Friedmar Göbel

“Mark Twain und das Pensionsamt” | Freie Presse für Texas | 21 July 1885

Mark Twain und das Pensionsamt.

Ein für Samuel Clements1 in Elma, N. Y. bestimmter Brief des Pensions-Commissärs, worin jener aufgefordert wird, weitere Beweise jener Pensionsberechtigung beizubringen, da er in seinem Pensionsgesuche bloß allgemein constatirt hatte, daß er an Rheumatismus und kranken Augen und anderen Übeln2 leide, ist zufällig Herrn Samuel L. Clements3 (Mark Twain) in Elmira, N. Y.4, eingehändigt worden. Ebenso hat dieser eine für den Clements in Elma bestimmte Postkarte von Sen. Hawley5 erhalten, welcher im Glauben, der Elma´er Clemens habe bereits seine Pension bewilligt erhalten, ihm gratulierte. Mark Twain setzte sich hin und schrieb an den Pensions-Commissär einen Brief, aus dem nachfolgend ein Theil Platz finden möge:

Mark Twain and the pension office.

A letter from the pension commissioner intended for Samuel Clements in Elma, N. Y., in which he is requested to provide further proof of his eligibility for a pension, since he had only generally stated in his application for a pension that he was suffering from rheumatism and sick eyes and other ailments, has coincidentally been delivered to Mr. Samuel L. Clements (Mark Twain) in Elmira, N. Y.. The latter has also received a postcard destined for Clements in Elma from Sen. Hawley, who, believing the Elma’er Clemens had already been granted his pension, congratulated him. Mark Twain sat down and wrote a letter to the pension commissioner, a part of which may be found below:

„Ich habe mich um keine Pension beworben. Ich habe mich oft, ja sehr oft nach einer Pension gesehnt, mich aber doch nicht getraut, Sie um eine solche zu bitten, da der einzige militärische Dienst6, den ich verrichtet habe, in der conföderirten Armee verrichtet wurde. Nun Sie mir selbst eine Pension in Aussicht stellen, bin ich selbstverständlich sehr ermuthigt. Ich habe zwar selbst keine Krankheit, die mich zu einer Pension berechtigen würde, aber ich könnte einen Substituten stellen, einen Mann, der ein Chaos, ja ein Museum aller verschiedenen Schmerzen, Übel und Krankheiten ist, einen Mann, der Rheumatismus und Augenschmerzen nach den Tagesmühen schon als Erholung betrachten würde. Wenn Sie mir die Pension bewilligen, geben Sie es dem Sen. Hawley, – ich meine das Certificat, nicht das Geld. Aus einliegender Postkarte werden Sie ersehen, dass er sich für mich interessirt. Er glaubt allerdings, daß ich die Pension bereits habe, aber ich habe erst den Rheumatismus u. s. w. S. L. Clemens, der Polizei als Mark Twain bekannt.“

“DEAR SIR – I have not applied for a pension. I have often wanted a pension – often, ever so often, I may say; but inasmuch as the only military service I performed during the war was in the Confederate army, I have always felt a delicacy about asking for it. However, since you have suggested the thing yourself, I feel strengthened. I haven’t any very pensionable disease myself, but I can furnish a substitute, a man who is just simply a chaos, a museum of all the different kinds of aches and pains, fractures, dislocations, distempers, distortions, confusions and malformations there are; a man who would regard `rheumatism and sore
eyes´ as mere recreation and refreshment after the serious occupations of his day. If you grant me the pension, dear sir, please hand it to Gen. Hawley, United States Senator – I mean hand him the certificate, not the money – and he will forward it to me. You will observe by his postal card herewith enclosed that he takes a friendly interest in the matter. He thinks I’ve already got a pension, whereas I’ve only got the rheumatism […]. Very truly yours, S. L. CLEMENS. Known to the police as `Mark Twain.´”

Daß dieser Brief im Pensionsamt von Hand zu Hand ging und nicht geringe Heiterkeit erregte, läßt sich denken.

That this letter passed from hand to hand in the pension office and caused no small merriment, can be imagined.


“Mark Twain und das Pensionsamt.” Freie Presse für Texas  (San Antonio, Tex.), 21 July 1885. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Web.

Original letter source:

Iron County register. (Ironton, Iron County, Mo.), 23 July 1885. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Web.


1 A military retirement application by a man named Samuel Clements from Elma (NY) was denied due to a lack of pensionable medical conditions by commissioner Black. According to this article, “[…] Clements´ claim was being looked after by Senator Hawley […]”. Before this and without knowing about the denial, United States Senator Hawley posted a letter to Mr. Clements congratulating his successful strive for retirement. Both the postal card by Senator Hawley as well as the response by commissioner Black were accidentally addressed to Samuel L. Clemens in Elmira, known as Mark Twain. Clemens forwarded the letter to Clements, the correct destination, and wrote this personal response to commissioner Black at Washington (Paine 12). || Sources: Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain – A Biography – 1886-1900 (Vol. 2, Part 2). Web.; Lyon County times. (Silver City, Nev.), 01 Aug. 1885. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Web.

2 Well before 1885 Clemens and his wife Olivia had been suffering from intense rheumatism which inflicted his writing arm and hence restricted him in his profession (Camfield et al. 225). In 1878, Clemens wrote a letter expressing his pain: “My sufferings being so great that for months at a time I was unable to stand upon my feet” (Twain, 1978). Coupled with numerous other medical conditions including “various respiratory, digestive, and skin disorders” (Camfield et al. 225) these diseases convinced the Clemens family to health stays overseas (Hill 9). || Sources: Camfield, Gregg et al. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. Oxford UP, 2003 (Internet Archive).; Hill, Hamlin. “Samuel Langhorne Clemens.” American Realists and Naturalists. Detroit: Gale, 1982 (Web).; “SLC to Slote, Woodman and Co., 10 Feb 1878, Hartford, Conn. (UCCL 11147).” In Mark Twain’s Letters, 1876–80. Edited by Michael B. Frank and Harriet Elinor Smith. Mark Twain Project Online. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 2002, 2007.

3 It is difficult to trace back the source of this German translation as many American newspapers (example 1 and 2) also confused “Clemens” with “Clements”. This article, however, did not mistake the two names. || Sources: Lancaster daily intelligencer. (Lancaster, Pa.), 17 July 1885. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Web.

4 Clemens happened to make first contact with the town of Elmira in New York through an invitation by the Langdon family after his first meeting with his future wife Olivia Langdon (Wisbey and Jerome 3-4). From his first visit in Elmira in 1868 onwards, Clemens returned almost every summer as the months on the family´s Quarry Farm would become his “most pleasant and productive” (Jerome and Wisbey 2) ones. With The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur´s Court (1889), Clemens wrote some of his most valued books in the study of the Langdon´s establishment (Camfield et al. 218). This is why “The Center for Mark Twain Studies” was founded in Elmira, operating out of the “Elmira College“. The college was initially supported by the Langdon´s in order to provide a female education center in 1885 (“The Elmira Female College”) (Camfield et al. 220). || Sources: Wisbey, Herbert, and Jerome, Robert. Mark Twain in Elmira. New York: Cayuga P of Cortland, 2013 (Web).; Camfield, Gregg et al. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. Oxford UP, 2003 (Internet Archive).

5 Joseph Roswell Hawley (1826-1905) was a congressman and senator (Cohn 67). Clemens and Hawley first got to know each other around 1869 in Hartford where they became friends, neighbors, and political allies (Cohn 71-72). They spent a lot of time together and exchanged letters when Clemens stayed in Elmira. || Sources: Cohn, Henry S. “Mark Twain and Joseph Roswell Hawley.” Mark Twain Journal 53.2 (2015): 67-84. Web.

6 In 1961, Missouri was largely controlled by confederate militias. When the civil war broke out and the “new Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson called for militia volunteers early in 1861” (Kent 84), Clemens joined the “Hannibal Home Guard” (Griffin and Smith 798). This state unit had bonds to the confederate army and partially sympathized with their ideals (Hill 3). The voluntary militia was merely unorganized and “disbanded without seeing any real military action” (Kent 84). In hindsight, Clemens remembered being hunted “like a rat the whole time” (Hill 3) as the unit was facing impending attacks by Union soldiers (Kent 84). || Sources: Griffin, Benjamin and Harriet E. Smith. Autobiography of Mark Twain (Vol. 2). U of California P, 2013 (Ebook Central).; Hill, Hamlin. “Samuel Langhorne Clemens.” American Realists and Naturalists. Detroit: Gale, 1982 (Web).; Kent, R. Rasmussen. Critical Companion to Mark Twain: a Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Fact On File, 2007 (Internet Archive).


Comment / Analysis / Reflection:

Dismantling “Mark Twain und das Pensionsamt” on a second reading provides the reader with crucial information on Clemens´ private life, with his past and contemporary struggles as well as his humorous personality as a whole. It displays further evidence as to how important Elmira (NY) was for Clemens, judging by the fact that his address was listed in the post office – even though he did not officially live in Elmira in 1885.

As secondary research has unveiled, not many details are well-known about Clemens´ involvement in the militia that sympathized with confederate ideals in 1861. This article thus marking a possible starting point for in-depth research into further primary material on Clemens´ perceptions having been part of the troop and how it shaped his later work (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) in particular (Hill 3)). As the article is largely concerned with Clemens´ jocular call for retirement, this first-hand resource underlines his humorous nature even under formal circumstances. This was also regognized by American newspapers during that time as this title suggests (“A Humorous Reply From Mark Twain”).

Scharnhorst has pointed out that Clemens “[…] would only admit to serving in a Confederate militia […] if `he made it funny´” (Scharnhorst 479) tackling his personal notion about having been associated with the Confederate militia. Clemens´ involvement in the Missouri State Guard remains a controversial topic among scholars.

Furthermore, it hints at Clemens´ and Senator Hawley´s strong friendship whom he jokingly refers to in his response to commissioner Black. Despite this writing being a humorous letter by Clemens, it opens a new perspective into his personal health. Clemens turned 50 the year the article was published and, according to retirement research, most Americans over the age of 65 were still working at that time (Munnell 1). The question arises as to how serious Clemens´ state of health was and how this affected his profession as he was truthfully indicating his suffering from rheumatism in his writing arm (Paine 225). The article thus continues to pave the road for further research into multiple facets of Clemens´ personal life.

|| Sources: Hill, Hamlin. “Samuel Langhorne Clemens.” American Realists and Naturalists. Detroit: Gale, 1982 (Web).; Munnell, H. Alicia. “What is the average retirement age?” Center for Retirement Research at Boston College 11.11 (2011): 1-7. Web.; Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain: A Biography (Vol. 3). Harper and Brothers, 1912 (Internet Archive).; Scharnhorst, Gary. The Life of Mark Twain: The Middle Years, 1871-1891. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2019. Web.; Lyon County times. (Silver City, Nev.), 01 Aug. 1885. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Web.

Description of the research process:

The search for an adequate German newspaper article that would meet the inclusion criteria (a sufficient amount of opportunities for annotations and simultaneously giving insights into a thought-provoking text) was conducted via the “advanced search” of the Chronicling America.

The following parameters were applied to the interface of the “advanced search”:

  • date range: 1881-1890
  • language: German
  • … with the words: Mark Twain
  • within “5” words of each other

This first draft provided me with 75 total hits, mostly within the years 1881 (14), 1885 (15), and 1886 (14). Most of the articles had to be discarded as they displayed translations of American originals, were lacking the inclusion criteria of a sufficient amount of usable annotation opportunities, or simply duplicated another German newspaper´s content. Not a single entry within the frame of the search dealt with important and well-received books by Clemens that were published during the selected time period such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) or A Tramp Abroad (1880).

In the second attempt of finding a resource, Prof Kersten pointed me to an article with the heading “Mark Twain und das Pensionsamt” (1885) which was not simply a copy of someone else´s work but, after a third search, turned out to be the only German article within the Chronicling America on this topic. Moreover, the article granted me a satisfactory number of possible annotations and proved to be of scholarly importance, hence meeting both the initial inclusion criteria. With a third and final search, 12 American articles were detected all proving to discuss the same matter with most of them in the same wording.

General observations:

Through this pilot project in the digital humanities, I was introduced to numerous academic research opportunities and databases that I frankly never heard of before. This is particularly true for the Internet Archive that hosts Pain´s Mark Twain: A Biography (1912) and the Oxford Companion Companion to Mark Twain (2003). I took advantage of the search functions for specific words in books that easily exceeded 500 pages providing me with a general overview of the content of the work.

With that being said, I also encountered difficulties with the database. Granting non-academic readers insights into the database through limited access options, in my opinion, contributes to the enlargement of the field of digital humanities and the strive for educational equality. On the other hand, the reader is denied several parts of the book of choice, which is unfortunate. In one instance this resulted in a complete obscuration of the work cited list. Up to this date, I remain unaware whether there is a work cited list in Kent´s Critical Companion to Mark Twain (2007). This source should therefore be treated with caution. The lesson I learned from this is that digital sources might sometimes be easily accessed but must be verified through additional research. Another database that assisted me in my research process was the digital “Center for Mark Twain Studies” which directed my further research into Elmira and its connection to Clemens.

The intelligent translator “DeepL“ has proven to be a valuable assistance with various challenging obstacles I have faced in the course of my study program and continues to help me encrypt biological journal articles. I sense great potential in the development of novel language programs.

This project succeeded in sparking my interest in primary sources as a whole which I find peculiar – taking into consideration that the research was conducted entirely digitally. Often I found myself skimming old advertisements and political proclamations along the way. It appears that crucial information can be deducted from first-hand information. I experienced this myself when researching the Mark Twain Project for letters on Clemens´ medical conditions. With that being said, primary texts have to be met with a critical eye as they can be misleading if there is a lack of scholarly comments about them. In terms of primary sources, it is startling that the initial search in the Chronicles America did not bring up any mentioning of Clemens´ freshly published books that in the case of A Tamp Abroad (1880) talks about Clemens travel experience in Germany. Along with this, I also could not locate any reference to his greatest success in 1885 with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn assuming that the Chronicles America at least lacks some German newspapers in that period. Other than that, the database offers an easily accessible interface that can help with very specific searching goals through multiple parameters narrowing down your hits.

In these difficult times, I was forced to restrict my research to online resources which surprisingly was a success thanks to the increasing openness of universities and databases, and overall I did not encounter any major obstacles.

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