All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
13 January, 2012
Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
CCXIX. Yachting and Theology
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Clemens made fewer speeches during the Riverdale period. He was as
frequently demanded, but he had a better excuse for refusing, especially
the evening functions. He attended a good many luncheons with friendly
spirits like Howells, Matthews, James L. Ford, and Hamlin Garland. At
the end of February he came down to the Mayor's dinner given to Prince
Henry of Prussia, but he did not speak. Clemens used to say afterward
that he had not been asked to speak, and that it was probably because of
his supposed breach of etiquette at the Kaiser's dinner in Berlin; but
the fact that Prince Henry sought him out, and was most cordially and
humanly attentive during a considerable portion of the evening, is
against the supposition.
Clemens attended a Yale alumni dinner that winter and incidentally
visited Twichell in Hartford. The old question of moral responsibility
came up and Twichell lent his visitor a copy of Jonathan Edwards's
'Freedom of the Will' for train perusal. Clemens found it absorbing.
Later he wrote Twichell his views.
DEAR JOE,--(After compliments.)--[Meaning "What a good time you gave
me; what a happiness it was to be under your roof again," etc. See
opening sentence of all translations of letters passing between Lord
Roberts and Indian princes and rulers.]--From Bridgeport to New
York, thence to home, & continuously until near midnight I wallowed
& reeked with Jonathan in his insane debauch; rose immensely
refreshed & fine at ten this morning, but with a strange & haunting
sense of having been on a three days' tear with a drunken lunatic.
It is years since I have known these sensations. All through the
book is the glare of a resplendent intellect gone mad--a marvelous
spectacle. No, not all through the book
--the drunk does not come on till the last third, where what I take
to be Calvinism & its God begins to show up & shine red & hideous in
the glow from the fires of hell, their only right and proper
Jonathan seems to hold (as against the Armenian position) that the
man (or his soul or his will) never creates an impulse itself, but
is moved to action by an impulse back of it. That's sound!
Also, that of two or more things offered it, it infallibly chooses
the one which for the moment is most pleasing to ITSELF. Perfectly
correct! An immense admission for a man not otherwise sane.
Up to that point he could have written Chapters III & IV of my
suppressed Gospel. But there we seem to separate. He seems to
concede the indisputable & unshaken dominion of Motive & Necessity
(call them what he may, these are exterior forces & not under the
man's authority, guidance, or even suggestion); then he suddenly
flies the logical track & (to all seeming) makes the man & not those
exterior forces responsible to God for the man's thoughts, words, &
acts. It is frank insanity.
I think that when he concedes the autocratic dominion of Motive and
Necessity he grants a third position of mine--that a man's mind is a
mere machine--an automatic machine--which is handled entirely from
the outside, the man himself furnishing it absolutely nothing; not
an ounce of its fuel, & not so much as a bare suggestion to that
exterior engineer as to what the machine shall do nor how it shall
do it nor when.
After that concession it was time for him to get alarmed & shirk--
for he was pointed straight for the only rational & possible next
station on that piece of road--the irresponsibility of man to God.
And so he shirked. Shirked, and arrived at this handsome result:
Man is commanded to do so & so.
It has been ordained from the beginning of time that some men
sha'n't & others can't.
These are to blame: let them be damned.
I enjoy the Colonel very much, & shall enjoy the rest of him with an
Joe, the whole tribe shout love to you & yours!
Clemens was moved to set down some theology of his own, and did so in a
manuscript which he entitled, "If I Could Be There." It is in the
dialogue form he often adopted for polemic writing. It is a colloquy
between the Master of the Universe and a Stranger. It begins:
If I could be there, hidden under the steps of the throne, I should hear
conversations like this:
A STRANGER. Lord, there is one who needs to be punished, and has been
overlooked. It is in the record. I have found it.
LORD. By searching?
S. Yes, Lord.
L. Who is it? What is it?
S. A man.
S. He died in sin. Sin committed by his great-grandfather.
L. When was this?
S. Eleven million years ago.
L. Do you know what a microbe is?
S. Yes, Lord. It is a creature too small to be detected by my eye.
L. He commits depredations upon your blood?
S. Yes, Lord.
L. I give you leave to subject him to a billion years of misery for this
offense. Go! Work your will upon him.
S. But, Lord, I have nothing against him; I am indifferent to him.
S. He is so infinitely small and contemptible. I am to him as is a
mountain-range to a grain of sand.
L. What am I to man?
L. Am I not, to a man, as is a billion solar systems to a grain of sand?
S. It is true, Lord.
L. Some microbes are larger than others. Does man regard the
S. No, Lord. To him there is no difference of consequence. To him they
are all microbes, all infinitely little and equally inconsequential.
L. To me there is no difference of consequence between a man & a
microbe. Man looks down upon the speck at his feet called a microbe from
an altitude of a thousand miles, so to speak, and regards him with
indifference; I look down upon the specks called a man and a microbe from
an altitude of a billion leagues, so to speak, and to me they are of a
size. To me both are inconsequential. Man kills the microbes when he
S. Yes, Lord.
L. Then what? Does he keep him in mind years and years and go on
contriving miseries for him?
S. No, Lord.
L. Does he forget him?
S. Yes, Lord.
S. He cares nothing more about him.
L. Employs himself with more important matters?
S. Yes, Lord.
L. Apparently man is quite a rational and dignified person, and can
divorce his mind from uninteresting trivialities. Why does he affront me
with the fancy that I interest Myself in trivialities--like men and
L. Is it true the human race thinks the universe was created for its
S. Yes, Lord.
L. The human race is modest. Speaking as a member of it, what do you
think the other animals are for?
S. To furnish food and labor for man.
L. What is the sea for?
S. To furnish food for man. Fishes.
L. And the air?
S. To furnish sustenance for man. Birds and breath.
L. How many men are there?
S. Fifteen hundred millions.
L. (Referring to notes.) Take your pencil and set down some statistics.
In a healthy man's lower intestine 28,000,000 microbes are born daily and
die daily. In the rest of a man's body 122,000,000 microbes are born
daily and die daily. The two sums aggregate-what?
S. About 150,000,000.
L. In ten days the aggregate reaches what?
S. Fifteen hundred millions.
L. It is for one person. What would it be for the whole human
S. Alas, Lord, it is beyond the power of figures to set down that
multitude. It is billions of billions multiplied by billions of
billions, and these multiplied again and again by billions of billions.
The figures would stretch across the universe and hang over into space on
L. To what intent are these uncountable microbes introduced into the
S. That they may eat.
L. Now then, according to man's own reasoning, what is man for?
L. What is he for?
S. To-to-furnish food for microbes.
L. Manifestly. A child could see it. Now then, with this common-sense
light to aid your perceptions, what are the air, the land, and the ocean
S. To furnish food for man so that he may nourish, support, and multiply
and replenish the microbes.
L. Manifestly. Does one build a boarding-house for the sake of the
boarding-house itself or for the sake of the boarders?
S. Certainly for the sake of the boarders.
L. Man's a boarding-house.
S. I perceive it, Lord.
L. He is a boarding-house. He was never intended for anything else. If
he had had less vanity and a clearer insight into the great truths that
lie embedded in statistics he would have found it out early. As concerns
the man who has gone unpunished eleven million years, is it your belief
that in life he did his duty by his microbes?
S. Undoubtedly, Lord. He could not help it.
L. Then why punish him? He had no other duty to perform.
Whatever else may be said of this kind of doctrine, it is at least
original and has a conclusive sound. Mark Twain had very little use for
orthodoxy and conservatism. When it was announced that Dr. Jacques Loeb,
of the University of California, had demonstrated the creation of life by
chemical agencies he was deeply interested. When a newspaper writer
commented that a "consensus of opinion among biologists" would probably
rate Dr. Loeb as a man of lively imagination rather than an inerrant
investigator of natural phenomena, he felt called to chaff the consensus
I wish I could be as young as that again. Although I seem so old
now I was once as young as that. I remember, as if it were but
thirty or forty years ago, how a paralyzing consensus of opinion
accumulated from experts a-setting around about brother experts who
had patiently and laboriously cold-chiseled their way into one or
another of nature's safe-deposit vaults and were reporting that they
had found something valuable was plenty for me. It settled it.
But it isn't so now-no. Because in the drift of the years I by and
by found out that a Consensus examines a new thing with its feelings
rather oftener than with its mind.
There was that primitive steam-engine-ages back, in Greek times: a
Consensus made fun of it. There was the Marquis of Worcester's
steam-engine 250 years ago: a Consensus made fun of it. There was
Fulton's steamboat of a century ago: a French Consensus, including
the great Napoleon, made fun of it. There was Priestley, with his
oxygen: a Consensus scoffed at him, mobbed him, burned him out,
banished him. While a Consensus was proving, by statistics and
things, that a steamship could not cross the Atlantic, a steamship
And so on through a dozen pages or more of lively satire, ending with an
extract from Adam's Diary.
Then there was a Consensus about it. It was the very first one. It
sat six days and nights. It was then delivered of the verdict that
a world could not be made out of nothing; that such small things as
sun and moon and stars might, maybe, but it would take years and
years if there was considerable many of them. Then the Consensus
got up and looked out of the window, and there was the whole outfit,
spinning and sparkling in space! You never saw such a disappointed
He was writing much at this time, mainly for his own amusement, though
now and then he offered one of his reflections for print. That beautiful
fairy tale, "The Five Boons of Life," of which the most precious is
"Death," was written at this period. Maeterlinck's lovely story of the
bee interested him; he wrote about that. Somebody proposed a Martyrs'
Day; he wrote a paper ridiculing the suggestion. In his note-book, too,
there is a memorandum for a love-story of the Quarternary Epoch which
would begin, "On a soft October afternoon 2,000,000 years ago." John
Fiske's Discovery of America, Volume I, he said, was to furnish the
animals and scenery, civilization and conversation to be the same as to-
day; but apparently this idea was carried no further. He ranged through
every subject from protoplasm to infinity, exalting, condemning,
ridiculing, explaining; his brain was always busy--a dynamo that rested
neither night nor day.
In April Clemens received notice of another yachting trip on the Kanawha,
which this time would sail for the Bahama and West India islands. The
guests were to be about the same.--[The invited ones of the party were
Hon. T. B. Reed, A. G. Paine, Laurence Hutton, Dr. C. C. Rice, W. T.
Foote, and S. L. Clemens. "Owners of the yacht," Mr. Rogers called them,
signing himself as "Their Guest."]
He sent this telegram:
H. H. ROGERS,
Can't get away this week. I have company here from tonight till middle
of next week. Will Kanawha be sailing after that & can I go as Sunday-
school superintendent at half rate? Answer and prepay.
The sailing date was conveniently arranged and there followed a happy
cruise among those balmy islands. Mark Twain was particularly fond of
"Tom" Reed, who had been known as "Czar" Reed in Congress, but was
delightfully human in his personal life. They argued politics a good
deal, and Reed, with all his training and intimate practical knowledge of
the subject, confessed that he "couldn't argue with a man like that."
"Do you believe the things you say?" he asked once, in his thin, falsetto
"Yes," said Clemens. "Some of them."
"Well, you want to look out. If you go on this way, by and by you'll get
to believing nearly everything you say."
Draw poker appears to have been their favorite diversion. Clemens in his
notes reports that off the coast of Florida Reed won twenty-three pots in
succession. It was said afterward that they made no stops at any harbor;
that when the chief officer approached the poker-table and told them they
were about to enter some important port he received peremptory orders to
"sail on and not interrupt the game." This, however, may be regarded as
more or less founded on fiction.