1903 | New York City

Grinding the Axe

For Mark Twain, everyone is a beggar in their own way.

The coat of arms of the human race ought to consist of a man with an axe on his shoulder proceeding toward a grindstone. Or, it ought to represent the several members of the human race holding out the hat to each other. For we are all beggars. Each in his own way. One beggar is too proud to beg for pennies but will beg a loan of dollars, knowing he can’t repay; another will not beg a loan but will beg for a postmastership; another will not do that but will beg for an introduction to “society”; one, being rich, will not beg a hod of coal of the railway company but will beg a pass; his neighbor will not beg coal, nor pass, but in social converse with a lawyer will place before him a supposititious case in the hope of getting an opinion out of him for nothing; one who would disdain to beg for any of these things will beg frankly for the presidency. None of the lot is ashamed of himself, but he despises the rest of the mendicants. Each admires his own dignity, and carefully guards it, but in his opinion the others haven’t any.

Mendicancy is a matter of taste and temperament, no doubt, but certainly no human being is without a form of it. I know my own form, you know yours; let us curtain it from view and abuse the others. To every man cometh, at intervals, a man with an axe to grind. To you, reader, among the rest. By and by that axe’s aspect becomes familiar to you—when you are the proprietor of the grindstone—and the moment you catch sight of it, you perceive that it is the same old axe; then you withdraw within yourself, and stick out your spines. If you are the governor, you know that this stranger wants a position. The first six times the axe came, you were deceived—after that, humiliated. The bearer of it poured out such noble praises of you and of your political record that your lips trembled, the moisture dimmed your eyes, there was a lump in your throat, and you were thankful that you had lived to have this happiness; then the stranger disclosed his axe and his real motive in coming and in applauding, and you were ashamed of yourself and of your race, recognizing that you had been coarsely affronted by this person whom you had treated hospitably. Six repetitions are sure to cure you. After that (if you are not a candidate for reelection), you interrupt the compliments and say, “Yes, yes, that is all right, never mind about that; come down to business—what is it you want?”

No matter how big or how little your place in life may be, you have a grindstone, and people will bring axes to you. None escapes.

If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper that did his job well.

—Martin Luther King Jr., 1954

Also, you are in the business yourself. You privately rage at the man who brings his axe to you, but every now and then you carry yours to somebody and ask a whet. I don’t carry mine to strangers; I draw the line there—perhaps that is your way. This is bound to set us up on a high and holy pinnacle and make us look down in cold rebuke upon persons who carry their axes to strangers.

Now then, since we all carry axes, and must, and cannot break ourselves of it, why has not a best way to do it been invented by some wise and thoughtful person? There can be no reason but one: from the beginning of time each member of the human race, while recognizing with shame and angry disapproval that everybody else is an axe bearer and beggar, has all the while deceived himself with the superstition that he is free of the taint. And so it would never occur to him to plan out for the help and benefit of the race a scheme which could not advantage himself. For that is human nature.

But—let us recognize it and confess it—we are all concerned to plan out a best way to approach a person’s grindstone, for we are all beggars; a best way, a way which shall as nearly as possible avoid offensiveness, a way which shall best promise to secure a grinding for the axe. How would this plan answer, for instance:

Never convey the axe yourself; send it by another stranger, or by your friend, or by the grindstone man’s friend, or by a person who is friend to both of you.

The Sower, by Jean-Françios Millet, 1850. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

The Sower, by Jean-Françios Millet, 1850. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. 

Of course this last is best-best, but the others are good. You see, when you dispatch the axe yourself, you are making one thing absolutely certain: the grindstone man will be all ready with a prejudice against it and an aversion, before he has even looked at it. Because—why, merely because you have tied his hands, you have not left him independent, he feels himself cornered, and he frets at this, he chafes, he resents as an impertinence your taking this unfair advantage of him—and he is right. He knows you meant to take a mean advantage of him—with all your clumsy arts you have not deceived him. He knows you framed your request with deliberation, to a distinct end: to compel an answer. 

I respect my own forms of passing the hat, but not other people’s. 

Contributor

Mark Twain

From Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume One. At the age of nineteen in  1853, after piloting steamboats on the Mississippi River, Samuel Clemens lit out for the territories, mining for silver in Nevada in 1861. While covering a legislative session in Carson City for a newspaper, he signed the article, for the first time, “Mark Twain.” He published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885. He once wrote “It is almost always wise, and is often in a matter necessary, to kill an editor.”