Twain's Microbes

This week, I discovered the existence of an unfinished work by Mark Twain whose full title reads as follows:

3,000 Years Among the Microbes By a Microbe With Notes Added by the Same Hand 7,000 Years Later Translated from the Original Microbic by MARK TWAIN, 1905.

The work begins:

  • „The magician’s experiment miscarried, because of the impossibility of getting pure and honest drugs in those days, and the result was that he transformed me into a cholera-germ when he was trying to turn me into a bird.“

The story fits into a larger scheme of Twain’s works, especially those of his later years, in which he attempts to bring into question mankind’s attitude of self-importance. In his 1881 work „Prince and the Pauper,“ he compares man with butterflies and ants, trying to highlight the arbitrariness of human life. It seems only fitting that, being alive during the discovery of germs and microbes, Twain would have been thinking about the discovery of this new micro-world, situated within our own, and the potentially of it having its own rich experience of life. We know from Twain’s notes that he was a fan of the writings of Herbert Conn), a Bacteriologist whose mission was to bring knowledge of microbes and their beneficial effects to humans to the public, and he wrote in one notebook: „I think we are only the microscopic trichina concealed in the blood of some vast creature’s veins.“ Indeed, the microbes of Twain’s story themselves are composed of microbes, and so on, and so forth: Turtles all the way down…. Huck, the protagonist and narrator informs us of the similarities between man and germ:

  • „[M]en and germs are not widely different from each other. Of germs there are many nationalities, and there are many languages, just as it is with mankind. The herms think the man they are occupying is the only world there is. To them it is a vast and wonderful world, and they are as proud of it as if they had made it themselves….“

The work is also sometimes read by scholars as a criticism of U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines, the purchase of which after the Spanish-American War Twain saw as being „like an American heiress buying a Duke or an Earl. Sounds well, but that’s all.“ Imperialist competition among the different microbe nationalities is ever-present, but some passages read as very thinly-veiled direct critiques of the United States. After a microbial nation living inside a Hungarian Immigrant obtains an archipelago, we are told that:

  • „The new Great Power was really no greater than it was before; the addition of the mud-piles was about the equivalent of adding a prairie-dog village to a mountain range, but the artificial expansion produced by the addition was so vast that it may justly be likened to a case of ‘before and after’.“

I heard about this work while attending a conference in the University’s Animal Studies workshop. The woman presenting intended to use the discussion of it, along with other animal perspective from Twain’s works, in a chapter of her dissertation book about Imperialism. Should prove to be an interesting work when completed.