By Paul Lane
The Tonawanda News
— Samuel Clemens rubbed elbows with many of the early Buffalonians who eventually gave their names to our buildings and thoroughfares — George Urban, Millard Fillmore and John Albright among them.
But the man who would become Mark Twain was never really one of them. He spent about a year and a half in Buffalo as a co-editor and co-owner of the Buffalo Express (later part of the Buffalo Courier-Express). But a good chunk of that time was spent on various trains out of town on a national lecture. And, while Clemens bought his first house on Delaware Avenue after getting married in 1870, he and his new bride spent a good deal of time in her hometown of Elmira tending to his father-in-law, who ended up dying after a lengthy illness.
Even when he was home, Clemens was usually surrounded by calamity — like the harsh pregnancy his wife endured before delivering their son, who ended up dying in his infancy. So that — combined with his longing to pen manuscripts that would become "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" and "The Prince and the Pauper," among others — understandably compelled him to put his home on the market within 18 months of moving.
By his own words, Clemens had grown "at last to loathe Buffalo." All of this, in turn, has led biographers to dismiss his Western New York days as insignificant — if anything, actually, detrimental to his development as a writer.
Former University at Buffalo professor Thomas Reigstad disagrees. In "Scribblin' for a Livin'," he used Clemens' writing, existing works detailing those times and interviews with family members who are still here to offer what he considers a more complete picture of Clemens' too-brief time in this region. The result is a masterful account of history that's eloquently written and more detailed than anyone could hope for.
Clemens was wrangled into the newspaper business (what he referred to as "scribbling") by the family he was marrying into. His one-third ownership of the Express was ponied up in August 1869, at which time he began a feverish six-week stretch of writing that saw him spend 12 hours or more per day at the paper. He brought about numerous journalistic and stylistic changes at the paper, including the implementation of a societal notes column and a humorous interpretation of court reports. He also became a periphery member of high society, befriending or otherwise coming to know many of the main players in what was one of the nation's premier boom towns of the 19th century.
He had previously agreed to a lecture tour that fall and winter, which he had to fulfill after being unable to work his way out of it. He hit the road with high hopes for penning frequent travel-themed stories for the paper, but the brutalities of travel in those days, combined with illness, dimmed the light of his pen more with every passing week.
Clemens never fully regained his passion for newspaper writing even after his marriage and occupation of 472 Delaware Ave.. He'd already written a few fairly successful books and had several more ideas either partially written or still brewing in his brain. He found newspaper writing to be limiting, wishing to reach higher plateaus as a writer.
So the personal tragedies that accompanied this word lust proved to be too much for him (not to mention the crippling taxes he loathed paying in Buffalo). He moved his family to Elmira so he could finish manuscripts in the peace a farm setting provided. He only returned a few times for various business ventures, turning down many requests by old friends to appear at speaking engagements.
The facts surrounding Clemens' departure from Buffalo are what the are. But Reigstad paints a more forgiving picture of the circumstances surrounding those facts, trying to clear the name of a region that, evidently, has been the butt of the nation's jokes even when it was thriving more than a century ago.
He does an admirable job sticking up for Western New York. But perhaps the best part of the book is the series of appendices he provides. Most of Clemens' newspaper clips form the Express are included. Many of those have never been reprinted, allowing the reader a rare glimpse into the mind of a literary genius during his formative days (and a chance to study some of Clemens' literary tendencies that have been ceaselessly analyzed in his greater works).
Clemens, in spite of his own words, didn't really hate Buffalo — he donated an original manuscript of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to the Buffalo Library, after all. Reigstad realizes this and presents a compelling, and beautifully written, argument stating his case. This book is, plain and simply, a must-read.
• WHAT: "Scribblin' for a Livin' " • BY: Thomas Reigstad • GRADE: A
Contact Paul Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org.