Enigma from Mark Twain book solved#

Posted 2024-02-20

FAIR WARNING: it may be scores of people have made and publicized this discovery before me. Likewise, maybe experts would dispute my conclusion. Whatever the case, the instance-of-discovery's shine stays with me.

Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (published 1897) is one of Twain's later pieces of non-fiction. As the name implies, it is travel literature -- travel literature that recounts a globe-circling lecture tour, in fact. The piece is a dazzling survey of a moment in history in locales all across the planet, and it is carried along, of course, by Twain's singular prose voice (and wit).

Below is the excellent picture/aphorism pairing that was placed opposite the book's title page, where the aphorism -- be good & you will be lonesome -- is the purported enigma of this blog entry.

Mark Twain pic and aphorism

No enthusiast would be surprised by Twain issuing this advice, of course. The enigma to me was to relate the advice back to a particular life experience (or experiences) that inspired it.

I spotted what I think is the answer in Twain's autobiography, in a section addressing his childhood days in Hannibal, Missouri (which provided much of the basis for Tom Sawyer). He explains that his country school teacher, Mrs. Horr, would read a bible passage and briefly explain it each day. On one occasion the passage was "ask and ye shall receive", for which Mrs. Horr explained that "whosoever prayed for a thing in earnestness and a strong desire need not doubt that his prayer would be answered". Embracing the advice, young Sam Clemens immediately said an earnest prayer for gingerbread, and the answer came that day at lunchtime. A girl in his class was the daughter of a baker, and she brought a slab of gingerbread in her lunch every day but protected it carefully as a matter of practice. However, on the day of the prayer, she had mysteriously left it unguarded and within easy reach of Clemens: an instance of answered prayer and the power of scripture. On succeeding days the prayer failed to deliver, however, though it was every bit as earnest. Reflecting on this, young Sam realized his Christian faith had been debauched, and he was so troubled that his mother noticed. And this is his account of what followed:

"Something about my conduct and bearing troubled my mother and she took me aside and questioned me concerning it with much solicitude. I was reluctant to reveal to her the change that had come over me, for it would grieve me to distress her kind heart, but at last I confessed, with many tears, that I had ceased to be a Christian. She was heartbroken and asked me why. I said it was because I had found out that I was a Christian for revenue only and I could not bear the thought of that, it was so ignoble.

She gathered me to her breast and comforted me. I had gathered from what she said that if I would continue in that condition I would never be lonesome."

Young Clemens concluded that the faltering, sinful Christians were the majority, so he would have a lot of company in that state and hence not be lonesome. He took the converse to be true as well, that those who succeeded at being good would be lonesome as a result, and this was for him bound together with the memory of his mother good naturedly coping with his faults.

So when, in midlife and later, Twain thought or uttered "be good & you will be lonesome", he must always have done so with a smirk (as in the above photo) and fond memories of mom and a mostly harmless but mischievous, non-lonesome youth.

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