Shuggie Bain, Mark Twain and an unforgettable dinner party in New York, Struan Stevenson:


We should note another working-class literary genius from across the pond as we celebrate the awarding of the Booker Prize to the modern classic Shuggie Bain by Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart. The 185th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, alias Mark Twain, who was born in 1835, was celebrated on Monday, Nov. 30.

With his popular novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Pudd’nhead Wilson and Huckleberry Finn, he has been named the ‘father of American literature.’ One of the great literary activities of the early 20th century was Clemens’ 70th birthday, celebrated on November 24, 1905, at the famed Delmonico’s Restaurant on 44th Street in New York. The hundredth. His editor, Colonel George Harvey, organised and paid for it, and 170 guests were treated to a sumptuous 12-course meal washed down with gallons of champagne and whiskey.

Scotch was Clemens’s favorite drama. Clemens frequently sent barrels of high-end whisky as presents to Andrew Carnegie, the millionaire Scottish-born industrialist and philanthropist who was a guest at the dinner. “The whisky arrived in due course from across the water; last week a bottle of it was taken out of the wood and put into me, according to the installment plan … With the result that I believe it to be the best and smoothest whisky now available.”The whisky came from across the water in due course; a bottle of it was taken from the wood last week and put into me, according to the installment plan… As a result, I believe it is the best and smoothest whisky now available.

The guest list of the party, composed of contemporaries and friends of Clemens, revealed much about this remarkable man. Almost half of the guests were women, remarkably for the time. They were not simply the male guests’ wives or partners. On the contrary, Twain’s contempt for chauvinism and sexism and his love of equality were talented and renowned women authors, many of them young, ambitious writers. Twain had been the voice of a young nation as an outspoken anti-imperialist and advocate of women’s suffrage, women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and the emancipation of slaves.

In a small cabin in the tiny village of Florida, Missouri, Samuel Clemens was born two months early. Little Sammy was the sickly second youngest of seven siblings, only four of whom lived to adulthood, the son of a strict and oppressive father, John Clemens, a justice of peace who seldom smiled, and a gregarious mother, Jane, who enjoyed storytelling, dancing, and village life. When Little Sammy was four years old, the family moved northwest to the small port town of Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, which later became the setting for some of the most popular novels by Mark Twain, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Shortly after his appointment as a justice of the peace, or local judge, Samuel’s father died. As a printer’s apprentice, Samuel’s older brother Orion was sent to St. Louis to make a living and send money home to keep the Clemens family afloat.

Samuel Clemens left school at the age of 15 and got a job at the Missouri Courier as a printer’s apprentice before his older brother returned to Hannibal and purchased The Hannibal Magazine, the local newspaper, and offered young Sam a job writing humorous sketches and poetry. He was making decent money out of his writing by the time Sam turned 21 and he was excited to explore the world. On the first leg of a scheduled trip to Brazil, he boarded a Mississippi River steamer. His passion for life on the river, however, convinced young Sam that he ought to learn to be a steamer pilot. By listening to pilots call out words like “quarter twain,” “half-twain,” and “mark twain,” the latter denoting a safe depth, he learned to judge the depth of the river. That became his pseudonym’s inspiration.

When the Civil War broke out in 1860, he was just embarking on a career on the river, abruptly ending all trade on the Mississippi. Sam made his way west to Nevada, where he unsuccessfully tried his hand at silver mining, but eventually put his true abilities as a writer to work at the Territorial Enterprise, the first newspaper in Nevada, where he started using the pseudonym Mark Twain, in a full-time role. His reputation grew and his earnings grew with it, but his wanderlust forced him to return to San Francisco again, this time, where he took a lucrative job at the Morning Calling, even though he had fallen out with the editor and had been fired. Twain was in prison for drunkenness when reports unexpectedly came that there was a story


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