How I Edited An Agricultural Paper (Once)

Mark Twain

Mark Twain.

I did not take tem­po­rary edi­tor­ship of an agri­cul­tur­al paper with­out mis­giv­ings. Nei­ther would a lands­man take com­mand of a ship with­out mis­giv­ings. But I was in cir­cum­stances that made the salary an object. The reg­u­lar edi­tor of the paper was going off for a hol­i­day, and I accept­ed the terms he offered, and took his place. 

The sen­sa­tion of being at work again was lux­u­ri­ous, and I wrought all the week with unflag­ging plea­sure. We went to press, and I wait­ed a day with some solic­i­tude to see whether my effort was going to attract any notice. As I left the office, toward sun­down, a group of men and boys at the foot of the stairs dis­persed with one impulse, and gave me pas­sage-way, and I heard one or two of them say: That’s him!” I was nat­u­ral­ly pleased by this inci­dent. The next morn­ing I found a sim­i­lar group at the foot of the stairs, and scat­ter­ing cou­ples and indi­vid­u­als stand­ing here and there in the street, and over the way, watch­ing me with inter­est. The group sep­a­rat­ed and fell back as I approached, and I heard a man say, Look at his eye!” I pre­tend­ed not to observe the notice I was attract­ing, but secret­ly I was pleased with it, and was pur­pos­ing to write an account of it to my aunt. I went up the short flight of stairs, and heard cheery voic­es and a ring­ing laugh as I drew near the door, which I opened, and caught a glimpse of two young rur­al-look­ing men, whose faces blanched and length­ened when they saw me, and then they both plunged through the win­dow with a great crash. I was surprised.

In about half an hour an old gen­tle­man, with a flow­ing beard and a fine but rather aus­tere face, entered, and sat down at my invi­ta­tion. He seemed to have some­thing on his mind. He took off his hat and set it on the floor, and got out of it a red silk hand­ker­chief and a copy of our paper.

He put the paper on his lap, and while he pol­ished his spec­ta­cles with his hand­ker­chief, he said, Are you the new editor?”

I said I was.

Have you ever edit­ed an agri­cul­tur­al paper before?”

No,” I said; this is my first attempt.”

Very like­ly. Have you had any expe­ri­ence in agri­cul­ture practically?”

No. I believe I have not.”

Some instinct told me so,” said the old gen­tle­man, putting on his spec­ta­cles, and look­ing over them at me with asper­i­ty, while he fold­ed his paper into a con­ve­nient shape. I wish to read you what must have made me have that instinct. It was this edi­to­r­i­al. Lis­ten, and see if it was you that wrote it: Turnips should nev­er be pulled, it injures them. It is much bet­ter to send a boy up and let him shake the tree.’ “

Now, what do you think of that? — for I real­ly sup­pose you wrote it?”

Think of it? Why, I think it is good. I think it is sense. I have no doubt that every year mil­lions and mil­lions of bushels of turnips are spoiled in this town­ship alone by being pulled in a half-ripe con­di­tion, when, if they had sent a boy up to shake the tree … “

Shake your grand­moth­er! Turnips don’t grow on trees!”

Oh, they don’t, don’t they? Well, who said they did? The lan­guage was intend­ed to be fig­u­ra­tive, whol­ly fig­u­ra­tive. Any­body that knows any­thing will know that I meant that the boy should shake the vine.”

Then this old per­son got up and tore his paper all into small shreds, and stamped on them, and broke sev­er­al things with his cane, and said I did not know as much as a cow; and then went out and banged the door after him, and, in short, act­ed in such a way that I fan­cied he was dis­pleased about some­thing. But not know­ing what the trou­ble was, I could not be any help to him.

Pret­ty soon after this a long cadav­er­ous crea­ture, with lanky locks hang­ing down to his shoul­ders, and a week’s stub­ble bristling from the hills and val­leys of his face, dart­ed with­in the door, and halt­ed, motion­less, with fin­ger on lip, and head and body bent in lis­ten­ing atti­tude. No sound was heard. Still he lis­tened. No sound. Then he turned the key in the door, and came elab­o­rate­ly tip­toe­ing toward me till he was with­in long reach­ing dis­tance of me, when he stopped, and after scan­ning my face with intense inter­est for a while, drew a fold­ed copy of our paper from his bosom, and said:

There, you wrote that. Read it to me, quick! Relieve me. I suffer.”

I read as fol­lows; and as the sen­tences fell from my lips I could see the relief come, I could see the drawn mus­cles relax, and the anx­i­ety go out of the face, and rest and peace steal over the fea­tures like the mer­ci­ful moon­light over a des­o­late landscape:

The guano is a fine bird, but great care is nec­es­sary in rear­ing it. It should not be import­ed ear­li­er than June or lat­er than Sep­tem­ber. In the win­ter it should be kept in a warm place, where it can hatch out its young.

It is evi­dent that we are to have a back­ward sea­son for grain. There­fore it will be well for the farmer to begin set­ting out his corn­stalks and plant­i­ng his buck­wheat cakes in July instead of August.

Con­cern­ing the pump­kin. This berry is a favorite with the natives of the inte­ri­or of New Eng­land, who pre­fer it to the goose-berry for the mak­ing of fruit-cake, and who like­wise give it the pref­er­ence over the rasp­ber­ry for feed­ing cows, as being more fill­ing and ful­ly as sat­is­fy­ing. The pump­kin is the only escu­lent of the orange fam­i­ly that will thrive in the North, except the gourd and one or two vari­eties of the squash. But the cus­tom of plant­i­ng it in the front yard with the shrub­bery is fast going out of vogue, for it is now gen­er­al­ly con­ced­ed that the pump­kin as a shade tree is a failure.

Now, as the warm weath­er approach­es, and the gan­ders begin to spawn … “

The excit­ed lis­ten­er sprang toward me to shake hands, and said, There, there, that will do. I know I am all right now, because you have read it just as I did, word for word. But, stranger, when I first read it this morn­ing, I said to myself, I nev­er, nev­er believed it before, notwith­stand­ing my friends kept me under watch so strict, but now I believe I am crazy; and with that I fetched a howl that you might have heard two miles, and start­ed out to kill some­body — because, you know, I knew it would come to that soon­er or lat­er, and so I might as well begin. I read one of them para­graphs over again, so as to be cer­tain, and then I burned my house down and start­ed. I have crip­pled sev­er­al peo­ple, and have got one fel­low up a tree, where I can get him if I want him. But I thought I would call in here as I passed along and make the thing per­fect­ly cer­tain; and now it is cer­tain, and I tell you it is lucky for the chap that is in the tree. I should have killed him, sure, as I went back. Good­bye, sir, good-bye; you have tak­en a great load off my mind. My rea­son has stood the strain of one of your agri­cul­tur­al arti­cles, and I know that noth­ing can ever unseat it now. Good-bye, sir.”

I felt a lit­tle uncom­fort­able about the crip­plings and arsons this per­son had been enter­tain­ing him­self with, for I could not help feel­ing remote­ly acces­so­ry to them. But these thoughts were quick­ly ban­ished, for the reg­u­lar edi­tor walked in! (I thought to myself, now if you had gone to Egypt as I rec­om­mend­ed you to, I might have had a chance to get my hand in; but you would­n’t do it, and here you are. I sort of expect­ed you.)

The edi­tor was look­ing sad and per­plexed and dejected.

He sur­veyed the wreck, which that old riot­er and these two young farm­ers had made, and then said, This is a sad busi­ness — a very sad busi­ness. There is the mucilage-bot­tle bro­ken, and six panes of glass, and a spit­toon and two can­dle­sticks. But that is not the worst. The rep­u­ta­tion of the paper is injured — and per­ma­nent­ly, I fear. True, there nev­er was such a call for the paper before, and it nev­er sold such a large edi­tion or soared to such celebri­ty; but does one want to be famous for luna­cy, and pros­per upon the infir­mi­ties of his mind? My friend, as I am an hon­est man, the street out here is full of peo­ple, and oth­ers are roost­ing on the fences, wait­ing to get a glimpse of you, because they think you crazy. And well they might after read­ing your edi­to­ri­als. They are a dis­grace to jour­nal­ism. Why, what put it into your head that you could edit a paper of this nature? You do not seem to know the first rudi­ments of agri­cul­ture. You speak of a fur­row and a har­row as being the same thing; you talk of the moult­ing sea­son for cows; and you rec­om­mend the domes­ti­ca­tion of the pole-cat on account of its play­ful­ness and its excel­lence as a rat­ter! Your remark that clams will lie qui­et if music be played to them was super­flu­ous — entire­ly super­flu­ous. Noth­ing dis­turbs clams. Clams always lie qui­et. Clams care noth­ing what­ev­er about music. Ah, heav­ens and earth, friend! If you had made the acquir­ing of igno­rance the study of your life, you could not have grad­u­at­ed with high­er hon­or than you could to-day. I nev­er saw any­thing like it. Your obser­va­tion that the horse chest­nut as an arti­cle of com­merce is steadi­ly gain­ing in favor is sim­ply cal­cu­lat­ed to destroy this jour­nal. I want you to throw up your sit­u­a­tion and go. I want no more hol­i­day — I could not enjoy it if I had it. Cer­tain­ly not with you in my chair. I would always stand in dread of what you might be going to rec­om­mend next. It makes me lose all patience every time I think of your dis­cussing oys­ter-beds under the head of Land­scape Gar­den­ing.’ I want you to go. Noth­ing on earth could per­suade me to take anoth­er hol­i­day. Oh! why did­n’t you tell me you did­n’t know any­thing about agriculture?”

Tell you, you corn­stalk, you cab­bage, you son of a cau­li­flower? It’s the first time I ever heard such an unfeel­ing remark. I tell you I have been in the edi­to­r­i­al busi­ness going on 14 years, and it is the first time I ever heard of a man’s hav­ing to know any­thing in order to edit a news­pa­per. You turnip! Who write the dra­mat­ic cri­tiques for the sec­ond-rate papers? Why, a par­cel of pro­mot­ed shoe­mak­ers and appren­tice apothe­caries, who know just as much about good act­ing as I do about good farm­ing and no more. Who review the books? Peo­ple who nev­er wrote one. Who do up the heavy lead­ers on finance? Par­ties who have had the largest oppor­tu­ni­ties for know­ing noth­ing about it. Who crit­i­cize the Indi­an cam­paigns? Gen­tle­men who do not know a war-whoop from a wig­wam, and who nev­er have had to run a foot race with a tom­a­hawk, or pluck arrows out of the sev­er­al mem­bers of their fam­i­lies to build the evening camp-fire with. Who write the tem­per­ance appeals, and clam­or about the flow­ing bowl? Folks who will nev­er draw anoth­er sober breath till they do it in the grave. Who edit the agri­cul­tur­al papers, you — yam? Men, as a gen­er­al thing, who fail in the poet­ry line, yel­low-cov­ered nov­el line, sen­sa­tion-dra­ma line, city-edi­tor line, and final­ly fall back on agri­cul­ture as a tem­po­rary reprieve from the poor­house. You try to tell me any­thing about the news­pa­per busi­ness! Sir, I have been through it from Alpha to Oma­ha, and I tell you that the less a man knows the big­ger the noise he makes and the high­er the salary he com­mands. Heav­en knows if I had been igno­rant instead of cul­ti­vat­ed, and impu­dent instead of dif­fi­dent, I could have made a name for myself in this cold self­ish world. I take my leave, sir. Since I have been treat­ed as you have treat­ed me, I am per­fect­ly will­ing to go. But I have done my duty. I have ful­filled my con­tract as far as I was per­mit­ted to do it. I said I could make your paper of inter­est to all class­es — and I have. I said I could run your cir­cu­la­tion up to 20,000 copies, and if I had had two more weeks I’d have done it. And I’d have giv­en you the best class of read­ers that ever an agri­cul­tur­al paper had— not a farmer in it, nor a soli­tary indi­vid­ual who could tell a water­mel­on tree from a peach vine to save his life. You are the los­er by this rup­ture, not me, Pie-plant. Adiós.”

I then left. 

Mark Twain (18351910) was an Amer­i­can humorist, satirist, social crit­ic, lec­tur­er and nov­el­ist. He is most remem­bered for The Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn and The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer. He wrote this sto­ry in 1870.
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