Portrait of Mark Twain by Artur Lopez.
Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens' pseudonym, is possibly the most recognizable pen name in literature, and the man himself is an irresistible historical figure for pipe enthusiasts, not only because he was instrumental in shaping an authentic American literary voice, but because he evidently smoked more than any other human being. He bought cigars by the barrel and corncob pipes by the gross. "I smoke a good deal," he wrote in 1891, "that is to say, all the time."
His grandniece, Jean Webster, referred to him as "a human furnace," and, "the smokiest man alive." His longtime friend, author and editor William Dean Howells, commented, "I do not know how much a man may smoke and live, but apparently he smoked as much as a man could, for he smoked incessantly."
Even as a boy of seven, he was a tobacco enthusiast. His boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri, was a tobacco town, with its own tobacco factory. "Poverty itself was able to purchase tobacco," he said, and "... there was no other youngster of my age who could more deftly cut plug tobacco so as to make it available for pipesmoking."
In 1850, when he was 15 years old, Sam stopped smoking so he could wear the bright sash and participate in the parades of the local chapter of the Cadets of Temperance. He quit in disgust. "I had not smoked for three full months, and no words can adequately describe the smoke appetite that was consuming me."
In his most famous novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he revives the tribulations of smoking in his youth through the voice of Huck:
Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn't. She said it was a mean practice and wasn't clean, and I must try not to do it any more. That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it. Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff, too; of course, that was all right, because she done it herself.
Mark Twain in front of boyhood home in Hannibal (1902). Missouri History Museum.
Twain's family gave him a hard time about his smoking even when he was an adult, and almost unrelentingly at first. Before his marriage to Olivia Langdon, she and his future in-laws tried to convince him to stop drinking and smoking. He sincerely tried and was able to cut down to one cigar a day, but when he found himself searching out larger and larger cigars for his daily smoke until he was smoking gargantuan, custom cigars that lasted hours, he returned to non-stop smoking and regular daily cocktails.
It was a challenging time for Sam Clemens. Olivia and her distinguished family disapproved of his unrestrained profanity, his slouching around with his hands in his pockets, his drinking, his smoking, and even of his profession as a humorist. Humor was considered a low form of writing by the elite of the time, and by Olivia in particular. "Anyone who would convince her that I was not a humorist," he wrote, "would secure her eternal gratitude. She thinks a humorist is something pretty awful."
His manners were not genteel, yet he sought to enter American gentility, trying hard to extinguish the coarse mannerisms he had acquired while piloting riverboats on the Mississippi and mining for silver and gold out west. Even when he failed to secure a fortune in precious metals and turned to journalism, manners were different in the west than in the east, with rival newspapermen insulting each other in print, indulging in fist fights, and even fighting occasional duels. Olivia and her family were wealthy and well-established socialites in upstate New York, and western speech was unrefined and tactless in their ears.
The family sought references before approving of the marriage, and the references Clemens could offer did not come back as he expected. A San Francisco clergyman wrote, "Clemens is a humbug, a man with talent, no doubt, but will make trivial use of it." Another letter made the prediction that Clemens would "fill a drunkard's grave."
"I don't live backwards," Twain said, insisting that his character was improved and that it was his future, not his past, that should be weighed. He charmed the Langdons into accepting the marriage, partially by agreeing to give up hard liquor, a pledge he upheld for more than a year before returning to his usual habits. However, he was able to reduce his swearing. He stopped slouching with his hands in his pockets, temporarily, and started attending church with the Langdons. He even flirted with the idea of quitting smoking, probably because it was what Olivia wanted to hear, writing to his fiancée, "I am reasonably afraid you will stop me from smoking, some day, but if you ever do, you will do it with such happy grace that I shall be swindled into the notion that I didn't want to smoke any more, anyhow!"
In a wry mood, Clemens later said, "After all, what does tobacco matter? Let's have another chapter of Deuteronomy." But he grew tired of the harassment after a time, and wrote, "There's no argument that can have even a feather's weight with me against smoking."
Mark Twain (1907). Underwood & Underwood. Library of Congress.
His smoking certainly caused discord. After a disagreement about his tobacco use, Twain wrote to Olivia about their continuous squabbles on the subject. "I am sure it has caused us both more real suffering than would accrue from smoking a million cigars."
It was after his visit to and a series of humorous newspaper letters about the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) that Twain discovered his monumental talent for live performances on the lecture platform. Lectures by interesting people with interesting experiences were a significant form of entertainment in the 19th century, and Twain was brilliant, enormously popular, and successful. During his engagement he continued lecturing but despised the travel, and often the accommodations. He was happy to sleep just about anywhere he could smoke but was often a guest in the homes of prominent people on his lecture route, and the house rules of those prominent people sometimes irritated him. "I had the hospitality of Mr. Ames ... inflicted on me, and it is the last time I will stop in a New England private house. Their idea of hospitality is to make themselves comfortable first.... No smoking allowed on the premises ... I hate Mr. Ames with all my heart."
He experienced that disappointment often. Today we think that smoking regulations are strict, but the upper crust of society 150 years ago was intolerant of the pastime, as Twain wrote: "At the hospitable mansion where I am a guest, I have to smoke surreptitiously when all are in bed, to save my reputation, and then draw suspicion upon the cat when the family detect the unfamiliar odor. I never was so absurdly proper in the broad light of day in my life ... so far, I am safe; but I am sorry to say that the cat has lost caste."
Twain was unyieldingly convinced that he could not write without tobacco. It was integral to his process. When he was writing The Innocents Abroad in hotels while on tour, shortly before his marriage, an unidentified reporter from the New York Evening Post visited and observed Twain's writing process and its evidentiary trail:
And there was Mark Twain in a little back room, with a sheet-iron stove, a dirty, musty carpet of the cheapest description, a bed, and two or three common chairs. The little drum stove was full of ashes, running over on the zinc sheet; the bed seemed to be unmade for a week, the slops had not been carried out for a fortnight, the room was foul with tobacco smoke, the floor, dirty enough to begin with, was littered with newspapers, from which Twain had cut his letters. Then there were hundreds of pieces of torn manuscripts which had been written and then rejected by the author. A dozen pipes were about the apartment, on the washstand, on the mantel, on the writing table, on the chairs, everywhere that room could be found. And there was tobacco, and tobacco everywhere. One thing, there were no flies. The smoke killed them, and I am now surprised the smoke did not kill me too. Twain would not let a servant come into his room. He would strip down to his suspenders (his coat and vest, of course, being off) and walk back and forward in slippers in his little room and swear and smoke the whole day long.
In February, 1870, Clemens married Olivia Langdon, the love of his life, whom he had first fallen for when seeing a photograph that her brother showed him. As a wedding gift, his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, gave the couple a mansion in Buffalo, and Clemens purchased part-ownership and became editor of the newspaper, the Buffalo Express.
During his 17 months in Buffalo, Twain wrote 60 columns, but this was a period of little substantial writing and he considered his obligation to the newspaper a crushing distraction. Jervis Langdon continued his efforts to improve his son-in-law's decency by offering him $10,000 (today's value: $187,000) to quit drinking and smoking, and Twain rejected the temptation, though it motivated him to reduce his smoking to Sunday afternoons only.
Photo portrait of Mark Twain by A.F. Bradley (1907). Library of Congress.
In 1871, Twain jettisoned all the rules and conditions that he felt had been placed on him in Buffalo. Jervis had died the year before of stomach cancer, and Livy's and Sam's infant son, Langdon, was sickly and needed a new climate. Twain sold his interest in the newspaper and moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut, and began work on Roughing It, a novel about his western adventures. To do so, he had resumed constant smoking, and drinking to his own standards. Later, in 1876, referring to the dark period of trying to fit his habits into the expectations of others, Twain said, "If I had sold myself, I couldn't have written my book, or I couldn't have gone to sleep, but now everything works perfectly well."
By then he was world-famous, a respected, best-selling author, popular lecturer, and he lived in a fabulous mansion in Hartford with a beautiful wife and infant son. He was entering his most powerful years as a writer. As in all lives, though, things got complicated, and Twain's famous cynicism started to become more evident, perhaps magnified by personal tragedy.
His infant son Langdon suddenly died. His had been a premature birth and he was a sickly child, living only 19 months. Twain blamed himself because he had taken Langdon for a carriage ride and upon returning home discovered the baby's blanket had slipped off. Medical arguments to the contrary failed to alter his opinion. Olivia became gravely ill, requiring constant nursing care, and he was permitted to see her only minutes a day. Her health was problematic for the rest of her life.
Even so, the couple added three daughters to their family, Susy, Clara, and Jean. (Clara would, in the 1960s, donate Twain's Peterson pipe to the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, where it rests today, horribly burnt down the side and all over the rim. Twain was not careful with his pipes). Twain's third-floor study in the Hartford house contains a desk and a billiard table, and its ceiling is decorated in the corners with paintings of cigars and pipes. It was while he lived in Hartford that his major works were written, though most of his writing took place while visiting Olivia's sister and her family during summers at Quarry Farm in Elmira, NY.
Assorted photographs of some of Mark Twain's pipes, taken at the Mark Twain museum in Hartford, Connecticut.
Tobacco is integral to many of Twain's works. Smoking has thematic, plot and character implications in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Roughing It, Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, well, the list would take a while. Read Twain and you'll find tobacco.
In Connecticut Yankee, for example, the protagonist, an industrial shop foreman from modern times, finds himself in King Arthur's court and eventually on a knight's quest, on horseback, in full armor. Amusing interactions proceed on the two occasions in the novel when he lights his pipe and sends smoke billowing out of his helmet.
Twain's shorter sketches and tales are redolent with the aroma of tobacco as well. In one particularly amusing piece, called "The Facts Regarding the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," the plot is centered on the physical arrival of a small deformed caricature of the protagonist, his actual conscience, who nags incessantly about tobacco. He is defeated when the narrator receives additional admonitions from a favorite relative until the conscience is lethargic from overuse and able to be destroyed, freeing the protagonist forever from guilt.
This period of literary success is also when Twain's desire to accumulate enormous wealth motivated poor investments, including in the Paige Typesetting Machine. Twain was convinced it would revolutionize the newspaper industry, but it was too delicate, too fragile, and even after years and years of fidgeting, the inventor couldn't get it to work. Twain had invested everything he had and more, and was financially ruined. He was bankrupt.
Mark Twain with Peterson pipe (c. 1906). Steamboattimes.com.
His creditors offered to accept repayment of 50 percent, but Twain refused. He went back on his hated lecture tours, this time around the globe, to pay 100 percent of his debts, which he managed by 1898, but at great personal cost. Just as he was finishing his tour and his finances seemed to be coming into order again, Suzy died of spinal meningitis in the Hartford house, while Jean was in Elmira and the rest of the family was with Twain. Suzy was Twain's favorite and he never recovered. The family did not celebrate Christmas again. They couldn't bear it without Suzy.
Olivia died in 1904, almost destroying Twain, and when Jean died on Christmas Eve, 1909, of an epilectic seizure suffered in the bathtub, it was difficult for him to be amused by life, although his comments were still sought and he managed to entertain. He often felt compelled to comment on his attainment of old age: "As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake."
Mark Twain died on April 21, 1910, at sunset, less than 24 hours after Halley's Comet reached perihelion on its 75-year circuit of the solar system. He'd been born on the comet's previous visit, in 1835, and always said he had come in with Halley's Comet, and would go out with it. He had cut back to four cigars a day at the end, which was an enormous reduction from his usual 30 cigars interlaced with pipes, but he never quit. He was a devoted tobacco enthusiast virtually his entire life, and if he's right about the necessity of the leaf for his writing, without it we would have no Huckleberry Finn, no Tom Sawyer, no Mysterious Stranger, no Pudd'nhead Wilson — we would be absent some of the greatest literature in the world, if not for Mark Twain's tobacco.