Sometimes when you feel that the world has gone too serious for you, pick up Gary Scharnhorst’s book of Mark Twain’s letters to the editor, Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics. Scharnhorst is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of New Mexico whose collection of Twain’s letters has been published by the University of Missouri Press.
Twain’s letters to the editor are a delight. He sent one to the St. Louis Sunday Republican that was published March 17, 1867 asking for public sympathy. As a journalist, I was first caught by his proclamation, “I have been in the newspaper business a long time, and I have some little peculiarities natural to the profession, one or two propensities, in fact, which are pleasant to me but which I have a delicacy in indulging in without explanation when among strangers.”
Sometimes, he wrote, he sought “relief” in a secluded spot in St. Louis’ Lafayette Park but he kept seeing signs saying “Visitors are forbidden to walk or lie on the grass.” He set out to find someone to talk to about them and found a man he took to be a watchman he presumed was taking care of the grounds. I can hear the voice of Hal Holbrook as Twain relates more of the story.
“When the sign says I cannot walk or lie on the grass, it is a plain intimation that I can walk or lie in the public roadways of the park, ain’t it?”
He said, “Certainly, certainly—nobody ain’t going to interfere.”
“Very well,” I said, “it is a great relief to me—just give me your arm. You were going toward the other end of the grounds, I believe? Just so. Well, sir, I once had an uncle—got him yet for that matter—an uncle whose name was Isaac—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—named after the whole tribe, you know, and—don’t interrupt me, please—this Isaac was rather stupid, stupid as an owl, sir, but a muscular man, and a man of prodigious appetite. Why, as to his strength, nothing like it was ever seen in the world before—Samson was an infant to him—he carried off a church once, and you know it created dissatisfaction and considerable comment, and he went back after the congregation—DON’T interrupt me, if you please—and his plantation contained, well, say eighteen hundred acres of beautiful land, beautiful! But it was out of the way, some, and with no other implements, sir, than a wheelbarrow and a common shovel, he removed that entire plantation in a single night and deposited it in a most eligible position alongside the railroad. It was a splendid idea, sir, splendid. It increased the value of his plantation more than ten thousand percent.; but, as you perceive, sir, it utterly beggared the man whose plantation he covered up. Strong? Why, my friend, just the mere ballast of sin that that man carried around him would have crushed a common athlete to the earth; crush him? It would annihilate him, sir! My uncle, sir, could carry more sin on an even keel, and draw less water, and steer better than—please don’t interrupt me, sir—and he was a most remarkable man! But at last, noble sir, that fell accident happened, which cast a blight over my life, and banished the roses from my cheek, alas! Never to return, watchman. Heaven knows it was a sad day for me. Well, that day my uncle had taken the oath, and several drinks, and a handful of spoons and various other articles and was feeling very well—he was always of a cheerful disposition—when all at once a sort of spontaneous combustion got started in his stomach, because, you see, he had been drinking a lot of uncommon bad whiskey, and trying to tell the truth all the while, and the truth and that sort of whiskey don’t really mix readily you know—but you understand these things. This spontaneous combustion got started, and it extended upward and upward and upward, until at last it left go like an earthquake and blew the whole top of his head to the moon!—brains and all!—I pledge you my word of honor, there wasn’t the hundredth part of a teaspoonful of brains left in that idolized frame. It was awful. Well, the whole top of his head was gone, you know, and so there was nothing for it but to put a tin roof on him—don’t interrupt me, can’t you?—no way but to put a tin roof on him, which disfigured him greatly, but was perfectly safe although it attracted heat of course, and might have caused brain fever, only, as I said before, the brains were all gone—but now comes the dickens of it, you know—what to do with him!—what the very nation to do with him! He couldn’t mould bricks, he couldn’t be a doctor, he couldn’t make more than a mere ordinary sort of a preacher—it didn’t really seem as if he were fitted for anything better than a kind of Mayor or City Councilman, or something of that description, and so, gifted sir, you can imaging the desolation that fell upon all our hearts and drove hope and happiness from our breasts—till at last, Heaven be praised, the people, the high and noble, the wisdom-inspired people, saw what Providence had intended him to be and they sent him to Congress, sir! They sent him to Congress…”
Twain reported the watchman at that point had had enough and left in a huff, which left Twain surprised and “grieved.” After all, the watchman had told him he couldn’t lie or walk on the grass but could lie and walk on the walks as much as he wanted to, it seemed discourteous of him to leave. “Can I lie with any satisfaction without I have got somebody to lie to? Why, certainly not. Did that idiot suppose I wanted to march around that dismal park and lie all to myself? It is absurd.” He asked the editor to request the signs prohibiting lying or walking on the grass to be removed. Their restrictions, he said, “amounts to heartless inhumanity.”
Your correspondent and his own “peculiarities natural to the profession” of journalism loves that letter. The failure of mixing truth with too much bad whiskey. A tin-headed member of Congress. The futility of a “march around that dismal park” lying only to himself.
It was a letter to the editor in 1867. Is it a parable for the election year of 2016?
(editor’s note: We’ve seen Hal Holbrook and his “Mark Twain Tonight” show many times, spent a wonderful hour interviewing him once, and helped arrange for him to perform in Jefferson City on the last night of the 2014 legislative session. Unfortunately, few members of the legislature stuck around to see him.
After his two-hour performance, he spent quite a bit of time with some folks backstage and later had dinner with several of the concert folks. Your correspondent, exhausted from the last week of the session, had to skip the dinner. But the president of the concert association, Mark Comley, related that during dinner he told Holbrook one of the memorable routines he had seen Holbrook perform many years earlier was the story of the “Begum of Bengal,” the story of a pipsqueak boat captain challenging a great trading ship from the orient. He said Holbrook grew quiet for a while and then, there at the table, performed the story! Mark figured Holbrook had been going through his voluminous mental files of Twain stories during that quiet time. If you’d like to see Holbrook/Twain tell the story, go to this link:
The story of the “Begum of Bengal” starts about 4:20 in.
He’s 91 today, February 17, and as far as we know still does his show on stage. He’s been Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain. He is simply one of the greatest performers in the history of American theatre. And that’s no lie.)