Five years before our “Mark Twain” was born (1835), his father, John Marshall Clemens, purchased 100,000 acres of rich, undeveloped backwoods land in eastern Tennessee. He laid down $400 for the purchase and fervently believed that, although he would never profit from the land’s iron ore, minerals, timber, and coal, he had secured wealth for his children. Twain says about the purchase, “Thus with the very kindest intentions in the world toward us he laid the heavy curse of prospective wealth upon our shoulders.”
Within four years of the purchase came the great financial crash of 1834 and John Clemens’ fortunes were lost. So Samuel Clemens was born into humble circumstances and grew up knowing no different, except for this “promise” of future wealth from the Tennessee land.
Once John Clemens passed away, the children began slicing off segments of the land to trade for other property, pay off debts, or purchase run-down newspapers and other unpromising business opportunities. By 1887 all but 10,000 acres was gone, with nothing to show for the sales.
Twain makes this observation, “[The land] put our energies to sleep and made visionaries of us – dreamers and indolent. We were always going to be rich next year – [so took] no occasion to work. It is good to begin life poor; it is good to begin life rich – these are wholesome; but to begin it poor and prospectively rich! The man who has not experienced it cannot imagine the curse of it.”
Of all the Clemens children, Twain was the only one to make any profit from the land, for he used the land as the setting for The Gilded Age from which he made around $20,000 for the book and $80,000 for the play – about a dollar an acre.