Saturday, November 25, 2017

Taming the Bicycle

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

Woman on tricycle, followed by men on penny-farthings, c. 1887. Detail from a chromolithographic print of an aquarelle (water color) by Canadian artist Henry “Hy” Sandham (1842–1910). Printed by L. Prang & Co. (Boston). Click on image to see full painting. Image courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s the first of several bicycling crazes swept across America, and riding schools, cycling clubs, races, and tournaments were established in cities from Boston to San Francisco. The first bicycle models eventually became known as “high-wheels” or “Ordinaries” or (importing from England) “penny-farthings,” their front and back wheels reminding onlookers of a penny leading a farthing, but at the time everyone simply called them “bicycles.” The earliest contraptions, however, were famously hazardous—as 48-year-old Samuel Langhorne Clemens found out in May 1884, when he decided to learn how to ride one.

In The Autobiography of Mark Twain, the massive work that would not be published in full until a century after his death, Clemens recalls with characteristic exaggeration his adventures in cycling. “I must have been rather young for my age then, for I was trying to tame an old-fashioned bicycle nine feet high.” He and his friend Joseph Twichell took lessons from a German employee from the nearby Columbia bicycle factory in Hartford. Their instructor (if Clemens is to be believed) never cracked a smile or offered a kind word. “When he had been teaching me twice a day for three weeks, I introduced a new gymnastic—one that he had never seen before—and so at last a compliment was wrung from him . . . : ‘ Mr. Clemens, you can fall off a bicycle in more different ways than any person i ever saw before.’”

Later that year Clemens gave a speech in Springfield, Massachusetts, at the banquet of one of the clubs of “wheelmen,” as cyclists sometimes called themselves. Wearing his new glasses and promising to stay “well within the ten-minute limit allowed each speaker,” he delivered one of his shortest-ever speeches:
I have been asked to tell, briefly, what bicycling is like, from the novice’s point of view. . . .

It was on the 10th of May, of the present year, that a brace of curiously contrasted events added themselves to the sum of my experiences; for on that day I confessed to age by mounting spectacles for the first time, and in the same hour I renewed my youth, to outward appearance, by mounting a bicycle for the first time.

The spectacles stayed on.
His bruising experiences with the penny-farthing turned him off bicycles forever. Much to his chagrin Twichell “succeeded, and became a master of the art of riding that wild vehicle.”

The same year Clemens tried to ride a bicycle, he started up his own publishing firm. In June he wrote to his nephew-in-law and business manager Charles L. Webster with an update on a new sketch he had been struggling with: “I revised, & doctored, & worked at the bicycle article, but it was no use, I didn’t like it at all—so I tore it up.” He asked Webster to destroy the copy he’d sent him and indicated he would work on the idea some more during the following year. He ultimately abandoned it, but fortunately a manuscript and part of a typescript survived. Mark Twain’s literary executor Albert Bigelow Paine found the piece among Clemens’s papers and included it in the 1917 collection What Is Man? and Other Essays.

Note: Pond’s Extract, a patent medicine made of witch hazel, was developed by Theron T. Pond in 1846. The company founded in 1849 to distribute the product is the forerunner of the beauty products company that still exists today.

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I thought the matter over, and concluded I could do it. So I went down and bought a barrel of Pond’s Extract and a bicycle. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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