DID SAM CLEMENS WRITE "LEARNING GRAMMAR"?
Edgar M. Branch
A persistent but substantial tradition places Sam Clemens as a twenty-year-old printer in the town of Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois, for a few weeks in late 1855 or early 1856. To this day Warsaw residents and historians believe that he set type for a town newspaper during that time and that he came to Warsaw following a quarrel with his brother Orion, who had been his boss since mid-1855 in the Ben Franklin Book and Job Office directly across the river in Keokuk, Iowa.1 Lending plausibility to this belief is the following dialect letter from "Thomas Jefferson Sole" entitled "Learning Grammar." It appears on page 4 of the Warsaw Express and Journal of the People for either 10 or 17 January 1856—confusion in the microfilming makes a determination of the exact date uncertain.
Mr. Editor.—I have been sendin’ my dater Nancy to school to a schoolmaster in this naborhood. Last Friday I went over to the school just to see how Nancy was gettin’ along, and I sees things I didn’t like by no means. The schoolmaster was larnin’ her things entirely out of the line of eddycation and as I think improper. I set awhile in the schoolhouse and heered one class say their lesson. They was a spellen, and I thot spelled quite exceedingly. Then cum Nancy’s turn to say her lesson—She said it very spry. I was shot! and determined she should leave that school. I have heered that grammer was an uncommon fine studdy, but I don’t [want] any more grammer about my house. The lesson that Nancy sed was nothin’ but the foolishest kind uv talk, the ridiclessluy talk you ever seed. She got up and the first word she sed was
I looked rite at her hard for doing so improper but she went rite on and sed,
and I reckon you never heard such a riggamyrole in your life—love, love, love, and nothing but love. She said one time:
I did love
Sez I, "who did you love?" Then the scholars laffed, but I wosn’t to be put off, and I sed, "who did you love, Nancy? I want to know—who did you love?" The schoolmaster, Mr. McQuillister, put in and said he would explane when Nancy finished the lesson. This sorter pacyfied me
and Nancy went on with awful love talk. It got wus and wus every word.—She sed:
I might could or would love.
I stopped her again and I reckon I would see about that, and told her to walk out of that house. The schoolmaster tried to interfere, but I wouldn’t let him say a word. He sed I was a fool and I nockt him down and make him hollar in short order. I taukt the strate thing to him. I told him Ide show him how hede larn my dater grammer.
I got the nabors together and we sent Mr. McQuillister off in a hurry, and I reckon tharl be no more grammer teechin in these parts soon. If you know of any rather oldish man in your r[e]egen that doant teach grammer, we wood be glad if you wood send him up. But in the footure we will be kerful how we employ men. Young schoolmasters wont do, especially if they teeches gramer. Its a bad thing for morals.
Yours till deth,
Thomas Jefferson Sole
"Thomas Jefferson," the first two words of the signature seen above, immediately bring to mind Clemens’ pseudonym "Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass." Only nine months after the appearance of "Learning Grammar," he initially employed that pen-name in the first of three Snodgrass dialect letters published in the Keokuk Saturday Post for 18 October 1856. Sole, like Snodgrass (and, to be sure, like other such comic newspaper characters) is a country bumpkin—garrulous, naive, opinionated, self-revealing, and sometimes crudely direct in his actions—whose writing is liberally sprinkled with misspellings and dialect forms. The surname "Sole," like the name "Thomas Jefferson," brings to mind a pen-name Clemens used later, namely, "Soleather." Clemens adopted that pseudonym for his sketch "Soleather Cultivates His Taste for Music" published in the New Orleans Daily Crescent for 21 July 1859.2 In 1856 the name "Sole" may have had a special meaning for the youthful printer temporarily transplanted to Warsaw and hence separated from his brothers Orion and Henry still in Keokuk—if that, indeed, was actually his situation then.
The owner and editor of the Warsaw Express and Journal in which "Learning Grammar" appeared was James McKee, a veteran Illinois journalist. From 1847 to 1850 he had edited the Nauvoo Patriot. In 1850 he purchased the Warsaw Signal and transformed it into the Commercial Journal, running that paper for three years before selling out. On 20 April 1855, McKee reappeared in Warsaw as proprietor of the new Journal of the People. Three months later he became the proprietor of the Warsaw Express as well, and then merged the two newspapers into
the Express and Journal.3
McKee’s prominence as a newspaperman may have been one reason that he was invited to the 1856 Keokuk Printer’s Festival, the occasion for Sam Clemens’ first’ after dinner speech. This gathering of about sixty printers, probably sponsored by the Keokuk local union, was held at the Ivins House on the night of January 17 ("Learning Grammar" had appeared that day or a week before) to commemorate Benjamin Franklin’s birthday. McKee, who was present, noted in his appreciative write-up of the affair that it was "the first Printers’ [Festival] west of the Mississippi above [St. Lou]is." He also recorded that "After the was [cleared,] the ‘Original Packages’ were opened and discussed, and speeches, [wisdom,] sentiment, wit, repartee and song, [flowed] as freely as the wine"4—until 4 a.m. Orion Clemens had been elected secretary pro tern for the proceedings, and no doubt Orion prepared the detailed account of the "glorious affair" for the Keokuk Daily Gate City.5 He noted that in response to the toast to "The Editorial Profession . . . Mr. McKee of the Warsaw Express, had been appointed to speak, but excused himself." Later in the evening, however, perhaps sufficiently fortified by—or recovered from—his bibulous rendezvous with the "Original Packages," McKee gave the toast to Keokuk and Warsaw: Sister cities of sister States, may they press towards each other until they shake hands over the Father of Rivers," Answering the next toast, to "The Job Printing Business," was Sam Clemens who, Orion wrote, "was loudly and repeatedly called for, and responded in a speech replete with wit and humor, being interrupted by long continued bursts of applause."6 Evidently the young man was already known for his "wit and humor." Conceivably that reputation may have been connected with the appearance of "Learning Grammar" in McKee’s newspaper—if Sam Clemens wrote it. Conceivably too, the presence of Orion and Sam at the Printers’ Festival may have signaled their reconciliation and Sam’s return to the Keokuk fold—if the two had actually quarreled and parted.
The teaching and learning of grammar, a discipline grotesquely misapprehended by Thomas Jefferson Sole, was an interest shared by Sam Clemens the printer and Mark Twain the writer, and each exploited the potential for humor that they associated with the conjugation of verbs, English or foreign. For example, as early as four months after the publication of "Learning Grammar," Clemens in his letter of 25 May 1856 to Annie Elizabeth Taylor, played with forms of the Latin and French verb "to love" in order to humorously suggest his brother Henry’s affection for "Marie," presumably Annie Taylor’s sister Mary Jane. Readers of "Learning Grammar" who question the effectiveness of schoolmaster McQuillister’s pedagogy will very likely agree with Mark Twain’s remarks made almost fifty years later. In his 1904 sketch "Italian with Grammar" Mark Twain decided that in order to
master Italian he must first "catch a verb and tame it. . . . I selected the verb Amare, to love. Not for any personal reason . . . but in foreign languages you always begin with that one. Why, I don’t know. It is merely habit, I suppose; the first teacher chose it, Adam was satisfied, and there hasn’t been a successor since with originality enough to start a fresh one. For they are a pretty limited lot, you will admit that? Originality is not in their line; they can’t think up anything new, anything to freshen up the old moss-grown dullness of the language lesson and put life and ‘go’ into it, and charm and grace and picturesqueness."7 Certainly in "Learning Grammar" Mr. McQuillister did not put those qualities into the English lessons he gave Nancy Sole.
But if Mr. McQuillister was unimaginative, Thomas Jefferson Sole, in reacting to the teacher’s efforts to "larn my dater gramer," was exceptionally literal-minded and naively personal—and as such, remarkably similar to Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass when responding emotionally to the characters’ actions in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, which he saw acted in St. Louis. In great agitation Sole asked: "Who did you love, Nancy? I want to know—who did you love?" Mark Twain understood that need to know. In "Italian with Grammar," while conjugating the verb "avere," to have, he remarked: "They say I have, thou hast, he has, and so on, but they don’t say what. It will be better, and more definite, if they have something to have; just an object, you know, a something—anything will do; anything that will give the listener a sort of personal as well as grammatical interest in their joys and complaints, you see’"(p. 191).
Sam Clemens’ use of dialect spellings and forms in the three Snodgrass letters is inconsistent from letter to letter and even within any one letter. In itself it scarcely can either strengthen or weaken an assumption that Clemens may have written "Learning Grammar." However, the Snodgrass letters do provide one hint that perhaps Warsaw meant something a little special to Sam Clemens, one small indication that perhaps he knew the village better at first hand than the average Keokukian did. Throughout the three Snodgrass letters, Clemens leaves no doubt that Keokuk is Snodgrass’ home town. Snodgrass repeatedly alludes to Keokuk places and events, and even to a resident. But at one point in the second letter, not Keokuk but Warsaw pops into the author’s mind. On his way by rail from Keokuk to Cincinnati, Snodgrass describes his arrival at Chicago, "Old Nick’s local agency for the world. The cars run into a tremendous house," he wrote, "about as big as Warsaw":8 Snodgrass had arrived at the Chicago railroad station. This belittling reference to Warsaw, although hardly qualifying as evidence for Sam Clemens’ possible stay there, would not
be inappropriate or surprising coming from a former Keokuk resident who was writing for a Keokuk audience and who, not so long ago, had returned to Keokuk after living for a brief spell across the river.9
1See George Hiram Brownell, "Sam Clemens Roams Again," Twainian, 2 (Nov. 1942), 5, which cites an unpublished history of Hancock County prepared by C. H. Lockhart, Mrs. S. E. Matzke, and Paul Heise, local historians of Warsaw. Three other Warsaw historians—Adelaide Albers, Virginia Van Pappelendam, and Marie Werthen—wrote on page 35 of their History of Warsaw (Warsaw Bulletin, 1960): "As a young man, and while seeking his fortune, he [Clemens] worked for a short time as a journeyman printer in Warsaw." The written tradition to that effect goes back at least as far as the l930s, when Irving Sutton and W. R. Williamson of the Illinois Federal Writers Project prepared manuscripts now on file at the State Historical Society of Illinois, Springfield. Mr. John E. Hall was, who is currently preparing a history of Warsaw, wrote the present writer on 16 April 1982: "That Twain was a typesetter in Warsaw has been known for some time by modem residents." In a letter of the same date, Mr. Robert M. Cochran, co-author of History of Hancock County, Illinois (Carthage: Board of Supervisors of Hancock County, 1968), states: "I think you are correct in that Samuel Clemens did work for the Warsaw newspaper for a time."
Clemens’ surviving 1856 letters and relevant passages in his
autobiography and in Paine’s biography suggest that undesirable working
conditions, Orion’s haphazard management, and inadequate and erratic wage
payments may have fueled Sam’s dissatisfaction with his position in Keokuk.
Evidently this dissatisfaction was not dispelled even when Orion named Sam a
partner in the job office business.