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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
CCXLIV. Traits and Philosophies
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|I brought to the dictation one morning the Omar Khayyam card which
Twichell had written him so long ago; I had found it among the letters.
It furnished him a subject for that morning. He said:
How strange there was a time when I had never heard of Omar Khayyam!
When that card arrived I had already read the dozen quatrains or so
in the morning paper, and was still steeped in the ecstasy of
delight which they occasioned. No poem had ever given me so much
pleasure before, and none has given me so much pleasure since. It
is the only poem I have ever carried about with me. It has not been
from under my hand all these years.
He had no general fondness for poetry; but many poems appealed to him,
and on occasion he liked to read them aloud. Once, during the dictation,
some verses were sent up by a young authoress who was waiting below for
his verdict. The lines pictured a phase of negro life, and she wished to
know if he thought them worthy of being read at some Tuskegee ceremony.
He did not fancy the idea of attending to the matter just then and said:
"Tell her she can read it. She has my permission. She may commit any
crime she wishes in my name."
It was urged that the verses were of high merit and the author a very
charming young lady.
"I'm very glad," he said, "and I am glad the Lord made her; I hope He
will make some more just like her. I don't always approve of His
handiwork, but in this case I do."
Then suddenly he added:
"Well, let me see it--no time like the present to get rid of these
He took the manuscript and gave such a rendition of those really fine
verses as I believe could not be improved upon. We were held breathless
by his dramatic fervor and power. He returned a message to that young
aspirant that must have made her heart sing. When the dictation had
ended that day, I mentioned his dramatic gift.
"Yes," he said, "it is a gift, I suppose, like spelling and punctuation
and smoking. I seem to have inherited all those." Continuing, he spoke
of inherited traits in general.
"There was Paige," he said; "an ignorant man who could not make a machine
himself that would stand up, nor draw the working plans for one; but he
invented the eighteen thousand details of the most wonderful machine the
world has ever known. He watched over the expert draftsmen, and
superintended the building of that marvel. Pratt & Whitney built it; but
it was Paige's machine, nevertheless--the child of his marvelous gift.
We don't create any of our traits; we inherit all of them. They have
come down to us from what we impudently call the lower animals. Man is
the last expression, and combines every attribute of the animal tribes
that preceded him. One or two conspicuous traits distinguish each family
of animals from the others, and those one or two traits are found in
every member of each family, and are so prominent as to eternally and
unchangeably establish the character of that branch of the animal world.
In these cases we concede that the several temperaments constitute a law
of God, a command of God, and that whatsoever is done in obedience to
that law is blameless. Man, in his evolution, inherited the whole sum of
these numerous traits, and with each trait its share of the law of God.
He widely differs from them in this: that he possesses not a single
characteristic that is equally prominent in each member of his race. You
can say the housefly is limitlessly brave, and in saying it you describe
the whole house-fly tribe; you can say the rabbit is limitlessly timid,
and by the phrase you describe the whole rabbit tribe; you can say the
spider and the tiger are limitlessly murderous, and by that phrase you
describe the whole spider and tiger tribes; you can say the lamb is
limitlessly innocent and sweet and gentle, and by that phrase you
describe all the lambs. There is hardly a creature that you cannot
definitely and satisfactorily describe by one single trait--except man.
Men are not all cowards like the rabbit, nor all brave like the house-
fly, nor all sweet and innocent and gentle like the lamb, nor all
murderous like the spider and the tiger and the wasp, nor all thieves
like the fox and the bluejay, nor all vain like the peacock, nor all
frisky like the monkey. These things are all in him somewhere, and they
develop according to the proportion of each he received in his allotment:
We describe a man by his vicious traits and condemn him; or by his fine
traits and gifts, and praise him and accord him high merit for their
possession. It is comical. He did not invent these things; he did not
stock himself with them. God conferred them upon him in the first
instant of creation. They constitute the law, and he could not escape
obedience to the decree any more than Paige could have built the type-
setter he invented, or the Pratt & Whitney machinists could have invented
the machine which they built."
He liked to stride up and down, smoking as he talked, and generally his
words were slowly measured, with varying pauses between them. He halted
in the midst of his march, and without a suggestion of a smile added:
"What an amusing creature the human being is!"
It is absolutely impossible, of course, to preserve the atmosphere and
personality of such talks as this--the delicacies of his speech and
manner which carried an ineffable charm. It was difficult, indeed, to
record the substance. I did not know shorthand, and I should not have
taken notes at such times in any case; but I had trained myself in
similar work to preserve, with a fair degree of accuracy, the form of
phrase, and to some extent its wording, if I could get hold of pencil and
paper soon enough afterward. In time I acquired a sort of phonographic
faculty; though it always seemed to me that the bouquet, the subtleness
of speech, was lacking in the result. Sometimes, indeed, he would
dictate next morning the substance of these experimental reflections; or
I would find among his papers memoranda and fragmentary manuscripts where
he had set them down himself, either before or after he had tried them
verbally. In these cases I have not hesitated to amend my notes where it
seemed to lend reality to his utterance, though, even so, there is always
lacking--and must be--the wonder of his personality.