By Raj Gopal
Here’s a letter from Mark Twain, perhaps the greatest American novelist, to Walt Whitman, perhaps the greatest American poet. It’s a movingly sincere ode to human ingenuity, as beautifully written as you might expect.
Shortly into the letter, Twain lists in an awe-struck tone the feats of engineering that astonish him: “The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the railroad, the perfected cotton-gin, the telegraph, the phonograph, the photograph, photo-gravure, the electrotype, the gaslight, the electric light, the sewing machine, & the amazing, infinitely varied & innumerable products of coal tar!”
Every invention Twain lists above has either been improved until unrecognizable, or replaced by something even more inconceivable. It’s strange to think that despite that fact, Twain’s awe at progress still feels a little foreign from a modern vantage point.
But as refreshing as it is to read such a forthright love letter to progress, it’s hard not to cringe a little when you read: “Wait thirty years, and then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to these whose nativity you have witnessed”. This letter was written in 1889 and “thirty years later” was the aftermath of World War I.
Then again, Twain himself admits that the greatest developments that took place in his and Whitman’s lifetimes weren’t mechanical but moral. Shortly after his list of inventions, he adds: “And you have seen even 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 in this earth forever; you have seen the slave set free, you have seen the monarchy banished from France, & reduced in England to a machine which makes an imposing show of diligence & attention to business, but isn’t connected with the works.”
So let’s not underestimate the causes for optimism, either.
Raj Gopal (Rutgers University) Raj is a writer, editor and proficient book-haver whose interests include literature, history, philosophy, current events, pop culture, gaming and amateurish drumming. He is currently a staff writer for Quiet Lunch Magazine and likes to spend his spare time as an eccentric hermit, making invaluable contributions to Electromagnetics and palling around with Mark Twain. Raj lives in New Jersey for some reason.