In late May 1858, about to disembark with his younger brother Henry as a cub pilot on board the steamboat Pennsylvania, Samuel Clemens, then twenty-two, one day to call himself Mark Twain, had a terrifying precognitive dream.
The future author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884, 1885) later wrote that, in this dream, he “had seen Henry’s corpse. He lay in a metallic burial case. He was dressed in a suit of my clothing, and on his breast lay a great bouquet of flowers, mainly white roses, with a red rose in the center. The casket stood upon a couple of chairs.”
Sam wrenched himself out of sleep. His heart was filled with grief. He was sure Henry’s coffin lay in the next room. He got up, dressed, and went toward the door. But then, “I changed my mind. I thought I could not bear to meet my mother. I thought I would wait awhile and make some preparation for that ordeal.” Clemens actually left the house and walked a block “before it suddenly flashed upon me that there was nothing real about this—it was only a dream.” He ran back, charged up the staircase to the second-floor sitting room, “and was made glad again, because there was no casket there.”
The Pennsylvania cast off for New Orleans later that day, with Sam and Henry on board. On June 3, Sam had a fight with the steamboat’s pilot; he was put off the boat when it arrived at New Orleans. The Pennsylvania continued on its way on June 9, with Henry, aged nineteen, still on board.
Sam obtained a new berth, on the steamboat Lacey. He was back on the Mississippi River by June 11. Two days later, the Lacey’s crew and passengers heard a chilling shout from the shore: “The Pennsylvania is blown up at Ship Island, and a hundred and fifty lives lost!” A boiler had exploded, destroying the steamboat; passengers had been blown into the river, boiled alive, decapitated, impaled. A first report indicated that Henry was among the uninjured. A second stated that he was “hurt beyond help.”
When the Lacey arrived at Memphis, Sam Clemens rushed to the makeshift hospital where his injured brother lay on a mattress among the burned and scalded. Henry had been sleeping above the boilers; he was blown into the air, dropped back on the heated boilers, and bombarded by falling debris.
A local newspaper reported that “on approaching the bedside of the wounded man his [Sam Clemens’s] feelings so much overcame him, at the scalded and emaciated form before him, that he sank to the floor overpowered.” Henry lingered for three days. Then an accidental overdose of morphine—this is one version of his final days—brought on his death.
At the time, the coffins provided for the dead were made of unpainted white pine. A few Memphis ladies collected sixty dollars and brought Henry a metal casket. When Sam arrived to view the body, he found Henry lying in the open coffin dressed in a suit of his older brother’s own clothing. He immediately remembered his dream. Just then, an elderly lady brought a bouquet of white roses with one red rose in the center. She placed it on Henry’s chest.
When several men took the casket to his brother-in-law’s house in St. Louis and were carrying it upstairs, Sam stopped them, as he did not want his mother to see Henry’s face; one side had been distorted by the effects of the drug. When Sam went upstairs, there stood the two chairs he had seen in his dream. Had he come two or three minutes later, the casket would have been resting on those chairs, just as they had in his dream. Thus, by stopping the men, Sam had changed the predictive details of the dream.
Sam Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, had many brushes with the supernatural during his life, but none as spectacular as this, and none so horrible in its outcome. The Missouri-born writer, who would become known as “the American Voltaire,” got used to rubbing shoulders with the beyond. He even developed a theory to explain the mechanics of these psychic encounters: he had a second, “spiritualized,” or “dream,” self.
Twain wrote in 1897 that we have “a spiritualized self which can detach itself and go off upon affairs of its own . . . it and I are one, because we have common memories.” Though in real life Twain was happily married to Olivia “Livy” Langdon, this other self frequently gamboled in dreams and visions with Twain’s platonic sweetheart, an actual woman named Laura Wright whom Twain had known briefly in 1858, and loved, before she disappeared. The author claimed to make daring excursions in the guise of his spiritualized self (we might call it the astral self), including even a highly sexually-charged tryst with an alluring black woman. It would be some years before Mark Twain would accept this other self as a reality, and he almost never mentions it in connection with his precognitive dreams and visions.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born two months premature, on November 30, 1835, in what he called the “almost invisible village” of Florida, Missouri. He just barely survived birth and was frail and sickly and mostly bedridden until he was four. It seemed to his mother that he existed in some kind of dream state that blurred the boundaries between sleeping and wakefulness; for one thing, he constantly sleepwalked. His mother was sure he had the gift of “second sight;” she was all the more sure when Sam’s nine-year-old sister Margaret became seriously ill and the four-year-old boy drifted into Margaret’s bedroom, fiddled with her blanket, then drifted out. This was a gesture of second sight known as “plucking the coverlet” of somebody who is about to die; a few days later, Margaret died. Mark Twain might have said himself, in later years, that this was a first, brief excursion of his spiritualizing self into the future.
In 1839, Sam’s father, in search of better opportunities, relocated his family to the tiny town of Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi. Here Sam lived through many of the fears, pleasures, pranks, and trials with which he would fructify the lives of his two greatest fictional heroes, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In 1848, Sam’s father died; now thirteen, and not only psychic but moody, volatile, and given to rages, he was forced to leave school and become a printer’s apprentice in Hannibal. He went on from this to become a typesetter in Philadelphia, an editor in Virginia City, and a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. On and off between 1857 and 1861, he was a cub pilot and pilot on Mississippi steamboats (from whence he derived his pseudonym, Mark Twain, from the pilot’s cry of “Mark twain!,” or “Measure out two fathoms!”). In 1866, while he was on a visit to Hawaii, the Examiner asked Sam to interview survivors from a nearby shipwreck; he returned to California with such a fund of vivid detail that it formed the core of his later book, Roughing It (1872). Mark Twain had caused a stir in 1865 with his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”; the publication of The Innocents Abroad in 1869 brought him national acclamation. His career as a writer and world-class humorist progressed in leaps and bounds. It would attain its zenith with the publication, in 1889, of the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
One of the ways our spiritualized self expressed itself was by making telepathy possible. Twain took a fierce interest in this process, which he called mental telegraphy. His friend and biographer Alfred Bigelow Paine wrote that, “In thought transference, especially, he had a frank interest—an interest awakened and kept alive by certain phenomena—psychic manifestations we call them now. In his association with Mrs. Clemens, it not infrequently happened that one spoke the other’s thought; or perhaps a long procrastinated letter to a friend would bring an answer as quickly as mailed, but these are things familiar to us all.”
In an article in the December 1891 issue of Harper’s, Twain endorsed the Society for Psychical Research and described some of his own telepathy-related experiences. One took place during a personal visit to Washington, D.C., when he arrived very late. Deborah Blum summarizes the experience in Ghost Hunters: “He knew that a good friend was also planning to be in the Capitol; but ‘I did not propose to hunt for him at midnight, especially since I did not know where he was stopping.’ Although it was late, Twain found himself restless. He went out for a walk, drifted into a cigar shop, and stayed for a while, ‘listening to some bummers discussing national politics.’ Suddenly his friend came back into his mind, with startling specificity. If he left the shop turned left, and walked ten feet, his friend would be standing there. Twain immediately walked out the door and turned left. There was his friend, standing on the edge of a street corner, chatting with another man, delighted to see Twain stepping up to join the conversation. ‘In itself the thing was nothing,’ Twain commented. ‘But to know it would happen so beforehand, wasn’t that really curious?’”
Was it also his astral self, peering forward into the future, that delivered the details of all Twain’s futuristic insights and inventions? Critic Shirley Anne Williams notes that in the novel The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, “Twain’s argument about the power of environment in shaping character” ran directly counter to “prevailing sentiment where the Negro was concerned.” Bobbie Ann Mason shows us that in the novel The American Claimant Twain predicted DNA cloning, fax machines, and photocopiers. Cynthia Ozick points out that the “telelectrophonoscope” we meet in the short story “From the London Times of 1904” greatly resembles a television set. And Malcolm Bradbury suggests that, with the “phrenophones” of Mark Twain’s article “Mental Telegraphy,” we are at the beginning of the Internet era.
Twain did not depend solely on his spiritualized self. He periodically attended séances, often trying to contact his brother Henry. The great Scottish psychic and levitator Daniel Dunglas Home, though largely retired in 1878, agreed to see Twain despite the latter’s publicly aired criticisms of Home. Something—we don’t know what—happened at that first séance to convince Twain of Home’s authenticity. He attended several other séances with the medium in the U.S. and, in 1879, a number in Paris. A strong bond grew up between the two men, severed only by Home’s death in 1886.
His spiritualized travels notwithstanding, Mark Twain, from his twenties on, took an increasingly cynical view of mankind’s religions and mankind itself. “If Christ were here now,” he wrote in a notebook, “there is one thing he would not be—a Christian.” In Concerning the Jews, he declared, “I have no race prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being—that is enough for me, he can’t be any worse.”
In Twain’s Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, the deceased Stormfield chases a comet while on his way to heaven, loses his way, and ends up on the threshold of the heaven of a different planetary species. The gatekeepers have never heard of Earth. To help Stormfield, they get in a balloon, fly across the surface of a gigantic vertical map of the universe, and, after two days of hard work, find our Solar System. It’s a mere smudge, only fly specks; it’s called the Wart. With the help of the gatekeepers, Stormfield finally makes it to our heaven—but Twain has already made his point that our planet and our species are utterly unimportant in the cosmic scheme of things.
A series of personal catastrophes late in life would destroy Mark Twain’s peace of mind and very nearly his soul. They would confirm his belief that man is worthless. They would not ingratiate him to God. Critic Bernard DeVoto explains:
“He had expanded it [the publishing company he founded himself] to publish the memoirs of General Grant, and the over-extended business required better management than Mark could give it. . . The firm faltered, the going got worse, and finally, as a result of the freezing of credit in the panic of 1893, it had to go into receivership. It could have been saved—except that a greater loss had drained Mark’s fortune and his wife’s as well. Always a speculator, . . . he had poured nearly a quarter of a million dollars into the development of an invention that was going to make him many times a millionaire, the Paige typesetting machine. . . .[But it] failed altogether and carried Mark Twain down with it, just at the time when his publishing firm went bankrupt. Furthermore, these same years saw a mysterious alteration in the personality of his youngest daughter, Jean; and finally the terrible mystery was cleared up by the discovery of the still more terrible truth, that she was an epileptic. During these years also his capricious but usually excellent health failed.”
Racked by bronchitis and rheumatism, Twain set out with his wife and middle daughter on a heroic one-year, round-the-world lecturing tour. His goal was to earn enough money to pay off all his creditors dollar for dollar. He al-most—not quite—succeeded. But, as he arrived in London at the end of the tour, the greatest horror of all awaited him: his eldest daughter, Suzy, had died of meningitis at the age of twenty-four after two weeks of terrible suffering.
Twain, in his deepest nature an artist, sought desperately over the next several years for metaphors to contain the appalling pain that all this caused him. But his creative faculties were broken—even his spiritualized self seemed to have fled—and he could scarcely complete a story. Repetitiously, he ground out fragments portraying all humanity as icebound passengers on a frozen ship, lost in an endless Arctic sea, at the mercy of monstrous, capricious, unseen forces—in a state that would go on for all eternity. Finally, Twain’s bleakness lifted slightly, and he completed The Mysterious Stranger, in which we discover that Satan is responsible for everything because, though a malign and criminal being, he is the true face of God. But even this is not true, Satan finally tells the narrator: the universe— including Satan himself—is nothing but a dream that all of us dream separately.
Mark Twain died in his seventy-fifth year, on April 21, 1910, at Stormfield, near Redding, Connecticut. We should not mourn the near-madness and despair of his final years. Rather, we should rejoice at the life of this great man whose magnificent sense of humor brightened the lives—made the day, made the month, made the year—of millions of people, and still does. The tragedy is that he too well exemplified the ancient maxim that behind the laughter of the clown lie tears. But Twain himself might have told us, at least in his younger days, that if our imaginations can create so much more than what seems to be the world, then finally we are masters of the world.