Sunday, January 5, 2014

This Day in Literary History (Twain’s Financial Folly)

January 5, 1889—Witnessing what he saw as an advance in movable type, Mark Twain became even more gripped by the irrational exuberance that so often overcame him in money matters. Healthy profits from his prolific writing and extensive lecturing were no longer enough for him; he needed more to sustain his lavish lifestyle. Within a half-dozen years, the master chronicler of what he called “The Gilded Age” would be pushed to the brink of financial ruin.

The author recorded the demonstration breathlessly in a notebook: “EUREKA! Saturday, January 5, 1889-12.20 P.M. At this moment I have seen a line of movable type spaced and justified by machinery! This is the first time in the history of the world that this amazing thing has ever been done. Present: J. W. Paige, the inventor; Charles Davis, Mathematical assistants Earll and mechanical Graham experts Bates, foreman, and S. L. Clemens. This record is made immediately after the prodigious event.”

Two days later he made another note about the “first proper name ever set by this new keyboard”: Shakespeare (which he owned up to misspelling, without one of the e's).

You can see the invention that bewitched and bankrupted the great satirist in the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Visiting the site several years ago, I saw on display the Paige compositor, intended to be the fastest printing machine ever made. Only two models of this 7,550-pound typesetting device were even made, since it failed in pre-production tests. With 18,000 moving parts, the machine is so complicated that it has never been taken apart, for fear it might never be put together again. By his own estimate, Twain sunk $150,000 into the invention over an 11-year period, and some biographers put his losses as high as $300,000. (In today’s currency, estimates run as high as $3 million.)

It was only natural that Twain’s financial folly took root in Hartford. Unlike the present-day capital of Connecticut, the city following the Civil War was bustling, featuring the largest subscription-publishing base in the U.S., as well as the insurance, banking and manufacturing industries. It immediately seized Twain’s affection as "the best built and handsomest town I have ever seen."

A close-knit group of local intellectuals known as Nook Farm centered around a tony suburb just beyond the western boundary of Hartford. Its members included Twain’s journalist friend, Charles Dudley Warner; John Hooker, a descendant of Connecticut's founder; and sisters Isabella and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Nook Farm provided Twain with the appreciation he couldn't find elsewhere on the East Coast. His flamboyant appearance (a matching sealskin coat and hat with the fur outside) and irreverent talk left the literary establishment cold in Boston. But Nook Farm quickly recognized his talent.

Entrance into the Nook Farm circle, however, came with a price. Nearly every member struggled to live up to the living standards of their upscale city. Twain’s house cost $125,000 to build (more than a million dollars in today's terms), soaking up his considerable earnings from books and lectures and his wife's inheritance. (After initial coldness, Twain’s father-in-law, a railroad entrepreneur, had ended up bankrolling their first home in Buffalo, all the way down to paying for uniforms for their butler and coachman. It gave the writer an unfortunate taste for easy living.)

Maintaining the Hartford house and entertaining guests (who regularly received champagne and fillets of beef) taxed Twain's resources. Even worse, technological get-rich-quick schemes were absorbing his earnings without any prospect of reward. (Twain was not enamored of every bit of technology. A closet in the house, for instance, contains a phone—an instrument that bedeviled him. In heights of exasperation, he referred to the operator as "the hello girl," and kept a report card on the wall in the closet to remind the phone company of its shortcomings.)

Twain was involved with one patent that made money, in 1874: a self-pasting scrapbook. Thereafter, he invested in profit-losing enterprise after another: one-handed grape shears, a historical game, a perpetual calendar, a “bed-clasp” for keeping babies’ blankets in place, even a hand grenade that could extinguish fires.

But the compositor got into his blood. Unlike these other products, it involved his passion for print, dating back to his years as a teenage printing apprentice back in Missouri. The invention by New England mechanic-inventor James Paige would have transformed the then-laborious process of preparing words for typing into something more automatic, closer to a typewriter. As an author and principal in a publishing company (one that had recently published Ulysses S. Grant’s acclaimed Personal Memoirs), he saw huge, ongoing value in this.

It was not to be. Instead of providing him with the security that would make him see the novel on which he worked that year, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, as his literary "swan song," the project became a financial sinkhole, prompting the author and would-be venture capitalist to exclaim, “I have never been so desperate in my life, and for good reason, for I haven’t got a penny to my name.” (In the uncensored version of his autobiography, he also desired what he viewed as appropriate retribution for Paige: having his testicles put in a vise.)

The failure of the project forced Twain to sell his cherished 19-room red Hartford mansion—the home where he created Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn—and go on a lecture tour to recoup his fortune and, to his credit, repay other investors in the project. It also inaugurated the final, dark period of his life, as he faced continuing financial problems owing to expired copyrights for his books and the deaths of his beloved wife and two of his three daughters.

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