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Cyril Clemens (1902-1999)

I WAS BORN July 14, 1902, in St. Louis, Missouri, where my great grandfather, James Clemens, had arrived from Virginia about 1800. Reared an Episcopalian, he had become a Catholic upon his marriage to Anne, the daughter of John Mullanphy, behind whose bales of Europe-bound cotton General Andrew Jackson's men had fought and won the battle of New Orleans.

My father was James Ross Clemens whose illness in London was the innocent cause of Mark Twain's most famous saying, "The report of my death is greatly exaggerated." For the newsmen had confused the two Clemenses and had Mark not merely ill but actually dead! My mother, the daughter of John L. Boland, for many years St. Louis' leading bookseller, has written numerous articles and an autobiography, Gardens and Books.

I early taught myself to read and was soon enjoying such books as Swiss Family Robinson, Froissart's Chronicles, Hakluyt's V oyages, and novels of Scott and Cooper. A book that made an especial impression upon me was Selma Lagerlof's Little Nils which presents such a matchless picture of Sweden as seen through the eyes of the little dwarf who travels on the back of a wild duck. This work introduced me to the wealth and the glories of the Old World as no amount of poringng over histories and geographies could have done.

And then David Copperfield! My dear mother, who has a voice of "incomparable sweetness and effect," read it to my sister and myself. This early taught me that one's unhappy experiences can be transmuted, as it were, into the gold of literature ­ as witness David's drudgery at Murdstone and Grimby's. The difficulties David had in learning shorthand weighed not a little in deciding me against the commercial course at preparatory school, I determined to take all the literature classes possible. Copperfield, in fact, was the fIrSt fiction hero I had encountered who didn't wind up by becoming a dashing soldier, eloquent statesman, powerful ruler, big business man, or sport champion but was content to adopt the comparatively unexciting profession of writing. His example undoubtedly played its part in directing me towards authorship-for I grew very fond of David who, as we all know, was really young Dickens.

I was ten before I started to school at Barat Hall conducted by the Madames of the Sacred Heart. I recall in particular one nun who possessed the unusual pedagogical gift of making even prosaic rules of grammar somehow fascinating. At thirteen I became a boarder at Canterbury School, New Milford, Connecticut, established that same year of 1915 by.a Catholic layman, Nelson Hune, the elder brother of Cyril Hume the novelist. The boys were encouraged to go on long hikes and I got to know the hilly, rather rugged, stone-fenced country exceedingly well. Walking has ever since remained my favorite sport. I believe with Thomas Jefferson that of all exercises walking is the best. There was a fine library through which we were urged to browse at will. My parents donated to the school Mark Twain's thirty odd volumes which I proceeded to read from start to finish. Perhaps the book that made the most impression on me was Twain's Joan of Arc. I remember that while reading this I kept thinking how wonderful it would be if I could grow up to write biographies myself and create between the covers of a book a living, breathing personality such as Joan's. I began to devour every biography within reach, including Roper's Thomas More, Lockhart's Scott, Southey's Lord Nelson, and Irving's Columbus.

After finishing at Canterbury, I enrolled for the classical course at Georgetown University where my father had studied in the mid-eighties. The University is beautifully situated on the high bluffs overlooking the Potomac. My dormitory was in the attic of an old red brick Colonial building where the United States Congress had held its sessions when burnt out of the Capitol at Washington during the War of 1812. All the Jesuits were stimulating men of parts and nearly all had a sense of humor. One in particular I recall who had a keen enthusiasm for old Father Prout whose inimitable Reliques was soon occupying my spare hours. At present I am engaged on the first biography of the neglected Irishman for which another enthusiast, Mr. Shane Leslie, is writing the introduction.

Early in 1923 I helped to found the first literary society in Georgetown's long history. It began to meet each week for the discussion of books and authors. One lad assigned to speak on George Meredith was slightly confused: for he gave all his details on Owen Meredith, although he wound up by saying, "Now, I have told you everything that one should know about George Meredith whose masterpiece was Lucille!"

I hadn't been in Washington long before I "discovered" the Library of Congress to which I enjoyed walking the four or five miles that separated it from the University - not infrequently I returned also on foot. Being in the library made me feel infinitely rich: merely by scribbling its name on a slip of paper and handing it in at the huge circular desk, one could get within a few minutes any book that had ever been published - if not the first edition, then at least a reprint! The power of Aladdin's lamp was nothing to it! I recall several pleasant chats with Theodore Maynard during research for one of his colorful biographies. I also got to know genial Chief Justice William Howard Taft whose frequent quoting of Josh Billings led to my writing the humorist's first biography, Josh Billings, Yankee Humorist, 1932.

Towards the end of my third Georgetown year, a spell of illness necessitated my return to St. Louis where in 1928 I obtained my A.B. degree from Washington University, after specializing in American literature. I found the English department still dominated by John Livingston Lowes who had left there a few years before to begin his brilliant career at Harvard. Lowes' Road to Xanadu proved extremely stimulating and was reread several times.

I was then invited to go West to gather Mark Twain lore. Just outside of Angels Camp, I found Twain's old mining partner Bill Gillis who recounted so many fascinating anecdotes that in 1930 I was able to bring out Gold Rush Days with Mark Twain. At Angels Camp I also served as judge for the Contest held annually to commemorate the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Tens of thousands of people had come from all sections of the country to witness the forty odd frogs jump. Everything had been arranged with all the formality of a horse race, and the excitement of the spectators proved every bit as intense. In San Francisco I had numerous talks with a most interesting old lady named Mrs. Mary Tingley Lawrence who had known General William Walker the Nicaraguan fillibuster and had assisted Bret Harte in the preparation of his first book. I also discovered in his quiet retreat the prototype of Twain's "Connecticut Yankee," James Marvin, whom I describe in My Cousin Mark Twain, 1939. Then living peacefully in San Francisco was Julian Hawthorne with colorful stories to tell of his famous father, Thoreau, Emerson and the other New England worthies. When I told him of my hope to devote my life to literature, the eighty-year old man laid his hand upon my shoulder and said, "Do so by all means
but realize that writing, as Emerson somewhere says, is about the hardest work in the world. I have never once regretted embracing it as my life profession. I like to reflect that even while I sleep my biography of my father is being read and influencing people."

The spring of 1930 found me going to Europe accompanied by my mother. On the steamer across I amused myself writing sketches of the people I expected to meet abroad. In Mark Twain and Mussolini, 1934, I described them after meeting them in the flesh. I was invited to address the Paris Rotary Club. After telling my best jokes for some minutes, I sat down with every countenance serious. Then the translator got busy, and I had the uncanny experience of seeing my audience laugh some five minutes after I had told a humorous anecdote! While in Paris I called on Rene Bazin, Paul Bourget, Henri Bordeaux, Abbe Ernest Dimnet, Andre Maurois. They one and all proved exceedingly courteous and most encouraging to a young American interested in writing. They had numerous questions about America regarding which their ideas wcre sometimes erroneous.

When I began to address numerous clubs in England on Mark Twain, I was pleasantly surprised to fmd his humor even more keenly appreciated there than in America. My travels soon taught me to disbelieve most of the easy generalizations about various nationalities: the English manifested no slowness seeing a joke nor were the Italians always eating spaghetti, nor the Irish potatoes, nor the French frog-legs!

In the course of a pleasant chat Hilaire Belloc suggested that a useful and interesting biography of a man could be written by presenting the opinions entertained about him by his contemporaries. The idea appealed to me and I chose Chesterton. Thereafter when visiting my English literary friends I usually managed to ask them their opinion of the genial G. K. C. In 1939 I produced my Chesterton as Seen by his Contemporaries, of which Mr. E. C. Bentley, the author of Trent's Last Case, says in his introduction, "Mr. Clemens has assembled a vast numbcr of other people's memories and appreciations which show the attitude of Chesterton's contemporaries towards him better than any individual critic could describe it."

The highlight of a summer-school course at ancient Cambridge was several meetings with A. E. Housman of Shropshire Lad fame which inspired my Evening with A. E. Housman. I quote Padraic Colum's foreword to this book because Boswell's Johnson has always been one of my favorites ­ a small edition of which I usually have in my pocket: "As I read about A. E. Housman I had a feeling that a new Boswell had come amongst us. For the author has Boswell's power of bringing us into his hero's company; he has Boswell's literalness, too. He records literally, too, one is convinced, Housman's table-talk."

During my year of European travels I had heard much of Shakespeare, Browning, and Dante societies. Strolling on deck while returning to New York, I came to the conclusion that America's best known author deserved a society named in his honor. Upon my return to St. Louis I founded the International Mark Twain Society among whose charter members were Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Alfred Noyes, Maurice Baring, Shane Leslie, Rt. Rev. Ronald A. Knox, Agnes Repplier, Rene Bazin, Giovanni Papini. In 1936 the Mark Twain Quarterly was established with myself as editor. When a distinguished membcr dies, a whole quarterly is often devoted to his memory. This was done in the case of Chesterton with many of his friends participating. Each memorial number thus constitutes a unique biographic record invaluable for future biographers. The Quarterly also enables our members to know what their colleagues are doing, for at the start of the war, we numbered some two thousand members-mostly men-of-letters scattered throughout some thirty nations.

Late in 1942 appeared my Young Sam Clemens dedicated to my little son Sammy Clemens whose charming mother, a direct descendant of George Washington's adopted daughter Nellie Custis, I married on October 18, 1933. This book dealing with "Clemens before Twain" as the London Times says in its review, is based on material obtained during tramps through the regions associated with Mark Twain in Missouri, California, and Nevada. Since so much had already been written (Twain is almost as bad as Shakespeare in this respect) my endeavor was always to present new material. The noted novelist, August Derleth says in a recent review, "The author has told the story of Young Sam in such a way that it can be enjoyed by young and old alike. The story carries through from Twain's days as a mischievous schoolboy to his beginning authorship-the formative years out of which grew some of America's greatest literary classics."

I hope to cover Mark's whole life in a series of volumes based on fresh information.

Originally published by Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors Volume Three, copyright 1945

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