Scribblin' For a Livin': Mark Twain's Pivotal Period in Buffalo. By Thomas J. Reigstad. Foreword by Neil Schmitz. Prometheus Books, 2013. Pp. 322. Softcover. $19.00. ISBN 978-1-61614-591-0. ISBN 978-1-61614-592-7 (ebook).

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The following review appeared 19 May 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Ten years ago Thomas Reigstad published an article in The Write Word, the journal of the Western New York Writing Project, about Mark Twain's judging schoolgirl essays which Reigstad titled "Readin', Ritin' and Reformin.'" It was only a matter of time before he would strike again and publish a book called Scribblin' For a Livin'. But anybody thinkin' 'bout readin' this book would be makin' a grievous mistake by assumin' that this light-hearted title presages anything less than a serious scholarly work. The scholarship is solid and factual, the sources fresh and new to most Twainians, the illustrations plentiful and perfectly captioned, and the text is readable and engrossing. This is the best book yet published pertaining to Twain's Buffalo years.

Albert Bigelow Paine was the first biographer to write about Twain's Buffalo years (August 1869 to March 1871) and Paine's depiction of those eighteen months and his claim that Twain and Livy were "isolated" and "gloomy" while there has been repeated by biographers ever since (Delancey Ferguson, Justin Kaplan, Fred Kaplan, Jerome Loving, et al). Reigstad does not take a defensive stance about Buffalo, but he effectively refutes Paine's view of those years, and while acknowledging the illnesses, deaths, and discomforts of the final months in Buffalo, he presents abundant evidence of Twain's broad social circle in Buffalo society, his constant flurry of activities, a fairly steady and productive literary output, frequent weekend trips to Elmira, visits by friends and family, and his daily routine. The illustrations seem to include a photograph of every place and person familiar to Twain from his Buffalo days, including two interior views of Twain's Buffalo home and portraits of his fellow reporters, his newspaper co-owners, and others. Reigstad even traces the probable route Twain would have followed each day to and from his newspaper office, describing in detail what Twain would have seen along the way, and includes contemporary photographs of what he describes.

As Reigstad says, "the roll call of names, ghosts from Mark Twain's Buffalo past, adds up to a sizable social register" (p. 19) and he notes that in one hundred years of Twain scholarship just four or five people have been mentioned as Twain's Buffalo acquaintances. Reigstad expands that list of colleagues and neighbors by threefold and provides biographical backgrounds and details of their relationships with Twain, beginning with a tour of Buffalo's Forest Lawn Cemetery where most of them reside today. Being a Buffalo native and having worked at the Buffalo Express himself (albeit some years after Twain left), Reigstad knows Buffalo intimately, and among his sources are interviews with descendents of Twain's friends, and obscure locally printed newspaper and magazine articles about Twain's Buffalo days that are rarely--if ever--cited by other Twain scholars. Most importantly he traces Twain's transition from newspaper writer to magazine writer to book author, a transition that took place largely in Buffalo, leaving no doubt that Buffalo played a pivotal role in Twain's career.

Paine also claimed that Twain's writings for the Buffalo Express were "inconsequential" and for many years that has been the accepted wisdom. Twain reprinted very few of his Buffalo writings during his lifetime with the exception of some stories in Sketches New and Old (1875). A small posthumous gathering of Buffalo writings appeared in 1919 in The Curious Republic of Gondour and Other Whimsical Sketches. Scholar and biographer Arthur L. Scott also dismissed Twain's Buffalo writings but he also attributed some poems to Twain from the Buffalo Express that have since been rejected by the editors of the Mark Twain Papers (MTP). More recently Greg Camfield briefly published a bibliography of Twain's writings online that included his Buffalo Express writings, including the previously ignored "People and Things" columns, but Camfield included Scott's misattributions as well, and overlooked many other pieces identified by the editors at the MTP as being Twain's. Joe McCullough's Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express (1999) gathered many of Twain's writings from the paper, but overlooked many other pieces identified by Camfield and the editors at MTP, and attributed some pieces to Twain without convincing evidence. David Fears's Mark Twain Day by Day simply follows McCullough. Reigstad does not cite any of these sources and consulted microfilms of the Buffalo Express himself and makes no false attributions as far as this reviewer can determine.

Many scholars have been misled over the years into thinking that the pieces in the Buffalo Express printed under the pseudonyms "Carl Byng" and "Hy Slocum" were actually written by Twain, but that possibility has effectively been refuted by editors at MTP, owing much to the research of Leslie Myrick who recovered a February 9, 1876 Buffalo Daily Courier newspaper clipping identifying "Hy Slocum" as Frank M. Thorn, a writer and lawyer from nearby Orchard Park, New York. Reigstad cites this 1876 source, but inadvertently swaps the names and incorrectly states that Carl Byng was identified as Frank Thorn. Carl Byng's identity remains unconfirmed, but Twain himself denied being Carl Byng, and it seems unlikely that Twain who was working very hard to establish his own brand as "Mark Twain" would have diluted his brand by unnecessarily hiding behind another pseudonym for a few minor newspaper scribblin's.

Without claiming to have included every single writing by Twain from the Buffalo Express, Reigstad discusses the most important and interesting pieces, tells the stories of some of their fascinating origins and unfamiliar backgrounds, and includes complete texts of several others in his appendices. Three of Twain's probable writings for the Buffalo Express deserve special note. Reigstad is cautious in attributing to Twain the authorship of the "People and Things" columns that ran for barely over a month in August and September of 1869, but as Reigstad demonstrates, Twain's style is evident when their prose turns poetic, and they simply burst with Twainian one-liners, jazzy humor and comedic riffs. Those sixteen columns contain some buried gems, and Reigstad provides their full texts in Appendix 6 (pp. 231-73). The second body of writings worth noting is the "Police Court" columns which were not written by Twain but by the city editor, Earl D. Berry, who reported directly to Twain. Soon after Twain's arrival those columns were transformed from lackluster factual reporting to satiric, gossipy, comic pieces under Twain's careful editorial eye as he tried to revamp the paper. Only eight lively columns in the style encouraged by Twain appeared in November and December 1869, and when he began spending less time in the office and more time on the lecture circuit, they reverted back to their former dullness, just as the "People and Things" columns had regressed in his absence. The full texts of all eight "Police Court" columns are printed in Appendix 5 (pp. 221-29) and are worth reading for their bright slices of Twain's editorial touch. The third piece of writing is Twain's defense of Jervis Langdon's coal company against the charge of price-gouging ("The Monopoly Speaks," Buffalo Express, August 20, 1869). The Buffalo Express had been anti-monopoly up to that point but Twain reversed its stance 180 degrees, no doubt motivated by his wish to please his soon-to-be father-in-law, and also out of the high regard for his friend and coal company executive, John Slee, who he had met before moving to Buffalo. Slee also wrote a defensive letter, and other newspapers quickly joined in on the controversy, chiding Twain (although not by name) and pondering the possible cause of his paper's abrupt reversal of its position. This was not Twain's finest hour; unfortunately, Reigstad does not include the texts of these letters and the responses.

Twain's days in Buffalo in 1869 and early 1870 reflect an enormous outpouring of energy and enthusiasm, and this is described in detail. Reigstad tracks down where Twain ate, what he ate, who he ate with, how much they drank, where he shopped, how he and Livy decorated their new home, what Twain read, what was on his mind at the time and how he remembered it all decades later. During one seventy-seven day period alone Twain delivered fifty lectures and published twenty pieces in the Buffalo Express. He shamelessly promoted The Innocents Abroad in the columns of the Buffalo Express; got married and moved into the luxurious home given to him and Livy by her father Jervis Langdon (the account given here is fuller and more accurate than any other); signed a contract for another book (Roughing It); began a series of travel letters with Elmira College professor Darius R. Ford (later aborted, but some found their way into Roughing It); began writing for The Galaxy which published his pieces before they appeared in the Buffalo Express and gave him his first steady national magazine exposure; attended dinners; and traveled back and forth to Elmira as Jervis Langdon's health declined. Reigstad also cites some currently unpublished manuscripts that reflect Twain's growing unease with newspaper work (p. 150-51) as the year began.

However, the second half of 1870 did not go well. Livy's father died in August, and Livy's pregnancy was difficult. A friend who came to help her died in their home of typhoid fever in September. Still, Twain made steady progress on writing Roughing It but he also began showing signs of what might be recognized today as manic depression (p. 174). He published his famous "Map of Paris" in the Buffalo Express in September, and his son Langdon was born in November. Despite domestic calamities, Twain's business travel continued and his flow of writing continued as well. By 1871 baby Langdon, born premature and weighing in at less than five pounds, was still failing to thrive, and in February Livy came down with typhoid fever. In the first three months of 1871 Twain's writing finally slowed almost to a halt. The decision was made to sell their home, dispose of Twain's one-third interest in the Buffalo Express, and move from the city. As soon as Livy showed signs of improvement in March they took the four and a half hour train ride to Elmira, and in September the Buffalo house was sold at a modest loss ($1,000). His share of the newspaper had been sold at a huge loss ($10,000), leaving a final bad taste of his Buffalo experience. Twain and Livy's last months in Buffalo were indeed as gloomy (but not nearly so isolated) as Paine had claimed, and Twain wrote a friend that he had come to "loathe" the place. But Twain had come to Buffalo as a newspaper writer who had published one book with mixed success, and a handful of magazine pieces. He made friends that lasted the rest of his life, and when he left Buffalo he had published a bestseller, had established a following in a national magazine, had a third book under contract and well in hand, and had left newspaper writing behind for good.

But Twain's ties to Buffalo were life-long. His first visit had been in 1853 and his last was in 1895. He and Livy owned a one-third interest in some waterfront property inherited from Jervis Langdon's coal business, which was not sold until the month Twain died. He and George W. Cable included Buffalo on their famous lecture tour itinerary in 1884, and in 1885 he gave the manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the Buffalo Library. On his last visit to Buffalo there was surprisingly little left to see of his time there--David Gray, his closest Buffalo friend, was dead, and the Buffalo Express office had moved and the old building had been demolished a few weeks before--so he took a tour of the cemetery, the very place where Reigstad begins his own absorbing narrative.

Besides the extremely useful appendices, the citations of previously under-utilized primary sources, and the stories behind Twain's Buffalo Express writings, this book is extremely well-illustrated with images unfamiliar to most Twainians, all with informative captions. Reigstad's accurate research, combined with his fluid prose, and his easy familiarity with all things Buffaloan, will make this the "go-to" book on Twain's Buffalo years for a long time to come.