Answers To Correspondents by Mark Twain
Story type: Literature
[Written about 1865.]
“MORAL STATISTICIAN.”–I don’t want any of your statistics; I took your whole batch and lit my pipe with it. I hate your kind of people. You are always ciphering out how much a man’s health is injured, and how much his intellect is impaired, and how many pitiful dollars and cents he wastes in the course of ninety-two years’ indulgence in the fatal practice of smoking; and in the equally fatal practice of drinking coffee; and in playing billiards occasionally; and in taking a glass of wine at dinner, etc., etc., etc. And you are always figuring out how many women have been burned to death because of the dangerous fashion of wearing expansive hoops, etc., etc., etc. You never see more than one side of the question. You are blind to the fact that most old men in America smoke and drink coffee, although, according to your theory, they ought to have died young; and that hearty old Englishmen drink wine and survive it, and portly old Dutchmen both drink and smoke freely, and yet grow older and fatter all the time. And you never by to find out how much solid comfort, relaxation, and enjoyment a man derives from smoking in the course of a lifetime (which is worth ten times the money he would save by letting it alone), nor the appalling aggregate of happiness lost in a lifetime your kind of people from not smoking. Of course you can save money by denying yourself all the little vicious enjoyments for fifty years; but then what can you do with it? What use can you put it to? Money can’t save your infinitesimal soul. All the use that money can be put to is to purchase comfort and enjoyment in this life; therefore, as you are an enemy to comfort and enjoyment, where is the use of accumulating cash? It won’t do for you say that you can use it to better purpose in furnishing a good table, and in charities, and in supporting tract societies, because you know yourself that you people who have no petty vices are never known to give away a cent, and that you stint yourselves so in the matter of food that you are always feeble and hungry. And you never dare to laugh in the daytime for fear some poor wretch, seeing you in a good humor, will try to borrow a dollar of you; and in church you are always down on your knees, with your eyes buried in the cushion, when the contribution-box comes around; and you never give the revenue officer: full statement of your income. Now you know these things yourself, don’t you? Very well, then what is the use of your stringing out your miserable lives to a lean and withered old age? What is the use of your saving money that is so utterly worthless to you? In a word, why don’t you go off somewhere and die, and not be always trying to seduce people into becoming as “ornery” and unlovable as you are yourselves, by your villainous “moral statistics”? Now I don’t approve of dissipation, and I don’t indulge in it, either; but I haven’t a particle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming petty vices, and so I don’t want to hear from you any more. I think you are the very same man who read me a long lecture last week about the degrading vice of smoking cigars, and then came back, in my absence, with your reprehensible fireproof gloves on, and carried off my beautiful parlor stove.
“YOUNG AUTHOR.”–Yes, Agassiz does recommend authors to eat fish, because the phosphorus in it makes brain. So far you are correct. But I cannot help you to a decision about the amount you need to eat–at least, not with certainty. If the specimen composition you send is about your fair usual average, I should judge that perhaps a couple of whales would be all you would want for the present. Not the largest kind, but simply good, middling-sized whales.
“SIMON WHEELER,” Sonora.–The following simple and touching remarks and accompanying poem have just come to hand from the rich gold-mining region of Sonora:
To Mr. Mark Twain: The within parson, which I have set to poetry under the name and style of “He Done His Level Best,” was one among the whitest men I ever see, and it ain’t every man that knowed him that can find it in his heart to say he’s glad the poor cuss is busted and gone home to the States. He was here in an early day, and he was the handyest man about takin’ holt of anything that come along you most ever see, I judge. He was a cheerful, stirnn’ cretur, always doin’ somethin’, and no man can say he ever see him do anything by halvers. Preachin was his nateral gait, but he warn’t a man to lay back a twidle his thumbs because there didn’t happen to be nothin’ do in his own especial line–no, sir, he was a man who would meander forth and stir up something for hisself. His last acts was to go his pile on “Kings-and” (calkatin’ to fill, but which he didn’t fill), when there was a “flush” out agin him, and naterally, you see, he went under. And so he was cleaned out as you may say, and he struck the home-trail, cheerful but flat broke. I knowed this talonted man in Arkansaw, and if you would print this humbly tribute to his gorgis abilities, you would greatly obleege his onhappy friend.
HE DONE HIS LEVEL BEST
Was he a mining on the flat–
He done it with a zest;
Was he a leading of the choir–
He done his level best.
If he’d a reg’lar task to do,
He never took no rest;
Or if ’twas off-and-on-the same–
He done his level best.
If he was preachin’ on his beat,
He’d tramp from east to west,
And north to south-in cold and heat
He done his level best.
He’d yank a sinner outen (Hades),**
And land him with the blest;
Then snatch a prayer’n waltz in again,
And do his level best.
**Here I have taken a slight liberty with the original MS. “Hades” does not make such good meter as the other word of one syllable, but it sounds better.
He’d cuss and sing and howl and pray,
And dance and drink and jest,
And lie and steal-all one to him–
He done his level best.
Whate’er this man was sot to do,
He done it with a zest;
No matter what his contract was,
HE’D DO HIS LEVEL BEST.
Verily, this man was gifted with “gorgis abilities,” and it is a happiness to me to embalm the memory of their luster in these columns. If it were not that the poet crop is unusually large and rank in California this year, I would encourage you to continue writing, Simon Wheeler; but, as it is, perhaps it might be too risky in you to enter against so much opposition.
“PROFESSIONAL BEGGAR.”–NO; you are not obliged to take greenbacks at par.
“MELTON MOWBRAY,” Dutch Flat.–This correspondent sends a lot of doggerel, and says it has been regarded as very good in Dutch Flat. I give a specimen verse:
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming with purple and gold; And the sheen of his spears was like stars on the sea, When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.**
**This piece of pleasantry, published in a San Francisco paper, was mistaken by the country journals for seriousness, and many and loud were the denunciations of the ignorance of author and editor, in not knowing that the lines in question were “written by Byron.”
There, that will do. That may be very good Dutch Flat poetry, but it won’t do in the metropolis. It is too smooth and blubbery; it reads like butter milk gurgling from a jug. What the people ought to have is something spirited–something like “Johnny Comes Marching Home.” However keep on practising, and you may succeed yet. There is genius in you, but too much blubber.
“ST. CLAIR HIGGINS.” Los Angeles.–“My life is a failure; I have adored, wildly, madly, and she whom I love has turned coldly from me and shed her affections upon another. What would you advise me to do?”
You should set your affections on another also–or on several, if there are enough to go round. Also, do everything you can to make your former flame unhappy. There is an absurd idea disseminated in novels, that the happier a girl is with another man, the happier it makes the old lover she has blighted. Don’t allow yourself to believe any such nonsense as that. The more cause that girl finds to regret that she did not marry you, the more comfortable you will feel over it. It isn’t poetical, but it is mighty sound doctrine.
“ARITHMETICUS.” Virginia, Nevada.–“If it would take a cannon-ball 3 and 1/3 seconds to travel four miles, and 3 and 3/8 seconds to travel the next four, and 3 and 5/8 to travel the next four, and if its rate of progress continued to diminish in the same ratio, how long would it take it to go fifteen hundred million miles?”
I don’t know.
“AMBITIOUS LEARNER,” Oakland.–Yes; you are right America was not discovered by Alexander Selkirk.
“DISCARDED LOVER.”–“I loved, and still love, the beautiful Edwitha Howard, and intended to marry her. Yet, during my temporary absence at Benicia, last week, alas! she married Jones. Is my happiness to be thus blasted for life? Have I no redress?”
Of course you have. All the law, written and unwritten, is on your side. The intention and not the act constitutes crime–in other words, constitutes the deed. If you call your bosom friend a fool, and intend it for an insult, it is an insult; but if you do it playfully, and meaning no insult, it is not an insult. If you discharge a pistol accidentally, and kill a man, you can go free, for you have done no murder; but if you try to kill a man, and manifestly intend to kill him, but fail utterly to do it, the law still holds that the intention constituted the crime, and you are guilty of murder. Ergo, if you had married Edwitha accidentally, and without really intending to do it, you would not actually be married to her at all, because the act of marriage could not be complete without the intention. And ergo, in the strict spirit of the law, since you deliberately intended to marry Edwitha, and didn’t do it, you are married to her all the same–because, as I said before, the intention constitutes the crime. It is as clear as day that Edwitha is your wife, and your redress lies in taking a club and mutilating Jones with it as much as you can. Any man has a right to protect his own wife from the advances of other men. But you have another alternative–you were married to Edwitha first, because of your deliberate intention, and now you can prosecute her for bigamy, in subsequently marrying Jones. But there is another phase in this complicated case: You intended to marry Edwitha, and consequently, according to law, she is your wife–there is no getting around that; but she didn’t marry you, and if she never intended to marry you, you are not her husband, of course. Ergo, in marrying Jones, she was guilty of bigamy, because she was the wife of another man at the time; which is all very well as far as it goes–but then, don’t you see, she had no other husband when she married Jones, and consequently she was not guilty of bigamy. Now, according to this view of the case, Jones married a spinster, who was a widow at the same time and another man’s wife at the same time, and yet who had no husband and never had one, and never had any intention of getting married, and therefore, of course, never had been married; and by the same reasoning you are a bachelor, because you have never been any one’s husband; and a married man, because you have a wife living; and to all intents and purposes a widower, because you have been deprived of that wife; and a consummate ass for going off to Benicia in the first place, while things were so mixed. And by this time I have got myself so tangled up in the intricacies of this extraordinary case that I shall have to give up any further attempt to advise you–I might get confused and fail to make myself understood. I think I could take up the argument where I left off, and by following it closely awhile, perhaps I could prove to your satisfaction, either that you never existed at all, or that you are dead now, and consequently don’t need the faithless Edwitha–I think I could do that, if it would afford you any comfort.
“ARTHUR AUGUSTUS.”–No; you are wrong; that is the proper way to throw a brickbat or a tomahawk; but it doesn’t answer so well for a bouquet; you will hurt somebody if you keep it up. Turn your nosegay upside down, take it by the stems, and toss it with an upward sweep. Did you ever pitch quoits? that is the idea. The practice of recklessly heaving immense solid bouquets, of the general size and weight of prize cabbages, from the dizzy altitude of the galleries, is dangerous and very reprehensible. Now, night before last, at the Academy of Music, just after Signorina had finished that exquisite melody, “The Last Rose of Summer,” one of these floral pile-drivers came cleaving down through the atmosphere of applause, and if she hadn’t deployed suddenly to the right, it would have driven her into the floor like a shinglenail. Of course that bouquet was well meant; but how would you like to have been the target? A sincere compliment is always grateful to a lady, so long as you don’t try to knock her down with it.
“YOUNG MOTHER.”–And so you think a baby is a thing of beauty and a joy forever? Well, the idea is pleasing, but not original; every cow thinks the same of its own calf. Perhaps the cow may not think it so elegantly, but still she thinks it nevertheless. I honor the cow for it. We all honor this touching maternal instinct wherever we find it, be it in the home of luxury or in the humble cove-shed. But really, madam, when I come to examine the matter in all its bearings, I find that the correctness of your assertion does not assert itself in all cases. A soiled baby, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty; and inasmuch as babyhood spans but three short years, no baby is competent to be a joy “forever.” It pains me thus to demolish two-thirds of your pretty sentiment in a single sentence; but the position I hold in this chair requires that I shall not permit you to deceive and mislead the public with your plausible figures of speech. I know a female baby, aged eighteen months, in this city, which cannot hold out as a “joy” twenty-four hours on a stretch, let alone “forever.” And it possesses some of the most remarkable eccentricities of character and appetite that have ever fallen under my notice. I will set down here a statement of this infant’s operations (conceived, planned, and earned out by itself, and without suggestion or assistance from its mother or any one else), during a single day; and what I shall say can be substantiated by the sworn testimony of witnesses.
It commenced by eating one dozen large blue-mass pills, box and all; then it fell down a flight of stairs, and arose with a blue and purple knot on its forehead, after which it proceeded in quest of further refreshment and amusement. It found a glass trinket ornamented with brass-work –smashed up and ate the glass, and then swallowed the brass. Then it drank about twenty drops of laudanum, and more than a dozen tablespoonfuls of strong spirits of camphor. The reason why it took no more laudanum was because there was no more to take. After this it lay down on its back, and shoved five or six, inches of a silver-headed whalebone cane down its throat; got it fast there, and it was all its mother could do to pull the cane out again, without pulling out some of the child with it. Then, being hungry for glass again, it broke up several wine glasses, and fell to eating and swallowing the fragments, not minding a cut or two. Then it ate a quantity of butter, pepper, salt, and California matches, actually taking a spoonful of butter, a spoonful of salt, a spoonful of pepper, and three or four lucifer matches at each mouthful. (I will remark here that this thing of beauty likes painted German lucifers, and eats all she can get of them; but she prefers California matches, which I regard as a compliment to our home manufactures of more than ordinary value, coming, as it does, from one who is too young to flatter.) Then she washed her head with soap and water, and afterward ate what soap was left, and drank as much of the suds as she had room for; after which she sallied forth and took the cow familiarly by the tail, and got kicked heels over head. At odd times during the day, when this joy forever happened to have nothing particular on hand, she put in the time by climbing up on places, and falling down off them, uniformly damaging her self in the operation. As young as she is, she speaks many words tolerably distinctly; and being plain spoken in other respects, blunt and to the point, she opens conversation with all strangers, male or female, with the same formula, “How do, Jim?”
Not being familiar with the ways of children, it is possible that I have been magnifying into matter of surprise things which may not strike any one who is familiar with infancy as being at all astonishing. However, I cannot believe that such is the case, and so I repeat that my report of this baby’s performances is strictly true; and if any one doubts it, I can produce the child. I will further engage that she will devour anything that is given her (reserving to myself only the right to exclude anvils), and fall down from any place to which she may be elevated (merely stipulating that her preference for alighting on her head shall be respected, and, therefore, that the elevation chosen shall be high enough to enable her to accomplish this to her satisfaction). But I find I have wandered from my subject; so, without further argument, I will reiterate my conviction that not all babies are things of beauty and joys forever.
“ARITHMETICUS.” Virginia, Nevada.–“I am an enthusiastic student of mathematics, and it is so vexatious to me to find my progress constantly impeded by these mysterious arithmetical technicalities. Now do tell me what the difference is between geometry and conchology?”
Here you come again with your arithmetical conundrums, when I am suffering death with a cold in the head. If you could have seen the expression of scorn that darkened my countenance a moment ago, and was instantly split from the center in every direction like a fractured looking-glass by my last sneeze, you never would have written that disgraceful question. Conchology is a science which has nothing to do with mathematics; it relates only to shells. At the same time, however, a man who opens oysters for a hotel, or shells a fortified town, or sucks eggs, is not, strictly speaking, a conchologist-a fine stroke of sarcasm that, but it will be lost on such an unintellectual clam as you. Now compare conchology and geometry together, and you will see what the difference is, and your question will be answered. But don’t torture me with any more arithmetical horrors until you know I am rid of my cold. I feel the bitterest animosity toward you at this moment-bothering me in this way, when I can do nothing but sneeze and rage and snort pocket- handkerchiefs to atoms. If I had you in range of my nose now I would blow your brains out.