Directory of Mark Twain's maxims, quotations, and various opinions:



The following sketch titled "Hunting for H____" was first published in the New York Sun on August 24, 1884. Mark Twain scholar Louis J. Budd identified the unsigned sketch and published his findings in 1982. Later research confirmed it was Mark Twain's work. It was written at at time when the public's interest in polar explorations and searches for a Northwest Passage from Europe to the Orient were fed by continuing news reports of such expeditions and their often tragic consequences. North Pole poster
Poster from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

New York Sun, August 24, 1884, p. 2

Hunting for H - - -

This is O'Flannigan's account of it as he told it to me. I have made no alterations, being unwilling to take any responsibilities upon myself in a matter of such importance. Said he:

"There are more fools in the world than you would think for. When our Geographical Society met last we found that we had got hold of one. This was the new member. So I just set it down as a maxim, then, that if fools can work their way into even a Geographical Society, there isn't any place that's safe against them. However, that's neither here nor there; I simply mention it in passing; it hasn't anything do with what I started out to tell you about.

"Well, as I was saying before, I was loaded up solid with my sublime project. I was a festering volcano of excitement. It was as much as. I could do to hold in till my turn should come. And when it did come, at last, I was in such a state that I could only pant it out in broken phrases, with gaspings for breath between. It made an immense stir. It was received with prodigious favor. The end of every sentence was drowned in applause. I closed by saying:

" 'So, gentlemen, my project, in a word, is to send out a discovery expedition to search for a new and directer road to Hail.' I pronounced it hail, out of deference to the society, all the members being religious; but you can pronounce it your own way.

"I sat down amid a storm of applause which lasted several minutes, during which my hand was wrung by throng after throng of geographers, who said my idea was the grandest one of the age, and would make my name immortal.

"Quiet was hardly restored when the new member spoke up and said:
" 'But who wants to go to Hail?' He pronounced it the old way. "It was a most strange question. Members glanced at each other in a surprised and somewhat affronted way, and said nothing. Then the new member spoke up again:

" 'Nobody wants to go to Hail; nobody wants to travel any road to Hail; so where in the nation is the use in hunting up a new one?'

"After an awkward pause, the President said, with a cold and cruel blandness of tone and manner:

" 'It is evident that our new acquisition is not familiar with the ways of geographical societies. If he will reflect a moment, it may occur to him that his question need be changed in words only, not in sense, to read, "Where is the use in searching for the Northwest passage?'"

" 'It was an awful shot. I pitied the poor ass with all my heart; and I could see that others did, too, though naturally we couldn't help enjoying the annihilating completeness of the President's retort. But what do you think? It never pheazed the new member at all. He didn't know he was hit -- he actually didn't. No, he looked up as sweet and innocent as the child unborn, and says:

" 'In my day I have wanted to ask that very question as much as upward of a half a million times.'

"If he didn't say it, I wish I may never stir. And he didn't stop there, either, but goes right on as calm as anything, and says:

" 'What do you want of a Northwest passage, anyway, after you've got it? Do you calculate that anybody is going to use it?'

" 'Use it?' says the President, who saw that sarcasm was wastes on this numbscull, and didn't propose to throw away any more of it on him; 'No, we don't expect anybody to use it. There would be no occasion to use it anyway, because the old routes are far better and quicker and easier. And besides, nobody could use it, for the reason that from the nature of the climate and the shortness of the season it is simply non-usuable.'

" 'Well, then,' says the new member, as calm as that door knob there, 'what do you want it for?'

'Want it for?' says the President, rather hotly. 'We don't want it, we only want to find it.'

" 'Well that is odd,' says the new member. 'I don't seem to get your idea, somehow. What do you want to find it for, if you don't want it after you've found it? As I understand it, England and America and other countries have been hunting for it for fifty years, and they've spent about $35,000,000 and got no end of ships mashed up in the ice, and no end of men frozen to death, and scurvied to death, and starved to death, and so on, and buried around, here and there, on a lot of skinned rocks in the Arctic ocean -- and that's all that's been accomplished; and it appears to me it's a big price to pay and a long ways to go just to start an international graveyard. Yes, and as I said before, the thing that is too many for me is, what do you want to find that Northwest passage for, if you don't want it after you've found it?'

" 'My friend,' says the President, pretty fiercely, 'if you knew anything about geographical societies, you wouldn't ask so foolish and irrelevant a question. Geographical societies do not trouble themselves to hunt for things that are wanted -- everybody does that; there is no occasion to gather together a learned and expensive organization for such a purpose. It is the distinct and peculiar province of a geographical society to hunt for things that are not wanted. We do not seek them out because they are needed, but simply to prove that they are there.'

" 'It's a big thing,' says the new member, sardonically, and moved off and pretended to interest himself in our new chart, wherein the search for the Holy Grail, the Crusades for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre, and the search for the Northwest Passage are ingeniously contrasted.

"The society now settled down to business, and asked me for the details of my project. I said that, to begin with, exhaustive study and investigation had convinced me that Hail was not located within the body of our globe; hence I inferred that it must be above us somewhere -- doubtless in some part of the empty space between us and the stars. Continuing, I said:

" 'I propose to employ balloons inflated with pure oxygen. I would not send a fleet of balloons, but simply one at a time. I shall desire the society to petition Congress for an appropriation of $250,000 for the equipment and expenses of each of ten balloons. I would start the first one up, say, about the beginning of the coming summer. I would start up the second to hunt for the first, say, about a year later. After an interval of a year more, I would start up the third to hunt for the other two, and bring home buttons and other such relics of the crews as might be found. Every year thereafter I would send up a fresh balloon to hunt for the previous balloons and carry relief to the survivors -- that is, gravestones and monuments and so on, to be set up where the birds and the comets might see them from time to time, and be reminded of the brave deeds of the departed martyrs to science. This method, you see, is systematic; the very thing which all previous efforts of this kind have lacked, was system. We have always waited till we knew an expedition was lost before we sent out another to hunt for it; whereas, since we knew it would get lost, the right and only wise course would have been to send out a procession of expeditions, at brief and regular intervals, so that they could begin to hunt for each other without disastrous delays. Many spoons, and jackknives, and other valuable relics have been irretrievably lost to science because the search expeditions waited so long that these things got snowed up meantime, or were captured by the natives. and bartered off for blubber. Now under my system nothing of the kind will happen. The balloons will follow each other at short and measured intervals, and the work of hunting for each other, and gravestoning each other, and gathering up each other's remnants will begin right away, as you may say. And by keeping this sort of thing up right along and briskly there is not a question that sooner or later one or another of these balloons will find Hail -- and collapse into it and stay there, too. And the whole honor of it will belong to this Geographical Society, this great nation, and Congress.'

"The applause which greeted me when I sat down was something marvellous. I felt that the next most glorious thing to going to Hail under my system was to have originated the way. It was at this point that the new member meandered up to the front and made that little speech that I said I was going to tell you about, you know. Said he:

" 'Gentlemen, I wish to resign. If it was your idea to hunt up a cheaper and softer Northwest Passage to Paradise, you could count me in every time. But I don't want any of this present project in mine. Now, mind, I tell you. I think that a Geographical Society that lays out to take all this trouble and spend all this money to find that other place is harnessing itself to a mighty unnecessary contract. For just this reason: It won't benefit the general public, for they don't want to go there, and, moreover, they don't even wish to know where it is; and as for the Geographical Societies, they don't need to worry, for if they will sit still and keep cool they will land there all in good time and plenty soon enough.'

"Whereupon we fired him out."


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