Tonawanda News

February 28, 2013

Kenmore scholar digs into Mark Twain's days in Buffalo

By Ed Adamczyk
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Most of us recall Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain, lived in Buffalo for a short time, from 1869-71. 

The biographies and histories suggest little of note happened to him here before he moved to Hartford, Conn. Marriage, yes, to the daughter of a coal baron, but historians Delancey Ferguson and Justin Kaplan, in 1943 and 1966 biographies, respectively, mention cold weather, few friends and mediocre newspaper writing as the only connection between Twain and Buffalo. 

That has been the prevailing assumption, until now.

Enter Thomas Reigstad, semi-retired Buffalo State College English teacher of 26 years, lifelong local resident, Twain scholar and author of “Scribblin’ for a Livin’— Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo” to demolish that theory.

The newly—published book is a vivid picture of Samuel Clemens, a cranky, ambitious thirtysomething of a man with a growing readership, one foot in literature and the other in the newspaper business. It’s also a remarkable view of Buffalo as it turned from frontier town to boom town. The exhaustive research has become the sort of book a reader might expect when an English professor writes history.

“He rubbed shoulder with the big ones,” Reigstad said of Twain over coffee. 

Contrary to earlier reports, Reigstad says, Clemens did not develop cabin fever, did not hate Buffalo and wrote plentythat was memorable during his stay here. Coming off his first best-seller, “The Innocents Abroad,” he arrived in Buffalo to help run the Buffalo Morning Express, one of nearly a dozen local daily newspapers at the time. In 1870 he married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of businessman Jervis Langdon, and settled down in Buffalo; his father-in-law also loaned him the stake to invest in the newspaper.

A downtown boardinghouse, his first residence in Buffalo, was a hotbed of networking for young, ambitious business types, and as newspaper editor Clemens met Albrights, Sternbergs and other Buffalo high-rollers. An aging Millard Fillmore as well, of whom Clemens did not think highly.

Despite previously published reports, this egocentric master of self-promotion got on well with the rich men of the city, and here developed a life plan that almost worked: get paid to write and to be Mark Twain, then invest the spoils in businesses. That last part was his undoing, his admiration for capitalism notwithstanding.

The book is Reigstad’s first, after numerous essays and presentations on Twain, and generally a lifetime of living under Twain’s influence. Early in the book we tour Forest Lawn Cemetery. To toss a rock at the gravesite of every captain of industry, Twain knew we’d need several dozen rocks.

Reigstad, 65, of Kenmore, has been following Twain around town in another way. His resume includes a career at the Buffalo Courier-Express, the successor to Twain’s newspaper, a stint at a sports magazine, and later contributions to a business publication, headquartered at 472 Delaware Ave., the address of Twain’s since-demolished home in Buffalo. Some summer evenings Reigstad can be found watching baseball, specifically the Buffalo Bisons, whose third-base line is on the site of that white-collar boardinghouse in which Twain resided.

Reigstad here combines assumed common knowledge with research. Mark Twain’s Buffalo experiences were not a footnote but a pivotal part in his life. He arrived as a bachelor, intent on upending the newspaper business, and left a husband and father, pinning his ambition on literature instead of journalism.

“He bumped his game up, a little bit,” says Reigstad of Twain’s stay in Buffalo.

The book’s appendix includes columns and anecdotes not available since Twain wrote them for the Buffalo Morning-Express.

“These discoveries were unreprinted articles, not seen since they appeared in the 1800s,” Reigstad says of the commentaries, wisecracks and outright lies Twain published. Many could have served as one-liners for the era’s stand-up comics, had that genre been part of the era’s entertainment.

Asked about a “modern-day Mark Twain,” Reigstad quickly mentions Garrison Keiller, for poking “gentle fun at things and insightful comments on American culture,” as well as Jon Stewart.

“Twain could be satirical. He could be a skeptic on (institutions such as) religion, imperialism, the big, organizational things.” 

Reigstad admits “a lot of questions remain unanswered in the book,” but a few big ones are resolved. There are a number of people who influenced, and were influenced by, Buffalo — historians tend to diminish the relevance of those days, he said.