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Corn-Pone Opinions by Mark Twain

Color Photograph of Mark Twain taken by autochrome. Via The New Neo

FIFTY YEARS AGO, when I was a boy of fifteen and helping to inhabit a Missourian village on the banks of the Mississippi, I had a friend whose society was very dear to me because I was forbidden by my mother to partake of it. He was a gay and impudent and satirical and delightful young black man -a slave -who daily preached sermons from the top of his master’s woodpile, with me for sole audience. He imitated the pulpit style of the several clergymen of the village, and did it well, and with fine passion and energy. To me he was a wonder. I believed he was the greatest orator in the United States and would some day be heard from….

One of his texts was this:

“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”….

I think Jerry was right, in the main, but I think he did not go far enough.

1. It was his idea that a man conforms to the majority view of his locality by calculation and intention. This happens, but I think it is not the rule.

2. It was his idea that there is such a thing as a first-hand opinion; an original opinion; an opinion which is coldly reasoned out in a man’s head, by a searching analysis of the facts involved, with the heart unconsulted, and the jury room closed against outside influences. It may be that such an opinion has been born somewhere, at some time or other, but I suppose it got away before they could catch it and stuff it and put it in the museum.

I am persuaded that a coldly-thought-out and independent verdict upon a fashion in clothes, or manners, or literature, or politics, or religion, or any other matter that is projected into the field of our notice and interest, is a most rare thing — if it has indeed ever existed….

The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts. The Smiths like the new play; the Joneses go to see it, and they copy the Smith verdict. Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking. A man must and will have his own approval first of all, in each and every moment and circumstance of his life — even if he must repent of a self-approved act the moment after its commission, in order to get his self-approval again: but, speaking in general terms, a man’s self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter.

“A political emergency brings out the corn-pone opinion in fine force in its two chief varieties — the pocketbook variety, which has its origin in self-interest, and the bigger variety, the sentimental variety — the one which can’t bear to be outside the pale….”

Mohammedans are Mohammedans because they are born and reared among that sect, not because they have thought it out and can furnish sound reasons for being Mohammedans; we know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterians; why Baptists are Baptists; why Mormons are Mormons; why thieves are thieves; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republicans and Democrats, Democrats. We know it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies.

Broadly speaking, there are none but corn-pone opinions. And broadly speaking, corn-pone stands for self-approval. Self-approval is acquired mainly from the approval of other people. The result is conformity. Sometimes conformity has a sordid business interest — the bread-and-butter interest — but not in most cases, I think. I think that in the majority of cases it is unconscious and not calculated; that it is born of the human being’s natural yearning to stand well with his fellows and have their inspiring approval and praise — a yearning which is commonly so strong and so insistent that it cannot be effectually resisted, and must have its way.

A political emergency brings out the corn-pone opinion in fine force in its two chief varieties — the pocketbook variety, which has its origin in self-interest, and the bigger variety, the sentimental variety — the one which can’t bear to be outside the pale; can’t bear to be in disfavor; can’t endure the averted face and the cold shoulder; wants to stand well with his friends, wants to be smiled upon, wants to be welcome, wants to hear the precious words, “He’s on the right track!” Uttered, perhaps by an ass, but still an ass of high degree, an ass whose approval is gold and diamonds to a smaller ass, and confers glory and honor and happiness, and membership in the herd. For these gauds many a man will dump his life-long principles into the street, and his conscience along with them. We have seen it happen. In some millions of instances.

Men think they think upon great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently; they read its literature, but not that of the other side; they arrive at convictions, but they are drawn from a partial view of the matter in hand and are of no particular value. They swarm with their party, they feel with their party, they are happy in their party’s approval; and where the party leads they will follow, whether for right and honor, or through blood and dirt and a mush of mutilated morals.

In our late canvass half of the nation passionately believed that in silver lay salvation, the other half as passionately believed that that way lay destruction. Do you believe that a tenth part of the people, on either side, had any rational excuse for having an opinion about the matter at all? I studied that mighty question to the bottom — came out empty. Half of our people passionately believe in high tariff, the other half believe otherwise. Does this mean study and examination, or only feeling? The latter, I think. I have deeply studied that question, too — and didn’t arrive. We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it we get an aggregation which we consider a boon. Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it the Voice of God.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Cletus Socrates July 18, 2017, 6:38 PM

    What is that Twain fellows Twitter handle?
    I need to follow him

  • Jo July 19, 2017, 12:09 PM

    “Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met.” – Fran Lebowitz

  • Ulysses Toole February 15, 2019, 6:08 PM

    Jo, did you mean Fawn Liebowitz?

    WOUNDED DEER, Massachusetts – Emily Dickinson College sophomore Fawn Liebowitz died suddenly last week in a kiln explosion on campus.

    Liebowitz, 20, a sociology major from Fort Wayne, Indiana, was tragically killed while firing a pot in the new kiln in Sylvia Plath Hall.

    “Messy” was how Wounded Deer Fire Chief Michael Redman described the scene of the accident. “It was hard to tell the pot shards from the body parts,” said the pyrodefense professional. “She just blew like a frog sucking on a cherry bomb,” Redman added.

    The cleanup of Plath Hall has been further complicated by a thin coat of glaze that has affixed many of the body parts to the light fixtures and hand railings.

    In the wake of this tragedy, there has been talk among Emily Dickinson students of renaming Plath Hall to Fawn Hall. Until she was blown to bits, friends would say that Fawn’s best feature was her smile. Her roommate, Shelly Dubinsky (sophomore, primitive cultures), described Fawn as “a special friend who liked to share her thoughts and experiences, and who had a curiosity about life and relationships.”

    Her long-time boyfriend (they were “engaged to be engaged”), Eric “Otter” Stratton of nearby Faber College, was in shock when he first learned of Fawn’s passing. “I just talked to her last week. She was going to make a pot for me,” Stratton said while attempting to hold back tears. Services have already been held.

  • PA Cat February 15, 2019, 6:52 PM

    Twain was fortunate to live in a period when he could use “gay” in its original sense– before it was hijacked to become part of an alphabet soup of “sexual minorities,” or whatever the term of art is now.

  • H February 16, 2019, 5:37 AM

    Thanks to you, Ulysses, I just spewed coffee thru my nose.

  • Bill in Tennessee February 16, 2019, 6:40 AM

    Maybe. Maybe not. I recall inwardly separating myself and my opinions from my family and peers back in the Jurassic Era when I was about 14. I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist region that was rural, mountainous, and remote in upper east Tennessee, isolated from the world and almost cult-like in its religious and political views. God was an angry avenger, “proper” politicians were Democrats, and aspirations should be limited so as not to “get above one’s raising.” My own grandfather was known as “Socialist Jim” and he lived it, giving away properties, clothes, food, and some little shotgun houses he owned.

    Somehow, I reached escape velocity from that place and rarely looked back. I have suffered living and working among fools ever since, the most recent part of my career as a technical editor at a very liberal university’s research division. Folks here can probably imagine what it would be like to be one of the few (3 or 4) conservatives in an office of more than 100 people on a university campus.

    So Mark Twain might be right on the majority of people, but there are dissidents out here (many right here in American Digest’s readership) who tend to form their own opinions, thank you very much.

    On the other hand, we have the Demwit Party. Hmmm, bless their hearts.

  • Vanderleun February 16, 2019, 8:38 AM

    It’s Ulysses for the win and making me look and see if Fran Leibowitz was still alive.

  • ghostsniper February 16, 2019, 11:35 AM

    Whole lotta hot air flying around out there. An ill wind.

  • Eskyman February 16, 2019, 2:54 PM

    That was well done, but in my misspent youth I was fortunate enough to have found Hal Holbrook doing “Mark Twain Tonight” at my college, the University of New Mexico.

    Mr. Holbrook was magnificent, and brought Twain to life perfectly; I’ll always regret that I missed the first 10 minutes or so of his presentation, but intensely thankful that I caught as much of it as I did. I hadn’t known of this show, but happened upon it in the Student Union building quite by chance.

    Here’s Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, dissing Congress:
    https://youtu.be/sJwwrUMCnnM