Monday, August 11, 2014

Mark Twain's Autobiography

I've had the pleasure of listening to the audio version of the two-volume autobiography of Mark Twain. These are large volumes and not without repetition, yet I do not hesitate to recommend to every Twain fan and especially every person that calls themselves a writer to either read or listen to these books. I've pasted the following passage from volume two. It is a relatively short read and well worth your time. In it, Twain describes the effort required to secure author copyright law in the United States and his significant contribution thereto (I do not fail to see the irony). If the time required to read 3,600 words is too great, at least do yourself the favor of skipping to the Q&A portion at the end, you will not be sorry.

I went to Washington, a fortnight ago, at the suggestion of the Committee of the Copyright League, to help nurse the amended bill through its initial examination by the Patent Committees of the House and the Senate. Mr. Paine made the trip with me. We had the League Committee for company on board the train—a committee composed of two publishers, a poet, and Robert Underwood Johnson. The publishers were William Appleton and George Haven Putnam, fine men, both, and choice examples of their calling. The poet was Mr. Bowker. No, I am in error; it was two publishers and two poets, for Underwood Johnson is himself a poet, though that is not his regular line; neither is it Bowker’s; both of these singers earn their bread by surer handicrafts. They live upon salaries—Johnson as one of the editors of the Century Magazine, Bowker as something connected with a railroad. Both of these poets have published modest volumes of verse, and possess copies; both are hard workers for an enlarged literary copyright, and have given their steady and earnest labors to this cause in the Copyright League for years without salary, and without having any
pecuniary interest in the proposed lengthened term of literary copyright. I believe that if we could go back over the past two centuries since England waylaid the author, in Queen Anne’s time, and robbed him of his poor little rights, we should find that from that day to this the long struggle to regain those rights for the author has been conducted, almost exclusively, not by the authors who would be benefited by the restoration, but by minor poets whose poems were perishable and evanescent; poets who had little or no use for a copyright of any kind, let alone an extended one. These benefactors, so far as my knowledge and experience go, never get any real help from the small handful of authors who could be pecuniarily benefited by a liberal life-term for books. When I went to Washington sixteen years ago, to help just such a committee as this one in the nursing of an international copyright bill through the House of Representatives, James Russell Lowell, I think, was the only author who appeared there whose books promised to outlive the forty-two-year limit—except myself. At the hearing before the Patent Committee of the Senate, Mr. Lowell appeared just once, for fifteen minutes. He made a strong and striking speech, then disappeared, and was seen no more. Howells didn’t come; Edward Everett Hale didn’t come; Thomas Bailey Aldrich didn’t come; as I have already said, none of the ten or twenty authors personally and really interested in getting justice for American and foreign authors came forward to assist, except Lowell and myself. Underwood Johnson was of the League Committee in that old day. The international bill was passed, and became law. This victory was attributed to Johnson, and the grateful French Government decorated him with the Legion of Honor for it, and he still wears in his buttonhole that red thread which distinguishes the member of the Legion of Honor from that remnant of the human race who have failed to get it. It makes me jealous; it makes me spiteful toward Underwood Johnson; it embitters me against the French; for Underwood Johnson didn’t win that victory, I did it myself. When a legislative body is not acquainted with the interests and rights and wrongs of authorship, these things must be explained to the members before they can be expected to understand the situation; explaining by documents is not worth while; no member can find time to read them; explaining by speeches before a hard-worked committee is not worth while, for the committee cannot in turn convey the acquired information to the rest of the House otherwise than by speeches, and speeches are not effective when they concern a matter in which the House feels no interest. Copyright is a thing, which all legislative bodies are ignorant of and unfamiliar with, and there is only one way to get a copyright measure through Congress—that is by canvassing the Congress individual by individual, and enlightening each in his turn. I did that sixteen years ago. I did not go to the homes, hotels, and boarding-houses of the members, for that would have taken three months. Sunset Cox smuggled me in on the floor of the House, where of course I had no right to be and would have been turned out if the sergeant-at-arms had chosen to see me; but neither the sergeant nor the Speaker paid any attention to me, and so I got into no trouble. Sunset Cox supplied me with Democrats, two and three and four at a time; Mr. John D. Long supplied me with Republicans, and in three or four hours I had had personal contact and conversation with almost every member of the House. As argument I used only two or three essential points. It was not difficult to make them clear and comprehensible, and I made them so. The commonest remark that fell upon my ear, all through those hours, was— “I have had no time to examine this matter, Mr. Clemens, and I did not understand it before, but I will vote for the bill now.” The bill went through, and a grateful France decorated Underwood Johnson, the poet. However I suppose I ought to be fair, and for this once I will be. It was because of the existence and industries of Underwood Johnson that an international copyright bill was devised and brought before Congress. But for Underwood Johnson, there would have been no bill; but for the bill I should not have been there—and so, a fair and righteous distribution of the honors requires that Underwood Johnson get half the credit and I the other half. If he will give me half of his red thread I will withdraw from him all bitterness, all animosity, all spitefulness, all envy. This new bill proposes to change the present legal life of a book (which is forty-two years) to the author’s life and fifty years after. Underwood is working as hard for it as ever. He and Bowker appeared before the double committee on the first day’s hearing and made speeches; Howells was there also, not to speak, but in order that the ten or twenty American authors actually interested in extension of copyright might have a representation in the flesh. I did not attend that first sitting, but I attended next day’s sitting, at five in the afternoon, and spoke. The place was crowded, and the two committees had been patiently listening to reasonings and wranglings all day long, and they had listened to the like the whole of the previous day. When Congressmen perform their whole duty in this devoted way the spectacle furnishes the outsider a new light on the legislator’s life, and with it a very sincere admiration for men who can labor like that in causes which cannot interest them, and must, of necessity, bore them. I did not go to Washington to make a speech. The speech was merely an incident, an accident, and not a part of the committee’s previously arranged program. My business in Washington, and my desire, was to put in force a private project of my own—a repetition of my industries of sixteen years before: I wanted to talk to the members of the House, man to man. Mr. Speaker Cannon would not overstrain his powers by smuggling me into the House, but he said he would make a fair compromise in the interests of my mission; he would give me his private room in the Capitol, and also his colored messenger to run errands for me. This was very convenient. It was really better than exploiting my canvass on the floor of the House. The colored servant was Neal. I had known him sixteen years before, when I was lobbying for the international bill. Neal has served a procession of Speakers of the House, which stretches back without a break for forty years. He knows every member as well as he knows the members of his own family. Before I had talked with any more than twenty members I perceived that they felt no hostility toward the extension of literary copyright—that is to say, book copyright—but were not at all pleased with the bill’s attempt to intrude mechanical musical devices, and other things whose interests belong in the Patent Office and had no proper connection with copyright. As soon as I felt convinced that this was really and truly the attitude of the House toward the bill I ceased from urging the whole bill and thenceforth urged only the literary end of it. I talked with a hundred and eighty members of Congress that day, and satisfied myself that if the musical feature of the bill could be eliminated the bill would pass. Afterward I talked with the chairmen of the Senate and House Committees that had the bill in charge, and found that they were tired of the music, and were already considering a project to report the bill with the musical foolishness left out. I ceased from my labors then, leaving two hundred and six members uncanvassed, the temper of the hundred and eighty already canvassed convincing me that the temper of the House was friendly enough toward literary copyright and could be depended upon to remain so without any further persuasions of mine.

December 19, 1906 Mr. Clemens gives his reasons for insisting upon an extension of the Copyright Bill—arranged in the form of an interview with a member of Congress. . . . . That was an odd mission of mine to Washington. I arrive at this deduction by a critical examination of the matters involved in it. Instead of compacting them into a solid block, and thus confusing and dimming them, I will try to make them clear by separating them through the handy process of question and answer. I will imagine myself as undergoing examination by a member of Congress who desires to qualify himself to vote upon the Copyright Bill by inquiring into the particulars of the interests involved.

Question. Mr. Clemens, you are here to represent—whom? Answer. The authors.

Q. All authors? A. No. There are perhaps ten thousand American authors, but I have appointed myself to represent only twenty-five of them.

Q. Why only twenty-five out of the ten thousand? A. Because all but the twenty-five are amply protected by the copyright law now in existence.

Q. How do you mean? A. The new bill proposes to extend the copyright-life of a book beyond the existing limit, which is forty-two years. It is possible that the books of twenty-five living authors may still be selling profitably when they reach the age of forty-two years; the books of the other ten thousand, amounting to an annual output of five or six thousand volumes, will all be dead and forgotten long before the forty-two-year limit is reached; therefore of our ten thousand authors only twenty-five are pecuniarily interested in an extension of the existing copyright limit.

Q. Mr. Clemens, are there other persons interested in the making of books, and pecuniarily affected by copyright laws? A. Yes. To begin with, the publishers.

Q. How many publishers are there? A. About three hundred. They publish an annual output of five or six thousand new books, and presumably the result is an average profit of a thousand dollars upon each—say an aggregate of five or six million dollars; presumably also, they get as much more out of books whose copyrights are dead, and on which they pay no royalties to authors or their families, but filch the author’s share and add it to their own.

Q. It is not the authors, then, that get the bulk of the money resulting from authorship? A. No. Far from it! The ten thousand cannot be expected to produce, each, more than half a book a year. Authorship is not their trade. If one of these makes a thousand dollars out of his book—and sometimes he does—it takes him two years to do it; while he is making five hundred dollars out of his book his publisher may publish forty other books, and make forty thousand dollars.

Q. By this it would appear that authorship is mainly important to the publisher, not to the author? A. It is true. Pecuniarily, no one concerned is perhaps so little interested in authorship as are our ten thousand authors. Fortunately for them, they do not get their living by authorship; they get it in other and securer ways; with them authorship is a side issue, a pastime.

Q. Very well then, as I understand it authorship is worth several millions a year to publishers, and worth next to nothing to the main body of authors. Is that it? A. Yes, that is what I am meaning.

Q. Then it seems plain that authorship is one of the most trifling of all imaginable trades. I cannot call to mind another trade that matches it for pecuniary humbleness. Do you know of one? A. No—none except whitewashing fences; and even that would be a better trade, if you could exercise it in the winter as well as in the summer.

Q. There are still others who are pecuniarily interested in the making of books? Name them. A. At a guess, two thousand book-compositors, earning a wage of two million and a half dollars a year—

Q. Go on. A. Some hundreds of printing-press men and boys—

Q. Proceed. A. Some hundreds or thousands of binders,paper-makers and printing-ink manufacturers.

Q. Go on. A. Some scores of illustrators, photographers, and engravers.

Q. Go on. A. Some hundreds of box-makers, packers, porters, and employees of the railways and express companies.

Q. You have footed up a formidable army: Mr. Clemens, is there anybody in the country who is not pecuniarily interested in the making of books? A. Yes sir—the authors. The ten thousand.

Q. Let us now get back to the beginning and add up results. Some thousands of persons and their families are greatly and importantly interested in the making of books; you have granted that these thousands are all well protected by the existing copyright law—protected beyond possibility of hurt; you have conceded that all of the ten thousand authors except the specialized twenty-five, are amply protected by the law as it stands, since their books will never live out the forty-two-year limit, and could therefore not be advantaged by extending it. Now then, I wish to ask you a serious question. You have proven that in representing the twenty-five you represent the smallest interest, the poorest little interest, the most microscopic interest, that has ever intruded itself upon the attention of a legislative body in this age or any other. This interest has been intruding and complaining, persistently, for two centuries, in England and America, and in that period has wasted the valuable time of Parliaments and Congresses—time so valuable, so precious, that if you should reduce that valuable time to dollars and cents the aggregate would amount to millions and millions of dollars, and would build fifty battleships and equip for war a hundred thousand soldiers. Mr. Clemens, how do you excuse the continued and persistent agitation of this matter?

A. I excuse it for reasons, which seem to me to justify it. In the first place, upon the grounds of our moral law. Our moral laws endow us with certain rights; one of these is the right to hold and enjoy, unchallenged and unmolested, property created by our honest industries; and this endowment is not discriminated, but comes to us all alike, all in equal measure. It does not give this property-right to publisher, butcher, land-owner, corporation, shoemaker, tailor, and deny it to the author; it includes the author. It is every man’s right—his right, and not a benevolence conferred upon him by legislatures. The moral law existed before copyright, and in authority supersedes any usurping statute that can be inflicted by the legislature. Legislatures can by force of arbitrary power rob an author by statute, but no casuistry can keep that robbery from being a crime. It is lawful crime, legalized crime, but it remains crime just the same. The clause in the Constitution of the United States which denies perpetual property in an author’s book is a crime, and an excuser and defender and propagator of crime—and the fact that it is part of the Constitution in no wise relieves it from that stain, and from merited contempt. The publisher who withholds royalty from a book that has passed the forty-two-year limit under the plea that the Constitution and Congress have granted him permission to commit this degraded crime is not any less a thief than he would be if the property which he is stealing was protected property. In one of our cities there is a firm of publishers that make and sell copyright-expired books only. There are several partners in the firm, and one of them told a friend of mine that his share of the profits of this nefarious trade amounts to forty thousand dollars a year. That person ranks as a most respectable man, but to my mind he belongs in jail, with the other thieves. The late Baron Tauchnitz was the only publisher I have ever known who was above seizing and using property which did not belong to him, the only publisher I have known in whose reach the author’s widow and orphan could safely leave unwatched their poor little literary belongings. Yet the name he commonly went by, in an ignorant world, was “that pirate!” I personally know that he would not put upon his book-list a book which he had not bought and paid for, whether its copyright was alive or was dead. He knew that no Constitution and no statute can take away perpetual property-right in an author’s book, but can only act as a thief’s confederate and by brute force protect the thief while he steals it. I know of no American publisher who is not a pirate; I will gamble that if there is a publisher anywhere who is not a pirate it is Tauchnitz’s son. With your permission I will venture yet another reason for not being ashamed to come here in the interest of that grotesquely small band—the twenty-five authors who could be benefited by the requested extension of the copyright limit to the life of the author and fifty years after. It is this: almost the most prodigious asset of a country, and perhaps its most precious possession, is its native literary product—when that product is fine and noble and enduring. Whence comes this enduring literature? It comes from the twenty-five, and from no other source! In the course of a century—and not in any briefer time—the contemporaneous twenty-five may produce from their number one or two, or three, authors whose books can outlast a hundred years. It will take the recurrent successors of the twenty-five several centuries to build a hundred imperishable books; those books become the recognized classics of that country, and are pointed to by the nation with exultant and eloquent pride. Am I claiming too much when I claim that such a literature is a country’s most valuable and most precious possession? I think not. Nations pride themselves upon the splendors of their deeds of arms, statesmanship, conquest; and when they can point back, century after century, and age after age, to the far-stretching perspective of a great history, their pride is beyond expression in words; but it all exists by grace of one thing—one thing alone—the country’s literature. It is a country’s literature that preserves the country’s achievements, which would otherwise perish from the memories of men. When we call to mind that stately line— “The glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome”—we should remember with respect and with reverence that if the great literatures of Greece and Rome had by some catastrophe been blotted out, the inspiring histories of those countries would be vacant to the world to-day; the lessons which they left behind, and which have been the guide and teacher of the world for centuries upon centuries would have been as utterly lost to us as if they had never had an existence. It is because of the great literatures of the ancient world, and because of those literatures alone, that the poet can sing of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, and thrill us with the sublimity of his words. It is not foreign literatures that sing a country’s glories and give them immortality—only the country’s own literature will perform that priceless service. It were worth a Congress’s while to spend upon a copyright law time worth the cost of even a hundred battleships if the result of it might some day be the breeding and nourishing of a Shakespeare. Italy has many battleships; she has many possessions, which she is proud of, but far and away above them all she holds in pride one incomparable possession, one name—DANTE! I represent only twenty-five persons, it is true; only twenty-five out of eighty-five millions; considered commercially I represent the meanest interest that could ever intrude itself upon the time and attention of Congresses and Parliaments, in this age or in any future one, but I am not ashamed of my mission.

Twain, Mark (2013-10-05). Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (Mark Twain Papers) (p. 317-324). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

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