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Chinatown, DC




Rainy Day in DC's Eastern Market


Mark Twain and the Horse-Leech

Why read Mark Twain? Because he writes like this:

Occasionally a horseman will dash among us. His steed betrays hard usage. He alights before his adobe dwelling, hastily exchanges courtesies with his townsmen, hurries to an assay office and from thence to the District Recorder's. In the morning, having renewed his provisional supplies, he is off again on his wild and unbeaten route. Why, the fellow numbers already his feet by the thousands. He is the horse-leech. He has the craving stomach of the shark or anaconda. He would conquer metallic worlds.

Roughing It, ch. 26, Mark Twain, available here,

Here, Mark Twain describes one of many young miners bursting into town, reprovisioning and heading back out to dig for his fortune. He paints us a picture of a town's admiration for these miners, who were no doubt the primary source of income for the region. Mostly he tells us, without actually saying, how he himself felt, as a young man, seeing all this. Readers won't be surprised to know that immediately following this passage, he bought his own stake to try mining.

What makes this passage work? Well, to start, there's the language, which I suspect sounded antiquated and certainly ungrammatical in its own day. Where else would you read of roughcut young men "hastily exchang(ing) courtesies."

Yet, it's an odd kind of language. Like so much of his writing, it has a faintly biblical quality. You know you know it, but you don't know why. Consider his calling this miner a "horse-leech." I knew I knew the word, but I had no idea why or from where. I looked it up; apparently, there is such a thing, though it has nothing to do with horses or miners, as it lives under stones beside water. Still, without ever having heard much less seen a horse-leech, it immediately sparked in my mind the image of a wire-thin miner, holding tight to his horse, large parts of his clothing whipping along behind him. So where did Twain get the word, "horse-leech," where'd you hear it before? You guessed it: The King James Version of the Bible in Proverbs, 30:15

(Why would Mark Twain remember that particular passage? Proverbs 30:15-19 is itself worth a short detour for its own fantastic writing: "The horseleach hath two daughters, crying, Give, give. There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough: The grave; and the barren womb; the earth that is not filled with water; and the fire that saith not, It is enough. The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it. There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.").

Then there's the detail Twain infuses into eight short sentences. His writing is always rich with details, but not just any details, they're the right details. They're the details that speak of bigger images, themes, emotions. The young miner's horse doesn't come into town, it "dash(es) among us." He personalizes the miner by noting he, first thing on coming into town, talks with his fellow townspeople; this miner is one of us, Mark Twain says, which of course is Mark Twain's point. It's why Mark Twain (Samuel Clement) immediately, after seeing this, tried his own hand at being one of these "conquer(ors) of metallic worlds."

And, really, if for no other reason, give Mark Twain a try because you get to hear phrases like that: "He would conquer metallic worlds."


High School Homecoming

A couple of Grand Junction high schoolers enjoying pre-festivities photo opp before Homecoming.

Rocky Mountain National Park