With graphics from the collection of
During his lecture tour around the world in 1895, Clemens spoke to the Yorick Club of Melbourne, Australia--a group of professional businessmen. The topic of his speech was his Mississippi River tour of 1882.
|"MARK TWAIN AT THE YORICK"
October 5, 1895
It is not worth while to try to put into language the delight that you give me when you receive me in this hearty way. Language is for another office. Language is simply to portray the milder emotions of the human heart, but a welcome like this--a welcome that comes out of the heart--deep down--and expressed in a way that one cannot mistake--that is a thing which moves a man all the way through and through. It does seem to me that in order to get such a welcome you've got to come all the way from America to Australia. You Australians seem to deserve the title of "the cordial nation." I have seen so much of your kindness, and have been so moved by it, and so charmed with it, that in thinking things over--I sit and think sometimes, and try to make out the characteristics of this nation and the characteristics of that nation--try to fasten a trademark on them, putting down one as frivolous, another as ox-like and stupid, a third as vivacious, and so on--it seems to me that you should be branded and trademarked as "the cordial nation"--certainly, when you meet me. And that is most pleasant, that is most delightful. Now, I have been to a great many places where there were things to eat, where there was a supper, and where there was a chairman, and the distinctive quality of that chairman was always to make a speech that had nothing in it which you could use as a text afterwards. That was the way with all the chairmen I ever saw--except this one. But he has really so loaded me up with texts that it is an embarrassment of riches. I don't know where to begin. If I used all the texts he has furnished me with there would be nothing left of us when I got through.
There is one fact he brought out happily which stupid people who speak the English language all over this world are prone to overlook or to ignore, and that is--let us chaff and jaw and criticize one another as we please, when all is said and done, the Americans, and the English, and their great outflow in Canada and Australia are all one. You have not stayed at home all your lives, and you know that sentiment which I have felt so many times. I have been around a good deal here and there in the world, and there is one thing that I have always noticed, and which you must have noticed under similar circumstances. Let one of us be far away from his own country--be it Australia, or England, or America, or Canada--and let him see either the English flag or the American flag, and I defy him not to be stirred by it. Oh yes! blood is thicker than water, and we are all related. If we do jaw and bawl at each other now and again, that is no matter at all. We do belong together, and we are parts of a great whole--the greatest whole this world has ever seen--a whole that, some day, will spread over this world, and, I hope, annihilate and abolish all other communities. It will be "the survival of the fittest." The English is the greatest race that ever was, and will prove itself so before it gets done--and I would like to be there to see it. I am getting old. I am getting pretty old--but I don't find it out when I'm around this way. It is when one sits at home, melancholy, perhaps, when nothing is going on. But when I'm around this way with my own kind I don't know that I'm not quite young again--say, fifteen or sixteen--and I feel perfectly comfortable.
My friend on the right and I were talking just now about that very thing. I said I thought that if I had created the human race--oh! I could have done it. I was asked nothing about it, and I didn't suggest anything. But I thought that if I had created the human race, and had discovered that they were a kind of a failure--and had drowned them out--well, I would recognize that that was a good thing. And then, fortified by experience, I would start the thing on a different plan. I would have no more of that 969 years' business. I wouldn't let people grow that old. I would cut them off at thirty. Because a man's youth is the thing he loves to think about, and it is the thing that he regrets. It is the one part of his life that he most thoroughly enjoys. My friend on the right suggests that we should go as far as forty years, as he doesn't want any of his forty years rubbed out. Well, perhaps you really might go up to forty, because then you get a perspective upon youth, and that has its value. That has its charm. But, oh, dear me! I never would have created age. Age has its own value--but that is to other people, not to those who have it.
The chairman, among other things, touched upon my experience as a Mississippi pilot. That is connected with what I am now talking about. That is one of those things that you engage in when you are young and careless--and a man ought always to be young and careless. Then everything that comes is satisfactory. You don't suppose that I should enjoy being a pilot on a Mississippi steamboat now, and be scared to death every time it came a fog. But at that time fogs and dark nights had a charm for me. I didn't own any stock in that steamboat. And that is one of the very advantages of youth. You don't own any stock in anything. You have a good time, and all the grief and trouble is with the other fellows. Youth is a lovely thing, and certainly never was there a diviner time to me in this world. All the rest of my life is one thing--but my life as a pilot on the Mississippi River when I was young--Oh! that was the darling existence. There has been nothing comparable to it in my life since. And, speaking of that, I may tell you a little story.
I had that sort of instinct which anybody would have who had been separated by long years from a life of that kind. He would look back and remember this thing and that thing, and everything that happened to him when he was young; it was all so dear, and so beautiful and so fine--so much finer than anything he had experienced since. Well, I carried out that instinct, and I went out to the Mississippi River about 1880. I had not seen that river for I don't know how long--perhaps for a quarter of a century--and I went there with a sort of longing. One sometimes has a yearning to see again the scenes that were dear to him in his youth, in his prime, in the time when he had the heart to feel, and I thought I would like to see that river and what was left of that steamboat life exactly as I saw it long, long, long ago. And so I went under a fictitious name. I didn't want to be found out. I wanted to be able to go up into the pilot house, and talk to that pilot just as I used to see passengers talk to him, and I wanted to ask him the same idiotic questions. And I wanted to get myself loaded up with the same misinformation just as they used to do. So I went under a fictitious name, and the thing went along very well until, after I had signed my name "John W. Fletcher" on the register of the Southern Hotel in St. Louis, the man behind the counter bowed and said pleasantly--"Show Mr. Clemens to Number 165." Now you can imagine the interest I felt when I really was launched on the steamboat. She was a vile, rusty old steamboat, but she was the only one that was going down the river that day, and I wanted to go. I got on board that boat two hours before she was advertised to sail. I was so anxious to see again that old steamboat life I had been so familiar with. I knew she wouldn't sail at the time she was advertised, but I knew she would go sometime that week. I was loafing about the decks just as happy as a man could be, noticing details in the construction of that boat, which I hadn't seen in any other boat or ship for ever so long.
After a while there came a curious-looking sort of creature slouching up on the hurricane deck. He accosted me and asked where I was from. I said from the state of Connecticut--from the city of Hartford in Connecticut. He said--"You're a good long way from home." I said I recognized that--I felt it. Then he said--"Now I reckon you've no such boat as this there. You never seen a boat like this before?" Well, I intimated that I never had. I wouldn't lie to a man like that. He said--"I was born and raised away in the interior of Wisconsin. I never saw a river or a steamboat till a week ago. Then I came all the way down in a boat like this. If you like, I'll show you round and tell you the names of the different things and what they're for." Well, he seemed kindly disposed, and I went round with him. He showed me this and that, and I soon saw that lots of information had been furnished to him by an expert. He hadn't got a thing right. Some of those people on steamboats can't be depended upon. And they had just loaded him up, giving him false names for things, or, when they gave him the right names, telling him extraordinary uses to which the things were said to be put. So the poor devil didn't know anything about a steamboat at all. Well, he left me, and I didn't see any more of him for some time.
When the boat had sailed I was so impatient that I got up in the morning with the first dawn, to see what I could of that majestic river, which used to be as familiar to me as the joints of my own fingers--a river that I knew foot by foot, detail by detail, night or day, for 1,300 miles. I was impatient to find if that old river was still familiar to me. I did hope that I would recognize some parts of it, but when I came up on that hurricane deck and looked round, I saw that that hope was blighted. I didn't seem to recognize any part of it at all. At length I saw a place on the right-hand side where there were some willows growing that I thought I did recognize, but no, I knew those willows were, so to speak, creatures of a day, and that there must have been hundreds of them since I was there twenty years before. It was a deep disappointment to me. But then I thought--"Never mind, I can cheer up the occasion by getting up into that pilot house, and letting that man load me up with a lot of lies, as they did the historical passenger."
I glanced up three or four times to make sure I had never seen that pilot before. No; he was too young for me to know at all. He must have come into the pilot house after I left the river twenty years before. I crept up in there, and to my joy I was received exactly like the passenger of the old times. The pilot, when he heard the latch of the door, turned round and gave me that sort of indifferent look--a look that was, oh, so indifferent that if you could just get capital enough, and collect enough of it, you wouldn't need any of those refrigerating processes--it would freeze all the sheep in Australia. The old thing exactly. I didn't expect any more notice, and I didn't want any. I sunk down on the bench in the pilot house. There was a little boy about seven years old playing round. I got into conversation with him for a few minutes, and then he went away and we were left alone--I, and that pilot who had no hospitality, no welcome, for me.
And then I began to ask my questions, just as the old-time passenger did. I said, just in the same timid way--"Would you be kind enough to tell me what that thing there is for--that speaking tube?" "Oh," he said, "that speakin' tube; that's to call the chambermaid." Well, I felt so happy. The thing was going beautifully. I asked him another question--about another speaking tube. He said that was to call the boy that scrubbed the deck. "What was that bell for?"--you know, the bell that signals "Go ahead," and so on. That was to call somebody else. Everything was to call somebody. That man could not apparently tell the truth, even by accident. And so I felt perfectly happy. I was getting loaded up just as I wanted, and I would put it in a book. It was jolly good stuff, and I was feeling very comfortable.
All of a sudden he says--"Look here, just hold her a minute, I have to go downstairs and get some coffee." And away he went. Well, instinct made me take the wheel--you mustn't leave a steamer to pilot herself. Then I looked round to see if I could make out where we were; and now I recognized the place at once. I knew it perfectly. It was the only place between St. Louis and a point 200 miles below where there were any dangerous rocks. I recognized it as the very worst place in the whole Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the ocean--a place called the Grand Chain. Even an apprentice pilot, who had been through it a few times, would never forget it in all his life, because the marks have to be so exactly followed. There is one place where there is a crossing two miles long, and in the very midst of it there are two rocks. Neither of them shows above water, but they make a little break which you can hardly notice. These deadly rocks are only seventy feet apart, and a Mississippi steamboat is twenty-five feet wide, so you must not diverge at all. If you hit one of those rocks you would be in heaven in two minutes. I recognized that I was in the Grand Chain, but didn't know exactly what part of it. I suspected, though, that I was in the part that passes between those two rocks. However, I knew one thing--that that pilot would never have put that wheel into my hands until he had satisfied himself that the boat lay exactly in the right course. He knew that if I had any sense at all I had sense enough to keep between the marks--which I did most diligently. We passed between the rocks, and I saw those breaks, and I didn't do any harm. But I was very glad when he came back. Then he said--"You go and play fictitious names on people and try to get your fun out of them, but I knew your damned drawl the minute you spoke to that boy." Well, of course, we got to be friendly, then. It turned out that just as I was leaving the river he had finished his apprenticeship, but he had struck a pretty bad snag, and he could only get one pilot to sign his application. He was required to have two. He was looking round and he found me, and I signed his papers and saved him--made a pilot of him.
So we had a jolly good time. I was always on his watch--and the other fellow's watch too. I stood all the watches there were. All the day long, no matter which pilot's turn it was, I took the wheel. I couldn't get enough of it. The river was bank full, and from where the Ohio comes in all the way down to New Orleans there was nothing to do but to keep round in this bend and cross into that bend. You could never make any mistake. A jackass could pilot a steamboat in that part of the river if he had just wit enough to follow the shape of the river. So the pilots would leave me there the whole watch, and there in that sunny country I would stand at the wheel, and pilot along down, and ponder, and think, and dream, and dream over all that old vanished time on the river. It was delightful--full of pathos, full of poetry, full of the charm of unconsciousness of anything else in the world but that old past. I heard the latch of the pilot house door raised, but I didn't hear anybody come in. I turned round, and who should be standing there but that Wisconsin hayseed fellow I hadn't seen since he showed me the things on the steamboat at St. Louis. He stood there sort o' petrified, gazing at me, and he said--well, I won't repeat what he said. It was profane, but it was eloquent.
But I mustn't stand here and talk all night of old reminiscences. I was going
through all the texts of the chairman, but now I come to think of it--I had
forgotten it for the minute--I am entertaining a carbuncle unawares. I have
got it on my port hind leg, and it reminds me of its company occasionally. I
have greater respect for it than for any other possession I have in the world.
I take more care of it than I do of the family. But before I sit down I just
want to thank you once again for your kind and cordial reception of me tonight,
and to assure you that I do most sincerely appreciate it and value it.