[Metroactive Features]

[ Features Index | Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

[whitespace]
Excerpts from 'How I Edited an Agricultural Journal' by Mark Twain (1870)

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 all 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 passageway, 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 ... 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 proposing 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 ...

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 of his hat and set in on the floor, and got out of it a red silk handkerchief and a copy of our paper. ... 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 to 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 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 ... stopped [in], 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 ... 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 ...

Concerning the pumpkin. This berry is a favorite with the natives of the interior of New England, who prefer it to the gooseberry 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 survive in the North, except the gourd and one or two varieties of the squash. But the custom of planting it in the frost 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 ..."

(After this new complainer leaves, the regular editor returns):

He surveyed the wreck which the old rioter ... had made, and then said: "This is a sad business, a very sad business. ... The reputation of the paper is injured, and permanently, I fear. True, there never 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 on 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 are 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 being the same thing; you talk of the moulting season for cows, and you recommend the domestication of the pole-cat on account its playfulness and its excellence as a ratter! You remark that clams will lie quiet if music be played to them. ... 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 today. I never saw anything like it. ... Oh, why didn't you tell me you didn't know anything about agriculture?"

"Tell YOU, you corn-stalk, 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 fourteen 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 writes 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 reviews the books? People who never wrote one! Who do up the heavy leaders on finance? Parties who have the largest opportunities for knowing nothing about it ...

Who edit the agricultural papers, you-yam? Men, as a general thing, who fail in the poetry line, the yellow-colored novel line, sensation-drama line, city-editor line, and finally fall back on agriculture as a temporary reprieve from the poorhouse...

Sir, I have been through it from Alpha to Omaha, and I tell you the less a man knows the bigger the noise he makes and the higher the salary he commands. Heaven know 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. ... 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 to twenty thousand copies, and if I 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. Adios."

I then left.


Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]


Web extra to the April 17-23, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate