Monday, October 17, 2005

Best Work Ever

Yesterday we attended a neighborhood block party hosted by friends of ours in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley. What I didn’t realize until I arrived (the husband is, of course, the last to know about the ramifications and significance of any social occasion), is that one of the themes of the event was pumpkin-carving. Shortly after we arrived I was standing in our friends’ kitchen, Bloody Mary in hand, watching about a dozen children carve pumpkins on our friends’ back deck.

A short time later (say, another Bloody Mary or so), the weather turned cold and windy, and the kids all rushed in. My wife chose that opportune moment to ask if I would go out and carve our pumpkin. “Our pumpkin?,” I sputtered. “I thought that was a kids’ event.”

“I thought it would be nice if we had a pumpkin, too.”

But, since I’m always being told that I’m the artistic one, “we” meant “me.” My lack of training in the fine arts is often all too evident (my little drawings of Foucault, Gish and Hubbert should provide ample evidence of this), but my friend Kevin was encouraging. “Didn’t Rodin get his start carving pumpkins?”

“He may have gotten his start eating pumpkins.”

So there I was, hunched over a pumpkin in 25 mph winds, two-Bloody-Marys-or-so down, carving a pumpkin for my wife and myself.

After a good 20 minutes of silent toil, I heard a note of disapproval from my wife from inside the kitchen and regained some consciousness. Looking at my pumpkin as for the first time, I concluded that it was the worst looking mess I’ve ever seen: two fretful, roundish eyes and a giant, lopsided Edward G. Robinson mouth. Thereafter, I couldn’t stop laughing at my own sorry creation for some time. If I had gotten around to taking a picture of the thing, I might have been permanently paralyzed with laughter, and for the sake of my own composure, there will be no home-carved pumpkin gracing our doorstep this Halloween.

I was so pleased with myself that I couldn’t help but remember the piece of work that Mark Twain once said was the laugh-out-loud funniest thing he had ever created, his self-designed “Map of Paris,” published in the Galaxy in November 1870. Although, I'm fairly certain that his creation was probably on purpose.


I published my "Map of the Fortifications of Paris" in my own paper a fortnight ago, but am obliged to reproduce it in THE GALAXY, to satisfy the extraordinary demand for it which has arisen in military circles throughout the country. General Grant's outspoken commendation originated this demand, and General Sherman's fervent endorsement added fuel to it. The result is that tons of these maps have been fed to the suffering soldiers of our land, but without avail. They hunger still. We will cast THE GALAXY into the breach and stand by and await the effect.

The next Atlantic mail will doubtless bring news of a European frenzy for the map. It is reasonable to expect that the siege of Paris will be suspended till a German translation of it can be forwarded (it is now in preparation), and that the defence of Paris will likewise be suspended to await the reception of the French translation (now progressing under my own hands, and likely to be unique). King William's high praise of the map and Napoleon's frank enthusiasm concerning its execution will ensure its prompt adoption in Europe as the only authoritative and legitimate exposition of the present military situation. It is plain that if the Prussians cannot get into Paris with the facilities afforded by this production of mine they ought to deliver the enterprise into abler hands.

Strangers to me keep insisting that this map does not "explain itself." One person came to me with bloodshot eyes and a harassed look about him, and shook the map in my face and said he believed I was some new kind of idiot. I have been abused a good deal by other quick-tempered people like him, who came with similar complaints. Now, therefore, I yield willingly, and for the information of the ignorant will briefly explain the present military situation as illustrated by the map. Part of the Prussian forces, under Prince Frederick William, are now boarding at the "farm-house" in the margin of the map. There is nothing between them and Vincennes but a rail fence in bad repair. Any corporal can see at a glance that they have only to burn it, pull it down, crawl under, climb over, or walk around it, just as the commander-in-chief shall elect.
Another portion of the Prussian forces are at Podunk, under Von Moltke. They have nothing to do but float down the river Seine on a raft and scale the walls of Paris. Let the worshippers of that overrated soldier believe in him still, and abide the result -- for me, I do not believe he will ever think of a raft.
At Omaha and the High Bridge are vast masses of Prussian infantry, and it is only fair to say that they are likely to stay there, as that figure of a window-sash between them stands for a brewery. Away up out of sight over the top of the map is the fleet of the Prussian navy, ready at any moment to come cavorting down the Erie Canal (unless some new iniquity of an unprincipled Legislature shall put up the tolls and so render it cheaper to walk). To me it looks as if Paris is in a singularly close place. She never was situated before as she is in this map.



The accompanying map explains itself.

The idea of this map is not original with me, but is borrowed from the "Tribune" and the other great metropolitan journals.

I claim no other merit for this production (if I may so call it) than that it is accurate.
The main blemish of the city-paper maps of which it is an imitation, is, that in them more attention seems paid to artistic picturesqueness than geographical reliability.

Inasmuch as this is the first time I ever tried to draft and engrave a map, or attempt anything in the line of art at all, the commendations the work has received and the admiration it has excited among the people, have been very grateful to my feelings. And it is touching to reflect that by far the most enthusiastic of these praises have come from people who know nothing at all about art.

By an unimportant oversight I have engraved the map so that it reads wrong end first, except to left-handed people. I forgot that in order to make it right in print it should be drawn and engraved upside down. However, let the student who desires to contemplate the map stand on his head or hold it before her looking-glass. That will bring it right.

The reader will comprehend at a glance that that piece of river with the "High Bridge" over it got left out to one side by reason of a slip of the graving-tool, which rendered it necessary to change the entire course of the river Rhine or else spoil the map. After having spent two days in digging and gouging at the map, I would have changed the course of the Atlantic ocean before I would have lost so much work.

I never had so much trouble with anything in my life as I did with this map. I had heaps of little fortifications scattered all around Paris, at first, but every now and then my instruments would slip and fetch away whole miles of batteries and leave the vicinity as clean as if the Prussians had been there.

The reader will find it well to frame this map for future reference, so that it may aid in extending popular intelligence and dispelling the wide-spread ignorance of the day.



It is the only map of the kind I ever saw. U. S. GRANT.

It places the situation in an entirely new light. BISMARCK.

I cannot look upon it without shedding tears. BRIGHAM YOUNG.

It is very nice, large print. NAPOLEON.

My wife was for years afflicted with freckles, and though everything was done for her relief that could be done, all was in vain. But, sir, since her first glance at your map, they have entirely left her. She has nothing but convulsions now. J. SMITH.

If I had had this map I could have got out of Metz without any trouble. BAZAINE.

I have seen a great many maps in my time, but none that this one reminds me of. TROCHU.

It is but fair to say that in some respects it is a truly remarkable map. W. T. SHERMAN.

I said to my son Frederick William, "If you could only make a map like that, I would be perfectly willing to see you die -- even anxious. WILLIAM III



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