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.

A Precise Geometrical Description

His hair, from much running of fingers through it, radiates in all directions, and surrounds his head like a halo of glory, or like the corollary of Euc. I.32.

——Charles Dodgson, Euclid and His Modern Rivals.

The Unselfishness of Genius

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The virtues, talents, and glorious services of illustrious men of every nation constitute their best inheritance, their most rational source of pride and exultation, and it has often happened that the renown of a people, like that of the Thebans, began and ended with a single man. Yet how often we find nations either entirely indifferent to their best benefactors, or persecuting them with all the barbarous rigours of religious, political, or philosophical intolerance! Not to mention the numerous instances recorded of ancient times, we shall find, even in the most enlightened ages, humanized by the mild and forgiving precepts of Christianity, these examples, if possible still more numerous and flagrant. Galileo is a hackneyed instance; but it is not so generally known that Newton was charged by bigotry and ignorance with holding opinions at war with orthodoxy, and Locke expelled from that reverend bedlam Oxford by political intolerance. Among the most illustrious reformers, as well as the most enlightened of reasoners, Melancthon, Erasmus, and even Theodore Beza were suspected and denounced, because they did not keep pace with the rampant zealots of the times, who would willingly have warmed them at the stake. In short, it would seem to be among the inflexible dispensations of Providence, that no selfish motive should ever operate upon the great benefactors of mankind, in their glorious endeavours, since all they can rationally anticipate as their reward in this world is to pass their lives amid persecutions and slanders, among a race of ungrateful beings, who never become sensible of their ingratitude or their obligations till it is too late to make reparation.

——James K. Paulding, The Merry Tales of the Three Wise Men of Gotham

Astronomy; or, American Exceptionalism

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By the wondrous discoveries of the improved telescopes of modern times, we ascertain that upwards of several hundred millions of stars exist, that are invisible to the naked eye—the nearest of which is millions of millions of’miles from the Earth; and as we have every reason to suppose that every one of this inconceivable number of worlds is peopled like our own, a consideration of this fact—and that we are undoubtedly as superior to these beings, as we are to the rest of mankind—is calculated to fill the mind of the American with a due sense of his own importance in the scale of animated creation.

——”Squibob,” Lectures on Astronomy.

Fiction and Statistics

There are many people who seem to have the idea that it is impossible for a novelist to create a character. They imagine that he is as dependent on a model as is the figure painter, and that every one of his characters is a portrait, drawn with more or less accuracy, of some one whom he has known. Dickens and Thackeray are supposed by the believers in this method of novel-writing to have put all their friends, enemies, and acquaintances into their books. I knew, some years ago, a young man who had persuaded himself that he was the original of “Steenforth,” and who came to complicated grief by striving to live up to the character. There is no doubt that in David Copperfield, which was virtually Dickens’ autobiography, Dickens did introduce his father, and several other persons whom he had known in his childhood days. It is also true that Disraeli caricatured Thackeray under the name of “St. Barbe,” but this was avowedly in retaliation for an attack upon Disraeli made by Thackeray before the latter had discovered, to poor Edmund Yates’s cost, that it was an unpardonable offence for one author to write of another’s physical peculiarities. It may, however, be safely asserted that no novelist worthy of the name copies his characters from living models. He prefers to create them, because the process is both easier and more satisfactory. The same thing may be said of statistics. I was once associated in the office of a daily newspaper with a man who frankly confessed that he always made his own statistics. He argued that statistics thus made did not lend themselves to undesirable conclusions as readily as do other statistics; and that it is an immense saving of time and labour to invent statistics rather than to search for them in encyclopaedias and other literary safedeposit storehouses. If my friend were alive to-day he would probably invent a series of statistics as to the characters of eminent novelists, which would fully prove that there are no “originals” of the men and women who people the world of romance. The theory that Defoe modelled Robinson Crusoe upon Alexander Selkirk; that Lord Steyne was a faithful study of a well-known British peer; and that Hardy works exclusively from models, is one of the most baseless delusions of the day.

——W. L. Alden, The Idler, February 1895.