Conversation With Mark Twain
|Excuse me Mr. Twain I saw you
sitting by yourself and wondered if I could speak with you?
Mr. Twain: "Woman is loveable, gracious, kind of heart, beautiful __worthy of all respect, of all esteem, of all deference." I said at an address to a Washington Correspondents Club awhile back, "What would the people of the earth be without woman? They would be scarce, almighty scarce: Then let us cherish her, let us protect her, let us give her our support, our encouragement, our sympathy, ourselves ___ if we get a chance." Take a seat my dear I always have time for a member of the fair sex.
Thank you Mr. Twain I am honored you would speak with me I have so many questions I would ask of you if you could find time to answer them. I have read your books and studied your speeches and find you to be a most interesting person. Might I first ask for your autograph in this treasured copy of your book Tom Sawyer?
Thank you Mr. Twain, do you prefer Mr. Twain or Mr. Clemens?
Mark Twain: My dear I have been called many names by many people depending on how they thought of me at the moment, use what you like. First let me explain my rules about smoking.
(Note: Should the midi still be playing once you have reached this point allow it to finish the loop before listening to Mr. Twain)
Mr. Twain getting back to your name you have often signed your name Samuel L. Clemens, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, S.L.C. and your pen name, Mark Twain, on the many books you wrote. I read once that the name, "Mark Twain" comes from the days of your piloting riverboats.
Mark Twain: This is true young lady, on the river boats, one member of the crew always stood near the railing measuring the depth of the water with a long cord which had flags spaced six feet or a fathom apart. When the crewman saw the flags disappear he would call out "Mark One" for one fathom and for two fathoms he called out "Mark Twain" two fathoms meant safe clearance for river boats. This is how I chose the name Mark Twain which recalled not only my life on the river but which also means "all's well".
Mr. Twain you used the village of Hannibal, Missouri a small frontier town of less than 500 people as the setting for your books about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. That community had a social structure of slaves, poor whites and "quality folks" as you had Huck describe them. Many of these people were featured in the books you wrote. But you were actually born November 30th, 1835 in a town close to Hannibal called Florida.
Mr.Twain: Yes I was the sixth child of John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton Clemens. Father was a judge you know, but he died when I was only 12. Let me tell you about my birth in Hannibal.
Mr. Twain you are probably one of the most quoted people in history. You have an established reputation as a humorist that is almost insurmountable. A skillful orator, that I read once, gave over 150 dinner speeches. Your books have become classics, read all around the world, but more than that you are a passionate and zealous reformer. The Springfield Republican once reported that no one could have breathed new life into the anti-imperialist movement as quickly as you did. It went on to say that you were "the most influential anti-imperialist". Mr. W. A. Croffut felt your popularity as a humorist aided you, calling it your "weapons of satire", he wrote that "To the Person Sitting In Darkness" would reach "hundreds of thousands" who would not "taste of such truths from any other source. And some of the blamed fools will probably accept your sarcasm for the amiable humor which has always distinguished your work."
Mr. Twain: Oh my dear lady your kind words give cause to make an old man blush. This is what I used to say about blushing.
In reference to my use of humor to
confront the issues faced by every generation you will see it is now fashionable to speak
of extending "democracy" rather than "civilization". My most
hotly debated fundamental question still argued is "Shall we go on conferring our
civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a
rest?" Much has occurred since 1901 when I first mouthed my opinion of the
nation's doubts about its role in the world but do they not remain as vital at the close
of the century as they were at its beginning?
Mr. Twain the maxim that I find holds the most truth and yet always receives the most laughter is "When in doubt, tell the truth" which you went on to say at a speech of the Freundscraft Society, "but when I am in doubt myself I use more sagacity."
Mr. Twain: Yes my dear at the time of that speech I was speaking about Mr. Putzel who was working in the tax office. You may recall the word "taxes" was a very sore subject with me, having been taxed to the point of bankruptcy by Judge Leventritt and reported that evening that "he did find something that was not taxable __ when he said the commissioner could not tax your patience. And that comforted me. We've got so much taxation. I don't know of a single foreign product that enters this country untaxed except the answer to prayer."
Let me tell you about my meeting with Mr. Putzel in the tax office. "When I went down to the tax office some time ago, for the first time in New York, I saw Mr. Putzel sitting in the "Seat of Perjury". I recognized him right away. I warmed to him on the spot. I didn't know that I had ever seen him before but just as soon as I saw him I recognized him. I had met him twenty-five years before, and at that time had achieved a knowledge of his abilities and something more than that. I thought "Now, this is the man whom I saw twenty-five years ago." On that occasion I not only went free at his hands, but carried off something more than that. I hoped it would happen again.
It was twenty-five years ago when I saw a young clerk in Putnam's book-store. I went in there and asked for George Haven Putnam, and handed him my card, and then the young man said Mr. Putnam was busy and I couldn't see him. Well, I had merely called in a social way, and so it didn't matter.
I was going out when I saw a great big, fat, interesting-looking book lying there, and I took it up. It was an account of the invasion of England in the fourteenth century by the Preaching Friar, and it interested me.
I asked him the price of it, and he said four dollars.
"Well," I said, "what discount do you allow to publishers?"
He said: "Forty percent off."
I said: "All right, I am a publisher."
He put down the figure, forty percent off, on a card.
Then I said: "What discount do you allow to authors?"
He said: "Forty percent off."
"Well," I said, "set me down as an author."
"Now," said I, "what discount do you allow to the clergy?"
He said: "Forty percent off."
I said to him that I was only on the road, and that I was studying for the ministry. I asked him wouldn't he knock off twenty percent for that. He set down the figure, and he never smiled once.
I was working off these humorous brilliancies on him and getting no return -- not a scintillation in his eye, not a spark of recognition of what I was doing there. I was almost in despair.
I thought I might try him once more, so I said: "Now, I am also a member of the human race. Will you let me have the ten percent off for that?" He set it down, and never smiled.
Well, I gave it up. I said: "There is my card with my address on it, but I have not any money with me. Will you please send the bill to Hartford?" I took up the book and was going away.
He said: "Wait a minute. There is forty cents coming to you."
When I met him in the tax office I thought maybe I could make something again, but I could not. But I had not any idea I could when I came, and as it turned out I did get off entirely free.
I put up my hand and made a statement. It gave me a good deal of pain to do that. I was not used to it. I was born and reared in the higher circles of Missouri, and there we don't do such things -- didn't in my time, but we have got that little matter settled -- got a sort of tax levied on me.
Then he touched me. Yes, he touched me this time, because he cried -- cried! He was moved to tears to see that I, a virtuous person only a year before, after immersion for one year -- during one year in the New York morals -- had no more conscience than a millionaire."
Mr. Twain people recognize you by your white suit, however you did not always dress like the image of a "southern gentleman", when did you decide to wear only white suits?
Mr. Twain: I am not like to be inconspicuous but I have been asked this question before many times and this has been my answer.
Mr. Twain I always thought the way in which you described the adventures that Tom and Huckleberry had were filled with the spirit of yourself. You have always spoken your mind freely, rebelled when you felt the need was justified, and enlightened closed minds with your words. Tell me a little about your life as a child, one of the stories you are so famous for telling.
Mr. Twain: Little darling nothing pleases me more than to be given the opportunity to be an orator.
You are also known for some slight exaggerations Mr. Twain could you please tell me one of your favorites.
Mr. Twain: Well one comes to mind that you might enjoy.
Mr. Twain you delivered such a wonderful speech
on the occasion of your seventieth birthday might you repeat it for me. Mr. Twain: "It's a long stretch
between that first birthday speech and this one: That was my cradle-song, and this
is my swan-song, I suppose. I am used to swan-songs; I have sung them several
times." I will try to recall what I said on that occasion.
Mr. Twain you delivered such a wonderful speech on the occasion of your seventieth birthday might you repeat it for me.
Mr. Twain: "It's a long stretch between that first birthday speech and this one: That was my cradle-song, and this is my swan-song, I suppose. I am used to swan-songs; I have sung them several times." I will try to recall what I said on that occasion."The seventieth birthday! It is the time of life when you arrive at a new and awful dignity; when you may throw aside the decent reserves which have oppressed you for a generation and stand unafraid and unabashed upon your seven-terraced summit and look down and teach -- unrebuked. You can tell the world how you got there. It is what they all do. You shall never get tired of telling by what delicate arts and deep moralities you climbed up to that great place. You will explain the process and dwell on the particulars with senile rapture. I have been anxious to explain my own system this long time, and now at last I have the right.
I have achieved my seventy years in the usual way: by sticking strictly to a scheme of life which would kill anybody else. It sounds like an exaggeration, but that is really the common rule for attaining to old age. When we examine the programme of any of these garrulous old people we always find that the habits which have preserved them would have decayed us; that the way of life which enabled them to live upon the property of their heirs so long, as Mr. Choate says, would have put us out of commission ahead of time. I will offer here, as a sound maxim, this: That we can't reach old age by another man's road.
I will now teach, offering my way of life to whomsoever desires to commit suicide by the scheme which has enabled me to beat the doctor and the hangman for seventy years. Some of the details may sound untrue, but they are not. I am not here to deceive; I am here to teach.
We have no permanent habits until we are forty. Then they begin to harden, presently they petrify, then business begins. Since forty I have been regular about going to bed and getting up -- and that is one of the main things. I have made it a rule to go to bed when there wasn't anybody left to sit up with; and I have made it a rule to get up when I had to. This has resulted in an unswerving regularity of irregularity. It has saved me sound, but it would injure another person.
In the matter of diet -- which is another main thing -- I have been persistently strict in sticking to the things which didn't agree with me until one or the other of us got the best of it. Until lately I got the best of it myself. But last spring I stopped frolicking with mince-pie after midnight; up to then I had always believed it wasn't loaded. For thirty years I have taken coffee and bread at eight in the morning, and no bite nor sup until seven-thirty in the evening. Eleven hours. That is all right for me, and is wholesome, because I have never had a headache in my life, but headachy people would not reach seventy comfortably by that road, and they would be foolish to try it. And I wish to urge upon you this -- which I think is wisdom -- that if you find you can't make seventy by any but an uncomfortable road, don't you go. When they take off the Pullman and retire you to the rancid smoker, put on your things, count your checks, and get out at the first way station where there's a cemetery.
I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time. I have no other restriction as regards smoking. I do not know just when I began to smoke, I only know that it was in my father's lifetime, and that I was discreet. He passed from this life early in 1847, when I was a shade past eleven; ever since then I have smoked publicly. As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake. It is a good rule. I mean, for me; but some of you know quite well that it wouldn't answer for everybody that's trying to get to be seventy.
I smoke in bed until I have to go to sleep; I wake up in the night, sometimes once, sometimes twice, sometimes three times, and I never waste any of these opportunities to smoke. This habit is so old and dear and precious to me that I would feel as you, sir, would feel if you should lose the only moral you've got -- meaning the chairman -- if you've got one: I am making no charges. I will grant, here, that I have stopped smoking now and then, for a few months at a time, but it was not on principle, it was only to show off; it was to pulverize those critics who said I was a slave to my habits and couldn't break my bonds.
Today it is all of sixty years since I began to smoke the limit. I have never bought cigars with life-belts around them. I early found that those were too expensive for me. I have always bought cheap cigars -- reasonably cheap, at any rate. Sixty years ago they cost me four dollars a barrel, but my taste has improved, latterly, and I pay seven now. Six or seven. Seven, I think. Yes, it's seven. But that includes the barrel. I often have smoking-parties at my house; but the people that come have always just taken the pledge. I wonder why that is?
As for drinking, I have no rule about that. When the others drink I like to help; otherwise I remain dry, by habit and preference. This dryness does not hurt me, but it could easily hurt you, because you are different. You let it alone.
Since I was seven years old I have seldom taken a dose of medicine, and have still seldomer needed one. But up to seven I lived exclusively on allopathic medicines. Not that I needed them, for I don't think I did; it was for economy; my father took a drug-store for a debt, and it made cod-liver oil cheaper than the other breakfast foods. We had nine barrels of it, and it lasted me seven years. Then. I was weaned. The rest of the family had to get along with rhubarb and ipecac and such things, because I was the pet. I was the first Standard Oil Trust. I had it all. By the time the drug store was exhausted my health was established, and there has never been much the matter with, me since. But you know very well it would be foolish for the average child to start for seventy on that basis. It happened to be just the thing for me, but that was merely an accident; it couldn't happen again in a century.
I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any. Exercise is loathsome. And it cannot be any benefit when you are tired; and I was always tired. But let another person try my way, and see where he will come out.
I desire now to repeat and emphasize that maxim: We can't reach old age by another man's road. My habits protect my life, but they would assassinate you.
I have lived a severely moral life. But it would be a mistake for other people to try that, or for me to recommend it. Very few would succeed: you have to have a perfectly colossal stock of morals; and you can't get them on a margin; you have to have the whole thing, and put them in your box. Morals are an acquirement -- like music, like a foreign language, like piety, poker, paralysis -- no man is born with them. I wasn't myself, I started poor. I hadn't a single moral. There is hardly a man in this house that is poorer than I was then. Yes, I started like that -- the world before me, not a moral in the slot. Not even an insurance moral. I can remember the first one I ever got. I can remember the landscape, the weather, the -- I can remember how everything looked. It was an old moral, an old second-hand moral, all out of repair, and didn't fit, anyway. But if you are careful with a thing like that, and keep it in a dry place, and save it for processions, and Chautauquas, and World's Fairs, and so on, and disinfect it now and then, and give it a fresh coat of whitewash once in a while, you will be surprised to see how well she will last and how long she will keep sweet, or at least inoffensive. When I got that mouldy old moral, she had stopped growing, because she hadn't any exercise; but I worked her hard, I worked her Sundays and all. Under this cultivation she waxed in might and stature beyond belief, and served me well and was my pride and joy for sixty-three years; then she got to associating with insurance presidents, and lost flesh and character, and was a sorrow to look at and no longer competent for business. She was a great loss to me. Yet not all loss. I sold her -- ah, pathetic skeleton, as she was -- I sold her to Leopold, the pirate King of Belgium; he sold her to our Metropolitan Museum, and it was very glad to get her, for without a rag on, she stands 57 feet long and 16 feet high, and they think she's a brontosaur. Well, she looks it. They believe it will take nineteen geological periods to breed her match.
Morals are of inestimable value, for every man is born crammed with sin microbes, and the only thing that can extirpate these sin microbes is morals. Now you take a sterilized Christian -- I mean, you take the sterilized Christian, for there's only one. Dear sir, I wish you wouldn't look at me like that.
Threescore years and ten!
It is the Scriptural statute of limitations. After that, you owe no active duties; for you the strenuous life is over. You are a time-expired man, to use Kipling's military phrase: You have served your term, well or less well, and you are mustered out. You are become an honorary member of the republic, you are emancipated, compulsions are not for you, not any bugle-call but "lights out." You pay the time-worn duty bills if you choose, or decline if you prefer -- and without prejudice -- for they are not legally collectable.
The previous-engagement plea, which in forty years has cost you so many twinges, you can lay aside forever; on this side of the grave you will never need it again. If you shrink at the thought of night and winter, and the late home-coming from the banquet and the lights and the laughter through the deserted streets -- a desolation which would not remind you now, as for a generation it did, that your friends are sleeping, and you must creep in a-tiptoe and not disturb them, but would only remind you that you need not tiptoe, you can never disturb them more -- if you shrink at thought of these things, you need only reply, "Your invitation honors me, and pleases me because you still keep me in your remembrance, but I am seventy; seventy, and would nestle in the chimney-corner, and smoke my pipe, and read my book, and take my rest, wishing you well in all affection, and that when you in your return shall arrive at pier No. 70 you may step aboard your waiting ship with a reconciled spirit, and lay your course toward the sinking sun with a contented heart."
Mr. Twain, Charles Vale wrote these words about you perhaps you would be pleased to hear them. "TWO dates: November 30th, 1835; April 21st, 1910. Between them, a life that counts -- the full life of a virile, brilliant and successful man. For Mark Twain was eminently successful. He made money, and lost it. He captured the affection of the world, and never lost it. When it was necessary, he made more money, by a sustained and wonderful effort. When it was quite unnecessary, he made more friends, without any effort at all. He had long been rich, in the currency of affection. New friendships represented merely the income from his invested capital.
The secret of his popularity is an open one. It has been shouted from the housetops, and whispered by the press. Mark Twain personified the most valuable and obvious traits of the American character -- the ability and the desire for hard work; contempt for the finicking, the insincere, the affected; bitter scorn for the larger shams of the unit and the multitude graft, greed, hypocrisy, cant. In a land of vast possibilities, but some unpleasant realities, he upheld the banner of commercial integrity and maintained the moral obligation of every man to pay his debts in full -- as Nature pays hers. The doctrine was sufficiently antique to be attractive: the modern setting served as an advertisement. The world dearly loves a lover of lucre: it applauds a thief whose peculations are on a magnificent scale. Yet deeper and more enduring than the reverence for the multi-millionaire is the reverence for the single-hearted, honest man. Mark Twain earned this reverence, nobly. It was given to him ungrudgingly, though not fulsomely."
(Mr. Twain smiled, at a loss for words perhaps for the first time in his life, but I knew he was pleased.)
Mr. Twain to quote you Sir, "All good things arrive unto them that wait - and don't die in the meantime." Mr. Twain your humor and wisdom will live on into the 21st century where we will need it to survive the world we live in. Thank you for your time Mr. Twain, talking with you has been a dream of mine for a long time.
Mr. Twain: "Only he who has seen better days and lives to see better days again knows their full value. When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries of life disappear and life stands explained. Life is at best a dream and at worst a nightmare from which you cannot escape." Good bye Little Miss it was a pleasure for an old man to while away the time speaking with you.
(With these words Mr. Twain kissed my hand and while holding it patted it softly in an end to our conversation. I took his sweet dismissal and left the dear old gentleman. I think he knew I would write of our conversation and that this knowledge pleased him.)
Cheryl C. Helynck