Mark Twain on General Baby

In 1879, at a banquet in Chicago, given by the Army of the Tennessee to their commander General Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain rose to propose a toast to a oft-ignored ‘minor’ entity:

You soldiers all know that when that little fellow arrived at family headquarters you had to hand in your resignation. He took entire command. You became his lackey, his mere body-servant, and you had to stand around too. He was not a commander who made allowances for time, distance, weather, or anything else. You had to execute his order whether it was possible or not. And there was only one form of marching in his manual of tactics, and that was the double-quick. He treated you with every sort of insolence and disrespect, and the bravest of you didn’t dare to say a word. You could face the death-storm at Donelson and Vicksburg, and give back blow for blow; but when he clawed your whiskers, and pulled your hair, and twisted your nose, you had to take it. When the thunders of war were sounding in your ears you set your faces toward the batteries, and advanced with steady tread; but when he turned on the terrors of his war-whoop, you advanced in the other direction, and mighty glad of the chance, too. When he called for soothing syrup, did you venture to throw out any side-remarks about certain services being unbecoming an officer and a gentleman? No. You got up and got it. When he ordered his pap bottle and it was not warm, did you talk back? Not you. You went to work and warmed it. You even descended so far in your menial office as to take a suck at that warm, insipid stuff yourself, to see if it was right — three parts water to one of milk, a touch of sugar to modify the colic, and a drop of peppermint to kill those immortal hiccoughs. I can taste that stuff yet. [links added]

As the remarks about the ‘little fellow’, the ‘pulling of whiskers,’ the ‘soothing syrup,’ and the ‘pap bottle’ hopefully make clear, Twain is referring to babies. And what must have provoked a storm of guffaws at the banquet would have been the rueful recognition–on part of the fathers, and perhaps mothers, if women were invited to Army banquets–that Twain was right: when the baby calls you to heel, you obey and conform.  General Baby embodies that ironic mix of utter helplessness with total control: it might be unable to even roll over on its belly but it can make a grown adult get down on all fours quite easily.

Among the many ‘warnings’ I received from parents as my wife and I awaited the birth of our daughter last year was that we would look back on the time before she arrived as one filled with limitless, capacious time, free of care and responsibility; we’d wonder at how we occupied all those waking hours, so free of constraint. They were right: I’m still amazed–as I struggle to read a few pages or scribble a few notes during her nap hours–at how utterly ‘unproductive’ I was in those years. What was I doing with myself in all that time? After all, I wasn’t adjutant to General Baby then.

The good thing about this particular commander is she also has the power to make those worries seem rather trivial, to force your attention back to her most pressing need and to make it yours.

The greatest trick General Baby ever pulled was convincing you that in serving her, you were serving yourself.

One comment on “Mark Twain on General Baby

  1. […] of its demands is a function of our recognition of its own helplessness, its dependence on us. (Mark Twain’s toast to General Baby is a witty recognition of these […]

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