Essays on Paul Bourget by Mark Twain

times, in order that it might be used as a pretext to creep in the back

way. But I accuse you of nothing–nothing but error. When you say that

I “retort by calling France a nation of bastards,” it is an error. And

not a small one, but a large one. I made no such remark, nor anything

resembling it. Moreover, the magazine would not have allowed me to use

so gross a word as that.

You told an anecdote. A funny one–I admit that. It hit a foible of our

American aristocracy, and it stung me–I admit that; it stung me sharply.

It was like this: You found some ancient portraits of French kings in the

gallery of one of our aristocracy, and you said:

“He has the Grand Monarch, but where is the portrait of his grandfather?”

That is, the American aristocrat’s grandfather.

Now that hits only a few of us, I grant–just the upper crust only–but

it hits exceedingly hard.

I wondered if there was any way of getting back at you. In one of your

chapters I found this chance:

“In our high Parisian existence, for instance, we find applied to arts

and luxury, and to debauchery, all the powers and all the weaknesses of

the French soul.”

You see? Your “higher Parisian” class–not everybody, not the nation,

but only the top crust of the Ovation–applies to debauchery all the

powers of its soul.

I argued to myself that that energy must produce results. So I built an

anecdote out of your remark. In it I make Napoleon Bonaparte say to me–

but see for yourself the anecdote (ingeniously clipped and curtailed) in

paragraph eleven of your Reply.–[So, I repeat, Mark Twain does not like

M. Paul Bourget’s book. So long as he makes light fun of the great

French writer he is at home, he is pleasant, he is the American humorist

we know. When he takes his revenge (and where is the reason for taking a

revenge?) he is unkind, unfair, bitter, nasty.

For example:

See his answer to a Frenchman who jokingly remarks to him:

“I suppose life can never get entirely dull to an American, because

whenever he can’t strike up any other way to put in his time, he can

always get away with a few years trying to find out who his grandfather


Hear the answer:

“I reckon a Frenchman’s got his little standby for a dull time, too;

because when all other interests fail, he can turn in and see if he can’t

find out who his father was.”

The first remark is a good-humored bit of chaffing on American snobbery.

I may be utterly destitute of humor, but I call the second remark a

gratuitous charge of immorality hurled at the French women–a remark

unworthy of a man who has the ear of the public, unworthy of a gentleman,

a gross insult to a nation friendly to America, a nation that helped Mark

Twain’s ancestors in their struggle for liberty, a nation where to-day it

is enough to say that you are American to see every door open wide to


If Mark Twain was hard up in search of, a French “chestnut,” I might have

told him the following little anecdote. It is more funny than his, and

would have been less insulting: Two little street boys are abusing each

other. “Ah, hold your tongue,” says one, “you ain’t got no father.”

“Ain’t got no father!” replies the other; “I’ve got more fathers than


Now, then, your anecdote about the grandfathers hurt me. Why? Because

it had a point. It wouldn’t have hurt me if it hadn’t had point. You

wouldn’t have wasted space on it if it hadn’t had point.

My anecdote has hurt you. Why? Because it had point, I suppose. It

wouldn’t have hurt you if it hadn’t had point. I judged from your remark

about the diligence and industry of the high Parisian upper crust that it

would have some point, but really I had no idea what a gold-mine I had

struck. I never suspected that the point was going to stick into the

entire nation; but of course you know your nation better than I do, and

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Categories: Twain, Mark