Heritage Moments: Mark Twain, Buffalonian

Jul 16, 2018

Samuel L. Clemens’s time in Buffalo was short. But it was also by turns pivotal, tragic and, of course, funny. The young man who would go on to become America’s greatest humorist was just barely on the cusp of national fame when, armed with a loan from his fiancée’s industrialist father, he rolled into town and bought a one-third share of the Buffalo Express newspaper. 


On Aug. 15, 1869, the morning he started his new job as the paper’s co-editor, Clemens — already better known by his pen name, Mark Twain — walked down Swan Street from his boarding house to the Express office. There, according to the anecdote, a young employee, not recognizing the visitor, brusquely asked if there was anyone he would like to see.

“Well, yes,” Twain answered. “I should like to see a young man offer the new editor a chair.”

It was a fitting start to Mark Twain’s waggish year-and-a-half-long tenure as co-editor of the Buffalo Express. On Aug. 18 the paper printed the first article signed by Twain. In it, he introduced himself to Buffalonians.

“Being a stranger,” he wrote, “it would be immodest for me to suddenly and violently assume the editorship of the Buffalo Express without a single word of comfort or encouragement to the unoffending patrons of the paper, who are about to be exposed to constant attacks of my wisdom and learning. But the word shall be as brief as possible. I only want to assure parties having a friendly interest in the prosperity of the journal that I am not going to hurt the paper deliberately and intentionally at any time. … I shall not meddle with politics, because we have a political Editor who is already excellent and only needs to serve a term or two in the penitentiary to be perfect. I shall not write any poetry unless I conceive a spite against the subscribers. I shall always confine myself to the truth, except when it is attended with inconvenience.” And so on, in that same joking vein.

Twain, who’d already spent several years in newspapers, worked hard to produce the many light pieces he published while at the Express. Reveling in the ink-stained wretchedness of the business, he set about “waking up journalism in Buffalo” with a monthly humor column and by otherwise injecting his trademark dry wit into just about everything he touched.

Some of his stories were just plain light comedy (“Children in Iowa bite rattlesnakes in order to prevent the toothache. Probably the cure would be more permanent if the rattlesnakes bit the children.”). Still others weren’t light at all; rather, they were bitingly satirical. One of them imagined the dead’s dissatisfaction with the dilapidated North Street burial ground; another mocked the bloody-minded insouciance of a Memphis lynch mob that killed two black men.

Twain’s Buffalo sojourn was highlighted in February 1870 by his marriage to his fiancée, Olivia Langdon of Elmira. Her father, the industrialist Jervis Langdon, bought them a wedding gift: a mansion on Delaware Avenue at Virginia Street. Twain also began to enjoy literary success: just as he started at the Express the publication of his first full-length book, the travel memoir “The Innocents Abroad,” was greeted with strong reviews and robust sales. He also took a well-paying side job editing the humor section of The Galaxy magazine.

Twain, center, poses with Philadelphia newspaperman George Alfred Townsend, left, and David Gray, Twain’s close friend and editor of the rival Buffalo Courier.
Credit Mathew Brady/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division

But Twain’s time in Buffalo was fun only for a while. In the summer of 1870, it became a time of heartbreaks, one after the other. Jervis Langdon died in August 1870 of cancer. Olivia’s friend Emma Nye died soon after, of typhoid while staying at the Delaware Avenue mansion. The Clemenses’ first child, a son named Langdon, was born prematurely in November and would die before his second birthday. Olivia herself became ill with typhoid.

Those setbacks, as well as Twain’s own disillusionment with the deadline pressures of journalism, convinced him to sell his share of the paper, as well as the Delaware Avenue mansion, and move on. “Work,” he wrote in December 1870, “is piling on me in toppling pyramids.”

Finally, in his last column for the Express in April 1871, he noted that being a newspaperman is dreary enough, but “to be a monthly humorist in a cheerless time is drearier.” By the time it was published, Twain and his young family had already left Buffalo and relocated to Elmira, and the care of Olivia’s relatives.

“Twain’s Buffalo experience was pivotal,” writes Thomas J. Reigstad, author of “Scribblin’ for a Livin’: Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo,” the most important work on Twain’s sojourn in the city. “He came to Buffalo as an unmarried man staking his career hopes on the grind of daily newspaper work. He departed Buffalo as a husband and father, intent on the lofty vocation of literary artist.”

Twain, of course, became that literary artist — perhaps America’s greatest ever.

=========================================================================

Cast (in order of appearance):

Mark Twain: Mike Randall
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Dave Rosenthal, WBFO senior director, news and public affairs
Armin St. George, Crosswater Digital Media

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)