A quarter of a century ago [I was visiting John [Hay, now Secretary of State],] at [Whitelaw Reid’s house in New York, which Hay was occupying for a few months while [Reid] was absent on a holiday in Europe. Temporarily also, Hay was editing Reid’s paper, the New York [Tribune].] I remember two incidents of that Sunday visit particularly [well, and I think I shall use them presently to illustrate something which I intend to say. One of the incidents is immaterial, and I hardly know why it is that it has stayed with me so many years. I must introduce it with a word or two.] [I had known John Hay a good many years, I had known him when he was an obscure young editorial writer on the [Tribune] in Horace Greeley’s time, earning three or four times the salary he [got,] considering the high character of the work which came from his pen. In those earlier days he was a picture to look at, for beauty of feature, perfection of form and grace of carriage and movement. He had a charm about] him of a sort quite unusual to my [western] ignorance and inexperience—a charm of manner, intonation, apparently native and unstudied elocution, and all that—the [groundwork] of [it] native, the ease of it, the polish of it, the winning naturalness of it, acquired in Europe where he had been Chargé d’Affaires some time at the Court of Vienna. He was [joyous and] cordial, a most pleasant [comrade.]
Now I am coming to it. John Hay was not afraid of Horace Greeley.
I will leave that remark in a paragraph by itself; it cannot be made too conspicuous. John Hay was the only man who ever served Horace Greeley on the [Tribune] of whom that can be said. In the past [few years,] since Hay has been occupying the post of Secretary of State with [a succession of foreign difficulties on his [hands]] such as have not fallen to the share of any previous occupant of that chair, perhaps, when we consider the magnitude of the matters involved, we have seen that that courage of his youth is his possession [still,] and that he is [not any more scarable by kings and emperors and their fleets and armies] than he was by Horace Greeley.
[page 223] I arrive at the application now. That Sunday morning, twenty-five years ago, Hay and I had been chatting and laughing and carrying-on almost like our earlier selves of ’67, when the door opened and [Mrs. Hay], gravely clad, gloved, bonneted, and just from church, and fragrant with the odors of Presbyterian [sanctity,] stood in it. We rose to our feet at once, of [course,—]rose through a swiftly falling temperature—a temperature which at the beginning was soft and summerlike, but which was turning our breath and all other damp things to frost crystals by the time we were erect—but we got no opportunity to say the pretty and polite thing and offer the homage [due:] the comely young matron forestalled us. She came forward smileless, with disapproval written all over her face, said most coldly, “Good morning Mr. [Clemens,”] and passed on and out.
There was an embarrassed pause—I may say a very embarrassed pause. If Hay was waiting for me to speak, it was a mistake; I couldn’t think of a word. It was soon plain to me that the bottom had fallen out of his vocabulary, too. When I was able to walk I started toward the door, and Hay, grown gray in a single night, so to speak, limped feebly at my side, making no moan, saying no word. At the door his ancient courtesy rose and bravely flickered for a moment, then went out. That is to say, he tried to ask me to call again, but at that point his ancient sincerity rose against the fiction and squelched it. Then he tried another remark, and that one he got through with. He said pathetically, and [apologetically,]
“She is very strict about Sunday.”
More than once in these past few years I have heard admiring and grateful people say, and have said it myself—
“He is not afraid of this whole nation of eighty millions when his duty requires him to do an unpopular thing.”
Twenty-five years have gone by since then, and through manifold experiences I have learned that [no one’s] courage is absolutely perfect; that there is always some one who is able to modify his pluck.
The [other incident] of that visit was this: [in trading remarks concerning our ages [I confessed to [forty-two and Hay to forty]]. Then he asked if I had begun to write my autobiography, and I said I hadn’t. He said that I ought to begin at once, and that I had already lost two years. Then he said in substance this:
“At forty a man reaches the top of the hill of life and starts down on the sunset side. The ordinary man, the average man, not to particularize too closely and say the commonplace man, has at that age succeeded or failed; in either case he has lived all of his life that is likely to be worth recording; also in either case the life lived is worth setting down, and cannot fail to be interesting if he comes as near to telling the truth about himself as he can. And he will tell the truth in spite of himself, for his facts and his fictions will work loyally together for the protection of the reader; each fact and each fiction will be a dab of paint, each will fall in its right place, and together they will paint his portrait; not the portrait he thinks they are [page 224] painting, but his real portrait, the inside of him, the soul of him, his character. Without intending to lie he will lie all the time; not bluntly, consciously, not dully unconsciously, but half-consciously—consciousness in twilight; a soft and gentle and merciful twilight which makes his general form comely, with his virtuous prominences and projections discernible and his ungracious ones in shadow. His truths will be recognizable as truths, his modifications of facts which would tell against him will go for nothing, the reader will see the fact through the film and know his man. [There] is a subtle devilish something or other about autobiographical composition that defeats all the writer’s attempts to paint his portrait his way.”
Hay meant that he and I were ordinary average commonplace people, and I did not resent my share of the [verdict,] but nursed my wound in silence. His idea that we had finished our work in life, passed the summit and were westward bound [down hill,] with me two years ahead of him and neither of us with anything further to do as benefactors to [mankind,] was all a mistake. I had written four books then, possibly five. I have been drowning the world in literary wisdom ever since, volume after volume; [since that day’s sun went down he] has been [the historian of Mr. Lincoln], and his book will never perish; he has been [Ambassador], brilliant orator, competent and admirable Secretary of [State, and would be President next year if we were a properly honest and grateful nation] instead of an ungrateful one, a nation which has usually not been willing to have a chief magistrate of gold when it could get one of tin.]
I had lost two years, but I resolved to make up that loss. I resolved to begin my autobiography at once. I did begin it, but the resolve melted away and disappeared in a week and I threw my beginning away. Since then, about every three or four years I have made other beginnings and thrown them away. Once I tried the experiment of a diary, intending to inflate that into an autobiography when its [accumulation] should furnish enough material, but that experiment lasted only a week; it took me half of every night to set down the history of the day, and at the week’s end I did not like the result.
Within the last eight or ten years I have made several attempts to do the autobiography in one way or another with a pen, but the result was not satisfactory, it was too literary. With the pen in one’s hand, narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken but its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shoal places; a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important so that the trip is made.
With a pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice; the gait and style and movement are not suited to narrative. That canal stream is always reflecting; it is its nature, it can’t help it. Its slick shiny surface is interested in everything it passes along the banks, cows, foliage, flowers, everything. And so it wastes a lot of time in reflections.