How an epidemic turned Mark Twain into a writer

An inspirational, very possibly untrue story.

Revisiting Mark Twain's Book of Life - Sacred Ecstatics

I’ve been reading a lot of Mark Twain lately, inspired by a visit last month to his Hartford mansion. I particularly like late Twain, when grief from his daughter Susy’s death and the humiliation of personal bankruptcy exiled him from his beloved Connecticut abode and curdled his (already rather dim) view of human nature.

Twain produced a lot of hackwork in this period to make ends meet (Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer, Detective) and seems, with the exception of his late masterpiece Pudd’nhead Wilson, to have lost the will or the ability to produce any book within shouting distance of Huckleberry Finn. (I’ve never attempted to penetrate Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which he considered his masterpiece; I’m told it’s unreadable.)

But Twain also wrote most of his best short stories and essays during this period, including “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” and “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” not to mention some powerful jeremiads against robber-barony and U.S. imperialism, some delightfully blasphemous character studies of Satan, and a condemnation of lynching that, unfortunately, he let himself get talked out of publishing, lest he offend his Southern readers. (It didn’t see the light until 1923.) The author of these works is the Twain who became a folk hero all over again in the 1960s as an emblematic writer not only of the 19th century, but also of the 20th.

I won’t pretend that “The Turning Point of My Life,” an essay Twain published in Harper’s Bazaar (then called Harper’s Bazar) in 1910, the final year of his life, ranks among his best, but it contains an anecdote that seems worth resurrecting during this never-ending coronavirus lockdown. Lord knows whether it’s true (a lot of Twain’s nonfiction was pure invention), and I certainly don’t recommend the strategy described; rumors of “Covid parties” in which people seek deliberately to contract the disease seldom seem, thank goodness, to pan out. But Twain’s description of how he became a writer seems right now, as the kids say, “relatable.” For diversity buffs and Leslie Fiedler devotees, it also carries a beguiling whiff of homoeroticism.

Here it is:

When I was twelve and a half year old, my father died. It was in the spring. The summer came, and brought with it an epidemic of measles. For a time, a child died almost every day. The village was paralyzed with fright, distress, despair. Children that were not smitten with the disease were imprisoned in their homes to save them from the infection. In the homes there were no cheerful faces, there was no music, there was no singing but of solemn hymns, no voice but of prayer, no romping was allowed, no noise, no laughter, the family moved spectrally about on tiptoe, in a ghostly hush. I was a prisoner. My soul was steeped in this awful dreariness—and in fear. At some time or every other day and every night a sudden shiver shook me to the marrow, and I said to myself, ‘There, I’ve got it! and I shall die.’ Life on these miserable terms was not worth living, and at last I made up my mind to get the disease and have it over, one way or the other. I escaped from my house and went to the house of a neighbor where a playmate of mine was very ill with the malady. When the chance offered I crept into his room and got into bed with him. I was discovered by his mother and sent back into captivity. But I had the disease; they could not take that from me. I came near to dying. The whole village was interested, and anxious, and sent for news of me every day; and not only once a day, but several times. Everybody believed I would die; but on the fourteenth day a change came for the worse and they were disappointed.

This was a turning point of my life…. For when I got well my mother closed my school career and apprenticed me to a printer. She was tired of trying to keep me out of mischief, and the adventure of the measles decided her to put me into more masterful hands than hers.

I became a printer, and began to add one link after another to the chain which was to lead me into the literary profession…. I can say with truth that the reason I am in the literary profession is because I had the measles when I was twelve years old.