Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXIV

Mark Twain and the Missionaries

Mark Twain had really begun his crusade for reform soon after his arrival in America in a practical hand-to-hand manner. His housekeeper, Katie Leary, one night employed a cabman to drive her from the Grand Central Station to the house at 14 West Tenth Street. No contract had been made as to price, and when she arrived there the cabman’s extortionate charge was refused. He persisted in it, and she sent into the house for her employer. Of all men, Mark Twain was the last one to countenance an extortion. He reasoned with the man kindly enough at first; when the driver at last became abusive Clemens demanded his number, which was at first refused. In the end he paid the legal fare, and in the morning entered a formal complaint, something altogether unexpected, for the American public is accustomed to suffering almost any sort of imposition to avoid trouble and publicity.

In some notes which Clemens had made in London four years earlier he wrote:

If you call a policeman to settle the dispute you can depend on one thing — he will decide it against you every time. And so will the New York policeman. In London if you carry your case into court the man that is entitled to win it will win it. In New York — but no one carries a cab case into court there. It is my impression that it is now more than thirty years since any one has carried a cab case into court there.

Nevertheless, he was promptly on hand when the case was called to sustain the charge and to read the cabdrivers’ union and the public in general a lesson in good-citizenship. At the end of the hearing, to a representative of the union he said:

“This is not a matter of sentiment, my dear sir. It is simply practical business. You cannot imagine that I am making money wasting an hour or two of my time prosecuting a case in which I can have no personal interest whatever. I am doing this just as any citizen should do. He has no choice. He has a distinct duty. He is a non-classified policeman. Every citizen is, a policeman, and it is his duty to assist the police and the magistracy in every way he can, and give his time, if necessary, to do so. Here is a man who is a perfectly natural product of an infamous system in this city — a charge upon the lax patriotism in this city of New York that this thing can exist. You have encouraged him, in every way you know how to overcharge. He is not the criminal here at all. The criminal is the citizen of New York and the absence of patriotism. I am not here to avenge myself on him. I have no quarrel with him. My quarrel is with the citizens of New York, who have encouraged him, and who created him by encouraging him to overcharge in this way.”

The driver’s license was suspended. The case made a stir in the newspapers, and it is not likely that any one incident ever contributed more to cab-driving morals in New York City.

But Clemens had larger matters than this in prospect. His many speeches on municipal and national abuses he felt were more or less ephemeral. He proposed now to write himself down more substantially and for a wider hearing. The human race was behaving very badly: unspeakable corruption was rampant in the city; the Boers were being oppressed in South Africa; the natives were being murdered in the Philippines; Leopold of Belgium was massacring and mutilating the blacks in the Congo, and the allied powers, in the cause of Christ, were slaughtering the Chinese. In his letters he had more than once boiled over touching these matters, and for New-Year’s Eve, 1900, had written:


I bring you the stately nation named Christendom, returning, bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored, from pirate raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and towel, but hide the looking-glass.154

154 [Prepared for Red Cross Society watch-meeting, which was postponed until March. Clemens recalled his “Greeting” for that reason and for one other, which he expressed thus: “The list of greeters thus far issued by you contains only vague generalities and one definite name — mine: ‘Some kings and queens and Mark Twain.’ Now I am not enjoying this sparkling solitude and distinction. It makes me feel like a circus-poster in a graveyard.”]

This was a sort of preliminary. Then, restraining himself no longer, he embodied his sentiments in an article for the North American Review entitled, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” There was crying need for some one to speak the right word. He was about the only one who could do it and be certain of a universal audience. He took as his text some Christmas Eve clippings from the New York Tribune and Sun which he had been saving for this purpose. The Tribune clipping said:

Christmas will dawn in the United States over a people full of hope and aspiration and good cheer. Such a condition means contentment and happiness. The carping grumbler who may here and there go forth will find few to listen to him. The majority will wonder what is the matter with him, and pass on.

A Sun clipping depicted the “terrible offenses against humanity committed in the name of politics in some of the most notorious East Side districts “— the unmissionaried, unpoliced darker New York. The Sun declared that they could not be pictured even verbally. But it suggested enough to make the reader shudder at the hideous depths of vice in the sections named. Another clipping from the same paper reported the “Rev. Mr. Ament, of the American Board of Foreign Missions,” as having collected indemnities for Boxer damages in China at the rate of three hundred taels for each murder, “full payment for all destroyed property belonging to Christians, and national fines amounting to thirteen times the indemnity.” It quoted Mr. Ament as saying that the money so obtained was used for the propagation of the Gospel, and that the amount so collected was moderate when compared with the amount secured by the Catholics, who had demanded, in addition to money, life for life, that is to say, “head for head”— in one district six hundred and eighty heads having been so collected.

The despatch made Mr. Ament say a great deal more than this, but the gist here is enough. Mark Twain, of course, was fiercely stirred. The missionary idea had seldom appealed to him, and coupled with this business of bloodshed, it was less attractive than usual. He printed the clippings in full, one following the other; then he said:

By happy luck we get all these glad tidings on Christmas Eve — just the time to enable us to celebrate the day with proper gaiety and enthusiasm. Our spirits soar and we find we can even make jokes; taels I win, heads you lose.

He went on to score Ament, to compare the missionary policy in China to that of the Pawnee Indians, and to propose for him a monument — subscriptions to be sent to the American Board. He denounced the national policies in Africa, China, and the Philippines, and showed by the reports and by the private letters of soldiers home, how cruel and barbarous and fiendish had been the warfare made by those whose avowed purpose was to carry the blessed light of civilization and Gospel “to the benighted native”— how in very truth these priceless blessings had been handed on the point of a bayonet to the “Person Sitting in Darkness.”

Mark Twain never wrote anything more scorching, more penetrating in its sarcasm, more fearful in its revelation of injustice and hypocrisy, than his article “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” He put aquafortis on all the raw places, and when it was finished he himself doubted the wisdom of printing it. Howells, however, agreed that it should be published, and “it ought to be illustrated by Dan Beard,” he added, “with such pictures as he made for the Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but you’d better hang yourself afterward.”

Meeting Beard a few days later, Clemens mentioned the matter and said:

“So if you make the pictures, you hang with me.”

But pictures were not required. It was published in the North American Review for February, 1901, as the opening article; after which the cyclone. Two storms moving in opposite directions produce a cyclone, and the storms immediately developed; one all for Mark Twain and his principles, the other all against him. Every paper in England and America commented on it editorially, with bitter denunciations or with eager praise, according to their lights and convictions.

At 14 West Tenth Street letters, newspaper clippings, documents poured in by the bushel — laudations, vituperations, denunciations, vindications; no such tumult ever occurred in a peaceful literary home. It was really as if he had thrown a great missile into the human hive, one-half of which regarded it as a ball of honey and the remainder as a cobblestone. Whatever other effect it may have had, it left no thinking person unawakened.

Clemens reveled in it. W. A. Rogers, in Harper’s Weekly, caricatured him as Tom Sawyer in a snow fort, assailed by the shower of snowballs, “having the time of his life.” Another artist, Fred Lewis, pictured him as Huck Finn with a gun.

The American Board was naturally disturbed. The Ament clipping which Clemens had used had been public property for more than a month — its authenticity never denied; but it was immediately denied now, and the cable kept hot with inquiries.

The Rev. Judson Smith, one of the board, took up the defense of Dr. Ament, declaring him to be one who had suffered for the cause, and asked Mark Twain, whose “brilliant article,” he said, “would produce an effect quite beyond the reach of plain argument,” not to do an innocent man an injustice. Clemens in the same paper replied that such was not his intent, that Mr. Ament in his report had simply arraigned himself.

Then it suddenly developed that the cable report had “grossly exaggerated” the amount of Mr. Ament’s collections. Instead of thirteen times the indemnity it should have read “one and a third times” the indemnity; whereupon, in another open letter, the board demanded retraction and apology. Clemens would not fail to make the apology — at least he would explain. It was precisely the kind of thing that would appeal to him — the delicate moral difference between a demand thirteen times as great as it should be and a demand that was only one and a third times the correct amount. “To My Missionary Critics,” in the North American Review for April (1901), was his formal and somewhat lengthy reply.

“I have no prejudice against apologies,” he wrote. “I trust I shall never withhold one when it is due.”

He then proceeded to make out his case categorically. Touching the exaggerated indemnity, he said:

To Dr. Smith the “thirteen-fold-extra” clearly stood for “theft and extortion,” and he was right, distinctly right, indisputably right. He manifestly thinks that when it got scaled away down to a mere “one-third” a little thing like that was some other than “theft and extortion.” Why, only the board knows!

I will try to explain this difficult problem so that the board can get an idea of it. If a pauper owes me a dollar and I catch him unprotected and make him pay me fourteen dollars thirteen of it is “theft and extortion.” If I make him pay only one dollar thirty-three and a third cents the thirty-three and a third cents are “theft and extortion,” just the same.

I will put it in another way still simpler. If a man owes me one dog — any kind of a dog, the breed is of no consequence — and I— but let it go; the board would never understand it. It can’t understand these involved and difficult things.

He offered some further illustrations, including the “Tale of a King and His Treasure” and another tale entitled “The Watermelons.”

I have it now. Many years ago, when I was studying for the gallows, I had a dear comrade, a youth who was not in my line, but still a scrupulously good fellow though devious. He was preparing to qualify for a place on the board, for there was going to be a vacancy by superannuation in about five years. This was down South, in the slavery days. It was the nature of the negro then, as now, to steal watermelons. They stole three of the melons of an adoptive brother of mine, the only good ones he had. I suspected three of a neighbor’s negroes, but there was no proof, and, besides, the watermelons in those negroes’ private patches were all green and small and not up to indemnity standard. But in the private patches of three other negroes there was a number of competent melons. I consulted with my comrade, the understudy of the board. He said that if I would approve his arrangements he would arrange. I said, “Consider me the board; I approve; arrange.” So he took a gun and went and collected three large melons for my brother-on-the-halfshell, and one over. I was greatly pleased and asked:

“Who gets the extra one?” “Widows and orphans.”

“A good idea, too. Why didn’t you take thirteen?”

“It would have been wrong; a crime, in fact-theft and extortion.”

“What is the one-third extra — the odd melon — the same?”

It caused him to reflect. But there was no result.

The justice of the peace was a stern man. On the trial he found fault with the scheme and required us to explain upon what we based our strange conduct — as he called it. The understudy said:

“On the custom of the niggers. They all do it.”155

155 [The point had been made by the board that it was the Chinese custom to make the inhabitants of a village responsible for individual crimes; and custom, likewise, to collect a third in excess of the damage, such surplus having been applied to the support of widows and orphans of the slain converts.]

The justice forgot his dignity and descended to sarcasm.

“Custom of the niggers! Are our morals so inadequate that we have to borrow of niggers?”

Then he said to the jury: “Three melons were owing; they were collected from persons not proven to owe them: this is theft; they were collected by compulsion: this is extortion. A melon was added for the widows and orphans. It was owed by no one. It is another theft, another extortion. Return it whence it came, with the others. It is not permissible here to apply to any purpose goods dishonestly obtained; not even to the feeding of widows and orphans, for this would be to put a shame upon charity and dishonor it.”

He said it in open court, before everybody, and to me it did not seem very kind.

It was in the midst of the tumult that Clemens, perhaps feeling the need of sacred melody, wrote to Andrew Carnegie:

DEAR SIR & FRIEND — You seem to be in prosperity. Could you lend an admirer $1.50 to buy a hymn-book with? God will bless you. I feel it; I know it.

N. B. — If there should be other applications, this one not to count.

Yours, MARK.

P. S.-Don’t send the hymn-book; send the money; I want to make the selection myself.

Carnegie answered:

Nothing less than a two-dollar & a half hymn-book gilt will do for you. Your place in the choir (celestial) demands that & you shall have it.

There’s a new Gospel of Saint Mark in the North American which I like better than anything I’ve read for many a day.

I am willing to borrow a thousand dollars to distribute that sacred message in proper form, & if the author don’t object may I send that sum, when I can raise it, to the Anti-Imperialist League, Boston, to which I am a contributor, the only missionary work I am responsible for.

Just tell me you are willing & many thousands of the holy little missals will go forth. This inimitable satire is to become a classic. I count among my privileges in life that I know you, the author.

Perhaps a few more of the letters invited by Mark Twain’s criticism of missionary work in China may still be of interest to the reader: Frederick T. Cook, of the Hospital Saturday and Sunday Association, wrote: “I hail you as the Voltaire of America. It is a noble distinction. God bless you and see that you weary not in well-doing in this noblest, sublimest of crusades.”

Ministers were by no means all against him. The associate pastor of the Every-day Church, in Boston, sent this line: “I want to thank you for your matchless article in the current North American. It must make converts of well-nigh all who read it.”

But a Boston school-teacher was angry. “I have been reading the North American,” she wrote, “and I am filled with shame and remorse that I have dreamed of asking you to come to Boston to talk to the teachers.”

On the outside of the envelope Clemens made this pencil note:

“Now, I suppose I offended that young lady by having an opinion of my own, instead of waiting and copying hers. I never thought. I suppose she must be as much as twenty-five, and probably the only patriot in the country.”

A critic with a sense of humor asked: “Please excuse seeming impertinence, but were you ever adjudged insane? Be honest. How much money does the devil give you for arraigning Christianity and missionary causes?”

But there were more of the better sort. Edward S. Martin, in a grateful letter, said: “How gratifying it is to feel that we have a man among us who understands the rarity of the plain truth, and who delights to utter it, and has the gift of doing so without cant and with not too much seriousness.”

Sir Hiram Maxim wrote: “I give you my candid opinion that what you have done is of very great value to the civilization of the world. There is no man living whose words carry greater weight than your own, as no one’s writings are so eagerly sought after by all classes.”

Clemens himself in his note-book set down this aphorism:

“Do right and you will be conspicuous.”

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