Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXIX

Yachting and Theology

Clemens made fewer speeches during the Riverdale period. He was as frequently demanded, but he had a better excuse for refusing, especially the evening functions. He attended a good many luncheons with friendly spirits like Howells, Matthews, James L. Ford, and Hamlin Garland. At the end of February he came down to the Mayor’s dinner given to Prince Henry of Prussia, but he did not speak. Clemens used to say afterward that he had not been asked to speak, and that it was probably because of his supposed breach of etiquette at the Kaiser’s dinner in Berlin; but the fact that Prince Henry sought him out, and was most cordially and humanly attentive during a considerable portion of the evening, is against the supposition.

Clemens attended a Yale alumni dinner that winter and incidentally visited Twichell in Hartford. The old question of moral responsibility came up and Twichell lent his visitor a copy of Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Freedom of the Will’ for train perusal. Clemens found it absorbing. Later he wrote Twichell his views.

DEAR JOE — (After compliments.) 157 From Bridgeport to New York, thence to home, & continuously until near midnight I wallowed & reeked with Jonathan in his insane debauch; rose immensely refreshed & fine at ten this morning, but with a strange & haunting sense of having been on a three days’ tear with a drunken lunatic. It is years since I have known these sensations. All through the book is the glare of a resplendent intellect gone mad — a marvelous spectacle. No, not all through the book — the drunk does not come on till the last third, where what I take to be Calvinism & its God begins to show up & shine red & hideous in the glow from the fires of hell, their only right and proper adornment.

157 [Meaning “What a good time you gave me; what a happiness it was to be under your roof again,” etc. See opening sentence of all translations of letters passing between Lord Roberts and Indian princes and rulers.]

Jonathan seems to hold (as against the Armenian position) that the man (or his soul or his will) never creates an impulse itself, but is moved to action by an impulse back of it. That’s sound!

Also, that of two or more things offered it, it infallibly chooses the one which for the moment is most pleasing to ITSELF. Perfectly correct! An immense admission for a man not otherwise sane.

Up to that point he could have written Chapters III & IV of my suppressed Gospel. But there we seem to separate. He seems to concede the indisputable & unshaken dominion of Motive & Necessity (call them what he may, these are exterior forces & not under the man’s authority, guidance, or even suggestion); then he suddenly flies the logical track & (to all seeming) makes the man & not those exterior forces responsible to God for the man’s thoughts, words, & acts. It is frank insanity.

I think that when he concedes the autocratic dominion of Motive and Necessity he grants a third position of mine — that a man’s mind is a mere machine — an automatic machine — which is handled entirely from the outside, the man himself furnishing it absolutely nothing; not an ounce of its fuel, & not so much as a bare suggestion to that exterior engineer as to what the machine shall do nor how it shall do it nor when.

After that concession it was time for him to get alarmed & shirk — for he was pointed straight for the only rational & possible next station on that piece of road — the irresponsibility of man to God.

And so he shirked. Shirked, and arrived at this handsome result:

Man is commanded to do so & so.

It has been ordained from the beginning of time that some men sha’n’t & others can’t.

These are to blame: let them be damned.

I enjoy the Colonel very much, & shall enjoy the rest of him with an obscene delight.

Joe, the whole tribe shout love to you & yours! MARK.

Clemens was moved to set down some theology of his own, and did so in a manuscript which he entitled, “If I Could Be There.” It is in the dialogue form he often adopted for polemic writing. It is a colloquy between the Master of the Universe and a Stranger. It begins:


If I could be there, hidden under the steps of the throne, I should hear conversations like this:

A STRANGER. Lord, there is one who needs to be punished, and has been overlooked. It is in the record. I have found it.

LORD. By searching?

S. Yes, Lord.

L. Who is it? What is it?

S. A man.

L. Proceed.

S. He died in sin. Sin committed by his great-grandfather.

L. When was this?

S. Eleven million years ago.

L. Do you know what a microbe is?

S. Yes, Lord. It is a creature too small to be detected by my eye.

L. He commits depredations upon your blood?

S. Yes, Lord.

L. I give you leave to subject him to a billion years of misery for this offense. Go! Work your will upon him.

S. But, Lord, I have nothing against him; I am indifferent to him.

L. Why?

S. He is so infinitely small and contemptible. I am to him as is a mountain-range to a grain of sand.

L. What am I to man?

S. (Silent.)

L. Am I not, to a man, as is a billion solar systems to a grain of sand?

S. It is true, Lord.

L. Some microbes are larger than others. Does man regard the difference?

S. No, Lord. To him there is no difference of consequence. To him they are all microbes, all infinitely little and equally inconsequential.

L. To me there is no difference of consequence between a man & a microbe. Man looks down upon the speck at his feet called a microbe from an altitude of a thousand miles, so to speak, and regards him with indifference; I look down upon the specks called a man and a microbe from an altitude of a billion leagues, so to speak, and to me they are of a size. To me both are inconsequential. Man kills the microbes when he can?

S. Yes, Lord.

L. Then what? Does he keep him in mind years and years and go on contriving miseries for him?

S. No, Lord.

L. Does he forget him?

S. Yes, Lord.

L. Why?

S. He cares nothing more about him.

L. Employs himself with more important matters?

S. Yes, Lord.

L. Apparently man is quite a rational and dignified person, and can divorce his mind from uninteresting trivialities. Why does he affront me with the fancy that I interest Myself in trivialities — like men and microbes?


L. Is it true the human race thinks the universe was created for its convenience?

S. Yes, Lord.

L. The human race is modest. Speaking as a member of it, what do you think the other animals are for?

S. To furnish food and labor for man.

L. What is the sea for?

S. To furnish food for man. Fishes.

L. And the air?

S. To furnish sustenance for man. Birds and breath.

L. How many men are there?

S. Fifteen hundred millions.

L. (Referring to notes.) Take your pencil and set down some statistics. In a healthy man’s lower intestine 28,000,000 microbes are born daily and die daily. In the rest of a man’s body 122,000,000 microbes are born daily and die daily. The two sums aggregate-what?

S. About 150,000,000.

L. In ten days the aggregate reaches what?

S. Fifteen hundred millions.

L. It is for one person. What would it be for the whole human population?

S. Alas, Lord, it is beyond the power of figures to set down that multitude. It is billions of billions multiplied by billions of billions, and these multiplied again and again by billions of billions. The figures would stretch across the universe and hang over into space on both sides.

L. To what intent are these uncountable microbes introduced into the human race?

S. That they may eat.

L. Now then, according to man’s own reasoning, what is man for?

S. Alas-alas!

L. What is he for?

S. To-to-furnish food for microbes.

L. Manifestly. A child could see it. Now then, with this common-sense light to aid your perceptions, what are the air, the land, and the ocean for?

S. To furnish food for man so that he may nourish, support, and multiply and replenish the microbes.

L. Manifestly. Does one build a boarding-house for the sake of the boarding-house itself or for the sake of the boarders?

S. Certainly for the sake of the boarders.

L. Man’s a boarding-house.

S. I perceive it, Lord.

L. He is a boarding-house. He was never intended for anything else. If he had had less vanity and a clearer insight into the great truths that lie embedded in statistics he would have found it out early. As concerns the man who has gone unpunished eleven million years, is it your belief that in life he did his duty by his microbes?

S. Undoubtedly, Lord. He could not help it.

L. Then why punish him? He had no other duty to perform.

Whatever else may be said of this kind of doctrine, it is at least original and has a conclusive sound. Mark Twain had very little use for orthodoxy and conservatism. When it was announced that Dr. Jacques Loeb, of the University of California, had demonstrated the creation of life by chemical agencies he was deeply interested. When a newspaper writer commented that a “consensus of opinion among biologists” would probably rate Dr. Loeb as a man of lively imagination rather than an inerrant investigator of natural phenomena, he felt called to chaff the consensus idea.

I wish I could be as young as that again. Although I seem so old now I was once as young as that. I remember, as if it were but thirty or forty years ago, how a paralyzing consensus of opinion accumulated from experts a-setting around about brother experts who had patiently and laboriously cold-chiseled their way into one or another of nature’s safe-deposit vaults and were reporting that they had found something valuable was plenty for me. It settled it.

But it isn’t so now-no. Because in the drift of the years I by and by found out that a Consensus examines a new thing with its feelings rather oftener than with its mind.

There was that primitive steam-engine-ages back, in Greek times: a Consensus made fun of it. There was the Marquis of Worcester’s steam-engine 250 years ago: a Consensus made fun of it. There was Fulton’s steamboat of a century ago: a French Consensus, including the great Napoleon, made fun of it. There was Priestley, with his oxygen: a Consensus scoffed at him, mobbed him, burned him out, banished him. While a Consensus was proving, by statistics and things, that a steamship could not cross the Atlantic, a steamship did it.

And so on through a dozen pages or more of lively satire, ending with an extract from Adam’s Diary.

Then there was a Consensus about it. It was the very first one. It sat six days and nights. It was then delivered of the verdict that a world could not be made out of nothing; that such small things as sun and moon and stars might, maybe, but it would take years and years if there was considerable many of them. Then the Consensus got up and looked out of the window, and there was the whole outfit, spinning and sparkling in space! You never saw such a disappointed lot. ADAM.

He was writing much at this time, mainly for his own amusement, though now and then he offered one of his reflections for print. That beautiful fairy tale, “The Five Boons of Life,” of which the most precious is “Death,” was written at this period. Maeterlinck’s lovely story of the bee interested him; he wrote about that. Somebody proposed a Martyrs’ Day; he wrote a paper ridiculing the suggestion. In his note-book, too, there is a memorandum for a love-story of the Quarternary Epoch which would begin, “On a soft October afternoon 2,000,000 years ago.” John Fiske’s Discovery of America, Volume I, he said, was to furnish the animals and scenery, civilization and conversation to be the same as to-day; but apparently this idea was carried no further. He ranged through every subject from protoplasm to infinity, exalting, condemning, ridiculing, explaining; his brain was always busy — a dynamo that rested neither night nor day.

In April Clemens received notice of another yachting trip on the Kanawha, which this time would sail for the Bahama and West India islands. The guests were to be about the same.158

158 [The invited ones of the party were Hon. T. B. Reed, A. G. Paine, Laurence Hutton, Dr. C. C. Rice, W. T. Foote, and S. L. Clemens. “Owners of the yacht,” Mr. Rogers called them, signing himself as “Their Guest.”]

He sent this telegram:

H. H. ROGERS, Fairhaven, Mass.

Can’t get away this week. I have company here from tonight till middle of next week. Will Kanawha be sailing after that & can I go as Sunday-school superintendent at half rate? Answer and prepay.


The sailing date was conveniently arranged and there followed a happy cruise among those balmy islands. Mark Twain was particularly fond of “Tom” Reed, who had been known as “Czar” Reed in Congress, but was delightfully human in his personal life. They argued politics a good deal, and Reed, with all his training and intimate practical knowledge of the subject, confessed that he “couldn’t argue with a man like that.”

“Do you believe the things you say?” he asked once, in his thin, falsetto voice.

“Yes,” said Clemens. “Some of them.”

“Well, you want to look out. If you go on this way, by and by you’ll get to believing nearly everything you say.”

Draw poker appears to have been their favorite diversion. Clemens in his notes reports that off the coast of Florida Reed won twenty-three pots in succession. It was said afterward that they made no stops at any harbor; that when the chief officer approached the poker-table and told them they were about to enter some important port he received peremptory orders to “sail on and not interrupt the game.” This, however, may be regarded as more or less founded on fiction.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05