Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


Personal Memoranda

In the notes I made of this period I caught a little drift of personality and utterance, and I do not know better how to preserve these things than to give them here as nearly as may be in the sequence and in the forth in which they were set down.

One of the first of these entries occurs in June, when Clemens was rereading with great interest and relish Andrew D. White’s Science and Theology, which he called a lovely book.191

191 [8216;A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’.]

June 21. A peaceful afternoon, and we walked farther than usual, resting at last in the shade of a tree in the lane that leads to Jean’s farm-house. I picked a dandelion-ball, with some remark about its being one of the evidences of the intelligent principle in nature — the seeds winged for a wider distribution.

“Yes,” he said, “those are the great evidences; no one who reasons can doubt them.”

And presently he added:

“That is a most amusing book of White’s. When you read it you see how those old theologians never reasoned at all. White tells of an old bishop who figured out that God created the world in an instant on a certain day in October exactly so many years before Christ, and proved it. And I knew a preacher myself once who declared that the fossils in the rocks proved nothing as to the age of the world. He said that God could create the rocks with those fossils in them for ornaments if He wanted to. Why, it takes twenty years to build a little island in the Mississippi River, and that man actually believed that God created the whole world and all that’s in it in six days. White tells of another bishop who gave two new reasons for thunder; one being that God wanted to show the world His power, and another that He wished to frighten sinners to repent. Now consider the proportions of that conception, even in the pettiest way you can think of it. Consider the idea of God thinking of all that. Consider the President of the United States wanting to impress the flies and fleas and mosquitoes, getting up on the dome of the Capitol and beating a bass-drum and setting off red fire.”

He followed the theme a little further, then we made our way slowly back up the long hill, he holding to my arm, and resting here and there, but arriving at the house seemingly fresh and ready for billiards.

June 23. I came up this morning with a basket of strawberries. He was walking up and down, looking like an ancient Roman. He said:

“Consider the case of Elsie Sigel 192 what a ghastly ending to any life!”

Then turning upon me fiercely, he continued:

192 [Granddaughter of Gen. Franz Sigel. She was mysteriously murdered while engaged in settlement work among the Chinese.]

“Anybody that knows anything knows that there was not a single life that was ever lived that was worth living. Not a single child ever begotten that the begetting of it was not a crime. Suppose a community of people to be living on the slope of a volcano, directly under the crater and in the path of lava-flow; that volcano has been breaking out right along for ages and is certain to break out again. They do not know when it will break out, but they know it will do it — that much can be counted on. Suppose those people go to a community in a far neighborhood and say, ‘We’d like to change places with you. Come take our homes and let us have yours.’ Those people would say, ‘Never mind, we are not interested in your country. We know what has happened there, and what will happen again.’ We don’t care to live under the blow that is likely to fall at any moment; and yet every time we bring a child into the world we are bringing it to a country, to a community gathered under the crater of a volcano, knowing that sooner or later death will come, and that before death there will be catastrophes infinitely worse. Formerly it was much worse than now, for before the ministers abolished hell a man knew, when he was begetting a child, that he was begetting a soul that had only one chance in a hundred of escaping the eternal fires of damnation. He knew that in all probability that child would be brought to damnation — one of the ninety-nine black sheep. But since hell has been abolished death has become more welcome. I wrote a fairy story once. It was published somewhere. I don’t remember just what it was now, but the substance of it was that a fairy gave a man the customary wishes. I was interested in seeing what he would take. First he chose wealth and went away with it, but it did not bring him happiness. Then he came back for the second selection, and chose fame, and that did not bring happiness either. Finally he went to the fairy and chose death, and the fairy said, in substance, ‘If you hadn’t been a fool you’d have chosen that in the first place.’

“The papers called me a pessimist for writing that story. Pessimist — the man who isn’t a pessimist is a d —-d fool.”

But this was one of his savage humors, stirred by tragic circumstance. Under date of July 5th I find this happier entry:

We have invented a new game, three-ball carom billiards, each player continuing until he has made five, counting the number of his shots as in golf, the one who finishes in the fewer shots wins. It is a game we play with almost exactly equal skill, and he is highly pleased with it. He said this afternoon:

“I have never enjoyed billiards as I do now. I look forward to it every afternoon as my reward at the end of a good day’s work.”193

193 [His work at this time was an article on Marjorie Fleming, the “wonder child,” whose quaint writings and brief little life had been published to the world by Dr. John Brown. Clemens always adored the thought of Marjorie, and in this article one can see that she ranked almost next to Joan of Arc in his affections.]

We went out in the loggia by and by and Clemens read aloud from a book which Professor Zubelin left here a few days ago —‘The Religion of a Democrat’. Something in it must have suggested to Clemens his favorite science, for presently he said:

“I have been reading an old astronomy; it speaks of the perfect line of curvature of the earth in spite of mountains and abysses, and I have imagined a man three hundred thousand miles high picking up a ball like the earth and looking at it and holding it in his hand. It would be about like a billiard-ball to him, and he would turn it over in his hand and rub it with his thumb, and where he rubbed over the mountain ranges he might say, ‘There seems to be some slight roughness here, but I can’t detect it with my eye; it seems perfectly smooth to look at.’ The Himalayas to him, the highest peak, would be one-sixty-thousandth of his height, or about the one-thousandth part of an inch as compared with the average man.”

I spoke of having somewhere read of some very tiny satellites, one as small, perhaps, as six miles in diameter, yet a genuine world.

“Could a man live on a world so small as that?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” he said. “The gravitation that holds it together would hold him on, and he would always seem upright, the same as here. His horizon would be smaller, but even if he were six feet tall he would only have one foot for each mile of that world’s diameter, so you see he would be little enough, even for a world that he could walk around in half a day.”

He talked astronomy a great deal — marvel astronomy. He had no real knowledge of the subject, and I had none of any kind, which made its ungraspable facts all the more thrilling. He was always thrown into a sort of ecstasy by the unthinkable distances of space — the supreme drama of the universe. The fact that Alpha Centauri was twenty-five trillions of miles away — two hundred and fifty thousand times the distance of our own remote sun, and that our solar system was traveling, as a whole, toward the bright star Vega, in the constellation of Lyra, at the rate of forty-four miles a second, yet would be thousands upon thousands of years reaching its destination, fairly enraptured him.

The astronomical light-year — that is to say, the distance which light travels in a year — was one of the things which he loved to contemplate; but he declared that no two authorities ever figured it alike, and that he was going to figure it for himself. I came in one morning, to find that he had covered several sheets of paper with almost interminable rows of ciphers, and with a result, to him at least, entirely satisfactory. I am quite certain that he was prouder of those figures and their enormous aggregate than if he had just completed an immortal tale; and when he added that the nearest fixed star — Alpha Centauri — was between four and five light-years distant from the earth, and that there was no possible way to think that distance in miles or even any calculable fraction of it, his glasses shone and his hair was roached up as with the stimulation of these stupendous facts.

By and by he said:

“I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh! I am looking forward to that.” And a little later he added:

“I’ve got some kind of a heart disease, and Quintard won’t tell me whether it is the kind that carries a man off in an instant or keeps him lingering along and suffering for twenty years or so. I was in hopes that Quintard would tell me that I was likely to drop dead any minute; but he didn’t. He only told me that my blood-pressure was too strong. He didn’t give me any schedule; but I expect to go with Halley’s comet.”

I seem to have omitted making any entries for a few days; but among his notes I find this entry, which seems to refer to some discussion of a favorite philosophy, and has a special interest of its own:

July 14, 1909. Yesterday’s dispute resumed, I still maintaining that, whereas we can think, we generally don’t do it. Don’t do it, & don’t have to do it: we are automatic machines which act unconsciously. From morning till sleeping-time, all day long. All day long our machinery is doing things from habit & instinct, & without requiring any help or attention from our poor little 7-by-9 thinking apparatus. This reminded me of something: thirty years ago, in Hartford, the billiard-room was my study, & I wrote my letters there the first thing every morning. My table lay two points off the starboard bow of the billiard-table, & the door of exit and entrance bore northeast&-by-east-half-east from that position, consequently you could see the door across the length of the billiard-table, but you couldn’t see the floor by the said table. I found I was always forgetting to ask intruders to carry my letters down-stairs for the mail, so I concluded to lay them on the floor by the door; then the intruder would have to walk over them, & that would indicate to him what they were there for. Did it? No, it didn’t. He was a machine, & had habits. Habits take precedence of thought.

Now consider this: a stamped & addressed letter lying on the floor — lying aggressively & conspicuously on the floor — is an unusual spectacle; so unusual a spectacle that you would think an intruder couldn’t see it there without immediately divining that it was not there by accident, but had been deliberately placed there & for a definite purpose. Very well — it may surprise you to learn that that most simple & most natural & obvious thought would never occur to any intruder on this planet, whether he be fool, half-fool, or the most brilliant of thinkers. For he is always an automatic machine & has habits, & his habits will act before his thinking apparatus can get a chance to exert its powers. My scheme failed because every human being has the habit of picking up any apparently misplaced thing & placing it where it won’t be stepped on.

My first intruder was George. He went and came without saying anything. Presently I found the letters neatly piled up on the billiard-table. I was astonished. I put them on the floor again. The next intruder piled them on the billiard-table without a word. I was profoundly moved, profoundly interested. So I set the trap again. Also again, & again, & yet again — all day long. I caught every member of the family, & every servant; also I caught the three finest intellects in the town. In every instance old, time-worn automatic habit got in its work so promptly that the thinking apparatus never got a chance.

I do not remember this particular discussion, but I do distinctly recall being one of those whose intelligence was not sufficient to prevent my picking up the letter he had thrown on the floor in front of his bed, and being properly classified for doing it.

Clemens no longer kept note-books, as in an earlier time, but set down innumerable memoranda-comments, stray reminders, and the like — on small pads, and bunches of these tiny sheets accumulated on his table and about his room. I gathered up many of them then and afterward, and a few of these characteristic bits may be offered here.


It is at our mother’s knee that we acquire our noblest & truest & highest ideals, but there is seldom any money in them.


He is all-good. He made man for hell or hell for man, one or the other — take your choice. He made it hard to get into heaven and easy to get into hell. He commended man to multiply & replenish-what? Hell.


& will be resumed when clothes are no more. [The latter part of this aphorism is erased and underneath it he adds:]


when clothes were born.

MODESTY DIED when false modesty was born.


A historian who would convey the truth has got to lie. Often he must enlarge the truth by diameters, otherwise his reader would not be able to see it.


are not the important thing — nor enlightenment — nor civilization. A man can do absolutely well without them, but he can’t do without something to eat. The supremest thing is the needs of the body, not of the mind & spirit.


There is conscious suggestion & there is unconscious suggestion — both come from outside — whence all ideas come.


I think I could wipe out a dishonor by crippling the other man, but I don’t see how I could do it by letting him cripple me.

I have no feeling of animosity toward people who do not believe as I do; I merely do not respect ’em. In some serious matters (relig.) I would have them burnt.

I am old now and once was a sinner. I often think of it with a kind of soft regret. I trust my days are numbered. I would not have that detail overlooked.

She was always a girl, she was always young because her heart was young; & I was young because she lived in my heart & preserved its youth from decay.

He often busied himself working out more extensively some of the ideas that came to him — moral ideas, he called them. One fancy which he followed in several forms (some of them not within the privilege of print) was that of an inquisitive little girl, Bessie, who pursues her mother with difficult questionings. 194 He read these aloud as he finished them, and it is certain that they lacked neither logic nor humor.

194 [Under Appendix W, the reader will find one of the “Bessie” dialogues.]

Sometimes he went to a big drawer in his dresser, where he kept his finished manuscripts, and took them out and looked over them, and read parts of them aloud, and talked of the plans he had had for them, and how one idea after another had been followed for a time and had failed to satisfy him in the end.

Two fiction schemes that had always possessed him he had been unable to bring to any conclusion. Both of these have been mentioned in former chapters; one being the notion of a long period of dream-existence during a brief moment of sleep, and the other being the story of a mysterious visitant from another realm. He had experimented with each of these ideas in no less than three forms, and there was fine writing and dramatic narrative in all; but his literary architecture had somehow fallen short of his conception. “The Mysterious Stranger” in one of its forms I thought might be satisfactorily concluded, and he admitted that he could probably end it without much labor. He discussed something of his plans, and later I found the notes for its conclusion. But I suppose he was beyond the place where he could take up those old threads, though he contemplated, fondly enough, the possibility, and recalled how he had read at least one form of the dream tale to Howells, who had urged him to complete it.

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