The Turning Point of My Life by Mark Twain
If I understand the idea, the BAZAR invites several of us to write upon
the above text. It means the change in my life's course which introduced
what must be regarded by me as the most IMPORTANT condition of my career.
But it also implies—without intention, perhaps—that that
turning-point ITSELF was the creator of the new condition. This gives it
too much distinction, too much prominence, too much credit. It is only the
LAST link in a very long chain of turning-points commissioned to produce
the cardinal result; it is not any more important than the humblest of its
ten thousand predecessors. Each of the ten thousand did its appointed
share, on its appointed date, in forwarding the scheme, and they were all
necessary; to have left out any one of them would have defeated the scheme
and brought about SOME OTHER result. I know we have a fashion of saying
"such and such an event was the turning-point in my life," but we
shouldn't say it. We should merely grant that its place as LAST link in
the chain makes it the most CONSPICUOUS link; in real importance it has no
advantage over any one of its predecessors.
Perhaps the most celebrated turning-point recorded in history was the
crossing of the Rubicon. Suetonius says:
Coming up with his troops on the banks of the Rubicon, he halted for a
while, and, revolving in his mind the importance of the step he was on the
point of taking, he turned to those about him and said, "We may still
retreat; but if we pass this little bridge, nothing is left for us but to
fight it out in arms."
This was a stupendously important moment. And all the incidents, big and
little, of Caesar's previous life had been leading up to it, stage by
stage, link by link. This was the LAST link—merely the last one, and
no bigger than the others; but as we gaze back at it through the inflating
mists of our imagination, it looks as big as the orbit of Neptune.
You, the reader, have a PERSONAL interest in that link, and so have I; so
has the rest of the human race. It was one of the links in your
life-chain, and it was one of the links in mine. We may wait, now, with
bated breath, while Caesar reflects. Your fate and mine are involved in
While he was thus hesitating, the following incident occurred. A person
remarked for his noble mien and graceful aspect appeared close at hand,
sitting and playing upon a pipe. When not only the shepherds, but a number
of soldiers also, flocked to listen to him, and some trumpeters among
them, he snatched a trumpet from one of them, ran to the river with it,
and, sounding the advance with a piercing blast, crossed to the other
side. Upon this, Caesar exclaimed: "Let us go whither the omens of the
gods and the iniquity of our enemies call us. THE DIE IS CAST."
So he crossed—and changed the future of the whole human race, for
all time. But that stranger was a link in Caesar's life-chain, too; and a
necessary one. We don't know his name, we never hear of him again; he was
very casual; he acts like an accident; but he was no accident, he was
there by compulsion of HIS life-chain, to blow the electrifying blast that
was to make up Caesar's mind for him, and thence go piping down the aisles
of history forever.
If the stranger hadn't been there! But he WAS. And Caesar crossed. With
such results! Such vast events—each a link in the HUMAN RACE'S
life-chain; each event producing the next one, and that one the next one,
and so on: the destruction of the republic; the founding of the empire;
the breaking up of the empire; the rise of Christianity upon its ruins;
the spread of the religion to other lands—and so on; link by link
took its appointed place at its appointed time, the discovery of America
being one of them; our Revolution another; the inflow of English and other
immigrants another; their drift westward (my ancestors among them)
another; the settlement of certain of them in Missouri, which resulted in
ME. For I was one of the unavoidable results of the crossing of the
Rubicon. If the stranger, with his trumpet blast, had stayed away (which
he COULDN'T, for he was an appointed link) Caesar would not have crossed.
What would have happened, in that case, we can never guess. We only know
that the things that did happen would not have happened. They might have
been replaced by equally prodigious things, of course, but their nature
and results are beyond our guessing. But the matter that interests me
personally is that I would not be HERE now, but somewhere else; and
probably black—there is no telling. Very well, I am glad he crossed.
And very really and thankfully glad, too, though I never cared anything
about it before.
To me, the most important feature of my life is its literary feature. I
have been professionally literary something more than forty years. There
have been many turning-points in my life, but the one that was the last
link in the chain appointed to conduct me to the literary guild is the
most CONSPICUOUS link in that chain. BECAUSE it was the last one. It was
not any more important than its predecessors. All the other links have an
inconspicuous look, except the crossing of the Rubicon; but as factors in
making me literary they are all of the one size, the crossing of the
I know how I came to be literary, and I will tell the steps that lead up
to it and brought it about.
The crossing of the Rubicon was not the first one, it was hardly even a
recent one; I should have to go back ages before Caesar's day to find the
first one. To save space I will go back only a couple of generations and
start with an incident of my boyhood. When I was twelve and a half years
old, my father died. It was in the spring. The summer came, and brought
with it an epidemic of measles. For a time a child died almost every day.
The village was paralyzed with fright, distress, despair. Children that
were not smitten with the disease were imprisoned in their homes to save
them from the infection. In the homes there were no cheerful faces, there
was no music, there was no singing but of solemn hymns, no voice but of
prayer, no romping was allowed, no noise, no laughter, the family moved
spectrally about on tiptoe, in a ghostly hush. I was a prisoner. My soul
was steeped in this awful dreariness—and in fear. At some time or
other every day and every night a sudden shiver shook me to the marrow,
and I said to myself, "There, I've got it! and I shall die." Life on these
miserable terms was not worth living, and at last I made up my mind to get
the disease and have it over, one way or the other. I escaped from the
house and went to the house of a neighbor where a playmate of mine was
very ill with the malady. When the chance offered I crept into his room
and got into bed with him. I was discovered by his mother and sent back
into captivity. But I had the disease; they could not take that from me. I
came near to dying. The whole village was interested, and anxious, and
sent for news of me every day; and not only once a day, but several times.
Everybody believed I would die; but on the fourteenth day a change came
for the worse and they were disappointed.
This was a turning-point of my life. (Link number one.) For when I got
well my mother closed my school career and apprenticed me to a printer.
She was tired of trying to keep me out of mischief, and the adventure of
the measles decided her to put me into more masterful hands than hers.
I became a printer, and began to add one link after another to the chain
which was to lead me into the literary profession. A long road, but I
could not know that; and as I did not know what its goal was, or even that
it had one, I was indifferent. Also contented.
A young printer wanders around a good deal, seeking and finding work; and
seeking again, when necessity commands. N. B. Necessity is a CIRCUMSTANCE;
Circumstance is man's master—and when Circumstance commands, he must
obey; he may argue the matter—that is his privilege, just as it is
the honorable privilege of a falling body to argue with the attraction of
gravitation—but it won't do any good, he must OBEY. I wandered for
ten years, under the guidance and dictatorship of Circumstance, and
finally arrived in a city of Iowa, where I worked several months. Among
the books that interested me in those days was one about the Amazon. The
traveler told an alluring tale of his long voyage up the great river from
Para to the sources of the Madeira, through the heart of an enchanted
land, a land wastefully rich in tropical wonders, a romantic land where
all the birds and flowers and animals were of the museum varieties, and
where the alligator and the crocodile and the monkey seemed as much at
home as if they were in the Zoo. Also, he told an astonishing tale about
COCA, a vegetable product of miraculous powers, asserting that it was so
nourishing and so strength-giving that the native of the mountains of the
Madeira region would tramp up hill and down all day on a pinch of powdered
coca and require no other sustenance.
I was fired with a longing to ascend the Amazon. Also with a longing to
open up a trade in coca with all the world. During months I dreamed that
dream, and tried to contrive ways to get to Para and spring that splendid
enterprise upon an unsuspecting planet. But all in vain. A person may PLAN
as much as he wants to, but nothing of consequence is likely to come of it
until the magician CIRCUMSTANCE steps in and takes the matter off his
hands. At last Circumstance came to my help. It was in this way.
Circumstance, to help or hurt another man, made him lose a fifty-dollar
bill in the street; and to help or hurt me, made me find it. I advertised
the find, and left for the Amazon the same day. This was another
turning-point, another link.
Could Circumstance have ordered another dweller in that town to go to the
Amazon and open up a world-trade in coca on a fifty-dollar basis and been
obeyed? No, I was the only one. There were other fools there—shoals
and shoals of them—but they were not of my kind. I was the only one
of my kind.
Circumstance is powerful, but it cannot work alone; it has to have a
partner. Its partner is man's TEMPERAMENT—his natural disposition.
His temperament is not his invention, it is BORN in him, and he has no
authority over it, neither is he responsible for its acts. He cannot
change it, nothing can change it, nothing can modify it—except
temporarily. But it won't stay modified. It is permanent, like the color
of the man's eyes and the shape of his ears. Blue eyes are gray in certain
unusual lights; but they resume their natural color when that stress is
A Circumstance that will coerce one man will have no effect upon a man of
a different temperament. If Circumstance had thrown the bank-note in
Caesar's way, his temperament would not have made him start for the
Amazon. His temperament would have compelled him to do something with the
money, but not that. It might have made him advertise the note—and
WAIT. We can't tell. Also, it might have made him go to New York and buy
into the Government, with results that would leave Tweed nothing to learn
when it came his turn.
Very well, Circumstance furnished the capital, and my temperament told me
what to do with it. Sometimes a temperament is an ass. When that is the
case the owner of it is an ass, too, and is going to remain one. Training,
experience, association, can temporarily so polish him, improve him, exalt
him that people will think he is a mule, but they will be mistaken.
Artificially he IS a mule, for the time being, but at bottom he is an ass
yet, and will remain one.
By temperament I was the kind of person that DOES things. Does them, and
reflects afterward. So I started for the Amazon without reflecting and
without asking any questions. That was more than fifty years ago. In all
that time my temperament has not changed, by even a shade. I have been
punished many and many a time, and bitterly, for doing things and
reflecting afterward, but these tortures have been of no value to me; I
still do the thing commanded by Circumstance and Temperament, and reflect
afterward. Always violently. When I am reflecting, on those occasions,
even deaf persons can hear me think.
I went by the way of Cincinnati, and down the Ohio and Mississippi. My
idea was to take ship, at New Orleans, for Para. In New Orleans I
inquired, and found there was no ship leaving for Para. Also, that there
never had BEEN one leaving for Para. I reflected. A policeman came and
asked me what I was doing, and I told him. He made me move on, and said if
he caught me reflecting in the public street again he would run me in.
After a few days I was out of money. Then Circumstance arrived, with
another turning-point of my life—a new link. On my way down, I had
made the acquaintance of a pilot. I begged him to teach me the river, and
he consented. I became a pilot.
By and by Circumstance came again—introducing the Civil War, this
time, in order to push me ahead another stage or two toward the literary
profession. The boats stopped running, my livelihood was gone.
Circumstance came to the rescue with a new turning-point and a fresh link.
My brother was appointed secretary to the new Territory of Nevada, and he
invited me to go with him and help him in his office. I accepted.
In Nevada, Circumstance furnished me the silver fever and I went into the
mines to make a fortune, as I supposed; but that was not the idea. The
idea was to advance me another step toward literature. For amusement I
scribbled things for the Virginia City ENTERPRISE. One isn't a printer ten
years without setting up acres of good and bad literature, and learning—unconsciously
at first, consciously later—to discriminate between the two, within
his mental limitations; and meantime he is unconsciously acquiring what is
called a "style." One of my efforts attracted attention, and the
ENTERPRISE sent for me and put me on its staff.
And so I became a journalist—another link. By and by Circumstance
and the Sacramento UNION sent me to the Sandwich Islands for five or six
months, to write up sugar. I did it; and threw in a good deal of
extraneous matter that hadn't anything to do with sugar. But it was this
extraneous matter that helped me to another link.
It made me notorious, and San Francisco invited me to lecture. Which I
did. And profitably. I had long had a desire to travel and see the world,
and now Circumstance had most kindly and unexpectedly hurled me upon the
platform and furnished me the means. So I joined the "Quaker City
When I returned to America, Circumstance was waiting on the pier—with
the LAST link—the conspicuous, the consummating, the victorious
link: I was asked to WRITE A BOOK, and I did it, and called it THE
INNOCENTS ABROAD. Thus I became at last a member of the literary guild.
That was forty-two years ago, and I have been a member ever since. Leaving
the Rubicon incident away back where it belongs, I can say with truth that
the reason I am in the literary profession is because I had the measles
when I was twelve years old.
Now what interests me, as regards these details, is not the details
themselves, but the fact that none of them was foreseen by me, none of
them was planned by me, I was the author of none of them. Circumstance,
working in harness with my temperament, created them all and compelled
them all. I often offered help, and with the best intentions, but it was
rejected—as a rule, uncourteously. I could never plan a thing and
get it to come out the way I planned it. It came out some other way—some
way I had not counted upon.
And so I do not admire the human being—as an intellectual marvel—as
much as I did when I was young, and got him out of books, and did not know
him personally. When I used to read that such and such a general did a
certain brilliant thing, I believed it. Whereas it was not so.
Circumstance did it by help of his temperament. The circumstance would
have failed of effect with a general of another temperament: he might see
the chance, but lose the advantage by being by nature too slow or too
quick or too doubtful. Once General Grant was asked a question about a
matter which had been much debated by the public and the newspapers; he
answered the question without any hesitancy. "General, who planned the
march through Georgia?" "The enemy!" He added that the enemy usually makes
your plans for you. He meant that the enemy by neglect or through force of
circumstances leaves an opening for you, and you see your chance and take
advantage of it.
Circumstances do the planning for us all, no doubt, by help of our
temperaments. I see no great difference between a man and a watch, except
that the man is conscious and the watch isn't, and the man TRIES to plan
things and the watch doesn't. The watch doesn't wind itself and doesn't
regulate itself—these things are done exteriorly. Outside
influences, outside circumstances, wind the MAN and regulate him. Left to
himself, he wouldn't get regulated at all, and the sort of time he would
keep would not be valuable. Some rare men are wonderful watches, with gold
case, compensation balance, and all those things, and some men are only
simple and sweet and humble Waterburys. I am a Waterbury. A Waterbury of
that kind, some say.
A nation is only an individual multiplied. It makes plans and Circumstance
comes and upsets them—or enlarges them. Some patriots throw the tea
overboard; some other patriots destroy a Bastille. The PLANS stop there;
then Circumstance comes in, quite unexpectedly, and turns these modest
riots into a revolution.
And there was poor Columbus. He elaborated a deep plan to find a new route
to an old country. Circumstance revised his plan for him, and he found a
new WORLD. And HE gets the credit of it to this day. He hadn't anything to
do with it.
Necessarily the scene of the real turning-point of my life (and of yours)
was the Garden of Eden. It was there that the first link was forged of the
chain that was ultimately to lead to the emptying of me into the literary
guild. Adam's TEMPERAMENT was the first command the Deity ever issued to a
human being on this planet. And it was the only command Adam would NEVER
be able to disobey. It said, "Be weak, be water, be characterless, be
cheaply persuadable." The latter command, to let the fruit alone, was
certain to be disobeyed. Not by Adam himself, but by his TEMPERAMENT—which
he did not create and had no authority over. For the TEMPERAMENT is the
man; the thing tricked out with clothes and named Man is merely its
Shadow, nothing more. The law of the tiger's temperament is, Thou shalt
kill; the law of the sheep's temperament is Thou shalt not kill. To issue
later commands requiring the tiger to let the fat stranger alone, and
requiring the sheep to imbue its hands in the blood of the lion is not
worth while, for those commands CAN'T be obeyed. They would invite to
violations of the law of TEMPERAMENT, which is supreme, and takes
precedence of all other authorities. I cannot help feeling disappointed in
Adam and Eve. That is, in their temperaments. Not in THEM, poor helpless
young creatures—afflicted with temperaments made out of butter;
which butter was commanded to get into contact with fire and BE MELTED.
What I cannot help wishing is, that Adam and EVE had been postponed, and
Martin Luther and Joan of Arc put in their place—that splendid pair
equipped with temperaments not made of butter, but of asbestos. By neither
sugary persuasions nor by hell fire could Satan have beguiled THEM to eat
the apple. There would have been results! Indeed, yes. The apple would be
intact today; there would be no human race; there would be no YOU; there
would be no ME. And the old, old creation-dawn scheme of ultimately
launching me into the literary guild would have been defeated.