Most of the contributions to the January, 1875 issue of The Atlantic Monthly were predictable: two poems by the venerable Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an essay by Professor Oliver Wendell Holmes, the stately prose of Henry James. Among these voices was another, that of first-time contributor Mark Twain, describing the pennants and pressure-valve whistles, the paddled foam and cindery smoke and dock-side calls of "S-t-e-a-mboat a-comin!" William Dean Howells said that Twain's account of life on the Mississippi "made the ice-water in my pitcher turn muddy."
Though an outsider and an oddity to the Eastern Literary Establishment, and years away from his major novels, Twain was not unknown. A decade earlier, "The Celebrated Story of the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" had been reprinted across the country, and Twain had come east from San Franciso on the strength of it. He had been a river-child and a river pilot, a printer's apprentice and an itinerant typesetter, a Confederate deserter, a prospector, and a newspaper reporter; but now he was a writer, and he made a lot of money as a humourist on the public-speaking circuit. He complained about having to play the part of a "literary buffoon," but he did not want to give it up either, even in Boston: at the Atlantic's dinner for contributors, he praised the meal as "quite as good as I would have had if I had stayed at home."
Twain settled in Hartford, Connecticut -- as much as his quirky, restless spirit would let him settle. Even the house -- now a museum -- seemed to have multiple personalities: Twain's renovations produced a dwelling that one biographer calls "part steamboat, part medieval stronghold, part cuckoo clock." In it, Twain was novelist, historian, dramatist, raconteur, entrepreneur, spare-time inventor and full-time hyperbole. There were a half-dozen, sure-fire, gizmos and schemes: a perpetual calendar, a fire extinguisher that worked like a grenade, a clamp that would keep the blankets on, a board game that would teach every school kid history. One passion -- a miracle typesetting machine that would make billions just as soon as this small part was fixed -- eventually bankrupted him. Still, it was all grist for the humour mill: "There are two times a man should not speculate: when he can afford it, and when he can't."
Twain started Huckleberry Finn in 1876, but "I like it only tolerably well," he wrote a friend, "and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the manuscript when it is done." Bouts of writing and pigeonholing went on for the next six years. Then, in 1882, after twenty-one years away from the Mississippi, he "felt a very strong desire to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left." It was a triumphant but unhappy trip home. Mark Twain was recognized and toasted from St. Louis to New Orleans, but the life Sam Clemens knew was gone. The riverbank itself was so eroded and changed that when given a chance to pilot his old route Twain couldn't find any of the landmarks he'd remembered. As a boy he would see a dozen steamboats an hour; now there were maybe a half-dozen a day. One day he saw only one, though it was called "The Mark Twain."
But the lost childhood fathered the book: a year after the trip Huckleberry Finn was ready for publication. How this most American of books, regarded by many as the most influential novel in the nation's history, came to be published first in England is one more chapter in Twain's beleaguered business career. He owned his own publishing company, and his plan was to get the book out in the Fall of 1884, in time for Christmas. There was a delay when he rejected some of the illustrations, finding them "powerful good" but too realistic for popular taste; still, there was time to redo them. Then, out of mischief, or revenge for the rejected drawings -- the culprit was never discovered, despite a $500 reward -- an engraver added a penis to one of the plates. By the time someone discovered the picture of an exposed Uncle Silas saying "Who do you reckon it is?" to a small boy, while a beaming Aunt Sally looks on, thousands of advance copies of the novel had been printed. They are prized collector's items today, but their recall in 1884 meant that the American edition came out on February 18, l885 -- months after the Christmas trade, and the British edition, and the newspaper stories setting off the tsk-tsking that Twain had tried to avoid in the first place -- and that can still, from time to time, be heard.