A Literary “Old Offender” in Court With Suspicious Property in His Possession

Mark Twain

The Galaxy/June, 1870

In last month’s MEMORANDA I published a sketch entitled “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper,” and closed it with a dreadful nitro-glycerine explosion which destroyed the boy. He had unwittingly been sitting on a can of this compound and got his pantaloons greased with it; and when he got a reproving spank upon that portion of his system, the catastrophe instantly followed. There was something so stupendously grotesque about the “situation,” that I was filled with admiration of it, and therefore borrowed it. I say “borrowed” it, for it was not my invention. I found it drifting about the sea of journalism, in the shape of a simple statement of the catastrophe in a single sentence, and attributed to a California paper. I thought, at the time, that in saying it in the Californian unnecessary pains had been taken, for such a happy inspiration of extravagance as that could not well have originated elsewhere. I used it, and stated in a foot-note that I “borrowed it, without the unknown but most ingenious owner’s permission.” I naturally expected that so neat a compliment as that would resurrect the “ingenious unknown,” and bring him to the light of day. Truly, it did produce a spectre, but not the one I was looking for. The party thus raised hails from Philadelphia, and in testimony that he is the “ingenious unknown,” he encloses to me a half-column newspaper article, dated December 22, signed with his name, and being what he says is the original draft of the nitro-glycerine catastrophe.

The impulse to make pleasant mention of this person’s name and give him the credit he claims, is crippled by the fact that I, or anyone else acquainted with his literary history, would feel obliged to decline to accept any evidence coming from him, upon any matter, and especially upon a question of authorship. His simple word is worthless; and to embellish it with his oath would merely make it picturesque, not valuable. This person several of us know of our own personal knowledge to be a poor little purloiner of other men’s ideas and handicraft. It would not be just to call him a literary pirate, for there is a sort of manliness about flaunting the black flag in the face of a world, and taking desperate chances against death and dishonor, that gives a somber dignity to the pirate’s calling but little suggestive of the creeping and stealthy ways of the smaller kind of literary rogues. But there is a sort of adventurer whom the police detect by a certain humble look in their faces, and who, when searched, yield abundance of spools, handkerchiefs, napkins, spoons, and such things, acquired by them when the trusting owners left the property openly in their company not thinking any harm. The police call this kind of adventurer a _____. However, upon second thought, I will not print the name, for it has almost too harsh a sound for polite ears; but the Philadelphia person I have spoken of will probably recognize a long-lost brother in the description. Anybody capturing the subject of these remarks and overhauling the catalogue of what he calls his “writings,” will find in it two very good articles of mine, and if the rest were advertised as “strayed or stolen,” they would doubtless be called for by journalists residing in all the different States of the Union. The effrontery of this person in appearing before me, through the U.S. mail, and claiming to have originated an idea, surpasses anything that has come under my notice lately. I cannot conceive of his being so reckless as to deliberately try to originate an idea—considering how he is built. He knows himself that it would rip, and tear, and rend him worse than the glycerine did the boy.

This sad person purloins all his literary materials, I fancy. And he spreads his damaged remnants before his customers with as happy an admiration as if they were bright and fresh from the intellectual loom. With due modesty I venture the prophecy that some day he will even ravish a dying speech from some poor fellow, and say with a flourish as he goes out of the world: “Fellow-citizens, I die innocent.”

I do not print this party’s name, because, knowing as I do upon what an exceedingly slender capital of merit, fame, or public invitation, two or three of the most widely popular lecturers of the day, of both sexes, got a foothold upon the rostrum, I might thus help to pave the way for him to transfer the report of somebody’s speech from the papers to his portfolio, and step into the lecture arena upon a sudden and comfortable income of ten or fifteen thousand dollars a season.

I cannot take this person’s evidence. Will the party from whom he pilfered the nitro-glycerine idea please send me a copy of the paper in which it first appeared, and with the date of the paper intact? I shall now soon find out who really invented the exploded boy.

(Source: Project Gutenberg Australia, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks09/0900821h.html)

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