Mark Twain, Publisher.

Mark Twain, photographed by Matthew Brady, 1871 (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1884, Samuel Clemens (known to the world as Mark Twain) started his own publishing firm with his son-in-law, Charles L. Webster. His first publisher was Charles Webb, who published Twain’s first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County, which was a collection of short stories (including the title story) that ran in newspapers and magazines. But Webb didn’t pay Twain royalties and he left for the American Publishing Company, headed by Elisha Bliss.

Elisha Bliss released his books Tom Sawyer and The Innocents Abroad (the best-selling of Twain’s books in his lifetime), among many others. In 1880 he broke with Bliss, believing she had swindled him out of money and Twain went to publisher James R. Osgood, who put out The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi.

According to Twain, Osgood was an inept businessman and responsible for the financial failures of his books and his other clients. Twain left and founded his own firm in 1883.

Charles L. Webster & Co. was in business for 10 years, but it published some of Twain’s most important work, and the important works of others. Here’s a short overview of what they put out:

Twain’s Work

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

On the short list of Great American Novels, this is arguably Twain’s most famous work and his most acclaimed. A semi-sequel to Tom Sawyer, featuring his companion Huck Finn, who travels down the Mississippi River from St. Petersburg, Missouri to Cairo, Illinois with his companion Jim, an escaped slave, who is looking to reunite with his family and gain his freedom.

It’s a wild adventure, with dozens of memorable and wacky characters like the King and the Duke. It’s also the most damning commentary on America of its time, particularly when it comes to America’s views on race.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)

One of the earliest time travel novels (predating Wells’ The Time Machine by six years) – it’s also a satire of chivalry, King Arthur, the Middle Ages and the late Victorian fascination with it. Twain was especially critical of writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Walter Scott and satirized them mercilessly.
In Life on the Mississippi Twain took a harsh jab at Scott:

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it– would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman. The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter’s influence than to that of any other thing or person.

One may observe, by one or two signs, how deeply that influence penetrated, and how strongly it holds. If one take up a Northern or Southern literary periodical of forty or fifty years ago, he will find it filled with wordy, windy, flowery ‘eloquence,’ romanticism, sentimentality–all imitated from Sir Walter, and sufficiently badly done, too– innocent travesties of his style and methods, in fact. This sort of literature being the fashion in both sections of the country, there was opportunity for the fairest competition; and as a consequence, the South was able to show as many well-known literary names, proportioned to population, as the North could.

But a change has come, and there is no opportunity now for a fair competition between North and South. For the North has thrown out that old inflated style, whereas the Southern writer still clings to it–clings to it and has a restricted market for his wares, as a consequence. There is as much literary talent in the South, now, as ever there was, of course; but its work can gain but slight currency under present conditions; the authors write for the past, not the present; they use obsolete forms, and a dead language. But when a Southerner of genius writes modern English, his book goes upon crutches no longer, but upon wings; and they carry it swiftly all about America and England, and through the great English reprint publishing houses of Germany– as witness the experience of Mr. Cable and Uncle Remus, two of the very few Southern authors who do not write in the Southern style. Instead of three or four widely-known literary names, the South ought to have a dozen or two–and will have them when Sir Walter’s time is out.

Twain also satirized the belief that Western cultures are superior to others and the imperial missions driven by these beliefs. Twain was no slouch on these beliefs – he vocally opposed the Spanish-American War and the resulting territorial gain, which gave many Americans delusions of empire.

Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894)

The lesser-known sequel to Huckleberry Finn where Tom, Huck and Jim explore Africa in a hot-air balloon. It’s not as well-read today, probably because it is even less realistic than the previous novels and is more a satire of Jules Verne than social commentary.

Works of others

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885)

Ulysses S. Grant, c. 1870-1880, unknown photographer. LOC/Wikimedia Commons

Arguably the most famous work published by the company not written by Twain. The former General of the Union Army and President of the United States was broke in 1884 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He’d been the victim of a ponzi scheme run by his son’s investment partner. Twain offered to publish Grant’s memoirs and give his family 70% of the royalties.

Grant knew he was dying and knew what they could do for his family, and spent his dying days working on it, even after the cancer spread throughout his body and he couldn’t walk anymore. He finished it five days before his death on July 23, 1885. On publication, it was hailed as one of the greatest books ever written, and Grant’s widow and children regained their fortunes through the royalties, which Twain honored.


McClellan’s Own Story: The War for the Union, the Soldiers Who Fought It, the Civilians Who Directed It, and His Relations to It and Them (1886)

Despite his corruption-laden administration, Ulysses S. Grant was, and is, hailed for his service in the Civil War. On his death, he was compared to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. General George McClellan’s legacy is more controversial, and in his later years he defended his actions in the war, including in this book published two years after his death.

McClellan was the commander at the Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862 against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces. It was considered a Union victory, and it slowed Lee’s advance into Maryland, but it is known as the bloodiest day in American history, with 22,000 casualties on either side. McClellan failed to pursue Lee’s army afterwards, and Abraham Lincoln relieved him of command of the Union Army on November 5th.

McClellan was the Democrat’s candidate in 1864 against Abraham Lincoln. The Democrats were dominated by “copperheads,” who were in favor of negotiating peace with the Confederates, while McClellan promised to continue the war until victory. Because of this split between McClellan and the party, Lincoln was re-elected President.


Tenting on the Plains; or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas by Elizabeth Custer (1887)

In 1876, General George Custer was killed in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in the Montana territory. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse entered the public consciousness, though Custer himself would also be portrayed as a heroic figure for his last stand. This is largely thanks to his widow Elizabeth, who wrote three glowing biographies of him for different publishers – Tenting is the 2nd of them and focuses on Custer’s time overseeing Reconstruction in Texas in 1865 (Texas was not formally admitted back into the Union until 1870) and then his first assignments in the West.


Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army (1888)

General Phillip Sheridan is best known for his activities after the Civil War. He was involved in many Civil War campaigns, most notably the Appomatox Campaign, which ended in General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Grant. After the war, Sheridan helped coordinate relief efforts after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In 1875 he became an advocate for the preservation of Yellowstone in Wyoming. He was promoted to General of the US Army in 1888 a few months before his death, and a few months after he submitted his memoirs to Webster.

In honor of Sheridan, business leaders in Chicago asked the military to set up Fort Sheridan in what is now Lake Forest, Illinois after the 1886 Haymarket riots. Sheridan Road, which ran from the fort direct to downtown Chicago, was built to facilitate troop movements in case they were ever used to put down riots – and they were used for just that during the 1894 Pullman Strike. Fort Sheridan closed in 1993.


Memoirs of Gen. W. T. Sherman (1890)

Along with General Grant, General William T. Sherman is considered one of the heroes of the Union Army. He served under Grant in the Western theater of the Civil War, participating in the Battle of Shiloh and the Siege of Vicksburg and when Grant was promoted to General of the Union Army, Sherman took command of the Western Army.

His most famous campaign was the Siege of Atlanta and his march to Savannah in 1864. Both of these campaigns raised morale in the north and contributed to Abraham Lincoln’s reelection.

After the war, Grant was made General of the Army, a position Sherman took over when Grant was elected President.


Charles Webster & Co. went bankrupt in 1894. In addition to the work above, the company published works by Walt Whitman and Leo Tolstoy. The connection between the two literary giants is astounding, though unfortunately there’s no evidence Tolstoy and Twain ever corresponded or commented on each others’ work. Coincidentally the two writers died seven months apart in 1910.



Featured image: Charles L. Webster & Co. ad for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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