Essays on Paul Bourget by Mark Twain

If so, I must modify that; it is too sweeping. For you have furnished a

general answer to my inquiry as to what France through you–can teach us.

–[“What could France teach America!” exclaims Mark Twain. France can

teach America all the higher pursuits of life, and there is more artistic

feeling and refinement in a street of French workingmen than in many

avenues inhabited by American millionaires. She can teach her, not

perhaps how to work, but how to rest, how to live, how to be happy.

She can teach her that the aim of life is not money-making, but that

money-making is only a means to obtain an end. She can teach her that

wives are not expensive toys, but useful partners, friends, and

confidants, who should always keep men under their wholesome influence by

their diplomacy, their tact, their common-sense, without bumptiousness.

These qualities, added to the highest standard of morality (not angular

and morose, but cheerful morality), are conceded to Frenchwomen by

whoever knows something of French life outside of the Paris boulevards,

and Mark Twain’s ill-natured sneer cannot even so much as stain them.

I might tell Mark Twain that in France a man who was seen tipsy in his

club would immediately see his name canceled from membership. A man who

had settled his fortune on his wife to avoid meeting his creditors would

be refused admission into any decent society. Many a Frenchman has blown

his brains out rather than declare himself a bankrupt. Now would Mark

Twain remark to this: ‘An American is not such a fool: when a creditor

stands in his way he closes his doors, and reopens them the following

day. When he has been a bankrupt three times he can retire from

business?”]– It is a good answer.

It relates to manners, customs, and morals–three things concerning which

we can never have exhaustive and determinate statistics, and so the

verdicts delivered upon them must always lack conclusiveness and be

subject to revision; but you have stated the truth, possibly, as nearly

as any one could do it, in the circumstances. But why did you choose a

detail of my question which could be answered only with vague hearsay

evidence, and go right by one which could have been answered with deadly

facts? –facts in everybody’s reach, facts which none can dispute.

I asked what France could teach us about government. I laid myself

pretty wide open, there; and I thought I was handsomely generous, too,

when I did it. France can teach us how to levy village and city taxes

which distribute the burden with a nearer approach to perfect fairness

than is the case in any other land; and she can teach us the wisest and

surest system of collecting them that exists. She can teach us how to

elect a President in a sane way; and also how to do it without throwing

the country into earthquakes and convulsions that cripple and embarrass

business, stir up party hatred in the hearts of men, and make peaceful

people wish the term extended to thirty years. France can teach us–but

enough of that part of the question. And what else can France teach us?

She can teach us all the fine arts–and does. She throws open her

hospitable art academies, and says to us, “Come”–and we come, troops and

troops of our young and gifted; and she sets over us the ablest masters

in the world and bearing the greatest names; and she, teaches us all that

we are capable of learning, and persuades us and encourages us with

prizes and honors, much as if we were somehow children of her own; and

when this noble education is finished and we are ready to carry it home

and spread its gracious ministries abroad over our nation, and we come

with homage and gratitude and ask France for the bill–there is nothing

to pay. And in return for this imperial generosity, what does America

do? She charges a duty on French works of art!

I wish I had your end of this dispute; I should have something worth

talking about. If you would only furnish me something to argue,

something to refute–but you persistently won’t. You leave good chances

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Categories: Twain, Mark