On the occasion of poet Walt Whitman’s 70th birthday, Mark Twain wrote this letter to give perspective to the great poet’s lifetime:
You have lived just the seventy years which are the greatest in the world’s history and richest in benefit and advancement to its peoples. These seventy years have done much more to widen the interval between man and the other animals than was accomplished by any of the five centuries which preceded them. What great births you have witnessed! The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the railroad, the perfect cotton gin, the telegraph, the phonograph, photogravure, the electrotype, the gaslight, the electric light, the sewing machine, and the amazing, infinitely varied and innumerable products of coal tar, those latest and strangest marvels of a marvelous age. And you have seen greater births than these; for you have seen the application of anesthesia to surgery-practice, whereby the ancient dominion of pain, which began with the first created life, came to an end on this earth forever. … Yes, you have indeed seen much — but tarry for awhile, for the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, and then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to those whose nativity you have witnessed; and conspicuous about them you shall see their formidable Result — man at almost his full stature at last! – and still growing, visibly growing while you look … Wait till you see that great figure appear, and catch the far glint of the sun upon his banner. Then you may depart satisfied, as knowing you have seen him for whom the earth was made, and that he will proclaim human wheat is more than human tares, and proceed to organize human values on that basis.*
Mark Twain presented this letter on May 31,1889. Walt Whitman lived only another three years, dying of pneumonia in 1892. But if he had lived another thirty years, as Twain had wished for him, would he have seen a perfect Utopia, organized and led by the Idealized Humans that Twain envisioned?
Well, thirty years from that Whitman birthday would have been in May of 1919, just six months after the end of World War I, in which all the great inventions Mark Twain listed (except, possibly, the sewing machine) were used to maim and kill as many people as possible, and in which mustard gas and other terrible new weapons of destruction caused more pain than all the anesthesia available could alleviate. Five months later, in September of 1919, Adolf Hitler joined the political group that became the Nazis, and he started to take the steps that would ultimately lead to the even-more-awful World War II. And in between these two terrible wars the world would be thrown into the Great Depression, with the collapse of the US stock market in 1929, leading to all kinds of dashed dreams and human suffering.
Nice try, Mark! Optimism is a good quality, especially when it’s expressed eloquently by a great writer. But if it’s based on a naive belief in the inevitability of human moral evolution, it’s unworthy of the man who showed such insight into the dark side of human nature in his famous stories about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, as well as in his other writings.
After those two World Wars and the Great Depression, Americans experienced a new wave of prosperity, and the sunshine of optimism seemed to promise unlimited possibilities. But soon the shadow of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear attacks darkened the national mood.. The Korean War and the Vietnam War were particularly virulent outbreaks during this time of tension. Later, with the break up of the Soviet Union and the negotiation of nuclear arms treaties, there were moments when Mark Twain’s kind of optimism seemed to be re-emerging. But then the Middle East started to unravel, and Al-Qaeda, ISIS and terrorism are inescapable realities that must be faced in our day.
Walt Whitman’s beautiful and upbeat poems continue to lift my spirit and inspire me to strive for the best in myself and those around me. And Mark Twain’s wry perspectives on human attitudes and behavior bring me a fuller understanding of the people I deal with in my everyday life, just as they did for his first readers more than a century ago. But I’m not going to ask either one of them to hold my hand and lead me to the truth about the significance of my life.
Wait, what’s that voice I hear?
I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Do not fear, I will help you.” (Isaiah 41:13) .
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* From Lewis Mumford, The Condition of Man (1944)