“Whatever I Touch Turns to Gold”
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 & Company, a startup publishing house that 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 & 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 per day and paid $6 per 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 bestsellers: 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 100 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 (#2) was born in 1835, and so on down the line, through J. P. Morgan (#57) and Jay Gould (#33) 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 20s and 30s 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 ...