Mark Twain

My Boyhood Dreams

Short Story by Mark Twain

The dreams of my boyhood? No, they have not been realised. For all who are old, there is something infinitely pathetic about the subject which you have chosen, for in no greyhead's case can it suggest any but one thing--disappointment. Disappointment is its own reason for its pain: the quality or dignity of the hope that failed is a matter aside. The dreamer's valuation of the thing lost--not another man's--is the only standard to measure it by, and his grief for it makes it large and great and fine, and is worthy of our reverence in all cases. We should carefully remember that. There are sixteen hundred million people in the world. Of these there is but a trifling number--in fact, only thirty- eight millions--who can understand why a person should have an ambition to belong to the French army; and why, belonging to it, he should be proud of that; and why, having got down that far, he should want to go on down, down, down till he struck the bottom and got on the General Staff; and why, being stripped of this livery, or set free and reinvested with his self-respect by any other quick and thorough process, let it be what it might, he should wish to return to his strange serfage. But no matter: the estimate put upon these things by the fifteen hundred and sixty millions is no proper measure of their value: the proper measure, the just measure, is that which is put upon them by Dreyfus, and is cipherable merely upon the littleness or the vastness of the disappointment which their loss cost him. There you have it: the measure of the magnitude of a dream-failure is the measure of the disappointment the failure cost the dreamer; the value, in others' eyes, of the thing lost, has nothing to do with the matter. With this straightening out and classification of the dreamer's position to help us, perhaps we can put ourselves in his place and respect his dream--Dreyfus's, and the dreams our friends have cherished and reveal to us. Some that I call to mind, some that have been revealed to me, are curious enough; but we may not smile at them, for they were precious to the dreamers, and their failure has left scars which give them dignity and pathos. With this theme in my mind, dear heads that were brown when they and mine were young together rise old and white before me now, beseeching me to speak for them, and most lovingly will I do it. Howells, Hay, Aldrich, Matthews, Stockton, Cable, Remus--how their young hopes and ambitions come flooding back to my memory now, out of the vague far past, the beautiful past, the lamented past! I remember it so well--that night we met together--it was in Boston, and Mr. Fiends was there, and Mr. Osgood, Ralph Keeler, and Boyle O'Reilly, lost to us now these many years--and under the seal of confidence revealed to each other what our boyhood dreams had been: reams which had not as yet been blighted, but over which was stealing the grey of the night that was to come--a night which we prophetically felt, and this feeling oppressed us and made us sad. I remember that Howells's voice broke twice, and it was only with great difficulty that he was able to go on; in the end he wept. For he had hoped to be an auctioneer. He told of his early struggles to climb to his goal, and how at last he attained to within a single step of the coveted summit. But there misfortune after misfortune assailed him, and he went down, and down, and down, until now at last, weary and disheartened, he had for the present given up the struggle and become the editor of the Atlantic Monthly. This was in 1830. Seventy years are gone since, and where now is his dream? It will never be fulfilled. And it is best so; he is no longer fitted for the position; no one would take him now; even if he got it, he would not be able to do himself credit in it, on account of his deliberateness of speech and lack of trained professional vivacity; he would be put on real estate, and would have the pain of seeing younger and abler men intrusted with the furniture and other such goods--goods which draw a mixed and intellectually low order of customers, who must be beguiled of their bids by a vulgar and specialised humour and sparkle, accompanied with antics. But it is not the thing lost that counts, but only the disappointment the loss brings to the dreamer that had coveted that thing and had set his heart of hearts upon it, and when we remember this, a great wave of sorrow for Howells rises in our breasts, and we wish for his sake that his fate could have been different. At that time Hay's boyhood dream was not yet past hope of realisation, but it was fading, dimming, wasting away, and the wind of a growing apprehension was blowing cold over the perishing summer of his life. In the pride of his young ambition he had aspired to be a steamboat mate; and in fancy saw himself dominating a forecastle some day on the Mississippi and dictating terms to roustabouts in high and wounding terms. I look back now, from this far distance of seventy years, and note with sorrow the stages of that dream's destruction. Hay's history is but Howells's, with differences of detail. Hay climbed high toward his ideal; when success seemed almost sure, his foot upon the very gang-plank, his eye upon the capstan, misfortune came and his fall began. Down--down--down--ever down: Private Secretary to the President; Colonel in the field; Charge d'Affaires in Paris; Charge d'Affaires in Vienna; Poet; Editor of the Tribune; Biographer of Lincoln; Ambassador to England; and now at last there he lies--Secretary of State, Head of Foreign Affairs. And he has fallen like Lucifer, never to rise again. And his dream--where now is his dream? Gone down in blood and tears with the dream of the auctioneer. And the young dream of Aldrich--where is that? I remember yet how he sat there that night fondling it, petting it; seeing it recede and ever recede; trying to be reconciled and give it up, but not able yet to bear the thought; for it had been his hope to be a horse-doctor. He also climbed high, but, like the others, fell; then fell again, and yet again, and again and again. And now at last he can fall no further. He is old now, he has ceased to struggle, and is only a poet. No one would risk a horse with him now. His dream is over. Has any boyhood dream ever been fulfilled? I must doubt it. Look at Brander Matthews. He wanted to be a cowboy. What is he to-day? Nothing but a professor in a university. Will he ever be a cowboy? It is hardly conceivable. Look at Stockton. What was Stockton's young dream? He hoped to be a barkeeper. See where he has landed. Is it better with Cable? What was Cable's young dream? To be ring-master in the circus, and swell around and crack the whip. What is he to-day? Nothing but a theologian and novelist. And Uncle Remus--what was his young dream? To be a buccaneer. Look at him now. Ah, the dreams of our youth, how beautiful they are, and how perishable! The ruins of these might-have-beens, how pathetic! The heart-secrets that were revealed that night now so long vanished, how they touch me as I give them voice! Those sweet privacies, how they endeared us to each other! We were under oath never to tell any of these things, and I have always kept that oath inviolate when speaking with persons whom I thought not worthy to hear them. Oh, our lost Youth--God keep its memory green in our hearts! for Age is upon us, with the indignity of its infirmities, and Death beckons!