Mark Twain and Darwin

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My books have had effects, and very good ones, too, here and there, and some others not so good. There is no doubt about that. But I remember one monumental instance of it years and years ago. Professor Norton, of Harvard, was over here, and when he came back to Boston I went out with Howells to call on him. Norton was allied in some way by marriage with Darwin. Mr. Norton was very gentle in what he had to say, and almost delicate, and he said: “Mr. Clemens, I have been spending some time with Mr. Darwin in England, and I should like to tell you something connected with that visit. You were the object of it, and I myself would have been very proud of it, but you may not be proud of it. At any rate, I am going to tell you what it was, and to leave to you to regard it as you please. Mr. Darwin took me up to his bedroom and pointed out certain things there—pitcher-plants, and so on, that he was measuring and watching from day to day—and he said: ‘The chambermaid is permitted to do what she pleases in this room, but she must never touch those plants and never touch those books on that table by that candle. With those books I read myself to sleep every night.’ Those were your own books.” I said: “There is no question to my mind as to whether I should regard that as a compliment or not. I do regard it as a very great compliment and a very high honor that that great mind, laboring for the whole human race, should rest itself on my books. I am proud that he should read himself to sleep with them.”

Now, I could not keep that to myself—I was so proud of it. As soon as I got home to Hartford I called up my oldest friend—and dearest enemy on occasion—the Rev. Joseph Twichell, my pastor, and I told him about that, and, of course, he was full of interest and venom. Those people who get no compliments like that feel like that. He went off. He did not issue any applause of any kind, and I did not hear of that subject for some time. But when Mr. Darwin passed away from this life, and some time after Darwin’s Life and Letters came out, the Rev. Mr. Twichell procured an early copy of that work and found some thing in it which he considered applied to me. He came over to my house—it was snowing, raining, sleeting, but that did not make any difference to Twichell. He produced the book, and turned over and over, until he came to a certain place, when he said: “Here, look at this letter from Mr. Darwin to Sir Joseph Hooker.” What Mr. Darwin said—I give you the idea and not the very words—was this: I do not know whether I ought to have devoted my whole life to these drudgeries in natural history and the other sciences or not, for while I may have gained in one way I have lost in another. Once I had a fine perception and appreciation of high literature, but in me that quality is atrophied. “That was the reason,” said Mr. Twichell, “he was reading your books.”

——Mark Twain, Speech at the Pilgrims’ Club luncheon, 1907.

Dangerous Genius

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In the republic of mediocrity genius is dangerous.

——Robert G. Ingersoll, Testimonial to Walt Whitman

Epes Winthrop Sargent on Writing Comedy

Make every action tell both the story and the comedy and you have a comedy. Until you can do that don’t write comedy.

——“The Scenario Writer” column in Moving Picture World, 1912.

A Good Laugh

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Teague at the President’s Levee, by F. O. C. Darley, illustrating a scene in Modern Chivalry.

Many will, perhaps, turn up their noses, and throw the book away with contempt; saying, “of what use is all this—a book without ideas, or only such as have no other effect than to cause a laugh!” And does he accomplish nothing who can do this? What is there which so much conduces to health? When I get a man to laugh, I put him in a good humour with himself, and his neighbour. Nothing does a man more good than a hearty laugh, and if it does him good, is it not of use to him? Here then is an argument strictly utilitarian, according to the most rigid rules of logic.

—Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Modern Chivalry.

Artemus Ward on Grammar

A writer who can’t write in a grammerly manner better shut up shop.

—London Punch Letters.