Monday, February 04, 2008

For the Love of Twain

Mark Twain, American Humorist.
Illustration from Puck Magazine, 16 Dec 1885.

In 1895, Eric Larsen Winje, the second husband of my great-great-grandmother, Thibertine, was working as a municipal court judge in Duluth, Minnesota. Winje emigrated from Hemne, Soer-Troendelag, Norway at the age of 18. He loved to read, and during his early adulthood in Chippewa County he studied for the Minnesota bar exam while serving as County Clerk (1882-1886). He admitted that during non-work hours, he read as he sat at home and "rocked the babies" that the stork kept delivering to him and his wife.

After moving to Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior in 1887, Eric and his wife "Bertina" adapted to the city after their years as immigrant homesteaders. In the 1880s-1890s, city life proved to be just as challenging and unpredictable as rural life, but in different ways. The couple lost several children while living in Duluth: their two youngest, Hattie and Annie, were lost to diphtheria within several days of each other in 1888, and in 1893 their eldest son, Louis, drowned in a boating accident.

In the summer of 1895, the family was still recovering from their devastating losses when a welcome diversion came to town. The famous American author, Mark Twain (1835-1910), visited Duluth during a tour of multiple locations in the States. It is almost certain that Eric Winje bought himself a ticket and attended with his wife, or with a friend from the law profession.

Twain was scheduled to speak at the First Methodist Church on the evening of July 23rd. The Duluth lecture was part of a 12-month worldwide speaking tour that began a few days earlier, on July 14. The well-known humorist arrived in Duluth over an hour late. The deacon stood at the steamship dock and watched for the ship and the delinquent lecturer, as the audience waited back at the church. The church was overcrowded, and attendees struggled to keep their composure while seated together tightly on the hard pews. Gentlemen stole frequent glances at their pocket watches, while ladies fanned themselves with handkerchiefs in the growing heat.

When the ship finally arrived and Twain disembarked, a horse-drawn hack transported him to his speaking engagement as quickly as possible. He finally stepped on the stage at 9:10 p.m. and began entertaining the crowd with a slow drawl that gave everyone the idea that nothing on earth could make him talk any faster. Twain proceeded to expound on stories from his books: Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, and Roughing It. [1][2]

Many years later, in 1930, Eric and Bertina Winje's daughter, Lena Winje, wrote about a collection of Mark Twain books in her father’s possession at the time of his death. Since Eric Winje obviously enjoyed reading Twain, it would seem likely that he attended the writer’s lecture. Winje must have sat patiently waiting with hundreds of others on that July evening in Duluth, growing warmer and more uncomfortable by the minute in the over-crowded quarters.

Mark Twain went on tour in 1895 to earn money to pay off debts incurred by his publishing company, which failed in part because of the financial panic of 1893. He said, “I cannot hope to build up another fortune now ... . I am getting too old for that. I shall be more than satisfied if within the next five years I can pay off my creditors.” The tour was entirely successful, and Twain was able to pay off all of his debts by 1898.[3]

It is not surprising that Scandinavian-Americans, like Eric Winje, held Mark Twain in high esteem, since they delighted in his self-effacing humor. An example of that humor was Twain's attitude toward Halley's comet being visible at the time of his birth, which made his arrival an even more momentus occasion among his reading public. When discussing the auspicious timing, Twain said, "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it... The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'" [4]

[1] Twain’s visit to Duluth described in: “Mark Twain,” The Duluth Evening Herald, 23 July 1895, and “Mark an Hour Late,” The Duluth News Tribune, 23 July 1895.
[2] [3] Twain's 1895 tour specifics, speech and quotes: HistoryLink
[4] Twain quote:


  1. What a fascinating post - I love how you combine local history/ literary history/ family history! Where did you get the great pic of Twain?

    I like Twain very much too - esp his essays such as "The Awful German Language" (which I had a good laugh over when studying German!)

  2. Hi Lidian,

    Thank you for your nice comment! The pic was an illustration out of Puck Magazine from 1895. The UW Libraries here in Seattle have it on microfilm.