Monday, October 29, 2012

Mark Twain on Bikes - Was the Humorist Sincere?

With "Mark Twain" in town and on the front page Saturday, it seems like a good time to revisit a deliciously ambiguous anecdote. A couple years ago it occasioned a good bit of comment on BikePortland.

In August, 1895 Twain was on tour and after his talk in Portland he held court for reporters.  Among other things he remarked
"Portland seems to be a pretty nice town," drawled the author of "Tom Sawyer," as the bus rolled down Sixth street, "and this is a pretty nice, smooth street. Now Portland ought to lay itself out a little and macadamize all its streets just like this. Then it ought to own all the bicycles and rent 'em out and so pay for the streets. Pretty good scheme, eh? I suppose people would complain about the monopoly, but then we have the monopolies always with us. Now, in European cities, you know, the government runs a whole lot of things, and, it strikes me, runs 'em pretty well. Here many folks seem to be alarmed about governmental monopolies. But I don't see why. Here cities give away for nothing franchises for car lines, electric plants and things like that. Their generosity is often astonishing. The American people take the yoke of private monopoly with philosophical indifference, and I don't see why they should mind a little government monopoly."
In the discussion and comments it seemed like lots of people wanted badly to cite this as remarkable prescience, to be able to say that over 100 years ago Twain was advocating for a publicly owned bike-share system.

It's possible, of course.  But we also have to remember that Twain was first an ironist and humorist, even cynic, and it also is possible that in a target-rich environment of robber barons and crony capitalism, monopoly, laissez-faire economics, crappy roads, the bicycling fad, and a provincial town on the rise, he was making fun of things rather than speaking sincerely.  Rather than prefiguring bike share, this seemed to me more likely it prefigured Portlandia.  He was a humorist, right?

To the readers of 1895 it may not have been very ambiguous, but it is certainly difficult to know how to read this today.  Twain had earlier written an unpublished story, "Taming the Bicycle" and I have often seen its last sentence cited as praise for bicycling.  "Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live."  The story, however, is full of falls and near-injury, and it is not clear that Twain means, "Bikes are not very dangerous and are actually lots of fun once you get the hang of them."  It seems more likely that he means something like, "You are crazy to bike, but go ahead, knock yourself out."  Bikes were also very expensive at the time and their use was more along the lines of "conspicuous consumption" and leisure sport than populist transportation.  But, again, it's not clear exactly how to interpret the story.

Any Twain experts or fans out there who might know more about how we should understand these things?

In any event, the stories suggest questions and reality checks:  What statements do we make about bikes (and traffic and roads and engineering generally!) today that will seem silly in 100 years, and what statements will seem shrewd? What is fad or local, and what will be enduring? How will history judge?

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