Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXLIV

Traits and Philosophies

I brought to the dictation one morning the Omar Khayyam card which Twichell had written him so long ago; I had found it among the letters. It furnished him a subject for that morning. He said:

How strange there was a time when I had never heard of Omar Khayyam! When that card arrived I had already read the dozen quatrains or so in the morning paper, and was still steeped in the ecstasy of delight which they occasioned. No poem had ever given me so much pleasure before, and none has given me so much pleasure since. It is the only poem I have ever carried about with me. It has not been from under my hand all these years.

He had no general fondness for poetry; but many poems appealed to him, and on occasion he liked to read them aloud. Once, during the dictation, some verses were sent up by a young authoress who was waiting below for his verdict. The lines pictured a phase of negro life, and she wished to know if he thought them worthy of being read at some Tuskegee ceremony. He did not fancy the idea of attending to the matter just then and said:

“Tell her she can read it. She has my permission. She may commit any crime she wishes in my name.”

It was urged that the verses were of high merit and the author a very charming young lady.

“I’m very glad,” he said, “and I am glad the Lord made her; I hope He will make some more just like her. I don’t always approve of His handiwork, but in this case I do.”

Then suddenly he added:

“Well, let me see it — no time like the present to get rid of these things.”

He took the manuscript and gave such a rendition of those really fine verses as I believe could not be improved upon. We were held breathless by his dramatic fervor and power. He returned a message to that young aspirant that must have made her heart sing. When the dictation had ended that day, I mentioned his dramatic gift.

“Yes,” he said, “it is a gift, I suppose, like spelling and punctuation and smoking. I seem to have inherited all those.” Continuing, he spoke of inherited traits in general.

“There was Paige,” he said; “an ignorant man who could not make a machine himself that would stand up, nor draw the working plans for one; but he invented the eighteen thousand details of the most wonderful machine the world has ever known. He watched over the expert draftsmen, and superintended the building of that marvel. Pratt & Whitney built it; but it was Paige’s machine, nevertheless — the child of his marvelous gift. We don’t create any of our traits; we inherit all of them. They have come down to us from what we impudently call the lower animals. Man is the last expression, and combines every attribute of the animal tribes that preceded him. One or two conspicuous traits distinguish each family of animals from the others, and those one or two traits are found in every member of each family, and are so prominent as to eternally and unchangeably establish the character of that branch of the animal world. In these cases we concede that the several temperaments constitute a law of God, a command of God, and that whatsoever is done in obedience to that law is blameless. Man, in his evolution, inherited the whole sum of these numerous traits, and with each trait its share of the law of God. He widely differs from them in this: that he possesses not a single characteristic that is equally prominent in each member of his race. You can say the housefly is limitlessly brave, and in saying it you describe the whole house-fly tribe; you can say the rabbit is limitlessly timid, and by the phrase you describe the whole rabbit tribe; you can say the spider and the tiger are limitlessly murderous, and by that phrase you describe the whole spider and tiger tribes; you can say the lamb is limitlessly innocent and sweet and gentle, and by that phrase you describe all the lambs. There is hardly a creature that you cannot definitely and satisfactorily describe by one single trait — except man. Men are not all cowards like the rabbit, nor all brave like the house-fly, nor all sweet and innocent and gentle like the lamb, nor all murderous like the spider and the tiger and the wasp, nor all thieves like the fox and the bluejay, nor all vain like the peacock, nor all frisky like the monkey. These things are all in him somewhere, and they develop according to the proportion of each he received in his allotment: We describe a man by his vicious traits and condemn him; or by his fine traits and gifts, and praise him and accord him high merit for their possession. It is comical. He did not invent these things; he did not stock himself with them. God conferred them upon him in the first instant of creation. They constitute the law, and he could not escape obedience to the decree any more than Paige could have built the type-setter he invented, or the Pratt & Whitney machinists could have invented the machine which they built.”

He liked to stride up and down, smoking as he talked, and generally his words were slowly measured, with varying pauses between them. He halted in the midst of his march, and without a suggestion of a smile added:

“What an amusing creature the human being is!”

It is absolutely impossible, of course, to preserve the atmosphere and personality of such talks as this — the delicacies of his speech and manner which carried an ineffable charm. It was difficult, indeed, to record the substance. I did not know shorthand, and I should not have taken notes at such times in any case; but I had trained myself in similar work to preserve, with a fair degree of accuracy, the form of phrase, and to some extent its wording, if I could get hold of pencil and paper soon enough afterward. In time I acquired a sort of phonographic faculty; though it always seemed to me that the bouquet, the subtleness of speech, was lacking in the result. Sometimes, indeed, he would dictate next morning the substance of these experimental reflections; or I would find among his papers memoranda and fragmentary manuscripts where he had set them down himself, either before or after he had tried them verbally. In these cases I have not hesitated to amend my notes where it seemed to lend reality to his utterance, though, even so, there is always lacking — and must be — the wonder of his personality.

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