Mark Twain was a man of many facets. He was an iconic writer, and his love of science led him to promote new techniques and inventions. Furthermore, he absolutely adored cats. A glance through his novels will show that he had an affinity for the animal, but even that’s just scratching the surface. Indeed, he often turned his famous wit to describe exactly why he liked cats more than human beings.
Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Missouri. Later, as an author, he became arguably most famous for the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn stories. Even today, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still considered to be one of the great American novels. He penned other still-popular works too, including The Prince and the Pauper and the travel book A Tramp Abroad.
Twain’s talent for writing got him into a position where he was able to speak out about important issues of his day. He supported the abolition of slavery and the suffrage of women. He also grew sympathetic to Native Americans, writing in Following the Equator that colonizers had subjected native populations to “robbery, humiliation, and slow, slow murder, through poverty and the white man’s whiskey.”
Meanwhile, there were periods of Twain’s life where he seemed to despair of the era he had been born into. His childhood had been marked by murder, epidemics, hardship, racism and slavery – and his own family participated in the latter two. And as an adult he wrote furious essays against imperialism, anti-Semitism, and the evils he had witnessed.
And Twain ultimately did a lot of good for people. He supported Helen Keller, the famous disabled activist, when she went to college. He also helped pay for the education of a few black students. These included Warner T. McGuinn, who went on to become a successful lawyer and activist as well as a mentor to the even more famous Thurgood Marshall.
And yet, for all of Twain’s benevolence towards humans, he still by all accounts preferred cats. Indeed, in Albert Paine’s book Mark Twain: A Biography, published in 1912, the former went into detail about how the author loved cats all his life. He wrote, “[Twain] had… a genuine passion for cats; summers when he went to the farm he never failed to take his cat in a basket.”
Meanwhile, once Twain became a noted writer, he sang the praises of the animal frequently in his writings. Indeed, he wrote in Tom Sawyer Abroad, “A person that started in to carry a cat home by the tail was getting knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and [wasn’t] ever going to grow dim or doubtful.”
Elsewhere, in the book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain compared cats to monarchies and decided that cats were much better. He wrote, “They would be as useful as any other royal family, they would know as much, they would have the same virtues and the same treacheries [and] the same disposition to get up shindies with other royal cats…”
Twain continued on his theme of royal cats, writing, “… They would be laughably vain and absurd and never know it, they would be wholly inexpensive, finally, they would have as sound a divine right as any other royal house,” He added, “The worship of royalty being founded in unreason, these graceful and harmless cats would easily become as sacred as any other royalties, and indeed more so…”
If cats really were royalty, Twain continued, “it would presently be noticed that they hanged nobody, beheaded nobody, imprisoned nobody, inflicted no cruelties or injustices of any sort, and so must be worthy of a deeper love and reverence than the customary human king, and would certainly get it.”
For his part, Twain had up 19 cats throughout his life, and he gave them magnificent names. Some were given dramatic monikers like Beelzebub, Pestilence, Satan and Sin. Meanwhile, others had sillier ones like Buffalo Bill, Soapy Sal and Sour Mash.
An old letter from Mark Twain dated 1890 was uncovered in the 1980s. It said of the cats, “Sour Mash, Apollinaris, Zoroaster, and Blatherskite – names given them not in an unfriendly spirit, but merely to practice the children in large and difficult styles of pronunciation. It was a very happy idea. I mean, for the children.”
Meanwhile, the cat Sour Mash seemed to be a particular favorite of Twain’s. “I had a great admiration for Sour Mash, and a great affection for her, too,” he wrote in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 2. He added, “ She had an abundance of that noble quality which all cats possess, and which neither man nor any other animal possesses in any considerable degree – independence.”
In fact, Twain waxed lyrical about Sour Mash for quite some time in his second volume autobiography. He continued, “Indeed, she was just that independent of criticism, and I think it was her supreme grace. In her industries she was remarkable. She was always busy. If she wasn’t exterminating grasshoppers she was exterminating snakes – for no snake had any terrors for her. When she wasn’t catching mice she was catching birds. She was untiring in her energies.”
Twain also noted that cats, including Sour Mash, had no concept of bigotry. He wrote proudly, “She herself was a three-colored tortoise-shell, but she had no prejudices of breed, creed, or caste. She furnished us all kinds, all colors, with that impartiality which was so fine a part of her make.”
Another of Twain’s favorite cats was a black moggy named Bambino. Indeed, after Twain’s wife Livy had died, his daughter Clara – one of only two surviving Twain children at that point – was admitted to a sanatorium. There she’d encountered and adopted a cat she named Bambino, but he wasn’t permitted to stay, and Twain took him instead.
Meanwhile, Bambino the cat helped Twain overcome the grief of his wife’s death. He became such a good friend to the author that when he disappeared in 1905, as cats do from time to time, Twain offered a $5 reward for his safe return, or nearly $140 in today’s money.
So, searching for his beloved Bambino, Twain placed an advertisement in the New York American. It read, “Have you seen a distinguished-looking black cat that looks as if it might be lost? If you have, take it to Mark Twain, for it may be his.” Bambino’s description was, “Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair across his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light.”
Indeed, such was Twain’s fame that multiple people showed up at his door with cats, not out of concern but because they wanted to meet a celebrity. Twain’s servant Katy Leary wrote in her autobiography A Lifetime with Mark Twain, published in 2003, “The people that came bringing cats to that house! A perfect stream! They all wanted to see [Twain] of course.”
Eventually, Bambino returned to his master Twain on his own, none the worse for his solo adventure. The author then sent out another notice saying that the cat had been found and no one need worry anymore. Yet people were so keen to see the author at his home that even after that fans would turn up holding cats, just in case.
And there was another aspect to Twain’s love of cats. Indeed, whenever he was away from home, he would rent some. In the second volume of his autobiography, he wrote, “Many persons would like to have the society of cats during the summer vacation in the country, but they deny themselves this pleasure because they think they must either take the cats along when they return to the city, where they would be a trouble and an incumbrance, or leave them in the country, houseless and homeless.”
“These people have no ingenuity, no invention, no wisdom; or it would occur to them to do as I do: rent cats by the month for the summer, and return them to their good homes at the end of it,” Twain added. “Early last May I rented a kitten of a farmer’s wife, by the month; then I got a discount by taking three.”
“They have been good company for about five months now, and are still kittens – at least they have not grown much, and to all intents and purposes are still kittens, and as full of romping energy and enthusiasm as they were in the beginning,” Twain continued. “This is remarkable. I am an expert in cats, but I have not seen a kitten keep its kittenhood nearly so long before.”
Indeed, Twain’s biographer Albert Paine was there when Twain rented out the kittens. One of them was named Sackcloth, he said, and the other two shared the name of Ashes. Paine wrote in his 1912 book Mark Twain: A Biography, “He didn’t wish to own them, for then he would have to leave them behind uncared for, so he preferred to rent them and pay sufficiently to ensure their subsequent care.”
And Paine observed in his biography how well Twain treated cats. He wrote, “Once, as he was about to enter the screen door that led into the hall, two kittens ran up in front of him and stood waiting. With grave politeness he opened the door, made a low bow, and stepped back and said, ‘Walk in, gentlemen. I always give precedence to royalty.’”
And Twain did not only open doors for cats, he fought for their rights as well. He was firmly against the practice of vivisection, the aspect of animal experimentation which requires cutting one open while it’s still alive. He was also an honorary member of the London Anti-Vivisection Society.
In 1899 Twain wrote a letter to the Anti-Vivisection Society and angrily denounced the practice. He wrote, “I believe I am not interested to know whether vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. To know that the results are profitable to the race would not remove my hostility to it.”
“The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further,” Twain continued in his letter to the London Anti-Vivisection Society. “It is so distinctly a matter of feeling with me, and is so strong and so deeply rooted in my make and constitution, that I am sure I could not even see a vivisector vivisected with anything more than a sort of qualified satisfaction.”
Meanwhile, Twain wrote in his 1896 essay The Lowest Animal, “Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.” So knowing of Twain’s background it’s easy to see why he might be cynical about human nature. But what attracted the animal lover to cats in particular?
“Of all God’s creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat,” the author wrote, as quoted by Albert Paine in his collection of the former’s writings, called Mark Twain’s Notebook. “If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” Indeed, he was a great admirer of the independence of cats and their refusal to follow orders.
Then, between 1905 and 1906 Twain worked on a manuscript called The Refuge of the Derelicts. It was unpublished throughout his lifetime, only coming to light in 1972. In it, he elaborates even more on the nature of cats, writing, “That’s the way with a cat, you know – any cat; they don’t give a damn for discipline.”
“He [a cat] is the only creature in heaven or earth or anywhere that don’t have to obey somebody or other, including the angels. It sets him above the whole ruck, it puts him in a class by himself. He is independent,” Twain continued. “[Do] you understand the size of it? He is the only independent person there is. In heaven or anywhere else.”
“There’s always somebody a king has to obey – a trollop, or a priest, or a ring, or a nation, or a deity or what not – but it ain’t so with a cat,” Twain went on. “A cat ain’t servant nor slave to anybody at all. He’s got all the independence there is, in heaven or anywhere else, there ain’t any left over for anybody else.”
Essentially, Twain liked that cats had the ability to treat everybody equally. He added in The Refuge of the Derelicts, “He’s your friend, if you like, but that’s the limit – equal terms, too, be you king or be you cobbler; you can’t play any I’m-better-than-you on a cat – no, sir! Yes, he’s your friend, if you like, but you got to treat him like a gentleman, there ain’t any other terms.”
But from Twain’s love of cats a question arises: did he also like dogs? The two species are often thought to be at odds with each other, but a lot of people love both. Alas, Twain wasn’t one of them. In Mark Twain: A Biography, Paine wrote, “There was less enthusiasm over dogs at [the family’s summer home in] Quarry Farm. Mark Twain himself had no great love for the canine breed.”
Once, according to Paine’s book, a woman wrote to Twain asking what he thought of dogs. And the author responded by comparing them unfavorably to cats. He apparently wrote, “By what right has the dog come to be regarded as a ‘noble’ animal? The more brutal and cruel and unjust you are to him the more your fawning and adoring slave he becomes.”
“Whereas, if you shamefully misuse a cat once she will always maintain a dignified reserve toward you afterward – you can never get her full confidence again,” Twain wrote. However, though Twain didn’t love dogs, he didn’t hate them either. Indeed, Paine noted that “there was once at the farm a gentle hound, named Bones, that for some reason even won his way into his affections.”
“Bones was always a welcome companion, and when the end of summer came, and [Twain], as was his habit, started down the drive ahead of the carriage, Bones, half-way to the entrance, was waiting for him,” Paine wrote. [Twain] stooped down, put his arms around him, and bade him an affectionate goodbye. He always recalled Bones tenderly, and mentioned him in letters to the farm.”
And Twain may have considered dogs, too, to be essentially superior to humans. In his last piece of writing, Etiquette for the Afterlife: Advice to Paine, he gave his biographer some advice for the afterlife. The former wrote, “Leave your dog outside. Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and the dog would go in.”
owever, for all that Twain said about animals being better than people, his biographer Paine was never completely convinced. In the second volume of his biography about the author, the latter wrote, “Mark Twain might be first to grab for the life-preserver, but he would also be first to hand it to a humanity in greater need. He could damn the human race competently, but in the final reckoning it was the interest of that race that lay closest to his heart.”