Mark Twain in Washington, D. C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent. By John Muller. Forewords by Donald T. Bliss & Donald A. Ritchie. The History Press, 2013. Pp. 192. Softcover. $19.99. ISBN 978-1-60949-964-8.

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The following review appeared 26 December 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Mark Twain was a traveling man, restless all his life, who carefully cultivated a public image of being indolent, even lazy, but who was in fact very nearly in constant motion from the time he could toddle until his very last days when he disembarked from his last voyage, carried off the ship in an invalid's chair. When he was not moving about on a boat, ship, canoe, train, tram, stage-coach, horse, ass, horse-car, bicycle (briefly), carriage, donkey cart, automobile, or sauntering from one place to another, he was at home pacing around a dinner or billiards table, stewing in his creative juices. He was peripatetic in the original Aristotelian sense, which is to say that he learned as he walked, the world his lyceum. Even when he lived in one place for an extended period of time, as he did in Hartford, his travels continued unabated. Entire books have been written about his travels across the country, around the world, to the Holy Land, his series of visits to Bermuda, and his lecture tours. His domiciles have also been the focus of books and extended articles as well: Hannibal, Keokuk, Muscatine, Virginia City, San Francisco, Hawaii, New York, Buffalo, Hartford, Elmira, London, Berlin, Vienna, London and New York again, and finally Redding. Only Paris and Florence may have escaped becoming the focus of any monographs. Even collections of Mark Twain's writings have been grouped according to where they were written (San Francisco, Virginia City, Muscatine, Buffalo, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C.). To approach a writer through the places he inhabited during his life might seem an artificial, even superficial way to view his literary art, but in Mark Twain's case such an approach is not a contrivance because the one thing all of these places have in common is that they all served up rich broths of culture and characters that were the seasoning in the recipes for his writings. Even a brief stay in one place could have long-lasting implications for Mark Twain's literary art.

Washington, D. C. was just such a place, and John Muller's close examination of Twain's time there from November 22, 1867 to March 10, 1868 (and his many briefer visits before and after) is the first extended study of what this place meant to Mark Twain for both his life and his art. It is easy to say that any place Twain stayed marked some turning point in his life--Twain's passage through life seems crowded with turning points--but in this case the claim is no exaggeration. While in Washington he clerked for a Senator and saw politics from the inside out, building on his experiences with the Nevada Territorial legislature just a few years before. Barely a month after settling in at the capital, he made a side trip to New York where he met his future wife for the first time. It was in Washington where Twain received a letter from Elisha Bliss inviting him to write a book that would become a bestseller and launch his career as an author. Most important, if the seeds of Twain's passion for social reform, contempt for racial injustice, and the corrupting influence of politics were planted in Nevada and California, they sprouted and took root in Washington, D. C.

The District of Columbia of Twain's day was a shabby, shoddy, unkempt place, with an odd assortment of grand colonnaded buildings separated by unpaved roads and broad weedy fields. Alexis de Tocqueville called it an "arid plain scorched by the sun . . . [with] two or three sumptuous edifices . . ." and Charles Dickens noted "spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere . . . that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants . . ." (26-27). Twain confirmed those foreign impressions and complained of muddy streets and slow omnibuses that did not stop for passengers. He complimented a statue of Andrew Jackson but thought the Washington Monument (then under construction) resembled an "ungainly old chimney." Contemporary illustrations of Jackson's equestrian statue, the half-finished Washington Monument, and other things Twain saw are generously sprinkled through Muller's text, confirming Twain's reports.

In the third chapter Muller reveals his discovery of a 1,700 word article that appeared in the New York Times just one week after Twain's arrival in Washington, purportedly written by somebody who had just arrived in Washington and echoing Twain's impressions and giving a self-deprecating comical account of an unsuccessful interview with General Grant. The timing, tone, humor, vocabulary, and a striking similarity to Twain's "Concerning Gen. Grant's Intentions" published one year later, all make Twain a prime suspect as the author of this letter. As if the internal evidence was not enough, this article was reprinted in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph on 30 November 1867 with the unambiguous byline "By Mark Twain" prompting the question "What did that Philadelphia editor know and when did he know it?" There are reasons why Twain would not have wanted his own nom de plume attached to this article during his first week in the city, and it is signed with the pen name "Scupper Nong." Scuppernong is a type of grape grown in the south from which wine is made, named after a North Carolina lake and river where the grapes grow. But the author of this article cleaved that name in twain, shaping it a nom de plume with an entirely different meaning ("nong" was nineteenth century slang for "idiot") that echoes the insulting meaning of the name assigned to a character ("Lee Scupper") in a burlesque that appeared in Vanity Fair in January 1861, which also contained a character named "Mark Twain." This reviewer has proposed that Vanity Fair burlesque as the probable source of Sam Clemens's famous nom de plume (Mark Twain Journal 50:1/2, Spring-Fall, 2012), and John Muller's independent research provides further evidence that suggests Twain was familiar with that Vanity Fair sketch and willing to use it as inspiration for the "Scupper Nong" nom de plume.

The brief partnership of Twain and William Swinton is explored in detail. Swinton and Twain joined forces and formed a newspaper "syndicate" through which they hoped to make extra money by sending their reports on Washington, D. C. to several newspapers at once (twelve newspapers taking two letters a week at $1 each). Swinton is an interesting character in his own right. He had written a playful book about language with the help of Walt Whitman, published in 1859, and during the Civil War he was imbedded with General Grant's troops where he was caught "eavesdropping." He was given a warning, but a short time later he offended General Burnside in some way and was ordered by Burnside to be executed by a firing-squad that very afternoon, only to be saved by a last minute reprieve from General Grant. Hiding Swinton's identity as "William Clinton" Twain gives an entertaining account of their "original first Newspaper Syndicate on the planet" in one of his autobiographical chapters published in the North American Review in 1907. Twain mentions that they drank a lot, and they may or may not have sold another man's dog to General Nelson Miles.

Muller also presents a well-documented survey of the boarding houses where Twain stayed during his months in Washington. Twain moved five times during his brief stay, and Muller gathers evidence from Twain's letters, contemporary newspapers, and accounts by others, to reconstruct Twain's often precarious living arrangements. Twain may later have been beloved by his readers, but not all of his Washington landlords shared that affection. Muller also uncovers a popular Washington bookstore that advertised The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County for sale, and gives a good account of Twain's frustrating dealings with Charles Henry Webb, his western friend and publisher of that first book. He also presents a good discussion of Twain's journalist buddy John Henry Riley who gathered notes for a book Twain planned to write on South African diamond mines that was aborted after Riley's untimely death.

Twain had launched his lecture career before arriving in Washington, but his first Washington lecture was almost an accident. One morning while reading the newspaper he found to his astonishment that Mark Twain was being advertised to give a lecture that same evening. Rather than publicly explain that he had made no such agreement (he later claimed that an unnamed drunken friend had made the announcement and he did not want to embarrass this friend), he worked quickly to polish off a piece, delivered it, and got favorable reviews. He delivered a toast at the Washington Newspaper Correspondents' Club's annual banquet, also a success, and just a few weeks before leaving Washington he gave a lecture at the Ladies' Union Benevolent Society. As he does elsewhere in his book, Muller skillfully combines contemporary sources and modern illustrations to enliven his accounts of these lectures.

Muller catalogues Twain's misadventures (real and imagined) in Washington, tells the story of the recently formed Washington Newspaper Correspondents' Club, and does a masterful piece of research to document and explain the folklore behind the newspapers stories that circulated about George Washington's innumerable aged body servants. Twain's own sketch on that topic, "General Washington's Negro Body-Servant" appeared in The Galaxy the month before Twain left Washington, and is considered one of his minor pieces. But there's much more to the story, as Muller reveals, providing other accounts of the endless parade of elderly African Americans who popped up in all corners of the country all claiming, one after another, to have been Washington's personal valet (slave). They were all frauds of course, but newspaper editors went along, sometimes with tongue in cheek, and sometimes just to create a sensation and sell papers. Nine years before Twain's own piece, one editor had predicted that these immortal body-servants would still be surfacing at the end of the twentieth century, and with Muller's amply documented context provided, the full force of Twain's satire can be appreciated.

This narrative of Twain's years in the nation's capital concludes with the fullest account yet published on Twain's relationship with Maryland journalist and author, George Alfred Townsend (aka "Gath"). Almost forgotten today, the prolific Gath is worth some attention. He is remembered as a regional author when he is remembered at all, but his Civil War reporting and his writings on the assassination of President Lincoln are noteworthy, and Muller's account of Gath beating the stuffing out of fellow journalist who had libeled him makes for good reading. Twain thought enough of Gath to write a blurb for one of Gath's books, and when Twain found himself in Washington on business in 1871 he accompanied Gath and his old friend from his Buffalo Express days, David Gray, for a formal portrait at Matthew Brady's studio. Muller even reproduces Brady's logbook where each of them signed in for that sitting.

Muller's account leaves off with Twain visiting Washington again in 1906 to testify before a Congressional Committee on copyright, the same dramatic moment that Michael Shelden chose to launch his recent biography of Mark Twain. Muller's publisher allowed room for a good bibliography and index, but no endnotes. Fortunately, Muller identifies his sources as he narrates these Washington years and gracefully weaves them into the text, and he has saved his documentation in a large digital file (500 endnotes numbering approximately 10,000 words) that this reviewer hopes can eventually be posted online. But even without the endnotes, Muller's careful research, hard facts, well-chosen illustrations, and fresh discoveries bring Twain's Washington period back to life.