Mark Twain in
Buffalo, NY - Table of Contents
'My Findings Contradict Some of the Prevailing Myths about Twain’s Buffalo Period'
An Excerpt from
Scribblin'For a Livin': Mark Twain's Pivotal Period in Buffalo
Reprinted with permission
By Thomas J. Reigstad
472 Delaware Street
Another excerpt from
Scribblin' For a Livin': Mark Twain's Pivotal Period in Buffalo
Published by Prometheus Books
This roll call of names, ghosts from Mark Twain’s Buffalo past, adds up to a sizable social register of family and friends who touched Twain’s life in Buffalo. Many of the associations that Twain established in Buffalo continued to be part of his social circle for decades.
Curiously, nearly one hundred years’ worth of biographies and critical studies of Twain typically cite only four or five of these individuals. Almost all the names are routinely ignored.
I noticed this gap as a graduate student at the University of Missouri while writing a paper in Leon T. Dickinson’s seminar on Twain. I grew up in Buffalo and had a dim awareness of Twain’s brush with the city. When delving into Twain’s Buffalo period for my course at Missouri, I realized that books and journal articles consistently wrote off the Buffalo era, describing it as insignificant to Twain’s literary development, as dominated by personal tragedies, and as a period of sparse social contacts and bleak weather.
It seems as though Twain’s first literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine, first set the somewhat low bar in his 1912 biography. According to Paine, Twain and his wife were socially isolated: “Almost the only intimate friends they had in Buffalo were the family of David Gray, the poet–editor of the Courier. . . . They did not mingle much or long with the social life of Buffalo.”
Paine further maintains that Twain’s writing at the Buffalo Express was inconsequential, not equal to the caliber of his recently released The Innocents Abroad, and, in fact, was a kind of artistic backslide toward his earlier writing apprenticeship: “As a whole, the literary result of Mark Twain’s Buffalo period does not reach the high standard of The Innocents Abroad. It was a retrogression—in some measure a return to his earlier form.”
A final sample of Paine’s penchant for categorical statements paints Twain’s Buffalo experience with a broad, damning brush: “On the whole the Buffalo residence was mainly a gloomy one.” Paine’s authority has been accepted for the most part as gospel ever since.
As I continued to investigate this corner of Twain studies in the ensuing years, especially by consulting local archival material and interviewing Western New Yorkers who were descendants of Twain’s Buffalo acquaintances, the long-held low opinion of Buffalo puzzled me. Contrary to prevailing beliefs, I kept unearthing name after name of people with whom Twain worked and socialized in Buffalo. And examining his Express writings suggested to me that, at the least, he was maintaining successful composing formulas from The Innocents Abroad. Nevertheless, the drumbeat of slighting Buffalo, initiated by Paine, rolled on.
In 1943, Delancey Ferguson perpetuated the “friendless” theory (“Nor had Buffalo furnished much in the way of congenial society”), and introduced a new spin toward disrespecting Twain’s Buffalo stay- that is, its weather: “The bleak, sunless Buffalo winter dragged on, and all the high hopes with which Mark had embarked on his undertaking in the Express faded out in the universal grayness.”
Unfortunately, the few existing photos of Twain’s Delaware Street house do not support a bright, sunny, welcoming climate. All of the photos are in black and white and invariably show a stark landscape with either a snowy front yard or barren tree limbs. The Mark Twain Handbook, published fourteen years after Ferguson’s book, also commented on Buffalo as a place lacking social companionship for Twain and Olivia, with an entry on Buffalo as “uncongenial and gloomy; somehow they had never really managed to feel themselves a part of the community.”
In 1969 Arthur L. Scott mirrored Paine’s earlier criticism of the amateur quality of Twain’s Express stories: “His writings for the Express . . . are of little interest.”
A 1966 study, however, seemed to cast the low opinion of Twain’s life in Buffalo in permanent cement. Justin Kaplan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain reiterated the one-two punch of dull society and bad weather as two reasons for Twain’s ultimate discontent with the city: “At best Buffalo had been a city of only mild social diversions for Clemens.”9 Then a few pages later Kaplan calls Twain’s Buffalo a “city of cold winds and hard luck.”
Since that time, into the 1990s, Twain scholars have not departed from the dominant critics’ party line, variously referring to Buffalo as a city with a long winter, as a city for which Twain had no affection, as a tough city to settle into socially, and as a city of clouds.
This attitude toward Twain’s Buffalo period persists into the twenty-first century. Fred Kaplan’s 2003 biography once again blames Buffalo weather as a major cause of Twain’s dissatisfaction with living there: “Sickness had helped make Twain sick of Buffalo. So too had the freezing winter weather.”
As recently as 2010, Jerome Loving pro-claimed Paine-like in his Twain biography that “Buffalo had never pleased him.”
This book is not meant as a defense of Buffalo. As a native of the city, I enjoy experiencing all four seasons but find winters challenging. The winter winds, gray skies, and heavy snowfalls probably contribute to cases of seasonal affective disorder. I am well aware of Buffalo’s collective but undeserved inferiority complex and have found it curious that, in a sense, it carries over to Twain scholarship.
Just as my probing discovered that Twain had a richer social network and more significant literary output than commonly believed, I could not find compelling evidence that Twain hated winters so much that the snow drove him from Buffalo. If anything, Twain seemed favorably disposed to Buffalo’s climate, even embracing its notorious winters.
I aim to tell the story of Twain’s multifaceted affiliation with Buffalo in a full, well-documented fashion based on years of examining records and interviewing key sources. My findings contradict some of the prevailing myths about Twain’s Buffalo period.