Mark Twain 1835 - 1910
The New Vagabonds Club of London, made up of the leading
younger literary men of the day, gave a dinner in honor of Mr.
and Mrs. Clemens, July 8, 1899.
It has always been difficult - leave that word difficult - not exceedingly difficult, but just difficult, nothing more than that, not the slightest shade to add to that - just difficult - to respond properly, in the right phraseology, when compliments are paid to me; but it is more than difficult when the compliments are paid to a better than I - my wife.
And while I am not here to testify against myself - I can't be expected to do so, a prisoner in your own country is not admitted to do so - as to which member of the family wrote my books, I could say in general that really I wrote the books myself. My wife puts the facts in, and they make it respectable. My modesty won't suffer while compliments are being paid to literature, and through literature to my family. I can't get enough of them.
I am curiously situated tonight. It so rarely happens that I am introduced by a humorist; I am generally introduced by a person of grave walk and carriage. That makes the proper background of gravity for brightness. I am going to alter to suit, and haply I may say some humorous things.
When you start with a blaze of sunshine and up burst of humor, when you begin with that, the proper office of humor is to reflect, to put you into that pensive mood of deep thought, to make you think of your sins, if you wish half an hour to fly. Humor makes me reflect now to-night, it sets the thinking machinery in motion. Always, when I am thinking, there come suggestions of what I am, and what we all are, and what we are coming to. A sermon comes from my lips always when I listen to a humorous speech.
I seize the opportunity to throw away frivolities, to say something to plant the seed, and make all better than when I came. In Mr. Grossmith's remarks there was a subtle something suggesting my favorite theory of the difference between theoretical morals and practical morals. I try to instil practical morals in the place of theatrical - I mean theoretical; but as an addendum - an annex - something added to theoretical morals.
When your chairman said it was the first time he had ever taken the chair, he did not mean that he had not taken lots of other things; he attended my first lecture and took notes. This indicated the man's disposition. There was nothing else flying round, so he took notes; he would have taken anything he could get.
I can bring a moral to bear here which shows the difference between theoretical morals and practical morals. Theoretical morals are the sort you get on your mother's knee, in good books, and from the pulpit. You gather them in your head, and not in your heart; they are theory without practice. Without the assistance of practice to perfect them, it is difficult to teach a child to "be honest, don't steal."
I will teach you how it should be done, lead you into temptation, teach you how to steal, so that you may recognize when you have stolen and feel the proper pangs. It is no good going round and bragging you have never taken the chair.
As by the fires of experience, so by commission of crime, you learn real morals. Commit all the crimes, familiarize yourself with all sins, take them in rotation (there are only two or three thousand of them), stick to it, commit two or three every day, and by-and-by you will be proof against them. When you are through you will be proof against all sins and morally perfect. You will be vaccinated against every possible commission of them. This is the only way.
I will read you a written statement upon the subject that I wrote three years ago to read to the Sabbath-schools. (Here the lecturer turned his pockets out, but without success.) No ! I have left it at home. Still, it was a mere statement of fact, illustrating the value of practical morals produced by the commission of crime.
It was in my boyhood just a statement of fact, reading is only more formal, merely facts, merely pathetic facts, which I can state so as to be understood. It relates to the first time I ever stole a watermelon; that is, I think it was the first time; anyway, it was right along there somewhere.
I stole it out of a farmer's wagon while he was waiting on another customer. "Stole" is a harsh term. I withdrew - I retired that watermelon. I carried it to a secluded corner of a lumberyard. I broke it open. It was green - the greenest watermelon raised in the valley that year.
The minute I saw it was green I was sorry, and began to reflect - reflection is the beginning of reform. If you don't reflect when you commit a crime then that crime is of no use; it might just as well have been committed by some one else: You must reflect or the value is lost; you are not vaccinated against committing it again.
I began to reflect. I said to myself: "What ought a boy to do who has stolen a green watermelon ? What would George Washington do, the father of his country, the only American who could not tell a lie ? What would he do? There is only one right, high, noble thing for any boy to do who has stolen a watermelon of that class: he must make restitution; he must restore that stolen property to its rightful owner." I said I would do it when I made that good resolution. I felt it to be a noble, uplifting obligation. I rose up spiritually stronger and refreshed. I carried that watermelon back - what was left of it - and restored it to the farmer, and made him give me a ripe one in its place.
Now you see that this constant impact of crime upon crime protects you against further commission of crime. It builds you up. A man can't become morally perfect by stealing one or a thousand green watermelons, but every little helps.
I was at a great school yesterday (St. Paul's), where for four hundred years they have been busy with brains, and building up England by producing Pepys, Miltons, and Marlboroughs. Six hundred boys left to nothing in the world but theoretical morality. I wanted to become the professor of practical morality, but the high master was away, so I suppose I shall have to go on making my living the same old way - by adding practical to theoretical morality.
What are the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome, compared to the glory and grandeur and majesty of a perfected morality such as you see before you?
The New Vagabonds are old vagabonds (undergoing the old sort of reform). You drank my health; I hope I have not been unuseful. Take this system of morality to your hearts. Take it home to your neighbors and your graves, and I hope that it will be a long time before you arrive there.