The superhydrophobic diving flies of Mono Lake

Mark Twain described the odd diving flies (Ephydra hians) of Mono Lake, California in chapter XXXVIII of Roughing It – one of his finest books:

“Then there is a fly, which looks something like our house fly. These settle on the beach to eat the worms that wash ashore—and any time, you can see there a belt of flies an inch deep and six feet wide, and this belt extends clear around the lake—a belt of flies one hundred miles long. If you throw a stone among them, they swarm up so thick that they look dense, like a cloud. You can hold them under water as long as you please—they do not mind it—they are only proud of it. When you let them go, they pop up to the surface as dry as a patent office report, and walk off as unconcernedly as if they had been educated especially with a view to affording instructive entertainment to man in that particular way.”

A couple of Caltech scientists have now detailed exactly what’s going on with those superhydrophobic flies—whose Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus predates ours by a long stretch—with an overview article and video here. Links to their freely downloadable research paper and supplemental videos are at the end of that page.

My 15 seconds

So there I was, recording today’s Quote…Unquote S53E02 off iPlayer after grabbing The Unbelievable Truth S19E02 earlier. One minute in, my eyebrows like to shoot off my head as host Nigel Rees and Charlotte Green open the show with…well, me and a quotation I sent him last year. Pretty cool.

I wrote five years ago of the strange enmity UK comics seem to have for the show. I still hear it derided a few times a year and I still don’t understand. This is a 53-series programme panelled by the likes of Douglas Adams, Graham Linehan, Peter Cook, and John Lloyd. Sheesh.

Once every several weeks, I hear some comedian or other on a Radio 4 show or TV panel show slag off “Quote…Unquote”, a panel show also on Radio 4. Most make dismissive comments, but some seem to despise the programme with a passion, which puzzles me because I like it. It’s not my favourite Radio 4 programme (that’d be “The News Quiz”, which itself slags off “Quote…Unquote” approximately every fourth programme), but I always listen to QU and can usually identify about half the quotations before they’re through reciting them. There’s good humour and good stories in most episodes.

Why do all those comedians hate it so, and with such bizarre frequency? It’s a minor show that airs only very infrequently – six episodes a year in recent years – yet I hear more negative mentions of it in any given year than the number of QU episodes that aired that year. Is it simply because they know none of the quotations and are perhaps made to feel small, or did presenter Nigel Rees line up all their dogs in a row and run them over with a steamroller years ago?

These three are not invented

These excerpts are from just a dozen or so adjacent pages of Mark Twain’s Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897; free ebook formats here), which I’m reading again. They succinctly reminded me why I love his work. I can easily imagine a wry smile and occasional arched eyebrow as he wrote.

Twain wrote the book after he finished what was essentially a British Empire stand-up tour designed to pay down massive business debts he’d incurred – primarily over-investing for years in a failed typesetting machine. He would generally speak for an hour-and-a-half or so, meandering from story to story with no particular plan, and all without a microphone or even raising his voice, so people had to pay close attention. They did: The combination of the sales of this book and ticket sales for his appearances, which grew as reviews preceded his travels, got him out of debt – and then some.

On gullibility:

It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive. There are people who think that honesty is always the best policy. This is a superstition; there are times when the appearance of it is worth six of it.

On the Southern Cross, as the ship approached Australia:

We are moving steadily southward—getting further and further down under the projecting paunch of the globe. Yesterday evening we saw the Big Dipper and the north star sink below the horizon and disappear from our world. No, not “we,” but they. They saw it—somebody saw it—and told me about it. But it is no matter, I was not caring for those things, I am tired of them, any way. I think they are well enough, but one doesn’t want them always hanging around. My interest was all in the Southern Cross. I had never seen that. I had heard about it all my life, and it was but natural that I should be burning to see it. No other constellation makes so much talk. I had nothing against the Big Dipper—and naturally couldn’t have anything against it, since it is a citizen of our own sky, and the property of the United States—but I did want it to move out of the way and give this foreigner a chance. Judging by the size of the talk which the Southern Cross had made, I supposed it would need a sky all to itself.

But that was a mistake. We saw the Cross to-night, and it is not large. Not large, and not strikingly bright. But it was low down toward the horizon, and it may improve when it gets up higher in the sky. It is ingeniously named, for it looks just as a cross would look if it looked like something else. But that description does not describe; it is too vague, too general, too indefinite. It does after a fashion suggest a cross—a cross that is out of repair—or out of drawing; not correctly shaped. It is long, with a short cross-bar, and the cross-bar is canted out of the straight line.

It consists of four large stars and one little one. The little one is out of line and further damages the shape. It should have been placed at the intersection of the stem and the cross-bar. If you do not draw an imaginary line from star to star it does not suggest a cross—nor anything in particular.

One must ignore the little star, and leave it out of the combination—it confuses everything. If you leave it out, then you can make out of the four stars a sort of cross—out of true; or a sort of kite—out of true; or a sort of coffin—out of true.

On the practice of blackbirding Queensland labour:

The truth is, Captain Wawn furnishes such a crowd of instances of fatal encounters between natives and French and English recruiting-crews (for the French are in the business for the plantations of New Caledonia), that one is almost persuaded that recruiting is not thoroughly popular among the islanders; else why this bristling string of attacks and bloodcurdling slaughter? The captain lays it all to “Exeter Hall influence.” But for the meddling philanthropists, the native fathers and mothers would be fond of seeing their children carted into exile and now and then the grave, instead of weeping about it and trying to kill the kind recruiters.

Connections

In the midst of reading As Always: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto by Joan Reardon, and while separately reading of Mark Twain’s two-week experience as an amateur and eventually too-reluctant Confederate soldier, I discovered an interesting connection.

Avis DeVoto’s husband, Bernard DeVoto, had written an article in Harper’s on the difficulty of finding good kitchen knives in the US – this was in the early 1950s. That article is what prompted Julia to write; he was fairly busy at the time, so his wife answered instead with a four-page letter.

Thus began a long correspondence and friendship, and something else that was momentous. Avis had connections in the publishing world that eventually led to the release of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Knopf in 1961, nine years after Julia and Avis first exchanged letters in 1952.

Julia_letter

Click to view a larger version

The unusual connection I wasn’t aware of until just now – or, rather, for which I hadn’t yet connected the dots – is that Bernard, a historian, was an authority on Mark Twain who curated and edited Twain’s papers. He edited a few books of Twain’s work, including the still in print The Portable Mark Twain, one of the first Twain volumes I read many years ago. Before I knew of the Child connection, I only recently bought DeVoto’s Mark Twain’s America, originally published in 1932, to get a better sense of what the country was like at the times of Twain’s travels.

The final connection is a mention of a particular type of cooking in Virginia City, Nevada, where Twain lived in the early 1860s, from just that volume:

They came to Virginia City as soon as the true value of the Comstock was perceived. They constituted, no doubt, a deplorable source of gambling, pleasure and embroilment. They were not soft-spoken women, their desire was not visibly separate from the main chance, and they would have beheld Mr. Harte’s portrayal of them at Poker Flat with ribald mirth. But let them have a moment of respect. They civilized the Comstock. They drove through its streets reclining in lacquered broughams, displaying to male eyes fashions as close to Paris as any then current in New York. They were, in brick houses hung with tapestries, a glamour and a romance, after the superheated caverns of the mines. They enforced a code of behavior: one might be a hard-rock man outside their curtains but in their presence one was punctilious or one was hustled away. They brought Parisian cooking to the sagebrush of Sun Mountain and they taught the West to distinguish between tarantula juice* and the bouquet of wines. An elegy for their passing. The West has neglected to mention them in bronze and its genealogies avoid comment on their marriages, conspicuous or obscure, but it owes them a here acknowledged debt for civilization.

*Tarantula juice was one of the many names for bastardised whisky in that corner of Nevada, cut with rather novel ingredients. According to J. Ross Browne in the January 1861 edition of Harper’s, “The whisky contained strychnine, oil of tobacco, tarantula juice, and various effective poisons of the same general nature, including a dash of corrosive sublimate; and the gin was manufactured out of turpentine and whisky, with a sprinkling of Prussic acid to give it flavor.”

Apparently, strychnine, deadly in higher quantities, would, in smaller quantities, produce effects not unlike those of methamphetamine. In 1864, Twain wrote of the Dashaway Association, a temperance group started by a group of San Francisco volunteer firemen in 1859. He said its ranks were increasing because the new adherents “fear strychnine more than inebriation.”

“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”

Mark Twain wrote that in No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger, and it was the first thing I thought of after catching my breath from the longest, guffawingest belly laugh I’ve had in months, possibly years.

And that was just day one of the competition.

Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

“Only the Mary Ann…”

An excerpt from a speech Mark Twain gave at a dinner in his honour hosted by Lord Mayor John Japp at the Liverpool Town Hall, 10 July 1907:

Home is dear to us all, and now I am departing to my own home beyond the ocean. Oxford has conferred upon me the highest honor that has ever fallen to my share of this life’s prizes.¹ It is the very one I would have chosen, as outranking all and any others, the one more precious to me than any and all others within the gift of man or state. During my four weeks’ sojourn in England I have had another lofty honor, a continuous honor, an honor which has flowed serenely along, without halt or obstruction, through all these twenty-six days, a most moving and pulse-stirring honor – the heartfelt grip of the hand, and the welcome that does not descend from the pale-gray matter of the brain, but rushes up with the red blood from the heart. It makes me proud and sometimes it makes me humble, too.

Many and many a year ago I gathered an incident from Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. It was like this: There was a presumptuous little self-important skipper in a coasting sloop engaged in the dried-apple and kitchen-furniture trade, and he was always hailing every ship that came in sight. He did it just to hear himself talk and to air his small grandeur. One day a majestic Indiaman came plowing by with course on course of canvas towering into the sky, her decks and yards swarming with sailors, her hull burdened to the Plimsoll line² with a rich freightage of precious spices, lading the breezes with gracious and mysterious odors of the Orient. It was a noble spectacle, a sublime spectacle! Of course the little skipper popped into the shrouds and squeaked out a hail, “Ship ahoy! What ship is that? And whence and whither?” In a deep and thunderous bass the answer came back through the speaking-trumpet, “The Begum, of Bengal – 142 days out from Canton – homeward bound! What ship is that?” Well, it just crushed that poor little creature’s vanity flat, and he squeaked back most humbly, “Only the Mary Ann, fourteen hours out from Boston, bound for Kittery Point – with nothing to speak of!”³ Oh, what an eloquent word that “only,” to express the depths of his humbleness!

That is just my case. During just one hour in the twenty-four – not more – I pause and reflect in the stillness of the night with the echoes of your English welcome still lingering in my ears, and then I am humble. Then I am properly meek, and for that little while I am only the Mary Ann, fourteen hours out, cargoed with vegetables and tinware; but during all the other twenty-three hours, my vain self-complacency rides high on the white crests of your approval, and then I am a stately Indiaman, plowing the great seas under a cloud of canvas and laden with the kindest words that have ever been vouchsafed to any wandering alien in this world, I think; then my twenty-six fortunate days on this old mother soil seem to be multiplied by six, and I am the Begum, of Bengal, 142 days out from Canton – homeward bound!

¹Twain was awarded a Doctorate of Letters by the University on 26 June 1907.

Mark Twain Receiving Honorary Degree from Oxford

²A line on the hull indicating the maximum safe draft.

³Kittery Point is not actually mentioned in Richard Dana’s book, but Twain’s good friend William Dean Howells had a summer home there.

 

“Half twain…quarter twain…mark twain!”

Leadsman

It was on this date in 1863 that Samuel Clemens first signed ‘Mark Twain’, in his reporter’s letter from Carson City, Nevada to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. I’m currently rereading Life on the Mississippi, and happened to read of the pen name’s origin in chapter 50 last night:

I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands – a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

He sent his letter by stage to the paper on Saturday the 31st; it arrived on Sunday, the typesetters’ day off, and was published in the next edition on Tuesday, 3 February 1863.

The letter:

LETTER FROM CARSON CITY

January 31, 1863

EDS. ENTERPRISE: I feel very much as if I had just awakened out of a long sleep. I attribute it to the fact that I have slept the greater part of the time for the last two days and nights. On Wednesday, I sat up all night, in Virginia, in order to be up early enough to take the five o’clock stage on Thursday morning. I was on time. It was a great success. I had a cheerful trip down to Carson, in company with that incessant talker, Joseph T. Goodman. I never saw him flooded with such a flow of spirits before. He restrained his conversation, though, until we had traveled three or four miles, and were just crossing the divide between Silver City and Spring Valley, when he thrust his head out of the dark stage, and allowed a pallid light from the coach lamp to illuminate his features for a moment, after which he returned to darkness again, and sighed and said, “Damn it!” with some asperity. I asked him who he meant it for, and he said, “The weather out there.” As we approached Carson, at about half past seven o’clock, he thrust his head out again, and gazed earnestly in the direction of that city – after which he took it in again, with his nose very much frosted. He propped the end of that organ upon the end of his finger, and looked down pensively upon it – which had the effect of making him appear cross-eyed – and remarked, “O, damn it!” with great bitterness. I asked him what he was up to this time, and he said, “The cold, damp fog – it is worse than the weather.” This was his last. He never spoke again in my hearing. He went on over the mountains, with a lady fellow-passenger from here. That will stop his clatter, you know, for he seldom speaks in the presence of ladies.

In the evening I felt a mighty inclination to go to a party some where. There was to be one at Governor J. Neely Johnson’s, and I went there and asked permission to stand around awhile. This was granted in the most hospitable manner, and visions of plain quadrilles soothed my weary soul. I felt particularly comfortable, for if there is one thing more grateful to my feelings than another, it is a new house – a large house, with its ceilings embellished with snowy mouldings; its floors glowing with warm-tinted carpets; with cushioned chairs and sofas to sit on, and a piano to listen to; with fires so arranged that you can see them, and know that there is no humbug about it; with walls garnished with pictures, and above all, mirrors, wherein you may gaze, and always find some thing to admire, you know. I have a great regard for a good house, and a girlish passion for mirrors. Horace Smith, Esq., is also very fond of mirrors. He came and looked in the glass for an hour, with me. Finally, it cracked – the night was pretty cold – and Horace Smith’s reflection was split right down the centre. But where his face had been, the damage was greatest – a hundred cracks converged from his reflected nose, like spokes from the hub of a wagon wheel. It was the strangest freak the weather has done this Winter. And yet the parlor seemed very warm and comfortable, too.

About nine o’clock the Unreliable came and asked Gov. Johnson to let him stand on the porch. That creature has got more impudence than any person I ever saw in my life. Well, he stood and flattened his nose against the parlor window, and looked hungry and vicious – he always looks that way – until Col. Musser arrived with some ladies, when he actually fell in their wake and came swaggering in, looking as if he thought he had been anxiously expected. He had on my fine kid boots, and my plug hat and my white kid gloves (with slices of his prodigious hands grinning through the bursted seams ), and my heavy gold repeater, which I had been offered thousands and thousands of dollars for, many and many a time. He took these articles out of my trunk, at Washoe City, about a month ago, when we went out there to report the proceedings of the Convention. The Unreliable intruded himself upon me in his cordial way and said, “How are you, Mark, old boy? when d’you come down? It’s brilliant, ain’t it? Appear to enjoy themselves, don’t they? Lend a fellow two bits, can’t you?” He always winds up his remarks that way. He appears to have an in satiable craving for two bits.

The music struck up just then, and saved me. The next moment I was far, far at sea in a plain quadrille. We carried it through with distinguished success; that is, we got as far as “balance around,” and “halt-a-man-left,” when I smelled hot whisky punch, or some thing of that nature. I tracked the scent through several rooms, and finally discovered the large bowl from whence it emanated. I found the omnipresent Unreliable there, also. He set down an empty goblet, and remarked that he was diligently seeking the gentle men’s dressing room. I would have shown him where it was, but it occurred to him that the supper table and the punch-bowl ought not to be left unprotected; wherefore, we staid there and watched them until the punch entirely evaporated. A servant came in then to replenish the bowl, and we left the refreshments in his charge. We probably did wrong, but we were anxious to join the hazy dance. The dance was hazier than usual, after that. Sixteen couples on the floor at once, with a few dozen spectators scattered around, is calculated to have that effect in a brilliantly lighted parlor, I believe. Everything seemed to buzz, at any rate. After all the modern dances had been danced several times, the people adjourned to the supper-room. I found my wardrobe out there, as usual, with the Unreliable in it. His old distemper was upon him: he was desperately hungry. I never saw a man eat as much as he did in my life. I have the various items of his supper here in my note-book. First, he ate a plate of sandwiches; then he ate a handsomely iced poundcake; then he gobbled a dish of chicken salad; after which he ate a roast pig; after that, a quantity of blancmange; then he threw in several glasses of punch to fortify his appetite, and finished his monstrous repast with a roast turkey. Dishes of brandy-grapes, and jellies, and such things, and pyramids of fruits, melted away before him as shadows fly at the sun’s approach. I am of the opinion that none of his ancestors were present when the five thousand were miraculously fed in the old Scriptural times. I base my opinion upon the twelve baskets of scraps and the little fishes that remained over after that feast. If the Unreliable himself had been there, the provisions would just about have held out, I think.

After supper, the dancing was resumed, and after a while, the guests indulged in music to a considerable extent. Mrs. J. sang a beautiful Spanish song; Miss R., Miss T., Miss P., and Miss S., sang a lovely duet; Horace Smith, Esq., sang “I’m sitting on the stile, Mary,” with a sweetness and tenderness of expression which I have never heard surpassed; Col. Musser sang “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” so fervently that every heart in that assemblage was purified and made better by it; Mrs. T. and Miss C., and Mrs. T. and Mrs. G. sang “Meet me by moonlight alone” charmingly; Judge Dixson sang “O, Charming May” with great vivacity and artistic effect; Joe Winters and Hal Clayton sang the Marseilles Hymn in French, and did it well; Mr. Wasson sang “Call me pet names” with his usual excellence (Wasson has a cultivated voice, and a refined musical taste, but like Judge Brumfield, he throws so much operatic affectation into his singing that the beauty of his performance is sometimes marred by it – I could not help noticing this fault when Judge Brumfield sang “Rock me to sleep, mother”); Wm. M. Gillespie sang “Thou hast wounded the spirit that loved thee,” gracefully and beautifully, and wept at the recollection of the circumstance which he was singing about. Up to this time I had carefully kept the Unreliable in the background, fearful that, under the circumstances, his insanity would take a musical turn; and my prophetic soul was right; he eluded me and planted himself at the piano; when he opened his cavernous mouth and displayed his slanting and scattered teeth, the effect upon that convivial audience was as if the gates of a graveyard, with its crumbling tombstones, had been thrown open in their midst; then he shouted something about he “would not live alway” – and if I ever heard anything absurd in my life, that was it. He must have made up that song as he went along. Why, there was no more sense in it, and no more music, than there is in his ordinary conversation. The only thing in the whole wretched performance that redeemed it for a moment, was something about “the few lucid moments that dawn on us here.” That was all right; because the “lucid moments” that dawn on that Unreliable are almighty few, I can tell you. I wish one of them would strike him while I am here, and prompt him to return my valuables to me. I doubt if he ever gets lucid enough for that, though. After the Unreliable had finished squawking, I sat down to the piano and sang – however, what I sang is of no consequence to anybody. It was only a graceful little gem from the horse opera.

At about two o’clock in the morning the pleasant party broke up and the crowd of guests distributed themselves around town to their respective homes; and after thinking the fun all over again, I went to bed at four o’clock. So, having been awake forty-eight hours, I slept forty-eight, in order to get even again, which explains the proposition I began this letter with.

Yours, dreamily,
twain_sig

You can read of Clemens’s hair-raising run-in with the depth of the river in chapter 13 of Life on the Mississippi.

Cabinet Card

“Three of the suspected men still in confinement at Aurora” Twain in 1863, flanked by Rep. William Clagett and Speaker A.J. Simmons of the Nevada Territorial legislature.

A blizzard’s the idea

A friend was supposed to visit Monday and Tuesday this week, but those plans were cancelled due to the weather, which reminded me that Mark Twain had a similar problem a while back – March 1888 to be precise. Olivia, his wife, was to have joined him for a week in New York City, but it was not to be. From his letter to her dated 10 March 1888:

And so, after all my labor and persuasion to get you to at last promise to take a week’s holiday and go off with me on a lark, this is what Providence has gone and done about it. It does seem to me the oddest thing – the way Providence manages. A mere simple request to you to stay at home would have been entirely sufficient; but no, that is not big enough, picturesque enough – a blizzard’s the idea; pour down all the snow in stock, turn loose all the winds, bring a whole continent to a stand-still: that is Providence’s idea of the correct way to trump a person’s trick. If I had known it was going to make all this trouble and cost all these millions, I never would have said anything about your going. Now in the light of this revelation of the methods of Providence, consider Noah’s flood – I wish I knew the real reason for playing that cataclysm on the public: likely enough, somebody who liked dry weather wanted to take a walk. That is probably the whole thing – and nothing more to it.

The blizzard he refers to was the Great Blizzard of 1888, which paralysed the Northeast US, sank or grounded 200 ships, blanketed the countryside with 20-60 inches of snow, and killed 400 people – 200 of them in New York City. The supremely annoying “Weather predictions must be perfect! You made me stay off the roads and I didn’t have to! What about my Taco Bell dinner! Call 9-1-1! Waaaa!” people in that area would be well-advised to stick that in their collective pipe and smoke it. Those ubiquitous “Me, me, me! Outrage, outrage, outrage!” chowderheads regretfully now fully enabled by antisocial media remind me of the Italian government trying to jail earthquake scientists a few years ago. I’m happy to report that their manslaughter convictions were finally overturned last November.

The GOES-EAST satellite – GOES-13 at the moment – captured the genesis and follow-through of this week’s blizzard in exquisite detail:

GOES-13, known as GOES-N before launch, was built by Boeing Satellite Systems [PDF of GOES-N databook] and contains several other instruments in addition to its imager:

GOES-N

It’s about the size and weight of a large SUV:

GOES-N prep

The operational infrastructure behind – or perhaps I should say underneath – the satellite is rather breathtaking. Presented in both org chart and geographic styles here:

GOES-N org

GOES-N geo

And now for the other Twain bookend. I’ve read dozens of his speeches, but his talk on New England weather is my favourite. His part begins several paragraphs into this article, at the subhead SPEECH OF MR. SAMUEL L. CLEMENS.

From The New York Times, 23 December 1876

FOREFATHERS’ DAY.
NEW-ENGLANDERS AT DINNER.

THE ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF THE NEW-ENGLAND SOCIETY – SPEECHES BY HON. GEORGE WILLIAM CURTIS, ‘MARK TWAIN,’ REV. EDWARD EVERETT HALE, REV. DR. JOHN COTTON SMITH, REV. DR. TAYLOR, AND OTHERS – INTERESTING LETTER FROM GEN. SHERMAN.

The New England Society’s annual dinner at Delmonico’s last night was one of the most brilliant celebrations of the kind that has ever been held in this City. The preparations were made with great thoroughness, and the addresses by the respondents to the several toasts were full of earnestness, good feeling, good sense, and good wit. The dining-hall was filled with seven tables, the President’s table overlooking six others arranged opposite to it at right angles. Above the head of the President was suspended against the wall the banner of the New England Society, flanked by silken national ensigns, and on the opposite side of the hall, before the orchestra balcony, was a national shield also draped with United States flags. the tables were elegantly and tastefully decorated with baskets and set pieces of flowers. Before the President was a design, in flowers of delicate hues, representing Plymouth Rock, and there were many viands in the feast that recalled to genuine New Englanders the plain and beauty fare of the land of steady habits. The guests entered the dining room just before 7 o’clock, and at that hour Rev. Dr. John Cotton Smith, at the invitation of President Borden, said grace. Among those present were Rev. Edward Everett Hale, ex-Gov. Edwin D. Morgan, Hon. George William Curtis, Rev. John Cotton Smith, Rev. Richard S. Storrs, Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain,) Mayor Wickham, Joseph H. Choate, Rev. Dr. William M. Taylor, Hon. Elliot C. Cowdin, Hon. Salem H. Wales, Commodore J. W. A. Nicholson, G. B. Loring, Hon. Isaac H. Bailey, Dexter A. Hawkins, Prof. Bartholdt, (sculptor of the colossal Statue of Liberty), District Attorney Benjamin K. Phelps, Prof. F. B. Sanborn of Dartmouth College, representatives of St. George’s, St. Andrew’s and St. Patrick’s Societies, Assistant District Attorneys Bell, Russell and Rollins, Parke Godwin, Clark Bell, Police Commissioners, Wheeler and Erbardt, and Prof. W. E. Chandler, the whole company numbering more than two hundred. More than two hours were spent at dinner, when, at 9:30 o’clock, Rev. Mr. Courtenay gave thanks. President Borden then rose, and having called the company to order, he announced that Gen. William T. Sherman had written a letter of regret, saying that in the present condition of affairs at Washington he was unable to leave that city, and William M. Evarts was also detained in Washington and was unable to attend, and that letters of regret had been received from ex-Speaker James G. Blaine, Gov. Tilden, Gov. Chamberlain, of South Carolina, Robert C. Winthrop, and Gen. John C. Newton.

Hon. George William Curtis was called upon to respond to the toast of “Forefathers’ Day.” He was received with prolonged applause, and by many of the company rising to their feet with waving handkerchiefs and loud cheers. His remarks were frequently interrupted by hearty expressions of approval, and his allusion to Abraham Lincoln as the development of the seed sown here two centuries ago by the coming of the Mayflower, was followed by vehement applause. His suggestions for the conduct of the Senate and the House of Representatives in the settlement of the political difficulties threatening the nation roused is hearers to the highest pitch of excitement, and evoked unanimous and prolonged applause.

As Mr. Curtis sat down, he was greeted with the heartiest cheers, which subsided only to be renewed with greater vigor. Cheers followed the announcement of the sentiment, “The President of the United States.” In reply to the “City of New York,” Mayor Wickham humorously arraigned a large number of City officers for alleged shortcomings, charging them with being New Englanders, and succeeding in finding so many against whom the charges were applicable, and indicated them so plainly, as to cause unbounded merriment.

Rev. Edward Everett Hale, in responding to the toast, “New England Culture,” made an address in which wit and wisdom were happily blended. Commodore Nicholson responded to the toast, “The Army and Navy.” Mark Twain provoked a storm of laughter by his rambling talk about “New England Weather.” Rev. John Cotton Smith commanded the fullest attention of the company by his response to the toast set down for him. Responses were made by Rev. Dr. William M. Taylor, Prof. Sanborn, and others.

THE PROCEEDINGS

The proceedings were begun by the President, Mr. William Borden, who said:

Gentlemen, will you give your reverent attention for a moment while I call upon Rev. Mr. Courtenay to return thanks?

Rev. Mr. Courtenay responding to the suggestion of the Chairman, offered prayer as follows:

“Most merciful God, and Father, in whom we live and move and have our being; Thou who can satisfy the desire of every living thing, we render Thee our thanks for the satisfaction of our bodily appetites, and pray Thee that what we shall now hear may be for the satisfaction of the higher appetite of our intellects and our reason for the sake of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

SPEECH OF MR. SAMUEL L. CLEMENS.

The Oldest Inhabitant – The Weather –

Who hath lost and doth forget it?

Who hath it still and doth regret it?

“Interpose betwixt us Twain.”

– Merchant of Venice

“I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all, makes everything in New England – but the weather. I don’t know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the Weather Clerk’s factory, who experiment and learn how in New England, for board and clothes, and then are promoted to make weather for countries that require a good article, and will take their custom elsewhere if they don’t get it. [Laughter.] There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration – and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go. [Laughter.] But it gets through more business in spring than in any other season. In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours. [Laughter.] It was I that made the fame and fortune of that man that had that marvelous collection of weather on exhibition at the Centennial that so astounded the foreigners. He was going to travel all over the world and get specimens from all the climes. I said, “Don’t you do it; you come to New England on a favorable spring day.” I told him what we could do, in the way of style, variety, and quantity. [Laughter.] Well, he came, and he made his collection in four days. As to variety – why, he confessed that he got hundreds of kinds of weather that he had never heard of before. And as to quantity – well, after he had picked out and discarded all that was blemished in any way, he not only had weather enough, but weather to spare; weather to hire out; weather to sell; to deposit; weather to invest; weather to give to the poor. [Laughter.] The people of New England are by nature patient and forbearing; but there are some things which they will not stand. Every year they kill a lot of poets for writing about “Beautiful Spring.” [Laughter.] These are generally casual visitors, who bring their notions of spring from somewhere else, and cannot, of course, know how the natives feel about spring. And so, the first thing they know, the opportunity to inquire how they feel has permanently gone by. [Laughter.]

Old Probabilities* has a mighty reputation for accurate prophecy, and thoroughly well deserves it. You take up the papers and observe how crisply and confidently he checks off what today’s weather is going to be on the Pacific, down South, in the Middle States, in the Wisconsin region; see him sail along in the joy and pride of his power till he gets to New England, and then – see his tail drop. He doesn’t know what the weather is going to be like in New England. He can’t any more tell than he can tell how many Presidents of the United States there’s going to be next year. [Applause.] Well, he mulls over it, and by and by he gets out something about like this: Probable nor’-east to sou’-west winds, varying to the southard and westard and eastard and points between; high and low barometer, swapping around from place to place; probable areas of rain, snow, hail, and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes, with thunder and lightning. [Loud laughter and applause.] Then he jots down this postscript from his wandering mind, to cover accidents: “But it is possible that the program may be wholly changed in the meantime.” [Loud laughter.]

Yes, one of the brightest gems in the New England weather is the dazzling uncertainty of it. There is only one thing certain about it, you are certain there is going to be plenty of weather. [Laughter.] A perfect grand review; but you never can tell which end of the procession is going to move first. You fix up for the drought; you leave your umbrella in the house and sally out with your sprinkling pot, and ten to one you get drowned. [Applause.] You make up your mind that the earthquake is due; you stand from under, and take hold of something to steady yourself, and the first thing you know, you get struck by lightning. [Laughter.] These are great disappointments. But they can’t be helped. [Laughter.] The lightning there is peculiar; it is so convincing when it strikes a thing, it doesn’t leave enough of that thing behind for you to tell whether – well, you’d think it was something valuable, and a Congressman had been there. [Loud laughter and applause.]

And the thunder. When the thunder commences to merely tune up, and scrape, and saw, and key up the instruments for the performance, strangers say, “Why, what awful thunder you have here!” But when the baton is raised and the real concert begins, you’ll find that stranger down in the cellar, with his head in the ash barrel. [Laughter.]

Now, as to the size of the weather in New England – lengthways, I mean. It is utterly disproportioned to the size of that little country. [Laughter.] Half the time, when it is packed as full as it can stick, you will see that New England weather sticking out beyond the edges and projecting around hundreds and hundreds of miles over the neighboring states. [Laughter.] She can’t hold a tenth part of her weather. You can see cracks all about, where she has strained herself trying to do it. [Laughter.]

I could speak volumes about the inhuman perversity of the New England weather, but I will give but a single specimen. I like to hear rain on a tin roof, so I covered part of my roof with tin, with an eye to that luxury. Well, sir, do you think it ever rains on the tin? No, sir; skips it every time. [Laughter.]

Mind, in this speech I have been trying merely to do honor to the New England weather; no language could do it justice. [Laughter.] But, after all, there are at least one of two things about that weather (or, if you please, effects produced by it) which we residents would not like to part with. [Applause.] If we hadn’t our bewitching autumn foliage, we should still have to credit the weather with one feature which compensates for all its bullying vagaries – the ice storm – when a leafless tree is clothed with ice from the bottom to the top – ice that is as bright and clear as crystal; when every bough and twig is strung with ice beads, frozen dewdrops, and the whole tree sparkles, cold and white, like the Shah of Persia’s diamond plume. [Applause.] Then the wind waves the branches, and the sun comes out and turns all those myriads of beads and drops to prisms, that glow and burn and flash with all manner of colored fires, which change and change again, with inconceivable rapidity, from blue to red, from red to green, and green to gold; the tree becomes a spraying fountain, a very explosion of dazzling jewels; and it stands there the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence! One cannot make the words too strong. [Long continued applause.]

Month after month I lay up my hate and grudge against the New England weather; but when the ice storm comes at last, I say: “There, I forgive you, now; the books are square between us; you don’t owe me a cent; go, and sin no more; your little faults and foibles count for nothing; you are the most enchanting weather in the world!”

THE OTHER TOASTS.

The other toasts of the evening were “The Clergy of New England,” responded to by Rev. John Cotton Smith; “Lafayette – who gave us himself and liberty; and Bartholdi – who gives us Liberty and Lafayette.” No. Response. “The Agricultural and Manufacturing Interests of New England,” Dr. George B. Loring, and “Our Sister Societies,” responded to by the Presidents of the Irish, Scotch, and English societies.

The proceedings terminated shortly after midnight.

*At the time of Twain’s speech, Old Probabilities was the widely-used nickname of Cleveland Abbe, first scientist of the American Weather Bureau, predecessor to the National Weather Service.

“Your game eye has fetched loose, Miss Wagner dear.”

An excerpt from Roughing It by Mark Twain, this chapter from his time amongst the silver miners of Virginia City in the southwest corner of Nevada. He was in the thick of things in Virginia, arriving not long after the Comstock Lode was discovered about ten years after the California Gold Rush. Sam Clemens first used his pen name here in 1863 as editor for the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise.

Virginia City, Nevada in 1861

Virginia City, Nevada in 1861

Chapter LIII. Jim Blaine and his Grandfather’s Ram – Filkin’s Mistake – Old Miss Wagner and Her Glass Eye – Jacobs, the Coffin Dealer – Waiting for a Customer – His Bargain With Old Robbins – Robbins Sues for Damage and Collects – A New Use for Missionaries – The Effect – His Uncle Lem, and the Use Providence Made of Him – Sad Fate of Wheeler – Devotion of His Wife – A Model Monument – What About the Ram?


Every now and then, in these days, the boys used to tell me I ought to get one Jim Blaine to tell me the stirring story of his grandfather’s old ram – but they always added that I must not mention the matter unless Jim was drunk at the time – just comfortably and sociably drunk. They kept this up until my curiosity was on the rack to hear the story. I got to haunting Blaine; but it was of no use, the boys always found fault with his condition; he was often moderately but never satisfactorily drunk. I never watched a man’s condition with such absorbing interest, such anxious solicitude; I never so pined to see a man uncompromisingly drunk before. At last, one evening I hurried to his cabin, for I learned that this time his situation was such that even the most fastidious could find no fault with it – he was tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically drunk – not a hiccup to mar his voice, not a cloud upon his brain thick enough to obscure his memory. As I entered, he was sitting upon an empty powder-keg, with a clay pipe in one hand and the other raised to command silence. His face was round, red, and very serious; his throat was bare and his hair tumbled; in general appearance and costume he was a stalwart miner of the period. On the pine table stood a candle, and its dim light revealed “the boys” sitting here and there on bunks, candle-boxes, powder-kegs, etc. They said:

“Sh–! Don’t speak – he’s going to commence.”

THE STORY OF THE OLD RAM.

I found a seat at once, and Blaine said:

“I don’t reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois – got him of a man by the name of Yates – Bill Yates – maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon – Baptist – and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west.

Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson – Sarah Wilkerson – good cretur, she was – one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come a browsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was – no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all – it was a galoot by the name of Filkins – I disremember his first name; but he was a stump – come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary; and old deacon Ferguson up and scooted him through the window and he lit on old Miss Jefferson’s head, poor old filly. She was a good soul – had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any, to receive company in; it warn’t big enough, and when Miss Wagner warn’t noticing, it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t’other one was looking as straight ahead as a spy-glass.

Grown people didn’t mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary. She tried packing it in raw cotton, but it wouldn’t work, somehow – the cotton would get loose and stick out and look so kind of awful that the children couldn’t stand it no way.

She was always dropping it out, and turning up her old dead-light on the company empty, and making them oncomfortable, becuz she never could tell when it hopped out, being blind on that side, you see. So somebody would have to hunch her and say, “Your game eye has fetched loose, Miss Wagner dear” – and then all of them would have to sit and wait till she jammed it in again – wrong side before, as a general thing, and green as a bird’s egg, being a bashful cretur and easy sot back before company. But being wrong side before warn’t much difference, anyway; becuz her own eye was sky-blue and the glass one was yaller on the front side, so whichever way she turned it it didn’t match nohow.

Old Miss Wagner was considerable on the borrow, she was. When she had a quilting, or Dorcas S’iety at her house she gen’ally borrowed Miss Higgins’s wooden leg to stump around on; it was considerable shorter than her other pin, but much she minded that. She said she couldn’t abide crutches when she had company, becuz they were so slow; said when she had company and things had to be done, she wanted to get up and hump herself. She was as bald as a jug, and so she used to borrow Miss Jacops’s wig – Miss Jacops was the coffin-peddler’s wife – a ratty old buzzard, he was, that used to go roosting around where people was sick, waiting for ’em; and there that old rip would sit all day, in the shade, on a coffin that he judged would fit the can’idate; and if it was a slow customer and kind of uncertain, he’d fetch his rations and a blanket along and sleep in the coffin nights. He was anchored out that way, in frosty weather, for about three weeks, once, before old Robbins’s place, waiting for him; and after that, for as much as two years, Jacops was not on speaking terms with the old man, on account of his disapp’inting him. He got one of his feet froze, and lost money, too, becuz old Robbins took a favorable turn and got well. The next time Robbins got sick, Jacops tried to make up with him, and varnished up the same old coffin and fetched it along; but old Robbins was too many for him; he had him in, and ‘peared to be powerful weak; he bought the coffin for ten dollars and Jacops was to pay it back and twenty-five more besides if Robbins didn’t like the coffin after he’d tried it. And then Robbins died, and at the funeral he bursted off the lid and riz up in his shroud and told the parson to let up on the performances, becuz he could not stand such a coffin as that. You see he had been in a trance once before, when he was young, and he took the chances on another, cal’lating that if he made the trip it was money in his pocket, and if he missed fire he couldn’t lose a cent. And by George he sued Jacops for the rhino and got jedgment; and he set up the coffin in his back parlor and said he ‘lowed to take his time, now. It was always an aggravation to Jacops, the way that miserable old thing acted. He moved back to Indiany pretty soon – went to Wellsville – Wellsville was the place the Hogadorns was from. Mighty fine family. Old Maryland stock. Old Squire Hogadorn could carry around more mixed licker, and cuss better than most any man I ever see. His second wife was the widder Billings – she that was Becky Martin; her dam was deacon Dunlap’s first wife. Her oldest child, Maria, married a missionary and died in grace – et up by the savages. They et him, too, poor feller – biled him. It warn’t the custom, so they say, but they explained to friends of his’n that went down there to bring away his things, that they’d tried missionaries every other way and never could get any good out of ’em – and so it annoyed all his relations to find out that that man’s life was fooled away just out of a dern’d experiment, so to speak. But mind you, there ain’t anything ever reely lost; everything that people can’t understand and don’t see the reason of does good if you only hold on and give it a fair shake; Prov’dence don’t fire no blank ca’tridges, boys. That there missionary’s substance, unbeknowns to himself, actu’ly converted every last one of them heathens that took a chance at the barbacue. Nothing ever fetched them but that. Don’t tell me it was an accident that he was biled. There ain’t no such a thing as an accident.

When my uncle Lem was leaning up agin a scaffolding once, sick, or drunk, or suthin, an Irishman with a hod full of bricks fell on him out of the third story and broke the old man’s back in two places. People said it was an accident. Much accident there was about that. He didn’t know what he was there for, but he was there for a good object. If he hadn’t been there the Irishman would have been killed. Nobody can ever make me believe anything different from that. Uncle Lem’s dog was there. Why didn’t the Irishman fall on the dog? Becuz the dog would a seen him a coming and stood from under. That’s the reason the dog warn’t appinted. A dog can’t be depended on to carry out a special providence. Mark my words it was a put-up thing. Accidents don’t happen, boys. Uncle Lem’s dog – I wish you could a seen that dog. He was a reglar shepherd – or ruther he was part bull and part shepherd – splendid animal; belonged to parson Hagar before Uncle Lem got him. Parson Hagar belonged to the Western Reserve Hagars; prime family; his mother was a Watson; one of his sisters married a Wheeler; they settled in Morgan county, and he got nipped by the machinery in a carpet factory and went through in less than a quarter of a minute; his widder bought the piece of carpet that had his remains wove in, and people come a hundred mile to ‘tend the funeral. There was fourteen yards in the piece.

She wouldn’t let them roll him up, but planted him just so–full length. The church was middling small where they preached the funeral, and they had to let one end of the coffin stick out of the window. They didn’t bury him–they planted one end, and let him stand up, same as a monument. And they nailed a sign on it and put – put on – put on it – sacred to – the m-e-m-o-r-y – of fourteen y-a-r-d-s – of three-ply – car – pet – containing all that was – m-o-r-t-a-l – of – of – W-i-l-l-i-a-m – W-h-e – ”

Jim Blaine had been growing gradually drowsy and drowsier – his head nodded, once, twice, three times–dropped peacefully upon his breast, and he fell tranquilly asleep. The tears were running down the boys’ cheeks – they were suffocating with suppressed laughter – and had been from the start, though I had never noticed it. I perceived that I was “sold.” I learned then that Jim Blaine’s peculiarity was that whenever he reached a certain stage of intoxication, no human power could keep him from setting out, with impressive unction, to tell about a wonderful adventure which he had once had with his grandfather’s old ram – and the mention of the ram in the first sentence was as far as any man had ever heard him get, concerning it. He always maundered off, interminably, from one thing to another, till his whisky got the best of him and he fell asleep. What the thing was that happened to him and his grandfather’s old ram is a dark mystery to this day, for nobody has ever yet found out.

To the Editor of The World:

Sir: You ask me for a sentiment which shall state how much I have to be thankful for this time. For years it has been a rule with me not to expose my gratitude in print on Thanksgiving Day, but I wish to break the rule now and pour out my thankfulness; for there is more of it than I can contain without straining myself. I am thankful – thankful beyond words – that I had only $51,000 on deposit in the Knickerbocker Trust, instead of a million; for if I had had a million in that bucket shop, I should be nineteen times as sorry as I am now.

Trusting that this paean of joy will satisfy your requirement, I am

Yours truly,

Mark Twain

Mark Twain in a letter to the editor of The New York World, 27 October 1907