A Ghost for Mark Twain


In the early rears of this CENTURY, BUHGKS JOHNSON served as one of the junior editors in the book department of Harper & Brothers. One of his first assignments, and surely his most memorable, was to revise The Mark Twain Library of Humor, which had originally been published in a single volume and which now, under the watchful eyes of Mark himself, was to be fattened up and published in several. Mr. Johnson received no share of the royalties, but a number of other things came his war.

NOT long ago I received from my favorite rarebook dealer a three-volume set which had been on his list of “books wanted ” for several years. All three are in good shape, attractively bound in green and gold, and bear the common title Mark Twain’s Library of Humor, but have individual subtitles: “Men and Things,”"Women and Things,” and “The Primrose Path.” Not only had I failed to find them in any shops, but several Mark Twain bibliographies fail to mention them. Yet I know that they sold, in their heyday, went into more than one printing, and the first edition was bound in red. I ought to know.

Any upstart who raises his hand at this late hour and asserts that he once did ghost writing for Mark Twain is sure to arouse skepticism, and captious folk will suspect that he wailed until all possible corroborators were dead of old age before asserting his claim. Hut those three volumes smiling down at me share my secret and embolden me to disclose it.

In the early years of this century I was employed as a very young man on the editorial staff of Harper & Brothers, with my desk in the book-publishing department. I was frequentlly drafted by the editors of the Magazine and the North American Review to scout for articles, and I regularly contributed to the Magazine — either essays or frivolous verse for “The Editor’s Drawer.”In those days Mark Twain came to Franklin Square almost daily when he was in town. He was a genial visitor, though at the same time a shrewd one, for he kept close watch over his literary properties, following his own precept: “Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.”

I must interrupt myself here to recall Mark Twain as I remember him best in those days: coming briskly up the broad stairs into our spacious office, frequently accompanied by his close friend Mr. Howells. Both wore white suits, and Mr. Clemens with his rumpled white hair, bristling brows, and mustache would be talking, talking, talking, while his gentle companion, slighter of build and with smooth silvery hair and silvery mustache, would be silently taking it in.

One morning when I was passing the entrance stairway, I saw Mark Twain coming in alone, with a half-smoked unlit cigar in his mouth. He called out to me, “Young man, have you got a light?”

I fumbled in my pocket for a match, eager to be of service. He bent his head toward the flame, and my hand shook with anxiety, for the mustache stuck out so far, and the cigar was so short, that I feared I might go down in history as the man who burned off Mark Twain’s mustache.

But we got it lit, and then he looked at me sternly and barked, “Young man, do you smoke?”

I said, “Yes, sir; not very much, sir.”

He said, “Don’t do it; it’s a filthy, expensive habit. I’ve got so I can smoke only dollar cigars.”Then he frowned at me and turned to go to Colonel Harvey’s inner office. I stood there a moment and he called back to me over his shoulder, “Dollar a barrel.”

Among Mark Twain’s literary properties which he had turned over to the House was The Mark Twain Library of Humor, compiled with the assistance, I believe, of Charles Dudley Warner and originally published by the Webster Company in Hartford. It contained extracts from the writings of outstanding American humorists; and because many of them had risen to greater fame since the book had first appeared, permissions to use their copyrighted material had risen in value. It was a fat volume in an unlovely binding, and I first saw it when Mr. Duneka, the general director of all of our departments, called me to his desk and put a copy in my hands.

“We are going to bring out a new and revised edition,”he said, “keeping all of the old contents, but adding enough new matter to bring it up to date and spread it out into several volumes. You are to do the selecting and compiling, in your office time, dropping your other work as far as necessary.”

Evidently I was to reap no financial reward; but of course I was flattered by the assignment and by the knowledge that Mr. Clemens approved. Perhaps Mr. Duneka’s conscience troubled him a little, since I was to receive neither extra pay nor recognition on the title page, for he stopped at my desk one day and told me to be sure to include some of my own stuff. “Something in each volume,”he said, with a generous wave of his hand. I shyly followed his instructions in part, putting rhymes of mine in two of the three volumes. I also reproduced on the flyleaf of each volume the brief preface which appeared in the original book:—


Those selections in this book which are from my own works were made by my two assistant compilers, not by me. That is why there are not more.


And I wished I had courage enough to add another line or two: —

The ghost compiler would have included more of his own stuff if he had had the nerve.


The three first volumes of the new set appeared in due course, each bearing a subtitle dictated by Mr. Duneka on the spur of the moment, and I wish to attest that I had no part in their coinage. Only once, very near the start, did I have any evidence that Mr. Clemens was aware of my labors. He stopped at my desk and said, “Well, how are you getting on?” But when I reached for various flies to answer his question, I found that he had wandered on to other fenced enclosures.

The third volume had gone to press, and I was about to lay out my copy for the fourth, when I had orders to cease and desist; there were to be no more volumes. I questioned Mr. Duneka and he seemed evasive, though he spoke kindly enough of my editing. I inferred, and office gossip supported the notion, that Mr. Clemens had not been consulted about the extension of the work into an unlimited number of volumes and had sharply objected when he learned of it. But I wouldn’t know; those matters were settled at a higher level.

A short time afterward I was invited to a dinner of New York newspaper cartoonists, where Mark Twain was to be the guest of honor. The affair was held at Reisenweber’s, in a long narrow room, with a table extending the length of it and barely space for waiters to circulate between the wall and the backs of the diners’ chairs. The menu card I have it put away somewhere — was a large cardboard folder with an announcement of the place, the hour, and the occasion on the front cover. The first inside page had but one word in enormous type in the center — STEAK; on the opposite page was the one word BEER; the back cover was blank except for the word “Autographs” at the top.

When Mark Twain arrived he was seated at one side of the long table, in the exact center. I watched him sizing up the situation. He liked things to be done right, and this was wrong. He knew that when he arose to speak he must either address the opposite wall or turn his back to half his audience while he talked to the other half. Then I saw him studying the menu. At all dinners he attended there were always fellow guests who would take their menus to him to be autographed, and they were a nuisance. But here was a dinner where all were practically invited to do it. His heavy eyebrows seemed to be bristling. He didn’t like it.

The affair was running its course pleasantly. The cartoonists were their gay selves, and we had come to the dessert course. The cartoonists didn’t wait; they started in procession the length of the room, reaching their cards across the narrow table to Mark Twain for his autograph. Meanwhile his ice cream melted and his coffee grew cold. He so obviously didn’t like it that I felt something would happen. But I didn’t guess what.

I stood up, of course, with all the rest and fell into line. But I felt I could save him from at least one signature; so when I came opposite to him I did not reach out my card, but my neck. I said. “I won’t bother you, Mr. Clemens; I can beg my autograph tomorrow in the office. I’m the editor of the Mark Twain Library of Humor.”

I had provided the last straw, and he began at once to “cuss me out.” I faced all the pent-up wrath accruing from the badly arranged table, the autograph fiends, and whatever difference of opinion he and Duneka had had over that threevolume work. Mark Twain was highly skilled in invective, to state the fact in dignified terms. The procession was stalled; no one at any distance could hear what was said, but it was obvious to all that one of their invited guests had seriously offended the guest of honor.

I must have looked woebegone, whatever that means, for when he stopped improvising and looked up at my face, his own broke into a smile. “I’m sorry,” he said simply, and reached out his hand. “You had your orders and you did a good job.”We shook hands; but all that most of my fellow diners knew was that a guest had insulted their guest of honor in some fashion and had been magnanimously forgiven.

I haven’t the faintest recollection of what Mark Twain’s speech was about. I hope it was a good one. I slipped away from that party early, feeling the I was a marked man.