A Burlesque Biography
by Mark Twain
Two or three persons having at different times intimated that if I would
write an autobiography they would read it when they got leisure, I yield
at last to this frenzied public demand and herewith tender my history.
Ours is a noble house, and stretches a long way back into antiquity. The
earliest ancestor the Twains have any record of was a friend of the family
by the name of Higgins. This was in the eleventh century, when our people
were living in Aberdeen, county of Cork, England. Why it is that our long
line has ever since borne the maternal name (except when one of them now
and then took a playful refuge in an alias to avert foolishness), instead
of Higgins, is a mystery which none of us has ever felt much desire to
stir. It is a kind of vague, pretty romance, and we leave it alone. All
the old families do that way.
Arthour Twain was a man of considerable note—a solicitor on the
highway in William Rufus's time. At about the age of thirty he went to one
of those fine old English places of resort called Newgate, to see about
something, and never returned again. While there he died suddenly.
Augustus Twain seems to have made something of a stir about the year 1160.
He was as full of fun as he could be, and used to take his old saber and
sharpen it up, and get in a convenient place on a dark night, and stick it
through people as they went by, to see them jump. He was a born humorist.
But he got to going too far with it; and the first time he was found
stripping one of these parties, the authorities removed one end of him,
and put it up on a nice high place on Temple Bar, where it could
contemplate the people and have a good time. He never liked any situation
so much or stuck to it so long.
Then for the next two hundred years the family tree shows a succession of
soldiers—noble, high-spirited fellows, who always went into battle
singing, right behind the army, and always went out a-whooping, right
ahead of it.
This is a scathing rebuke to old dead Froissart's poor witticism that our
family tree never had but one limb to it, and that that one stuck out at
right angles, and bore fruit winter and summer.
Early in the fifteenth century we have Beau Twain, called "the Scholar."
He wrote a beautiful, beautiful hand. And he could imitate anybody's hand
so closely that it was enough to make a person laugh his head off to see
it. He had infinite sport with his talent. But by and by he took a
contract to break stone for a road, and the roughness of the work spoiled
his hand. Still, he enjoyed life all the time he was in the stone
business, which, with inconsiderable intervals, was some forty-two years.
In fact, he died in harness. During all those long years he gave such
satisfaction that he never was through with one contract a week till the
government gave him another. He was a perfect pet. And he was always a
favorite with his fellow-artists, and was a conspicuous member of their
benevolent secret society, called the Chain Gang. He always wore his hair
short, had a preference for striped clothes, and died lamented by the
government. He was a sore loss to his country. For he was so regular.
Some years later we have the illustrious John Morgan Twain. He came over
to this country with Columbus in 1492 as a passenger. He appears to have
been of a crusty, uncomfortable disposition. He complained of the food all
the way over, and was always threatening to go ashore unless there was a
change. He wanted fresh shad. Hardly a day passed over his head that he
did not go idling about the ship with his nose in the air, sneering about
the commander, and saying he did not believe Columbus knew where he was
going to or had ever been there before. The memorable cry of "Land ho!"
thrilled every heart in the ship but his. He gazed awhile through a piece
of smoked glass at the penciled line lying on the distant water, and then
said: "Land be hanged—it's a raft!"
When this questionable passenger came on board the ship, he brought
nothing with him but an old newspaper containing a handkerchief marked "B.
G.," one cotton sock marked "L. W. C.," one woolen one marked "D. F.," and
a night-shirt marked "O. M. R." And yet during the voyage he worried more
about his "trunk," and gave himself more airs about it, than all the rest
of the passengers put together. If the ship was "down by the head," and
would not steer, he would go and move his "trunk" further aft, and then
watch the effect. If the ship was "by the stern," he would suggest to
Columbus to detail some men to "shift that baggage." In storms he had to
be gagged, because his wailings about his "trunk" made it impossible for
the men to hear the orders. The man does not appear to have been openly
charged with any gravely unbecoming thing, but it is noted in the ship's
log as a "curious circumstance" that albeit he brought his baggage on
board the ship in a newspaper, he took it ashore in four trunks, a
queensware crate, and a couple of champagne baskets. But when he came back
insinuating, in an insolent, swaggering way, that some of this things were
missing, and was going to search the other passengers' baggage, it was too
much, and they threw him overboard. They watched long and wonderingly for
him to come up, but not even a bubble rose on the quietly ebbing tide. But
while every one was most absorbed in gazing over the side, and the
interest was momentarily increasing, it was observed with consternation
that the vessel was adrift and the anchor-cable hanging limp from the bow.
Then in the ship's dimmed and ancient log we find this quaint note:
"In time it was discouvered yt ye troblesome passenger hadde gone downe
and got ye anchor, and toke ye same and solde it to ye dam sauvages from
ye interior, saying yt he hadde founde it, ye sonne of a ghun!"
Yet this ancestor had good and noble instincts, and it is with pride that
we call to mind the fact that he was the first white person who ever
interested himself in the work of elevating and civilizing our Indians. He
built a commodious jail and put up a gallows, and to his dying day he
claimed with satisfaction that he had had a more restraining and elevating
influence on the Indians than any other reformer that ever labored among
them. At this point the chronicle becomes less frank and chatty, and
closes abruptly by saying that the old voyager went to see his gallows
perform on the first white man ever hanged in America, and while there
received injuries which terminated in his death.
The great-grandson of the "Reformer" flourished in sixteen hundred and
something, and was known in our annals as "the old Admiral," though in
history he had other titles. He was long in command of fleets of swift
vessels, well armed and manned, and did great service in hurrying up
merchantmen. Vessels which he followed and kept his eagle eye on, always
made good fair time across the ocean. But if a ship still loitered in
spite of all he could do, his indignation would grow till he could contain
himself no longer—and then he would take that ship home where he
lived and keep it there carefully, expecting the owners to come for it,
but they never did. And he would try to get the idleness and sloth out of
the sailors of that ship by compelling them to take invigorating exercise
and a bath. He called it "walking a plank." All the pupils liked it. At
any rate, they never found any fault with it after trying it. When the
owners were late coming for their ships, the Admiral always burned them,
so that the insurance money should not be lost. At last this fine old tar
was cut down in the fullness of his years and honors. And to her dying
day, his poor heart-broken widow believed that if he had been cut down
fifteen minutes sooner he might have been resuscitated.
Charles Henry Twain lived during the latter part of the seventeenth
century, and was a zealous and distinguished missionary. He converted
sixteen thousand South Sea islanders, and taught them that a dog-tooth
necklace and a pair of spectacles was not enough clothing to come to
divine service in. His poor flock loved him very, very dearly; and when
his funeral was over, they got up in a body (and came out of the
restaurant) with tears in their eyes, and saying, one to another, that he
was a good tender missionary, and they wished they had some more of him.
adorned the middle of the eighteenth century, and aided General Braddock
with all his heart to resist the oppressor Washington. It was this
ancestor who fired seventeen times at our Washington from behind a tree.
So far the beautiful romantic narrative in the moral story-books is
correct; but when that narrative goes on to say that at the seventeenth
round the awe-stricken savage said solemnly that that man was being
reserved by the Great Spirit for some mighty mission, and he dared not
lift his sacrilegious rifle against him again, the narrative seriously
impairs the integrity of history. What he did say was:
"It ain't no (hic) no use. 'At man's so drunk he can't stan' still long
enough for a man to hit him. I (hic) I can't 'ford to fool away any more
am'nition on him."
That was why he stopped at the seventeenth round, and it was a good,
plain, matter-of-fact reason, too, and one that easily commends itself to
us by the eloquent, persuasive flavor of probability there is about it.
I also enjoyed the story-book narrative, but I felt a marring misgiving
that every Indian at Braddock's Defeat who fired at a soldier a couple of
times (two easily grows to seventeen in a century), and missed him, jumped
to the conclusion that the Great Spirit was reserving that soldier for
some grand mission; and so I somehow feared that the only reason why
Washington's case is remembered and the others forgotten is, that in his
the prophecy came true, and in that of the others it didn't. There are not
books enough on earth to contain the record of the prophecies Indians and
other unauthorized parties have made; but one may carry in his overcoat
pockets the record of all the prophecies that have been fulfilled.
I will remark here, in passing, that certain ancestors of mine are so
thoroughly well-known in history by their aliases, that I have not felt it
to be worth while to dwell upon them, or even mention them in the order of
their birth. Among these may be mentioned Richard Brinsley Twain, alias
Guy Fawkes; John Wentworth Twain, alias Sixteen-String Jack; William
Hogarth Twain, alias Jack Sheppard; Ananias Twain, alias Baron Munchausen;
John George Twain, alias Captain Kydd; and then there are George Francis
Twain, Tom Pepper, Nebuchadnezzar, and Baalam's Ass—they all belong
to our family, but to a branch of it somewhat distinctly removed from the
honorable direct line—in fact, a collateral branch, whose members
chiefly differ from the ancient stock in that, in order to acquire the
notoriety we have always yearned and hungered for, they have got into a
low way of going to jail instead of getting hanged.
It is not well, when writing an autobiography, to follow your ancestry
down too close to your own time—it is safest to speak only vaguely
of your great-grandfather, and then skip from there to yourself, which I
I was born without teeth—and there Richard III. had the advantage of
me; but I was born without a humpback, likewise, and there I had the
advantage of him. My parents were neither very poor nor conspicuously
But now a thought occurs to me. My own history would really seem so tame
contrasted with that of my ancestors, that it is simply wisdom to leave it
unwritten until I am hanged. If some other biographies I have read had
stopped with the ancestry until a like event occurred, it would have been
a felicitous thing for the reading public. How does it strike you?