Item #2489 Autograph Letter Signed. MARK TWAIN, SAMUEL L. CLEMENS.
Autograph Letter Signed
Autograph Letter Signed
Autograph Letter Signed
Autograph Letter Signed
Autograph Letter Signed

Autograph Letter Signed

"Clemens, a hand compositor in his youth, had believed that a mechanical compositor was beyond the realm of possibility. In 1880, though, he invested $2,000 in Paige’s early typesetter and soon fell under Paige’s spell. They both dreamed of immense wealth and to be generated by selling thousands of machines. Clemens’ fame as an author and humourist lent a certain aura to the proceedings. […] They were blind to the facts that Paige’s machine was simply too complex, too expensive and too late to be of any practical use at newspapers and other printing offices. Regardless of the aura accompanying Clemens’ extensive involvement, the state of the art in printing inexorably passed over the Paige Compositor.” – Corban Goble, “Mark Twain’s Nemesis: The Paige Compositor”, pp. 3; 2


The impact of the Paige typesetting machine on Mark Twain’s life cannot be overstated. Awed by the prospect of the biggest revolution in textual history since the Gutenburg Press, Twain held faith in the machine’s potential despite many warning signs, notably persistent breakdowns of Paige’s machine and the advent of Linotype. Why did Twain refuse to let go of this dream? “[P]erhaps, in the end, the Paige typesetting machine was simply the best tall tale he’d ever heard,” writes critic Ron Powers, arguing that the financial decline in Twain’s life resulting from his misjudged investment of his own wealth and his wife Olivia’s inheritance (along with a series of personal tragedies including the loss of his wife and two of his daughters in the decade following 1895) correspond directly with a diminution in his characteristic wit and levity (Powers, Mark Twain: A Life, p. 437). And thus the Paige typesetting machine’s ultimate failure marks a solemn turning point in Twain’s life, a turning point witnessed by this very letter.

By 1895, Samuel L. Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) was reckoning with a series of unfortunate financial investments made within the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In July of that year, he began a world-wide series of paid engagements and lectures to pay off his debts, during which he would circumnavigate the globe in the span of a year. This letter, penned in Vancouver on August 19 1895 during the first leg of the journey, details intimately one such failed investment—and provides a unique look into how Clemens was responding to these difficulties in real-time and on a personal level.

The Paige Compositor, a new typesetting machine, was invented by James W. Paige by 1888. However, it would soon be outmoded by the more reliable and cost-efficient Linotype machine—but not before receiving significant investment (nearly $300,000, approximately $6 million today) from Clemens. Clemens held a lifelong fascination with technological innovation, and even worked as a printer-typesetter before his stint piloting riverboats (the occupation which inspired his now famous pen-name). But the vision he had for this particular invention and the faith he placed in the Paige Manufacturing Company proved to be another contributing factor to his financial woes—in addition to the bankruptcy of his publishing house, Charles L. Webster & Co., in 1894.

“I was utterly amazed,” writes Clemens, “when they returned my royalties and coolly progressed to gobble my stock,” charting the perceived mismanagement of his stakes in the Paige Manufacturing Company following its collapse (and witnessing perhaps the first time the word “gobble” has been applied to stock trading). Clemens is seen fighting for power and agency over what he sees as bureaucratic manipulation. “The word shall does not occur. I am wholly free,” he avers to McCullough, as he attempts to turn the tables against the company by arguing, in the same legalistic jargon, that it is in fact he who can “compel the other party” to respect his decisions. “They can compel me to nothing.”

With Clemens invoking the “powerful help” of Henry Huttleston Rogers, head of the Standard Oil Company who supported the Clemens family personally and financially, the recipient of this letter is another of the allies whom Clemens came to rely upon in his later years. The ‘John’ to whom the letter is addressed could feasibly be John Hay, US ambassador and writer who become a close friend of Clemens’ in their later years. Abstaining from public office between 1881 and 1897, Hay, with his years of diplomatic and legalistic experience, would have been well positioned to act on Clemens’ call to “bring suit” and consult with Rogers should they have deemed that Clemens’ indeed had been swindled. Twain’s precise complaint as expressed in this letter is not referenced in the swathes of Twain scholarship and its outcome is uncertain, thus making this letter the more rare and insightful. However, what is clear is that the effort to save himself further impecuniosity ultimately proved unfruitful.

The only surviving Paige typesetting machine is showcased in the very house in Hartford, Connecticut that the Clemenses had to vacate—now the Mark Twain House and Museum—due to his financial troubles (with a second machine having been turned to scrap during the Second World War). The emotion behind Clemens’s impetus to tour the world and continue writing as preserved in this letter gives new colour to the products of Clemens’ twilight years—including Following the Equator (1897), inspired by his travels in India, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), Twain’s final novel. Thus, this letter adds precious value to both the narrative of industrial printing history as well as the literary output of one of America’s most beloved authors.

Size as visible through frame: 128 x 205 mm (5.0 x 8.1 inches)

One letter written on the rectos and versos of two leaves, for a total of four pages. Text (including date and location) is legible throughout; minor browning on the edge of the first folio, some crease marks visible. Handsomely framed with all pages visible. Handwritten in ink, with clear ’S.L. Clemens’ signature on the final leaf.

Transcription (Semi-diplomatic):

Vancouver, August 19, 1895.

Dear John:

When the Paige M[anu]f[acture] Co[mpany] was organized in New York in January ’94, it bought of me 150 royalties (of $1 each on each machine) for $150,000 of the Company’s stock. Last fall said Co. retired from business [and] its effects were taken over by a new company. The new Co. exchanged its stocks for the old Co.’s stock at the rate of 1 share (new) for 10 shares (old). I supposed I was going to get $15,000 new stock for my $150,000 old; but instead, my 150 royalties were returned to me – and there [?we] end! I was astonished. It was claimed that the paper signed by me about Jan. 27/’94 gave those people this privilege, if they should so elect, whereas my strong impression was that the option lay with me, not with them.

I have been reading said clause 3 very carefully this morning, and have just written my friend H. H. Rogers of the Standard Oil Co., 26 Broadway, as follows:

“In clause third the party of the second part covenants and agrees (that is, solemnly promises) to return me my royalties IF I surrender my stock and make the demand.

“There is no compulsion upon me. The word shall does not occur. I am left wholly free. I can surrender my stock or keep it, just as I please. There is nothing in the paper which can force me to make the exchange.

“IF I surrender my stock I can compel the other party to keep their covenant and restore to me my royalties. They can compel me to nothing; power to compel is vested in me, alone.

“Now I have never surrendered my stock, and have never offered to.

“ I was utterly amazed when they retuned my royalties and coolly progressed to gobble my stock. It seemed to me that I must have signed a paper without comprehending its meaning. But it seems plain, now, that I did understand its meaning, and that that cool shutting of the door in my face was a clean cold attempt to rob me. Examine clause third closely, and I think it will mean to you just what it means to me.”

{f. 4r} And I propose to put the matter in your hands and bring suit, if my reading of clause third is correct. Won’t you consult with Mr. Rogers and get his powerful help? The stock was in Mrs. Clemens’s name, and as Mr. Rogers has a full power of attorney for her, he can act for her just as if she were present.

CLAUSE 3. “If the party of the second part shall elect to abandon the manufacture of said machines . . . . . [and] shall surrender the said patents, etc., to said Paige, then in that event the party of the second part agrees and covenants to reassign and invest by a good and sufficient instrument in writing the said agreement and royalty and interest in said patents to and in the party of the first part, upon the surrender and return of said shares of stock.

Does that look as if I am obliged to make the exchange? They merely promise to do certain things in case I select to do certain other things.

Yours sincerely,
S L Clemens

Price: $27,500 .

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