Mark Twain learns to ride a bicycle

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“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.”

— Mark Twain, “Taming the Bicycle” 1917

This is one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes and most apt for this blog. I mention it now because today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Samuel Clemens, Nov. 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910.

I've been reading the entertaining biography “Mark Twain: A Life” by Ron Powers. He tells about Clemens learning to ride a high-wheeled bicycle as he waited for his book “Huckleberry Finn” to be published in 1884.

In letters, Powers found that Clemens' riding instructor wrote that his pupil had discovered more ways to fall off a bicycle than the man who invented it. Clemens himself claimed that he had invented all the bicycle profanity that had since come into common use.

The quote

The famous quote about bicycling comes at the end of an essay, “Taming the Bicycle,” that appeared in the collection “What is Man and Other Essays” in 1917, about 7 years after his death. It was never published during his life.

As far as I know, the only other time Twain wrote about bicycles was in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.” In that book, the hero is rescued by Sir Launcelot [Lancelot] and 500 knights mounted on bicycles. In the illustrated edition, Dan Beard (later the founder of the Boy Scouts) has sketched “Sir Galahad takes a header.” [above]


Twain didn't mention bicycles in  “Roughing It” or “Life on the Mississippi,” but reading those books makes me want to attach the panniers on my bicycle and go exploring.

“Roughing It” reminds me of adventure, reminiscent of how I feel when I'm heading down the road with tent and sleeping bag. The way the riverboat pilots in “Life on the Mississippi” share stories about the changing course of the river makes me think about how bicycle travelers compare notes on road conditions or free camping spots when they meet up. 

Learning to ride

In “Taming the Bicycle,” Twain writes about his experiences at learning to ride a high-wheel bicycle. In the first part, he writes about his instructor's attempt to teach him how to ride. In the second, he talks about his first solo journey.

Here's an excerpt from that second part [the entire essay is available online at the Gutenberg Project]:

“Then he left me, and I started out alone to seek adventures. You don't really have to seek them—that is nothing but a phrase—they come to you.

“I chose a reposeful Sabbath-day sort of a back street which was about thirty yards wide between the curbstones. I knew it was not wide enough; still, I thought that by keeping strict watch and wasting no space unnecessarily I could crowd through.

“Of course I had trouble mounting the machine, entirely on my own responsibility, with no encouraging moral support from the outside, no sympathetic instructor to say, “Good! now you're doing well—good again—don't hurry—there, now, you're all right—brace up, go ahead.” In place of this I had some other support. This was a boy, who was perched on a gate-post munching a hunk of maple sugar.

“He was full of interest and comment. The first time I failed and went down he said that if he was me he would dress up in pillows, that's what he would do. The next time I went down he advised me to go and learn to ride a tricycle first. The third time I collapsed he said he didn't believe I could stay on a horse-car. But the next time I succeeded, and got clumsily under way in a weaving, tottering, uncertain fashion, and occupying pretty much all of the street. My slow and lumbering gait filled the boy to the chin with scorn, and he sung out, “My, but don't he rip along!” Then he got down from his post and loafed along the sidewalk, still observing and occasionally commenting. Presently he dropped into my wake and followed along behind. A little girl passed by, balancing a wash-board on her head, and giggled, and seemed about to make a remark, but the boy said, rebukingly, “Let him alone, he's going to a funeral.”

“I have been familiar with that street for years, and had always supposed it was a dead level; but it was not, as the bicycle now informed me, to my surprise. The bicycle, in the hands of a novice, is as alert and acute as a spirit-level in the detecting the delicate and vanishing shades of difference in these matters. It notices a rise where your untrained eye would not observe that one existed; it notices any decline which water will run down. I was toiling up a slight rise, but was not aware of it. It made me tug and pant and perspire; and still, labor as I might, the machine came almost to a standstill every little while. At such times the boy would say: “That's it! take a rest—there ain't no hurry. They can't hold the funeral without YOU.”

Read Mark Twain. You will not regret it.

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