April 30, 1906

Mark Twain on the San Francisco Earthquake and a Picture He Cannot Get Out of His Mind

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The shock of the earthquake which struck San Francisco on the morning of April 18, 1906 – leveling countless buildings, starting a fire that lasted three days, and taking hundreds of lives - was felt all across the country.  New York City was no exception and, overnight, organizations were formed to give aid. One of them was the California Artists Relief Society, and it was for this organization that Robert Reid painted the picture, “The Spirit of Humanity,” which Clemens (Mark Twain) writes so movingly about here:

I keep thinking about that picture - I cannot get it out of my mind. I think - no, I know - that it is the most moving, the most eloquent, the most profoundly pathetic picture I have ever seen. It wrings the heart to look at it, it is so desolate, so grieved. It realizes San Francisco to us as words have not done & cannot do. I wonder how many women can look upon it & keep back their tears - or how many unhardened men, for that matter?

“The Spirit of Humanity” depicted a woman taking a child into her arms, while at her knees another woman knelt. It was sold on May 6th for $250, to New York art dealer William Clausen.

Twain loved San Francisco, where he had lived at the start of his career - and his immortal quip, that "the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco," forever associated him with that city.

 Autograph Letter Signed (“Mark”), 2 pages, octavo, on black-bordered mourning stationery, 21 Fifth Avenue, [New York City], April 30 [1906]. To Robert Reid.

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Transcript

21 Fifth Avenue

April 30.

Dear Robert: 

I keep thinking about that picture - I cannot get it out of my mind. I think - no, I know - that it is the most moving, the most eloquent, the most profoundly pathetic picture I have ever seen. It wrings the heart to look at it, it is so desolate, so grieved. It realizes San Francisco to us as words have not done & cannot do. I wonder how many women can look upon it & keep back their tears - or how many unhardened men, for that matter?

Yours ever

Mark