Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CIII

“Atlantic” Days

It was about this period that Mark Twain began to exhibit openly his more serious side; that is to say his advocacy of public reforms. His paper on “Universal Suffrage” had sounded a first note, and his copyright petitions were of the same spirit. In later years he used to say that he had always felt it was his mission to teach, to carry the banner of moral reconstruction, and here at forty we find him furnishing evidences of this inclination. In the Atlantic for October, 1875, there was published an unsigned three-page article entitled, “The Curious Republic of Gondour.” In this article was developed the idea that the voting privilege should be estimated not by the individuals, but by their intellectual qualifications. The republic of Gondour was a Utopia, where this plan had been established:

It was an odd idea and ingenious. You must understand the constitution gave every man a vote; therefore that vote was a vested right, and could not be taken away. But the constitution did not say that certain individuals might not be given two votes or ten. So an amendatory clause was inserted in a quiet way, a clause which authorized the enlargement of the suffrage in certain cases to be specified by statute. . . .

The victory was complete. The new law was framed and passed. Under it every citizen, howsoever poor or ignorant, possessed one vote, so universal suffrage still reigned; but if a man possessed a good common-school education and no money he had two votes, a high-school education gave him four; if he had property, likewise, to the value of three thousand sacos he wielded one more vote; for every fifty thousand sacos a man added to his property, he was entitled to another vote; a University education entitled a man to nine votes, even though he owned no property.

The author goes on to show the beneficent results of this enaction; how the country was benefited and glorified by this stimulus toward enlightenment and industry. No one ever suspected that Mark Twain was the author of this fable. It contained almost no trace of his usual literary manner. Nevertheless he wrote it, and only withheld his name, as he did in a few other instances, in the fear that the world might refuse to take him seriously over his own signature or nom de plume.

Howells urged him to follow up the “Gondour” paper; to send some more reports from that model land. But Clemens was engaged in other things by that time, and was not pledged altogether to national reforms.

He was writing a skit about a bit of doggerel which was then making nights and days unhappy for many undeserving persons who in an evil moment had fallen upon it in some stray newspaper corner. A certain car line had recently adopted the “punch system,” and posted in its cars, for the information of passengers and conductor, this placard:

A Blue Trip Slip for an 8 Cents Fare, A Buff Trip Slip for a 6 Cents Fare, A Pink Trip Slip for a 3 Cents Fare, For Coupon And Transfer, Punch The Tickets.

Noah Brooks and Isaac Bromley were riding down-town one evening on the Fourth Avenue line, when Bromley said:

“Brooks, it’s poetry. By George, it’s poetry!”

Brooks followed the direction of Bromley’s finger and read the card of instructions. They began perfecting the poetic character of the notice, giving it still more of a rhythmic twist and jingle; arrived at the Tribune office, W. C. Wyckoff, scientific editor, and Moses P. Handy lent intellectual and poetic assistance, with this result:

Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare.
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

Punch, brothers! Punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

It was printed, and street-car poetry became popular. Different papers had a turn at it, and each usually preceded its own effort with all other examples, as far as perpetrated. Clemens discovered the lines, and on one of their walks recited them to Twichell. “A Literary Nightmare” was written a few days later. In it the author tells how the jingle took instant and entire possession of him and went waltzing through his brain; how, when he had finished his breakfast, he couldn’t tell whether he had eaten anything or not; and how, when he went to finish the novel he was writing, and took up his pen, he could only get it to say:

Punch in the presence of the passenjare.

He found relief at last in telling it to his reverend friend, that is, Twichell, upon whom he unloaded it with sad results.

It was an amusing and timely skit, and is worth reading to-day. Its publication in the Atlantic had the effect of waking up horse-car poetry all over the world. Howells, going to dine at Ernest Longfellow’s the day following its appearance, heard his host and Tom Appleton urging each other to “Punch with care.” The Longfellow ladies had it by heart. Boston was devastated by it. At home, Howells’s children recited it to him in chorus. The streets were full of it; in Harvard it became an epidemic.

It was transformed into other tongues. Even Swinburne, the musical, is said to have done a French version for the ‘Revue des deux mondes’*. A St. Louis magazine, The Western, found relief in a Latin anthem with this chorus:

Pungite, fratres, pungite,
Pungite cum amore,
Pungite pro vectore,
Diligentissime pungite.


Ayant ete paye, le conducteur
Percera en pleine vue du voyageur,
Quand il regoit trois sous un coupon vert,
Un coupon jaune pour six sous c’est l’affaire,
Et pour huit sous c’est un coupon couleur
De rose, en pleine vue du voyageur.

Donc, percez soigneusement, mes freres
Tout en pleine vue des voyageurs, etc.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00