LETTER FROM MARK TWAIN
Carson City, February 13, 1864
THE CARSON UNDERTAKER - CONTINUED
EDITORS ENTERPRISE: The Independent takes hold of a wretched public evil and shakes it and bullyrags it in the following determined and spirited manner this morning:
"Our friend, Mark Twain, is such a joker that we cannot tell when he is really in earnest. He says in his last letter to the ENTERPRISE, that our undertaker charges exorbitantly for his services - as much as $150 for a pine coffin, and $50 for a grave and is astonished that the Independent has not, ere this, said something about this extortion. As yet we have had no occasion for a coffin or a bit of ground for grave purposes, and therefore know nothing about the price of such things. If any of our citizens think they have been imposed upon in this particular, it is their duty to ventilate the matter. We have heard no complaints."
That first sentence is false, and that clause in the second, which refers to the Independent, is false, also. I knew better than to be astonished when I wrote it. Unfortunately for the public of Carson, both propositions in the third sentence are true. Having had no use for a coffin himself, the editor "therefore knows nothing about the price of such things." It is my unsolicited opinion that he knows very little about anything. And anybody who will read his paper calmly and dispassionately for a week will endorse that opinion. And more especially his knowing nothing about Carson, is not surprising; he seldom mentions that town in his paper. If the Second advent were to occur here, you would hear of it first in some other newspaper. He says, "If any of our citizens think they have been imposed upon in this particular, it is their duty to ventilate the latter." It is their duty - the duty of the citizens - to ferret out abuses and correct them, is it? Correct them through your advertising columns and pay for it - is that it? And then turn to your second page and find one of your insipid chalk-milk editorials, defending the abuse and apologizing for the perpetrator of it; or when public sentiment is too well established on the subject, pretending, as in the above case, that you are the only man in the community who don't know anything about it. Where did you get your notion of the duties of a journalist from? Any editor in the world will say it is your duty to ferret out these abuses, and your duty to correct them. What are you paid for? what use are you to the community? what are you fit for as conductor of a newspaper, you cannot do these things? Are you paid to know nothing, and keep on writing about it every day? How long do you suppose such a jack-legged newspaper as yours would be supported or tolerated in Carson, if you had a rival no larger than a foolscap sheet, but with something in it, and whose editor would know, or at least have energy enough to find out, whether a neighboring paper abused one of the citizens justly or unjustly? That paragraph which I have copied, seems to mean one thing, while in reality it means another. It's true translation is, for instance: "Our name is Independent - that is, in different phrase, Opinionless. We have no opinions on any subject - we reside permanently on the fence. In order to have no opinions, it is necessary that we should know nothing - therefore, if this undertaker is fleecing the people, we will not know it, and then we shall not offend him. We have heard no complaints, and we shall make no inquiries, lest we do hear some."
Now, when I published a sarcasm upon the San Francisco Water Company, and the iniquity of "cooking dividends," some time ago, the attractive form of a massacre at Dutch Nick's, by an irresponsible crazy man, this lively Independent came after me with the spirit of Old Hopkins strong upon him, and launched at me the red bolts of its virtuous wrath for bringing the high mission of journal m into disrepute for leading the citizens of California to believe that the murderous proclivities of this people were more extensive than they really were, or, in other words, creating the impression abroad that we were all lunatics and liable to slay and destroy one another upon the slightest provocation. I did not reply to that, because I took it to be the fellow's honest opinion; and being his honest opinion, it was his duty to express it, whether it galled me or not. But he has permitted so many greater wrongs to pass unnoticed since then, that I have arrived at the conclusion that he only did it to modify the circulation of the ENTERPRISE hereabouts. I should be sorry to think he did it to procure my discharge. He would not, if he knew I was an orphan. Yet the same eyes that saw a great public wrong in that article on the massacre, wilfully see no wrong in this undertaker's impoverishing charges for burying people - charges which are made simply because, from the nature of the service rendered, a man dare not demur to their payment, lest the fact be talked of around town and he be disgraced. Oh, your Independent is a consistent, harmless, non-committal sheet. I never saw a paper of that non-committal name that wasn't. Even the religious papers bearing it give a decided, whole-souled support to neither the Almighty nor the Devil.
The editor of the Independent says he don't know anything about this undertaker business. If he would go and report a while for some responsible newspaper, he would learn the knack of finding out things. Now if he wants to know that the undertaker charged three or four prices for a coffin (the late Mr. Nash's) upon one occasion, and then refused to let it go out of his hands, when the funeral was waiting, until it was paid for, although the estate was good for it, being worth $20,000 - let him go and ask Jack Harris. If he wants any amount of information, let him inquire of Curry, or Pete Hopkins, or Judge Wright. Stuff! let him ask any man he meets in the street - the matter is as universal a topic of conversation here as is the subject of "feet" in Virginia. But I don't suppose you want to know anything about it. I want to shed one more unsolicited opinion, which is that your Independent is the deadest, flattest, [most] worthless thing I know - and I imagine my cold, unsmiling undertaker has his hungry eye upon it.
Mr. Curry says if the people will come forward and take hold of the matter, a city cemetery can be prepared and fenced in a week, and at a trivial cost - a cemetery from which a man can set out for Paradise or perdition just as respectably as he can from the undertaker's private grounds at present. Another undertaker can then be invited to come and take charge of the business. Mr. Curry is right - and no man can move in the matter with greater effect than himself. Let the reform be instituted.
[reprinted in Mark Twain of the Enterprise, edited by Henry Nash Smith, (Univ. of California Press, 1957), pp. 159-62.]
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