Sunday, November 29, 2020

The £1,000,000 Bank-Note

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891–1910

Left: “Change, please.” Illustration by American artist James Allen St. John (1872–1957) for “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note” when it was reprinted in The American Claimant and Other Stories and Sketches, volume 21 of the 22-volume uniform edition of Mark Twain’s works issued in various formats during 1899–1900. (An additional three volumes were published between 1904 and 1907.) Right: The same scene as depicted in The Million Pound Note (1954; released in the U.S. as The Man with a Million), directed by Ronald Neame, with Gregory Peck as Henry Adams and George Devine as the restaurant proprietor.
In 1879 Mark Twain scribbled in his notebook an idea he had for a story: “Case of a tramp who was loaned £1000,000 note for 30 days & he got rich on it because nobody could change it.” In subsequent years, he occasionally resurrected the notion, jotting down the title as a reminder or outlining a related idea, but nothing came of it.

A decade later, financial problems at Charles Webster & Co., the publishing firm founded and owned by Twain, had become acute. The company’s balance sheet was devastated by ongoing investment in a newfangled and ultimately hopeless typesetting machine and by the disappointing sales of such titles as an authorized biography of the current pope, Leo XIII (based on “an authentic memoir furnished by his order”), which Twain expected to be a blockbuster, and an exorbitantly produced 11-volume anthology grandly named A Library of American Literature. To keep the company afloat, he had to reinvest the royalties from his own books. Matters weren’t helped by a bookkeeper who embezzled a small fortune or by his penchant for sinking money in patents and schemes that ultimately failed. “There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it and when he can,” he acknowledged in Following The Equator (1897), but the self-awareness of his gullible nature and his public acknowledgment that he was “bad in business” did not prevent him from gambling on too-good-to-be-true ventures right up until his death.

In the summer of 1891, worried by the twin terrors of dwindling income and rising debts, Mark Twain and his family closed up their expensive mansion, sold the horses, laid off their servants (although they found new positions for all of them), and took off for Europe so that the internationally celebrated author could cash in on his fame abroad. In addition to writing travel essays for McClure’s Magazine and the New York newspaper The Sun, Twain earned money by giving readings in Berlin and Dresden and, later, in various Italian cities. He met with the American minister in Germany and enjoyed a private dinner with Kaiser Wilhelm II. On a promenade in the spa town of Bad Homburg, he ran into Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later, King Edward VII), who recognized him and “took Mark Twain’s arm and the two marched up and down, talking earnestly together,” according to a traveling companion who related the day’s events to biographer Albert Bigelow Paine.

Traveling lavishly in Europe, dining with royalty and ministers, enjoying the widespread attention of the media, being recognized everywhere he went—and all the while Samuel Clemens, the man behind the personality known as Mark Twain, was utterly impoverished; the future that awaited him included the closure of his publishing firm and personal bankruptcy. As a virtually penniless man everyone assumed was rich, he doubtlessly realized the absurdity of his situation and feared the inevitable public exposure, and the time must have seemed ripe for taking that skeletal idea of a million-pound note and turning it into a tall tale about the nebulous nature of wealth. The very concept of such a banknote may have even been a bit of wishful thinking—a way for Mark Twain to fantasize his way out of the impending doom. He finished the story while in Florence during the fall of 1892, sent it off to the editors of Century Magazine, and chose it as the title selection for his next book.

In the Critical Companion to Mark Twain, Alex Feerst notes that “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note” takes the uniquely American rags-to-riches tale popularized by Horatio Alger and other writers and flips it on its head. “Whereas Alger emphasized the importance of hard work and delay of gratification, Clemens’s story offers a version of financial bootstrapping in which luck, fame, connections, and access to capital are the essential elements of attaining worldly success. During his 30-day trial, Henry Adams does not actually work a day. . . .” The irony of the story was not lost on Twain’s contemporaries. A critic in the American journal The Review of Reviews wrote that the tale “illustrates a curious economic truth—that a man with a reputation for wealth doesn’t need the actual possession of it.”

Notes: Hospodar is a title used by Ottoman governors and tributary princes of Walachia and Moldavia. Bohun was the name of an English family prominent in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Conqueror is a reference to William the Conqueror, who became the first Norman king of England in 1066.

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