A selection from the essay
THE TURNING POINT OF MY LIFE
Narrated by Michael Prichard
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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 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
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
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 removed.
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 of 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 these 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
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
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 circumstances 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
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. I am of that kind, some say.
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