Truth will out, even in an affidavit.
As we all know, from reading Life on the Mississippi , Mark Twain was a river steamer pilot. It was a trade that
took years to learn. The River was an unforgiving instructor, a pedagogue of practical logic. By day and by night its
fearful impediments battled against the steamboats. Huge sunken trees within its banks, both sawyers and
planters, lay in wait for a chance to rip out the belly of some passing vessel. Just after dark, when the wind was
calm, a fog usually lifted a few feet above its roiling waters so as to conceal the next obstruction. Sometimes with
no warning the caving banks might destroy the deepwater channel that had existed last week and for years before.
Not rarely, when in flood, the thread of the stream burst across some long dry chute and moved the river into
another state, leaving prosperous ports miles from the water. Especially at night, it swarmed with unlighted skiffs,
dugouts, jammed up piles of brush and trees, snags of every description, sunken wrecks, huge rafts carrying
freight downstream, sandbars, floating shanties, and bull-boats made of buffalo hides. All the while other steamers
hogged the channel. When Sam Clemens was "learning the river," he was also forced to endure lectures about the
classics of Elizabethan literature.
George Ealer, his steamboat master, knew Shakespeare and could quote many lines. He had also read Delia Bacon's
book, The Shakespeare Problem Restated which came out in 1857. Ealer was mortified by her heresy. He preached
to Twain on the "Bacon-Shakespeare Dispute," as he called it, while he was teaching him steamboating. Ealer, as a
professor of the river, was a despot. He was as sure about Shakespeare's authorship as he was about the depth of
the bottom on a foggy night. Twain called him "pilotical," a word not to be found in any dictionary then or yet. But
Twain was not perfectly convinced. He says "... I took this attitude, to wit: I only believed Bacon wrote
Shakespeare, whereas I knew Shakespeare didn't."
As a boy Twain was sent to Sunday School where he became interested in the life of Satan and decided to write his
biography. He asked his teacher, Mr. Barclay, about his history. His teacher assured him that there was a "whole
vast ocean of materials" about Satan. We shall presently see what Mr. Barclay knew about that.
Mark Twain cannot be paraphrased. He must be read, slowly and deliberately and thoughtfully, as he composes
his images. This is no country rube from Hannibal, no cracker-barrel philosopher. He has been called a mere
humorist, but his humor only tinctured his mastery of the novel. He was an admirer of the methods of applied
science, so much so that he invested his life savings in a mechanical type-setting machine that could not be
perfected before the Linotype was proven. He lost his money and went deeply into debt because of this and, again,
by participating in a bad publishing venture. True to his principles, which still shine through the covers of his
books, he bailed out his creditors to whom he owed large sums. For years he lectured on tour and he wrote on and
on; he lived sometimes in relative privation but he paid his debts. The creditors got every penny, while he got older
and older and just about killed himself with work. He had an uncommon respect for his own good name; perhaps
that is why he was threatened with knighthood by Queen Victoria.
At least one of his books is almost unknown. It was written during the last year of his life; the title-page says,
"From my Autobiography." There have been many "autobiographies" of Mark Twain, collected in various forms
and published after his death, but most of them have refrained from printing quotations from this particular book.
One critic said that its existence is an embarrassment to his memory. His last book was not much noticed in 1909,
but it shall be noticed now because I am going to quote most of it. (Is Shakespeare Dead? , Harper & Brothers, New
York and London, 1909.)
Twain could not put up with nonsense, historical, literary or otherwise. His ways of expressing scorn were
manifold and he never apologized. Hear him as he picks up the thread of Beelzebub's biography:
From IS SHAKESPEARE DEAD?
By Mark Twain.
(Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
Like this: it was "conjectured"...
[The entire text is available, so the quoted portion is here omitted, but for the conclusion:]
The Plays enjoyed high fame from the beginning; and if he wrote them it seems a pity the world did not find it out.
He ought to have explained that he was the author, and not merely a nom de plume for another man to hide
behind. If he had been less intemperately solicitous about his bones, and more solicitous about his Works, it would
have been better for his good name, and a kindness to us. The bones were not important. They will moulder away,
they will turn to dust, but the Works will endure until the last sun goes down.
Upon finishing this classic attack upon the unwashed of academia, those obtuse and antediluvian creatures then
peering through their 1909 steel-rimmed spectacles, those mutton-chopped, wen-nosed, dewlapped, disciplinarian
schoolmasters, those purblind clingers to the traditions of their ancestral, cranially myopic prelectors, Sam Clemens
wearily raised the chimney of his coal-oil lamp and, gently and wryly and confidently, breathed upon it and upon
And rested. Within a year, he and his light were gone. And so also have gone glimmering the dark-lanterns of his
scholarly opponents, those "thugs," those "Stratfordolators," along with his pilotical Master who taught him the
River, high-water and low-water channels, both ways, both sides, by night, by day, and then up and then down.
There is no doubt that Francis Bacon committed a cruel hoax upon the Troglodytes. Are Troglodytes still to be
feared? I'm not sure. Many of them must have bared their literary fangs and lacerated Sam Clemens. He uses the
term frequently and jeers at them, but never defines exactly what a Troglodyte might be. He suggests that they are
an ancient race, and that we should beware lest they have left behind any "moles" waiting to bite our backsides.
Who and what were these mysterious demons that drove Sam Clemens to write his book and to denounce them?
"Troglodytes" are more precisely named, in The Oxford Classical Dictionary , as "Troglodytae." They were a
primitive people; pioneer Troglodytes lived on the coast of the Red Sea where they were investigated "by agents of
Ptolemy II and III" (308-221 B.C). The suspicions about their lifestyles were not altogether unfounded, as watching
spies reported to their Egyptian masters:
"They mostly went naked, ate the bones and hides as well as the flesh of their cattle, and drank a mixture of milk
and blood. They squeaked liked bats, talked gibberish, and buried their dead by pelting them with stones. They
kept women in common, and were governed by tyrants."
Small wonder that Sam Clemens feared them and railed against their primitive beliefs in William Shakespeare.
But Troglodytes are extinct, at least those of the age and kind that Sam regretted. There are now many
"freethinkers," as converts who have shed their faith in literary hagiology may be termed. More cautious, more
recent scholars have become less indoctrinated, less dominated by dead dogmatists and their wooden peppercorns.
And old Sam really didn't mean all that, about Troglodytes. He was just having a literary and intellectual
disagreement with his peers and he wanted to make sure they could hear him.
Sam, if you can hear me, I grew up in the twilight of coal-oil lamps and horses on the streets; I built rafts and river
boats and ran them on the Missouri; I was even a pilot, though of a different kind, and I loved that too. I went
treasure hunting and, one time, gold prospecting. I can compose in the stick and lay ink on a platen and tighten
down the quoins just right; I can haul down on the lever of a hand press and print halftone plates, and collate and
clean up and devil it all back into a California job case.
But Sam, I think you need a little help. From a Westerner, even a lawyer: the kind of old, battle-scarred watchful
lawyer that knows lawyer-talk and lawyer-ways and lawyer-doings, and can smell another lawyer as soon as he
says ten words. This case of yours is so easy, so well reckoned, so well attested by every witness (except the extinct
thugs and troglodytes), so perfectly cited and footnoted, and so thoughtfully and humbly and politely presented by
your brief, that I will waive my fee.
And Sam, we are going to win. Just you and me, along with Tom and Huck and Jim and Becky Thatcher. And the
River. Wait and see.