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Mark Twain book disproves long-held beliefs about his life in Buffalo

Samuel Langhorne Clemens – Mark Twain – spent just 18 months of his 74 years in Buffalo.

But what a tumultuous year-and-a-half it was.

Twain arrived in Buffalo in mid-August 1869 as a bachelor and left as a married man with an infant son.

He arrived as an enthusiastic co-editor and co-owner of a newspaper and left as a man who would never practice journalism again.

Twain’s time in Buffalo was brightened by love and marriage, fraught with illness and death.

It was also a time that has been widely misrepresented as a grim period of solitude and stagnation.

Mark Twain’s Buffalo life has now been fully illuminated by the work of Kenmore resident Thomas J. Reigstad, a lifelong Twain aficionado and scholar.

“Twain’s first biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, wrote Buffalo off,” said Reigstad, professor emeritus of English at SUNY Buffalo State and author of the new book, “Scribblin’ for a Livin’: Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo.” “As I poked around, I realized that this myth about Twain’s time in Buffalo has lasted among Twain scholars for 100 years now, even to the present day.”

Now Reigstad has rewritten the record about this critical period in Twain’s life. In his foreword to the book, Neil Schmitz, a University at Buffalo English professor and Twain scholar, wrote, “Tom Reigstad’s research is exhaustive. This is it. There isn’t any more to be said about Mark Twain in Buffalo.”

“Mark Twain is one of those people everybody has an image of, and usually it’s the man with the white hair and big mustache and white suit,” says Anne Conable of the Development and Communications Department at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, which has a significant Twain collection. “That’s a very different person from the Mark Twain who lived here in Buffalo.”

What was Twain’s time in Buffalo really like? And, almost as important, how did it get so distorted?

Bright beginnings

Twain’s life in Buffalo ended with illness, loss and anxiety, but it began on a high note. He moved to Buffalo in mid-August 1869 as a bachelor and the new editor of the Buffalo Express, after his wealthy future father-in-law put up $25,000 to make him part owner.

Twain threw himself into his work at the Express with enthusiasm approaching glee, transforming the newspaper with wit and elan. From the young men he met at his boardinghouse to fellow journalists, he had a wide social circle. Twain was already known for his popular tall tale, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and had just published “The Innocents Abroad.” Welcomed to town at a lavish dinner of the Western New York Press Club, Twain joined the literary Nameless Club and the Young Men’s Association. He enjoyed the lake, visited German beer gardens and played cards while awaiting pages at the Express.

“In Buffalo, everybody loved him and wanted to get close to him. He was like a rock star,” says Schmitz, author of “Of Huck and Alice, Humorous Writing in American Literature.”

Six months after arriving in Buffalo, Twain married the luminous beauty Olivia Langdon, a native of Elmira, and they moved into a comfortable mansion at 472 Delaware St. (now Avenue) purchased as a surprise wedding gift by her father, coal magnate Jervis Langdon. Twain and his new wife hosted visitors and socialized. It was also a productive period for Twain personally, who not only wrote for, edited and made changes at the Express for the first six weeks, but began work on “Roughing It.”

Soon, Olivia became pregnant, but was devastated when her father was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died on Aug. 6, 1870.

Then Emma Nye, a dear friend of Olivia’s who was visiting, was stricken with typhoid fever and died in their home Sept. 29. Finally, the couple’s son, Langdon, was born prematurely Nov. 7, frail and sickly, and Olivia fell ill with typhoid herself.

By spring, the family had had enough. On March 18, 1871, 142 years ago Monday, Mark Twain left Buffalo for good. Olivia was carried out of their home on a mattress to the train station for the trip to Elmira.

Both the couple’s home and Twain’s stake in the Express were sold at a loss.

Bad times in Buffalo

The myth started small and grew with each iteration.

In 1913, Twain’s first biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, wrote that he and Olivia “did not mingle much or long with the social life of Buffalo.” Paine called Twain’s writing during this period “a retrogression,” and added, “On the whole the Buffalo residence was mainly a gloomy one.”

Subsequent biographers accepted that analysis and conjured up more negatives, said Reigstad. In “Mark Twain: Man & Legend,” published in 1943, Delancey Ferguson wrote, “The bleak, sunless Buffalo winter dragged on, and all the high hopes with which Mark had embarked on his undertaking at the Express faded out in the universal grayness.”

In his 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain,” Justin Kaplan called Buffalo “city of cold winds and hard luck.”

“People have written about the freezing weather and the snow as contributing to Twain’s departure, but I was finding that wasn’t true,” Reigstad said. “It did puzzle me that so many very distinguished scholars could have continued to gloss over that period and report it so inaccurately.”

An itch

Where others saw a grim period of gloom, Reigstad saw an opportunity.

“My interest in Twain was fostered early,” he said; he read about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for Cub Scouts.

He enjoyed Twain in literature classes at Sweet Home High School, and “read a lot of Twain” while earning his bachelor’s degree at UB, followed by a master’s degree from the University of Missouri and a Ph.D. from UB.

Although he taught at Buffalo State for 26 years, Reigstad shared Twain’s affinity for newsrooms. His first job out of college was in the library of the Courier-Express – a descendant of Twain’s Express – and he wrote articles for the Courier and held a part-time copy desk job there until it closed. He worked part-time on the copy desk at the Niagara Gazette, then wrote a monthly column for Business First. For two years, he was associate editor of Bills Insider, which had its offices at the site of Twain’s house at 472 Delaware Ave.

It was while he was writing a paper as a student in Missouri that Reigstad began to wonder about Twain’s Buffalo life.

“I started getting an itch to pursue this,” he said.

So between his academic work and newspaper sideline, he completed a series of research projects, one while researcher-in-residence at Elmira College’s Center for Mark Twain Studies. He wrote journal articles and made presentations at conferences.

Not only did his research disprove the popular descriptions of Twain’s time in Buffalo, he made a few exciting discoveries along the way.

Twain’s real life here

Reigstad’s research took him into many libraries, large and small, but also included interviews with the descendants of Twain’s friends here. He read every edition of the Express published during Twain’s tenure and examined unpublished manuscripts and other documents.

The overwhelming evidence was that the biographers were very wrong.

Were Twain and his wife lonely and solitary? Hardly.

“Twain made a lot of friends here as a bachelor and when he got married, he and his wife socialized quite a bit. Some of those people became lifelong friends even after they moved,” Reigstad said.

Schmitz said Reigstad’s book “shows us how exuberant and sexy Mark Twain was in Buffalo, hanging out with the local swells ...”

Was Twain unproductive, writing only a few things that were inferior to the work he would do before and afterward? “Some of the writing that he did while living here was quite enduring in its quality,” Reigstad said. “He did some important drafting in the stories he wrote for the Express for his next book, ‘Roughing It,’ and he even wrote some chapters here in Buffalo for ‘Roughing It.’ ”

Was Twain oppressed by the harsh weather?

“I didn’t want to be defensive about Buffalo, but there is no evidence that Twain disliked the winters here,” Reigstad said. “The only Thanksgiving that they spent as a family here, he presented his wife with a gift of Whittier’s ‘Snowbound. A Winter Idyl,’ an epic poem about a family in New England trapped in their house by a heavy snowfall, and they celebrate it by telling stories and enjoying the time together.”

That gift may have been a reference to a time in March 1870, when Twain and his wife were snowbound together by a late storm. “So he was celebrating and probably thinking ahead, at Thanksgiving, that it could happen again,” Reigstad said.

Twain also wrote an editorial for the Buffalo Express called “Removal of the Capital,” making a “tongue-in-cheek pitch” for the relocation of the nation’s capital to Buffalo. “He praised the four seasons and he said winters in Buffalo were bracing,” Reigstad said. “So I don’t know where these people dreamed this stuff up and added it on to make Twain’s time in Buffalo extra-miserable, but it wasn’t, from Twain’s perspective.”

Great discoveries

During his lifelong search for details of Mark Twain’s life here, Reigstad made several discoveries. In a visit to the Local History Department of the Niagara Falls Public Library, he found Twain’s signature in the Cataract House register for August 1869, along with those of some of Olivia’s relatives.

The discovery made Reigstad feel “euphoric, really,” he said. “I started in June, just to be cautious, when I got to late July I started turning the pages more slowly. All of a sudden I saw the name Langdon, and below that ‘Mark Twain.’ It was really an exciting find.”

His second find was made in the early 1980s, after his shift on the copy desk of the Niagara Gazette ended at 2:30 a.m. Combing the Gazette microfilm, he discovered a letter to the editor dated Aug. 25, 1869, commenting sarcastically about Twain’s writing about Niagara Falls.

Titled “Mark Twain and Niagara,” it started, “Mark Twain hath spoken. The mountain hath heaved and opened, and the mouse hath come forth.” Reigstad says, “It struck me from the language, ‘This has got to be Twain.’ I sent it to Robert Hirst at the Mark Twain Papers and Project, who said it could be Twain, they weren’t sure. There was some language in there that was very faithful to Twain, and he wrote hoaxes all the time, including mock reviews of his own stuff. This seemed to be designed to drum up interest in what he was writing.”

Reigstad also discovered that the long-held belief that Twain lived in a boardinghouse run by the McWilliams family on Oak Street before his wedding was wrong.

“In the Buffalo City Directory there is a McWilliams on Oak Street, and people probably just put two and two together and others followed suit. But in Elmira I found an envelope addressed to Samuel Clemens C/O J.J. McWilliams, 39 E. Swan St. I thought, ‘Well that’s not Oak Street!’ I looked up in the Buffalo City directories and found there was a boardinghouse there. I sent my research to the Mark Twain Papers and they substantiated that.” That building stood on the third base line of Coca-Cola Field, across from The Irish Times at Booth Alley and Swan Street.

Given that information, Reigstad was able to place Twain in a specific building, sharing meals with such fellow boarders as George Brewster Matthews, “who went on to become one of the richest men in Buffalo and a huge philanthropist, as well as Twain’s lifelong friend.”

Finally, Reigstad’s book contains several pieces Twain published in the Express that have been mostly overlooked.

“I found some hilarious letters that Twain wrote about the Niagara Falls business,” says Reigstad. “He wrote a story about Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Arthur, who visited Buffalo. Those were some things that I think will make a difference,” he says.

A life’s work

Reigstad’s immersion in Twain’s life took him to the Buffalo streets Twain once traveled, now much changed. At those places, as well as in Elmira and in the Mark Twain Museum in Hartford, Conn., “It’s fair to say that I was able to feel his presence,” says Reigstad. “I could also sort of feel his journalistic impulses; his love of the ink and presses and the busy-ness of a newsroom.”

He also got to know Twain as a person. Reigstad says. “I’m not sure that I got to the point where I would have liked to spend much time with him, he was so volatile.”

Through the years, many people encouraged Reigstad to seek a book contract. He finally did so in May of 2011, when his wife, Maryanne LePage Reigstad, “gave me a final nudge.”

Ten months later, before he had finished the final chapters, Maryanne Reigstad lost her battle with breast cancer, leaving, besides her husband, two sons, her parents and two brothers.

In his acknowledgements, Reigstad writes, “My brave and beautiful wife, Maryanne, and our wonderful sons, Luke and Leif, have lived with the topic of Twain and Buffalo as long as we have been together and I thank them for their constant support.”

“Scribblin’ for a Livin’” is dedicated to her memory.