About Magnanimous-Incident Literature
by Mark Twain
All my life, from boyhood up, I have had the habit of reading a certain set of anecdotes, written in the quaint vein of The World’s ingenious Fabulist, for the lesson they taught me and the pleasure they gave me. They lay always convenient to my hand, and whenever I thought meanly of my kind I turned to them, and they banished that sentiment; whenever I felt myself to be selfish, sordid, and ignoble I turned to them, and they told me what to do to win back my self-respect. Many times I wished that the charming anecdotes had not stopped with their happy climaxes, but had continued the pleasing history of the several benefactors and beneficiaries. This wish rose in my breast so persistently that at last I determined to satisfy it by seeking out the sequels of those anecdotes myself. So I set about it, and after great labor and tedious research accomplished my task. I will lay the result before you, giving you each anecdote in its turn, and following it with its sequel as I gathered it through my investigations.
THE GRATEFUL POODLE
One day a benevolent physician (who had read the books) having found a stray poodle suffering from a broken leg, conveyed the poor creature to his home, and after setting and bandaging the injured limb gave the little outcast its liberty again, and thought no more about the matter. But how great was his surprise, upon opening his door one morning, some days later, to find the grateful poodle patiently waiting there, and in its company another stray dog, one of whose legs, by some accident, had been broken. The kind physician at once relieved the distressed animal, nor did he forget to admire the inscrutable goodness and mercy of God, who had been willing to use so humble an instrument as the poor outcast poodle for the inculcating of, etc., etc., etc.
The next morning the benevolent physician found the two dogs, beaming with gratitude, waiting at his door, and with them two other dogs-cripples. The cripples were speedily healed, and the four went their way, leaving the benevolent physician more overcome by pious wonder than ever. The day passed, the morning came. There at the door sat now the four reconstructed dogs, and with them four others requiring reconstruction. This day also passed, and another morning came; and now sixteen dogs, eight of them newly crippled, occupied the sidewalk, and the people were going around. By noon the broken legs were all set, but the pious wonder in the good physician’s breast was beginning to get mixed with involuntary profanity. The sun rose once more, and exhibited thirty-two dogs, sixteen of them with broken legs, occupying the sidewalk and half of the street; the human spectators took up the rest of the room. The cries of the wounded, the songs of the healed brutes, and the comments of the onlooking citizens made great and inspiring cheer, but traffic was interrupted in that street. The good physician hired a couple of assistant surgeons and got through his benevolent work before dark, first taking the precaution to cancel his church-membership, so that he might express himself with the latitude which the case required.
But some things have their limits. When once more the morning dawned, and the good physician looked out upon a massed and far-reaching multitude of clamorous and beseeching dogs, he said, “I might as well acknowledge it, I have been fooled by the books; they only tell the pretty part of the story, and then stop. Fetch me the shotgun; this thing has gone along far enough.”
He issued forth with his weapon, and chanced to step upon the tail of the original poodle, who promptly bit him in the leg. Now the great and good work which this poodle had been engaged in had engendered in him such a mighty and augmenting enthusiasm as to turn his weak head at last and drive him mad. A month later, when the benevolent physician lay in the death-throes of hydrophobia, he called his weeping friends about him, and said:
“Beware of the books. They tell but half of the story. Whenever a poor wretch asks you for help, and you feel a doubt as to what result may flow from your benevolence, give yourself the benefit of the doubt and kill the applicant.”
And so saying he turned his face to the wall and gave up the ghost.
THE BENEVOLENT AUTHOR
A poor and young literary beginner had tried in vain to get his manuscripts accepted. At last, when the horrors of starvation were staring him in the face, he laid his sad case before a celebrated author, beseeching his counsel and assistance. This generous man immediately put aside his own matters and proceeded to peruse one of the despised manuscripts. Having completed his kindly task, he shook the poor young man cordially by the hand, saying, “I perceive merit in this; come again to me on Monday.” At the time specified, the celebrated author, with a sweet smile, but saying nothing, spread open a magazine which was damp from the press. What was the poor young man’s astonishment to discover upon the printed page his own article. “How can I ever,” said he, falling upon his knees and bursting into tears, “testify my gratitude for this noble conduct!”
The celebrated author was the renowned Snodgrass; the poor young beginner thus rescued from obscurity and starvation was the afterward equally renowned Snagsby. Let this pleasing incident admonish us to turn a charitable ear to all beginners that need help.
The next week Snagsby was back with five rejected manuscripts. The celebrated author was a little surprised, because in the books the young struggler had needed but one lift, apparently. However, he plowed through these papers, removing unnecessary flowers and digging up some acres of adjective stumps, and then succeeded in getting two of the articles accepted.
A week or so drifted by, and the grateful Snagsby arrived with another cargo. The celebrated author had felt a mighty glow of satisfaction within himself the first time he had successfully befriended the poor young struggler, and had compared himself with the generous people in the books with high gratification; but he was beginning to suspect now that he had struck upon something fresh in the noble-episode line. His enthusiasm took a chill. Still, he could not bear to repulse this struggling young author, who clung to him with such pretty simplicity and trustfulness.
Well, the upshot of it all was that the celebrated author presently found himself permanently freighted with the poor young beginner. All his mild efforts to unload this cargo went for nothing. He had to give daily counsel, daily encouragement; he had to keep on procuring magazine acceptances, and then revamping the manuscripts to make them presentable. When the young aspirant got a start at last, he rode into sudden fame by describing the celebrated author’s private life with such a caustic humor and such minuteness of blistering detail that the book sold a prodigious edition, and broke the celebrated author’s heart with mortification. With his latest gasp he said, “Alas, the books deceived me; they do not tell the whole story. Beware of the struggling young author, my friends. Whom God sees fit to starve, let not man presumptuously rescue to his own undoing.”
THE GRATEFUL HUSBAND
One day a lady was driving through the principal street of a great city with her little boy, when the horses took fright and dashed madly away, hurling the coachman from his box and leaving the occupants of the carnage paralyzed with terror. But a brave youth who was driving a grocery-wagon threw himself before the plunging animals, and succeeded in arresting their flight at the peril of his own.–[This is probably a misprint.–M. T.]–The grateful lady took his number, and upon arriving at her home she related the heroic act to her husband (who had read the books), who listened with streaming eyes to the moving recital, and who, after returning thanks, in conjunction with his restored loved ones, to Him who suffereth not even a sparrow to fall to the ground unnoticed, sent for the brave young person, and, placing a check for five hundred dollars in his hand, said, “Take this as a reward for your noble act, William Ferguson, and if ever you shall need a friend, remember that Thompson McSpadden has a grateful heart.” Let us learn from this that a good deed cannot fail to benefit the doer, however humble he may be.
William Ferguson called the next week and asked Mr. McSpadden to use his influence to get him a higher employment, he feeling capable of better things than driving a grocer’s wagon. Mr. McSpadden got him an underclerkship at a good salary.
Presently William Ferguson’s mother fell sick, and William–Well, to cut the story short, Mr. McSpadden consented to take her into his house. Before long she yearned for the society of her younger children; so Mary and Julia were admitted also, and little Jimmy, their brother. Jimmy had a pocket knife, and he wandered into the drawing-room with it one day, alone, and reduced ten thousand dollars’ worth of furniture to an indeterminable value in rather less than three-quarters of an hour. A day or two later he fell down-stairs and broke his neck, and seventeen of his family’s relatives came to the house to attend the funeral. This made them acquainted, and they kept the kitchen occupied after that, and likewise kept the McSpaddens busy hunting-up situations of various sorts for them, and hunting up more when they wore these out. The old woman drank a good deal and swore a good deal; but the grateful McSpaddens knew it was their duty to reform her, considering what her son had done for them, so they clave nobly to their generous task. William came often and got decreasing sums of money, and asked for higher and more lucrative employments–which the grateful McSpadden more or less promptly procured for him. McSpadden consented also, after some demur, to fit William for college; but when the first vacation came and the hero requested to be sent to Europe for his health, the persecuted McSpadden rose against the tyrant and revolted. He plainly and squarely refused. William Ferguson’s mother was so astounded that she let her gin-bottle drop, and her profane lips refused to do their office. When she recovered she said in a half-gasp, “Is this your gratitude? Where would your wife and boy be now, but for my son?”
William said, “Is this your gratitude? Did I save your wife’s life or not? Tell me that!”
Seven relations swarmed in from the kitchen and each said, “And this is his gratitude!”
William’s sisters stared, bewildered, and said, “And this is his grat–” but were interrupted by their mother, who burst into tears and exclaimed,
“To think that my sainted little Jimmy threw away his life in the service of such a reptile!”
Then the pluck of the revolutionary McSpadden rose to the occasion, and he replied with fervor, “Out of my house, the whole beggarly tribe of you! I was beguiled by the books, but shall never be beguiled again –once is sufficient for me.” And turning to William he shouted, “Yes, you did save my, wife’s life, and the next man that does it shall die in his tracks!”
Not being a clergyman, I place my text at the end of my sermon instead of at the beginning. Here it is, from Mr. Noah Brooks’s Recollections of President Lincoln in Scribners Monthly :
J. H. Hackett, in his part of Falstaff, was an actor who gave Mr.
Lincoln great delight. With his usual desire to signify to others
his sense of obligation, Mr. Lincoln wrote a genial little note to
the actor expressing his pleasure at witnessing his performance.
Mr. Hackett, in reply, sent a book of some sort; perhaps it was one
of his own authorship. He also wrote several notes to the
President. One night, quite late, when the episode had passed out
of my mind, I went to the white House in answer to a message.
Passing into the President’s office, I noticed, to my surprise,
Hackett sitting in the anteroom as if waiting for an audience. The
President asked me if any one was outside. On being told, he said,
half sadly, “Oh, I can’t see him, I can’t see him; I was in hopes he
had gone away.” Then he added, “Now this just illustrates the
difficulty of having pleasant friends and acquaintances in this
place. You know how I liked Hackett as an actor, and how I wrote to
tell him so. He sent me that book, and there I thought the matter
would end. He is a master of his place in the profession, I
suppose, and well fixed in it; but just because we had a little
friendly correspondence, such as any two men might have, he wants
something. What do you suppose he wants?” I could not guess, and
Mr. Lincoln added, “well, he wants to be consul to London. Oh,
I will observe, in conclusion, that the William Ferguson incident occurred, and within my personal knowledge–though I have changed the nature of the details, to keep William from recognizing himself in it.
All the readers of this article have in some sweet and gushing hour of their lives played the role of Magnanimous-Incident hero. I wish I knew how many there are among them who are willing to talk about that episode and like to be reminded of the consequences that flowed from it.