In 1867, Mark Twain arrived in D.C. the way a lot of journalists fresh to the town do: confident, eager to insinuate himself into the political class, and dead broke. “I had gone to Washington to write The Innocents Abroad,“ he wrote in his autobiography in 1906. “But before beginning that book it was necessary to earn some money to live on meantime, or borrow it—-which would be difficult, or take it where it reposed unwatched—-which would be unlikely.”
Twain didn’t spend much time in the District, arriving in November 1867 and skipping town the following March. (He also visited briefly as a teenager in 1854.) But he hustled enough during that time that it merits a book-length treatment—-in this case, John Muller’s Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent. Muller, a 29-year-old staffer in the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, took an interest in Twain’s D.C. stint while working on a book Frederick Douglass’ life in the city. Twain is “almost over-studied,” Muller says. “But when I surveyed the Twain literature, I looked closely at what had been written on his time in Washington, and there’s really not a lot.”
Part of what makes the period an interesting one is that it’s the moment when Twain pivots from a relatively anonymous writer scraping out a Bohemian living to a well-known figure in political and literary circles. In 1867 he published a book version of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the story that first brought him to national attention; Muller discovered a newspaper ad from February 1868 that listed it on the shelves of French and Richardson’s, a downtown bookseller. At the same time, he was conceiving if not actively writing what would become his first nonfiction book, The Innocents Abroad.
Mostly, though, Twain was hustling as a freelancer: While in D.C. he wrote more about two dozen articles for newspapers and magazines—-some straight reportage, but also more Twain-like satirical pieces. In one piece he padded a few column inches grousing about the weather: “To-day it is a Democrat, to-morrow a Radical, the next day neither one thing nor the other….[W]hen I go out with an umbrella, the sun shines; if I go without it, it rains.”
Twain’s constant scribbling “was part of his character,” Muller says, “But in Washington it’s at such an accelerated pace. It’s like he’s on nitroglycerine. He was composing letters at two, three o’clock in the morning. He’s burning the candle at both ends.”
In the book, Muller discusses what may be a previously undiscovered Twain work. On November 30, 1867, the New York Times published a satirical letter by one “Scupper Nong,” a correspondent who scored an interview with President Ulysses S. Grant. Like a lot of spunky journos, Nong asked a lot of hard questions and got little but blasts of hot air in return. And like a lot spunky journos, he covered up his failure by snarking off in his copy, riffing on his “arrival in this political metropolis (which to my mind is rather a drinkopolis).”
In the book, Muller details a few good reasons why Nong equals Twain, not least that the article was reprinted in a Philadelphia paper with Twain’s byline. Twain scholars will need persuading though, and Muller is looking to expand on his research in a credentialed Twain journal. “From what I’ve seen, I think it’s a Mark Twain letter,” he says. “But I don’t want to put myself out there too much until it’s been approved.”