‘The Smallest Minds … The Cowardliest Hearts’

Current reading: “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” by Wallace Stegner. It’s a biography of John Wesley Powell, known popularly for making the first boat trip through the Grand Canyon (in 1869), for being among the founders of the U.S. Geological Survey, for his thorough and sympathetic study of Native Americans and their culture, and for promoting a rational approach to the settlement of the arid West. (Among other details I didn’t know, Powell was also a faculty member at the college that became Illinois State University, in Normal, and lived in Bloomington).

Anyway, at one juncture, Stegner stops to contemplate federal government policy on the West. He quotes Mark Twain’s “portrait of the Congressman: ‘the smallest mind and the selfishest soul and the cowardliest heart that God makes.’ ” Harsh, but apt for our time, I thought (and sure, there are some who would say it’s a description with eternal currency).

I wanted to know the source of the quote. One’s first Google search turns up the fact it’s widely cited (to express disgust with today’s crop of solons) though the source is hard to come by. The closest you can get is along the lines of “an 1891 letter to an unknown correspondent.”

Twain died in 1910, and in 1912, someone named Albert Bigelow Paine came out with a massive biography that reprints the letter in full (or nearly full–there’s no salutation, thus the name of the recipient, if any, is unknown, and it begins with an ellipsis). The letter appeared five years later in a collection of Twain’s letters. The subject is the Twain’s real-life experience and how it has fitted him for the profession of novelist. Here’s the paragraph that’s the source of Stegner’s quote:

So, the quote was more expansive and changed somewhat as it passed through the many hands between Twain, Paine, and Stegner. Or maybe not. Stegner cites an edition of “The Portable Mark Twain” edited by his friend and mentor, the historian Bernard De Voto, as his source, and De Voto’s quote was identical to those printed earlier. Stegner appears to have cleaned it up and narrowed the context to fit his needs.

In any case, the original message was: Those lawmaker-government types–they’re all bums.

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