Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344
If I understand the idea, the BAZAR invites several of us to
write upon the above text. It means the change in my life's
course which introduced what must be regarded by me as the most
IMPORTANT condition of my career. But it also implies--without
intention, perhaps--that that turning-point ITSELF was the
creator of the new condition. This gives it too much
distinction, too much prominence, too much credit. It is only
the LAST link in a very long chain of turning-points commissioned
to produce the cardinal result; it is not any more important than
the humblest of its ten thousand predecessors. Each of the ten
thousand did its appointed share, on its appointed date, in
forwarding the scheme, and they were all necessary; to have left
out any one of them would have defeated the scheme and brought
about SOME OTHER result. It know we have a fashion of saying
"such and such an event was the turning-point in my life," but we
shouldn't say it. We should merely grant that its place as LAST
link in the chain makes it the most CONSPICUOUS link; in real
importance it has no advantage over any one of its predecessors.
Perhaps the most celebrated turning-point recorded in
history was the crossing of the Rubicon. Suetonius says:
Coming up with his troops on the banks of the Rubicon, he
halted for a while, and, revolving in his mind the importance of
the step he was on the point of taking, he turned to those about
him and said, "We may still retreat; but if we pass this little
bridge, nothing is left for us but to fight it out in arms."
This was a stupendously important moment. And all the
incidents, big and little, of Caesar's previous life had been
leading up to it, stage by stage, link by link. This was the
LAST link--merely the last one, and no bigger than the others;
but as we gaze back at it through the inflating mists of our
imagination, it looks as big as the orbit of Neptune.
You, the reader, have a PERSONAL interest in that link, and
so have I; so has the rest of the human race. It was one of the
links in your life-chain, and it was one of the links in mine.
We may wait, now, with baited breath, while Caesar reflects.
Your fate and mine are involved in his decision.
While he was thus hesitating, the following incident
occurred. A person remarked for his noble mien and graceful
aspect appeared close at hand, sitting and playing upon a pipe.
When not only the shepherds, but a number of soldiers also,
flocked to listen to him, and some trumpeters among them, he
snatched a trumpet from one of them, ran to the river with it,
and, sounding the advance with a piercing blast, crossed to the
other side. Upon this, Caesar exclaimed: "Let us go whither the
omens of the gods and the iniquity of our enemies call up.
THE DIE IS CAST."
So he crossed--and changed the future of the whole human
race, for all time. But that stranger was a link in Caesar's
life-chain, too; and a necessary one. We don't know his name, we
never hear of him again; he was very casual; he acts like an
accident; but he was no accident, he was there by compulsion of
HIS life-chain, to blow the electrifying blast that was to make
up Caesar's mind for him, and thence go piping down the aisles of
If the stranger hadn't been there! But he WAS. And Caesar
crossed. With such results! Such vast events--each a link in
the HUMAN RACE'S life-chain; each event producing the next one,
and that one the next one, and so on: the destruction of the
republic; the founding of the empire; the breaking up of the
empire; the rise of Christianity upon its ruins; the spread of
the religion to other lands--and so on; link by link took its
appointed place at its appointed time, the discovery of America
being one of them; our Revolution another; the inflow of English
and other immigrants another; their drift westward (my ancestors
among them) another; the settlement of certain of them in
Missouri, which resulted in ME. For I was one of the unavoidable
results of the crossing of the Rubicon. If the stranger, with
his trumpet blast, had stayed away (which he COULDN'T, for he was
the appointed link) Caesar would not have crossed. What would
have happened, in that case, we can never guess. We only know
that the things that did happen would not have happened. They
might have been replaced by equally prodigious things, of course,
but their nature and results are beyond our guessing. But the
matter that interests me personally is that I would not be HERE
now, but somewhere else; and probably black--there is no telling.
Very well, I am glad he crossed. And very really and thankfully
glad, too, though I never cared anything about it before.
To me, the most important feature of my life is its literary
feature. I have been professionally literary something more than
forty years. There have been many turning-points in my life, but
the one that was the link in the chain appointed to conduct me to
the literary guild is the most CONSPICUOUS link in that chain.
BECAUSE it was the last one. It was not any more important than
its predecessors. All the other links have an inconspicuous
look, except the crossing of the Rubicon; but as factors in
making me literary they are all of the one size, the crossing of
the Rubicon included.
I know how I came to be literary, and I will tell the steps
that lead up to it and brought it about.
The crossing of the Rubicon was not the first one, it was
hardly even a recent one; I should have to go back ages before
Caesar's day to find the first one. To save space I will go back
only a couple of generations and start with an incident of my
boyhood. When I was twelve and a half years old, my father died.
It was in the spring. The summer came, and brought with it an
epidemic of measles. For a time a child died almost every day.
The village was paralyzed with fright, distress, despair.
Children that were not smitten with the disease were imprisoned
in their homes to save them from the infection. In the homes
there were no cheerful faces, there was no music, there was no
singing but of solemn hymns, no voice but of prayer, no romping
was allowed, no noise, no laughter, the family moved spectrally
about on tiptoe, in a ghostly hush. I was a prisoner. My soul
was steeped in this awful dreariness--and in fear. At some time
or other every day and every night a sudden shiver shook me to
the marrow, and I said to myself, "There, I've got it! and I
shall die." Life on these miserable terms was not worth living,
and at last I made up my mind to get the disease and have it
over, one way or the other. I escaped from the house and went to
the house of a neighbor where a playmate of mine was very ill
with the malady. When the chance offered I crept into his room
and got into bed with him. I was discovered by his mother and
sent back into captivity. But I had the disease; they could not
take that from me. I came near to dying. The whole village was
interested, and anxious, and sent for news of me every day; and
not only once a day, but several times. Everybody believed I
would die; but on the fourteenth day a change came for the worse
and they were disappointed.
This was a turning-point of my life. (Link number one.)
For when I got well my mother closed my school career and
apprenticed me to a printer. She was tired of trying to keep me
out of mischief, and the adventure of the measles decided her to
put me into more masterful hands than hers.
I became a printer, and began to add one link after another
to the chain which was to lead me into the literary profession.
A long road, but I could not know that; and as I did not know
what its goal was, or even that it had one, I was indifferent.
A young printer wanders around a good deal, seeking and
finding work; and seeking again, when necessity commands. N. B.
Necessity is a CIRCUMSTANCE; Circumstance is man's master--and
when Circumstance commands, he must obey; he may argue the
matter--that is his privilege, just as it is the honorable
privilege of a falling body to argue with the attraction of
gravitation--but it won't do any good, he must OBEY. I wandered
for ten years, under the guidance and dictatorship of
Circumstance, and finally arrived in a city of Iowa, where I
worked several months. Among the books that interested me in
those days was one about the Amazon. The traveler told an
alluring tale of his long voyage up the great river from Para to
the sources of the Madeira, through the heart of an enchanted
land, a land wastefully rich in tropical wonders, a romantic land
where all the birds and flowers and animals were of the museum
varieties, and where the alligator and the crocodile and the
monkey seemed as much at home as if they were in the Zoo. Also,
he told an astonishing tale about COCA, a vegetable product of
miraculous powers, asserting that it was so nourishing and so
strength-giving that the native of the mountains of the Madeira
region would tramp up hill and down all day on a pinch of
powdered coca and require no other sustenance.
I was fired with a longing to ascend the Amazon. Also with
a longing to open up a trade in coca with all the world. During
months I dreamed that dream, and tried to contrive ways to get to
Para and spring that splendid enterprise upon an unsuspecting
planet. But all in vain. A person may PLAN as much as he wants
to, but nothing of consequence is likely to come of it until the
magician CIRCUMSTANCE steps in and takes the matter off his
hands. At last Circumstance came to my help. It was in this
way. Circumstance, to help or hurt another man, made him lose a
fifty-dollar bill in the street; and to help or hurt me, made me
find it. I advertised the find, and left for the Amazon the same
day. This was another turning-point, another link.
Could Circumstance have ordered another dweller in that town
to go to the Amazon and open up a world-trade in coca on a fifty-
dollar basis and been obeyed? No, I was the only one. There
were other fools there--shoals and shoals of them--but they were
not of my kind. I was the only one of my kind.
Circumstance is powerful, but it cannot work alone; it has
to have a partner. Its partner is man's TEMPERAMENT--his natural
disposition. His temperament is not his invention, it is BORN in
him, and he has no authority over it, neither is he responsible
for its acts. He cannot change it, nothing can change it,
nothing can modify it--except temporarily. But it won't stay
modified. It is permanent, like the color of the man's eyes and
the shape of his ears. Blue eyes are gray in certain unusual lights;
but they resume their natural color when that stress is removed.
A Circumstance that will coerce one man will have no effect
upon a man of a different temperament. If Circumstance had
thrown the bank-note in Caesar's way, his temperament would not
have made him start for the Amazon. His temperament would have
compelled him to do something with the money, but not that. It
might have made him advertise the note--and WAIT. We can't tell.
Also, it might have made him go to New York and buy into the
Government, with results that would leave Tweed nothing to learn
when it came his turn.
Very well, Circumstance furnished the capital, and my
temperament told me what to do with it. Sometimes a temperament
is an ass. When that is the case of the owner of it is an ass,
too, and is going to remain one. Training, experience,
association, can temporarily so polish him, improve him, exalt
him that people will think he is a mule, but they will be
mistaken. Artificially he IS a mule, for the time being, but at
bottom he is an ass yet, and will remain one.
By temperament I was the kind of person that DOES things.
Does them, and reflects afterward. So I started for the Amazon
without reflecting and without asking any questions. That was
more than fifty years ago. In all that time my temperament has
not changed, by even a shade. I have been punished many and many
a time, and bitterly, for doing things and reflecting afterward,
but these tortures have been of no value to me; I still do the
thing commanded by Circumstance and Temperament, and reflect
afterward. Always violently. When I am reflecting, on these
occasions, even deaf persons can hear me think.
I went by the way of Cincinnati, and down the Ohio and
Mississippi. My idea was to take ship, at New Orleans, for Para.
In New Orleans I inquired, and found there was no ship leaving
for Para. Also, that there never had BEEN one leaving for Para.
I reflected. A policeman came and asked me what I was doing, and
I told him. He made me move on, and said if he caught me
reflecting in the public street again he would run me in.
After a few days I was out of money. Then Circumstance
arrived, with another turning-point of my life--a new link. On
my way down, I had made the acquaintance of a pilot. I begged
him to teach me the river, and he consented. I became a pilot.
By and by Circumstance came again--introducing the Civil
War, this time, in order to push me ahead another stage or two
toward the literary profession. The boats stopped running, my
livelihood was gone.
Circumstance came to the rescue with a new turning-point and
a fresh link. My brother was appointed secretary to the new
Territory of Nevada, and he invited me to go with him and help
him in his office. I accepted.
In Nevada, Circumstance furnished me the silver fever and I
went into the mines to make a fortune, as I supposed; but that
was not the idea. The idea was to advance me another step toward
literature. For amusement I scribbled things for the Virginia
City ENTERPRISE. One isn't a printer ten years without setting
up acres of good and bad literature, and learning--unconsciously
at first, consciously later--to discriminate between the two,
within his mental limitations; and meantime he is unconsciously
acquiring what is called a "style." One of my efforts attracted
attention, and the ENTERPRISE sent for me and put me on its staff.
And so I became a journalist--another link. By and by Circumstance
and the Sacramento UNION sent me to the Sandwich Islands for five
or six months, to write up sugar. I did it; and threw in a good
deal of extraneous matter that hadn't anything to do with sugar.
But it was this extraneous matter that helped me to another link.
It made me notorious, and San Francisco invited me to lecture.
Which I did. And profitably. I had long had a desire to travel
and see the world, and now Circumstance had most kindly and
unexpectedly hurled me upon the platform and furnished me the means.
So I joined the "Quaker City Excursion."
When I returned to America, Circumstance was waiting on the pier--
with the LAST link--the conspicuous, the consummating, the
victorious link: I was asked to WRITE A BOOK, and I did it, and
called it THE INNOCENTS ABROAD. Thus I became at last a member
of the literary guild. That was forty-two years ago, and I have
been a member ever since. Leaving the Rubicon incident away back
where it belongs, I can say with truth that the reason I am in
the literary profession is because I had the measles when I was
twelve years old.
Now what interests me, as regards these details, is not the
details themselves, but the fact that none of them was foreseen
by me, none of them was planned by me, I was the author of none
of them. Circumstance, working in harness with my temperament,
created them all and compelled them all. I often offered help,
and with the best intentions, but it was rejected--as a rule,
uncourteously. I could never plan a thing and get it to come out
the way I planned it. It came out some other way--some way I had
not counted upon.
And so I do not admire the human being--as an intellectual
marvel--as much as I did when I was young, and got him out of
books, and did not know him personally. When I used to read that
such and such a general did a certain brilliant thing, I believed
it. Whereas it was not so. Circumstance did it by help of his
temperament. The circumstances would have failed of effect with
a general of another temperament: he might see the chance, but
lose the advantage by being by nature too slow or too quick or
too doubtful. Once General Grant was asked a question about a
matter which had been much debated by the public and the
newspapers; he answered the question without any hesitancy.
"General, who planned the the march through Georgia?" "The
enemy!" He added that the enemy usually makes your plans for
you. He meant that the enemy by neglect or through force of
circumstances leaves an opening for you, and you see your chance
and take advantage of it.
Circumstances do the planning for us all, no doubt, by help
of our temperaments. I see no great difference between a man and
a watch, except that the man is conscious and the watch isn't,
and the man TRIES to plan things and the watch doesn't. The
watch doesn't wind itself and doesn't regulate itself--these
things are done exteriorly. Outside influences, outside
circumstances, wind the MAN and regulate him. Left to himself,
he wouldn't get regulated at all, and the sort of time he would
keep would not be valuable. Some rare men are wonderful watches,
with gold case, compensation balance, and all those things, and
some men are only simple and sweet and humble Waterburys. I am a
Waterbury. A Waterbury of that kind, some say.
A nation is only an individual multiplied. It makes plans
and Circumstances comes and upsets them--or enlarges them. Some
patriots throw the tea overboard; some other patriots destroy a
Bastille. The PLANS stop there; then Circumstance comes in,
quite unexpectedly, and turns these modest riots into a revolution.
And there was poor Columbus. He elaborated a deep plan to
find a new route to an old country. Circumstance revised his
plan for him, and he found a new WORLD. And HE gets the credit
of it to this day. He hadn't anything to do with it.
Necessarily the scene of the real turning-point of my life
(and of yours) was the Garden of Eden. It was there that the
first link was forged of the chain that was ultimately to lead to
the emptying of me into the literary guild. Adam's TEMPERAMENT
was the first command the Deity ever issued to a human being on
this planet. And it was the only command Adam would NEVER be
able to disobey. It said, "Be weak, be water, be characterless,
be cheaply persuadable." The latter command, to let the fruit
alone, was certain to be disobeyed. Not by Adam himself, but by
his TEMPERAMENT--which he did not create and had no authority
over. For the TEMPERAMENT is the man; the thing tricked out with
clothes and named Man is merely its Shadow, nothing more. The
law of the tiger's temperament is, Thou shalt kill; the law of
the sheep's temperament is Thou shalt not kill. To issue later
commands requiring the tiger to let the fat stranger alone, and
requiring the sheep to imbue its hands in the blood of the lion
is not worth while, for those commands CAN'T be obeyed. They
would invite to violations of the law of TEMPERAMENT, which is
supreme, and take precedence of all other authorities. I cannot
help feeling disappointed in Adam and Eve. That is, in their
temperaments. Not in THEM, poor helpless young creatures--
afflicted with temperaments made out of butter; which butter was
commanded to get into contact with fire and BE MELTED. What I
cannot help wishing is, that Adam had been postponed, and Martin
Luther and Joan of Arc put in their place--that splendid pair
equipped with temperaments not made of butter, but of asbestos.
By neither sugary persuasions nor by hell fire could Satan have
beguiled THEM to eat the apple. There would have been results!
Indeed, yes. The apple would be intact today; there would be no
human race; there would be no YOU; there would be no ME. And the
old, old creation-dawn scheme of ultimately launching me into the
literary guild would have been defeated.