wont let your love of the naked truth prevent you from striking out some of the most intimate pages. Don't let any one else even see those passages about the autopsy. The light on your father's character is most pathetic.
Samuel Clemens apparently never told his brother that Howells had declined to publish portions of his autobiography. In October 1880, Sam devised a way to furnish Orion, who still held no permanent job, a monthly pension.
Meanwhile, Orion continued to write his autobiography through the next year, completing it on January 18, 1882. He wrote Sam on that date, "At last! the manuscript for the Autobiography of a Crank is in the Express Office, and I hold the Express-man's receipt, promising to deliver it to you, and stating a valuation of a thousand dollars." Orion's manuscript of 2,523 pages was inserted into twenty separate envelopes and packed in one box (9).
Orion is left "turning in the wind"
Orion's letters to Sam over the next several months in the spring of 1882 indicate that Orion was eager for his brother's verdict regarding the autobiography manuscript. What Sam may have eventually told his brother concerning the autobiography and its chances for publication is unknown. Philip Fanning criticizes Sam for not publishing the autobiography himself through his publishing contract with the James R. Osgood Company. "Instead of telling Osgood the next book he wanted to bring out was his brother's autobiography, Twain sent him a minor potboiler of his own material, which was eventually published as The Stolen White Elephant" (10).
Orion probably became painfully aware that his autobiography, a work that had consumed two years of his life, had been deemed a failure by his brother and would never be published. On February 15, 1883 he wrote Sam requesting that he return the manuscript explaining that he now wished to destroy all but about 100 pages. Sam ignored the plea (11).
Orion lived in Keokuk, Iowa the remainder of his life. His efforts at practicing law, chicken farming, inventing various gadgets, and writing were largely unsuccessful and his main source of income was provided by Sam. Sam visited Orion and his family in Keokuk several times and probably saw him for the last time in Chicago in the spring of 1893. Orion died December 11, 1897, his final years marked by mental decline.
Albert Bigelow Paine and Orion's Autobiography
In January 1906 Albert Bigelow Paine received Samuel Clemens's blessing to become his official biographer. He was given access to Sam's correspondence and manuscripts including Orion's autobiography. Sam also often dictated his own life's history for Paine to utilize. On February 23, 1906 Clemens dictated, "In the other room you will find a bulky manuscript, an autobiography of my brother Orion, who was ten years my senior in age. He wrote that autobiography at my suggestion, twenty years ago, and brought it to me in Hartford, from Keokuk, Iowa" (11a).
On April 5, 1906 Clemens dictated more of his recollections of Orion and his role in getting his brother to write his autobiography. The passage was published in the North American Review on February 15, 1907.
About twenty-five years ago -- along there somewhere -- I suggested to Orion that he write an autobiography. I asked him to try to tell the straight truth in it; to refrain from exhibiting himself in creditable attitudes exclusively, and to honorably set down all the incidents of his life which he had found interesting to him, including those which were burned into his memory because he was ashamed of them. I said that this had never been done, and that if he could do it his autobiography would be a most valuable piece of literature. I said I was offering him a job which I could not duplicate in my own case, but I would cherish the hope that he might succeed with it. I recognize now that I was trying to saddle upon him an impossibility. I have been dictating this autobiography of mine daily for three months; I have thought of fifteen hundred or two thousand incidents in my life which I am ashamed of, but I have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet. I think that that stock will still be complete and unimpaired when I finish these memoirs, if I ever finish them. I believe that if I should put in all or any of those incidents I should be sure to strike them out when I came to revise this book.
Orion wrote his autobiography and sent it to me. But great was my disappointment; and my vexation, too. In it he was constantly making a hero of himself, exactly as I should have done and am doing now, and he was constantly forgetting to put in the episodes which placed him in an unheroic light. I knew several incidents of his life which were distinctly and painfully unheroic, but when I came across them in his autobiography they had changed color. They had turned themselves inside out, and were things to be intemperately proud of. In my dissatisfaction I destroyed a considerable part of that autobiography. But in what remains there are passages which are interesting, and I shall quote from them here and there and now and then, as I go along (12).
What is evident from Clemens's dictation sessions of February and April 1906 is that he still had in his possession a portion of Orion's autobiography. Fanning suggests that Clemens may have destroyed some of the manuscript in 1880 after Howells pleaded with him to strike out the most intimate passages. However, the bulk of Orion's manuscript was not mailed to Sam until January 1882. What is also evident is that Paine had access to Orion's manuscript. In Mark Twain: A Biography, published in 1912 after Mark Twain's death, Paine quotes directly from Orion's autobiography manuscript in Chapters 6, 10, and 17. (The quotes appear on pages 24, 44, and 85 of the first edition.) These first seventeen chapters are devoted to the family's life in Hannibal, Missouri. Paine also discusses the structure of Orion's autobiography in Chapter 127:
. . .it would have been all that Mark Twain had dreamed it would be, had Orion maintained the simple narrative spirit of its early pages. But he drifted off into theological byways; into discussions of his excommunication and infidelities, which were frank enough, but lacked human interest.
In old age Mark Twain once referred to Orion's autobiography in print and his own disappointment in it, which he attributed to Orion's having departed from the idea of frank and unrestricted confession to exalt himself as a hero -- a statement altogether unwarranted, and due to one of those curious confusions of memory and imagination that more than once resulted in a complete reversal of the facts. A quantity of Orion's manuscript has been lost and destroyed, but enough fragments of it remain to show its fidelity to the original plan. It is just one long record of fleeting hope, futile effort, and humiliation. It is the story of a life of disappointment; of a man who has been defeated and beaten down and crushed by the world until he has nothing but confession left to surrender.-- [Howells, in his letter concerning the opening chapters, said that they would some day make good material. Fortunately the earliest of these chapters were preserved, and, as the reader may remember, furnished much of the childhood details for this biography.] (13).
Five years after publishing Mark Twain: A Biography, Paine edited an edition of Mark Twain's Letters. Paine again described Orion's autobiography:
Mark Twain's early biography would have lacked most of its vital incident, and at least half of its background, without those faithful chapters, fortunately preserved. Had Orion continued, as he began, the work might have proved an important contribution to literature, but he went trailing off into by-paths of theology and discussion where the interest was lost. There were, perhaps, as many as two thousand pages of it, which few could undertake to read (14).
Evidence that Orion Clemens's Manuscript Was Stolen from Albert Bigelow Paine
What is evident from Paine's description of Orion Clemens's autobiography is that he had access to it when he was in the process of gathering materials for Mark Twain: A Biography and he knew how many pages it contained. Evidence that Paine was the person responsible for losing a portion of the manuscript can be found in Isabel V. Lyon's personal journal. Lyon, who was a personal secretary to Samuel Clemens, made the following notation in her journal on July 11, 1907, about a moment when she encountered Paine in New York City:
He dropped into my cab and told me of the calamity that had befallen him. He'd lost his big new handbag in G. C. Station -- with nearly all his clothes in it, photos of the King, ms. of his own, and oh, everything; even the Orion letters he was carrying up to Elmira to read (15).
The next day, on July 12, 1907, Paine ran the following ad in The New York Times.
LOST - If person who found package and suit case marked "A. B. P.," Grand Central, yesterday, knew how much trouble loss had caused he would return papers, receive reward; no questions. A. B. Paine, Century Co., 33 East 17th St.
The New York Times, July 12, 1907, p. 14.
How much of Orion's manuscript and/or letters Paine lost is open to speculation. Lyon's journal entry states he had lost "letters." However, it should be recalled that Orion mailed his final portion of the autobiography manuscript in twenty separate envelopes. In later years, when Isabel Lyon read Paine's Mark Twain: A Biography, she made the following notations in her copy of the book on page 676 where Paine had written, "A quantity of Orion's manuscript has been lost and destroyed, ..." Lyon underlined the word "lost" twice.
Marginalia written by Isabel Lyon on p. 676 of her copy of Albert Bigelow Paine's MARK TWAIN: A BIOGRAPHY
from the Kevin Mac Donnell collection.
In the margin of the page, Lyon wrote:
Lost. For Paine had a quantity of it in his suitcase, when on his way to Elmira, summer of 1907. In the Grand Central Station he put down his suitcase to ask a question at the Information Booth, & when he turned to pick it up it was gone, & no advertising found it again (16).
In 1950 Dixon Wecter, then editor of the Mark Twain Papers, revealed in his book Sam Clemens of Hannibal that a confidential source had asserted that most of Orion's autobiography was in Paine's stolen suitcase and that Paine, in fear of Clemens's wrath, never confessed the loss. Isabel Lyon, who was still living at the time Wecter wrote his book, was most likely the source of Wecter's statement (17).
A Scholar Questions Paine and Asks to See Orion's Manuscript
In 1927 Mark Twain scholar Fred W. Lorch was conducting research for an article titled "Mark Twain in Iowa" that would eventually be published in the Iowa Journal of History and Politics. Lorch wrote to Paine requesting access to Orion's memoirs. Paine replied in a letter dated April 24, 1927: "Orion's memoirs are deep in the dusty obscurity of a safe deposit vault, and would, I think be of no use to you if you had them." When Lorch became more insistent in his request to see Orion's manuscript, Paine replied to him again on October 29, 1927:
There is no hope of your seeing those odds and ends of Orion's Autobiography. It was M.T.'s wish that all should be destroyed, and most of them were burned. Some fragments may remain, but I am not sure, and in any case it is certain that the trustees would not dig them out ... Mrs. Gabrilowitsch (Clara Clemens) and myself are Mark Twain's literary executors. Knowing his feelings in the matter, our own feeling, and the feeling of the trustees, I am sure that permission to borrow, or to examine, any remaining fragments or Orion's record, supposing any still exists, would be quite out of the question (18).
Within the span of six months, Paine had changed his story on what had become of Orion's manuscript.
Bernard DeVoto Issues an Appeal
Albert Bigelow Paine died April 9, 1937. His position as editor of Mark Twain's papers was taken by Bernard DeVoto. In February 1940 DeVoto issued the following appeal in the pages of The Twainian, a newsletter that was widely circulated among Mark Twain scholars and collectors:
CALLING ALL TWAINIANS
To the Editor:
The autobiography of Orion Clemens was not in the papers turned over to me by the Mark Twain estate, and I can find no record of it. This is an appeal to readers of your publication to help me find it.
Mr. Paine's statement in his Biography asserts that not all of the manuscript had been preserved when he first saw it. The remaining fragment, which is what I am now searching for, was Paine's sole source for many statements he made about Mark Twain. What he said about it after his own book was published was contradictory. He told some of us it had been destroyed. He told others that it was still in existence. Being by now familiar with Mr. Paine's habits of thought and action, I suspect that he did not destroy it.
I have exhausted all the usual methods of inquiry without finding any trace of the manuscript. Of the forlorn hopes that are left, one seems likelier than the rest. At one time a number of manuscripts were stolen from the Estate. It has always been supposed that all of them were recovered. It may be, however, that Orion's autobiography was among those stolen; that its loss was not known at the time, and that it was sold to some private collector who is sitting tight. (Unhappily, this is not so wild a theory as it seems. One collector owns some extremely valuable Mark Twain letters which he will not let me see, lest I exercise the Estate's right to publish them -- and so diminish their value.)
There are some very dubious and even ambiguous points in what has been written about the early life of Mark Twain and it is essential to check them against Orion's autobiography. I will be grateful for any suggestions that anyone may make for further search, and if any of them should lead to the manuscript all students of Mark Twain would profit. If anyone should find it in the hands of a collector he is authorized to make a promise on my behalf. I will undertake to protect the collector from action by the Estate to replevy the manuscript, and to have his title to it confirmed, provided he will let me examine it and have it copied.
Bernard DeVoto evidently was not aware of Isabel Lyon's claim that Paine had lost Orion's manuscript in Grand Central Station. That information would not come to light until Dixon Wecter succeeded Devoto as editor of Mark Twain's papers in 1946. However, DeVoto's appeal for help in finding the lost Orion autobiography has gone unanswered for over half a century. The fate of the autobiography of Orion Clemens remains a mystery. How many of the 2000+ pages did Samuel Clemens destroy? How many pages were in Paine's stolen briefcase? The questions remain unanswered.
All That Remains - A Sample of Orion's Work
In 1952 Dixon Wecter, then editor of the Mark Twain Papers, in his biography Sam Clemens of Hannibal quoted from ten pages of Orion's autobiography numbered pp. 696 - 705 that were located in the "Documents File" of the Mark Twain Papers/Project. In the fragment Orion recalled how he had given up his dreams to become a public orator to please his father by going to St. Louis to work as a printer:
My prospect was gloomy. It had never been my ambition to become an editor or printer. I embarked in the business with no more partiality for it than for any other occupation. If I could have been so employed that daily practice in the art of speaking would have been part of my duty, my life would have been full of bliss during all my working hours. But that had been forbidden by my father, who had placed me at the toil of printing and editing, because his own preference was in that direction. His pleasure in knowing that I was so engaged, must have been slight, compared with the happiness I might have enjoyed if I had been permitted to pursue a course warmed by the fervor and illumined by the light of my childish dreams. The idea that I derived was an additional argument in favor of the theory that the more suffering the greater the reward. I felt as if my business had been forced upon me that my character might receive the elevating and chastening influence of daily and hourly affliction. There being no pleasure in the mechanical part of the business, and no hope of attaining a position where I could work at editing, free from the embarrassments of business, I began to yearn for a chance to get away from the office, and rest and breathe fresh air (20).
Preface to a letter Orion marked for inclusion in his autobiography.
Courtesy of Dr. Robert Hirst of the Mark Twain Papers.
Letter Orion marked for inclusion in his autobiography. Courtesy of Dr. Robert Hirst of the Mark Twain Papers.
These fragments from Orion Clemens's autobiography provide a
handwriting sample for scholars or collectors who may yet locate pages from
the lost manuscript that have remained unidentified. The recovery of the lost
autobiography would provide a number of missing puzzle pieces in Mark Twain
(2) Philip Ashley Fanning, Mark Twain and Orion Clemens: Brothers, Partners, Strangers, (University of Alabama Press, 2003), p. 183.
Related resource: A short biography of Orion Clemens by Fred W. Lorch.