Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism

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Mark Twain's speech, "Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism," delivered at a gathering of the Stomach Club in Paris in the spring of 1879, masterfully blends occasion with subject matter. Largely comprised of American writers and artists, including Charles Edward Dubois, Edwin Austin Abbey, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Stomach Club was dedicated, as Twain noted, to "good times." Twain's speech certainly accommodated the club's disposition. Combining extravagant puns, outlandish double entendres, comic exaggerations, and absurd attributions to historical and imaginary figures, Twain took a satirical thrust at a widespread body of contemporary writings—tracts, pamphlets, and books—committed to the eradication of the scourge of masturbation, otherwise known as self-abuse or the "solitary vice."

In a letter written to Joseph Twichell, included in Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Twain noted that during his 1879 visit to Paris he had had to grit his "ineffectual teeth" over the "old Masters" that his companions Livy and Clara Spalding were "worshipping." Twain also had to endure oppressively dingy hotels during an exceptionally raw and rainy spring. Given these conditions, Twain must have found the club's invitation welcome indeed; it promised him an evening of congeniality with an audience prepared to savor his brand of humor that often veered toward the outré.


In less than 800 words, this speech held up to ridicule most of the familiar alarms that an army of physicians, physiological reformers, ministers, and self-appointed public guardians regularly sounded and the shibboleths they evoked in an effort to terrorize mainly boys and young men into moral and physical self-governance.

The literature of this whole mad crusade, combining as it did elements of moral revivalism with hucksterism and lofty exhortation with naked venality, offered Twain a fertile field for satire. The offspring in this country of Sylvester Graham's Lecture to Young Men (c. 1833), these admonitory works included dramatic narratives that, in strident tones, traced a young man's inevitable decline from buoyant health, capacious intellect, and ambition to physical debility, mental impairment, heightened depravity, and indolence; from home to asylum and, finally, the grave. When moral suasion or appeals to the self-abuser's conscience failed or reminders of God's design for His creation went unheeded, others were prepared to take charge. Entrepreneurs offered remedies gathered, purportedly, from both the primitive and civilized worlds that could allegedly deter a young man from this noxious practice and restore his depleted system to health. R. F. Young offered "The Balm of Vitality" in The Magic Wand and Medical Guide (1866), a nostrum garnered from the so-called Digger Indians of California, while Frederick Hollick in The Male Generative Organs in Health and Disease, from Infancy to Old Age (c. 1849) reassured the stricken that his agents were scouring locales ranging from Arabia to the Andes for a cure. Judging from this literature, most nostrums benefited considerably from an added dose of chemicals from Germany. As John S. Haller Jr. and Robin Haller show in The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America, those entrepreneurs with a more mechanical turn of mind proffered grotesque restraining devices—rings, pressing blocks of wood, bands with spikes, pads, and galvanic battery-operated girdles.

It is against such a background that Twain delivered "Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism." Not only did this crusade offer rich comic possibilities, but it offered him an opportunity to exercise what he felt was humor's most valuable office, that of exposing, as Young Satan says in Twain's novella The Chronicle of Young Satan (1922), "the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them—and by laughing at them destroy them. . . . [O]nly Laughter can blow it ['a colossal humbug'] to rags and atoms at a blast" (Gibson, pp. 165–166). "Some Thoughts" can be viewed as Twain's own modest detonation.

The speech's very title, calling the practice of masturbation a "science," immediately signals Twain's satiric intent; it stands in marked contrast to the more decorous titles that the reformers used: John H. Ruttley's Nature's Secrets and the Secrets of Woman Revealed (1875), A. E. Youman's Dr. Youman's Illustrated Marriage Guide and Confidential Medical Adviser (1876), and Samuel Bayard Woodward's Hints for the Young, In Relation to the Health of Body and Mind (1838). Twain's title, rather, is blunt and suggests that his speech is more the by-product of casual musings than a grave exposition of a practice that was said to threaten marriage, mental acuity, buoyant health, and the soul's salvation. Similarly, his parodic intent is evident in the labels he assigns this vice: "that species of recreation," "this majestic diversion," "this gentle art," "this art," and "this renowned science." Gone are the dramatic euphemisms that the moral physiologists normally employed: the American Remedy Co.'s Prescription Book (1874) described this vile practice as the "Queen of the Appetites" (p. 5) and Dr. Youman's Illustrated Marriage Guide and Confidential Medical Adviser calls it the "King of Terrors" (p. 129). The American Remedy Co.'s Prescription Book enlisted Miltonic imagery to cast temptation as a "seductive angel, but spreads its dragon wings and flies, at the completion of the foul deed, like an imp of darkness" (p. 14). S. F. Salter in Nervous Vitality: A Book for the Male Sex (1874) would have found Twain's "gentle art" wholly inadequate, comparing masturbation rather to the power of a natural catastrophe: "Tell the hurricane to suppress its wrath before its fury is appeased; say to the thunderbolt to cease while the cloud is yet filled with electricity" (p. 10).


Twain also holds up for ridicule the familiar tactic that the reformers deployed—that of liberally sprinkling their texts with quotations attributed to a host of pitiless authorities—from ancient Greeks such as Galen, Hippocrates, and Pythagoras to modern authorities that usually included a rather severe national trinity composed of Germans, French, and English. For instance, we learn from Hippocrates, via Archibald Adams in Male Sexual Health (1898), that "the seed of the man arises from all the humours of his body, and is the most valuable part of them. . . . When a person loses his seed, he loses his vital spirit" (pp. 24–25). The American Remedy Co.'s Prescription Book cites a multicultural panoply of authorities. The English Reverend Adam Clarke unequivocally declared masturbation several degrees worse than common whoredom. A French student of mental disease was said to have determined that "masturbation . . . [is] the cause of insanity" (p. 5) and that "cretins, idiots and individuals in a state of dementia abandon themselves to it with a sort of fury" (p. 26). A German, Dr. Van der Kolk, similarly concluded: "When we observe in a young man a peculiar shyness, a downcast look . . . to which stupidity, strange prejudice, and weakening of the thinking powers become annexed, then must we ever think of this deplorable vice" (p. 5). References to studies by the likes of Samuel A. Tissot, Sir William Ellis, Samuel B. Woodward, and Dr. William Bell, among others, appear repeatedly in these works.

Pretending to no less respect for learning or deference to authority, Twain similarly (mis)quotes the purported findings of authorities, indiscriminately mixing the names of the high and mighty with the low and obscure, the historically famous—Solomon, Caesar, and Brigham Young—with the fictionally absurd—Robinson Crusoe. His tone is also scandalously bawdy. For instance, we are led to believe that Caesar philosophically asserted in his Commentaries that "to the lonely it [masturbation] is company; to the forsaken it is a friend; to the aged and the impotent it is a benefactor" ("Some Thoughts," p. 125). Solomon, however, was less enthusiastic about this practice, wisely observing that "there is nothing to recommend it but its cheapness" (p. 126). Brigham Young, an "incontestable authority" given his multiple wives, shared Solomon's reservations: "As compared to the other thing, it is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning" (p. 126). Queen Elizabeth, however, found it useful as "the bulwark of virginity," as did Benjamin Franklin who declared it "the mother of invention." Galen, however, thoroughly disapproved: "It is shameful to degrade to such bestial use that grand limb, that formidable member, which we votaries of science dub the 'Major Maxillary'. . . . It would be better to decapitate the Major than to use him so" (p. 126).


Some purity crusaders would have made those with an aesthetic predisposition—the very audience Twain was addressing—particular targets of their scrutiny. In a passage quoted in Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz's Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America, Luther V. Bell avers that "the imagination runs riot; day dreams . . . involving especially the sensual, usurp the place of the practical and common sense views of things" (p. 104). Russell T. Trall, also quoted by Horowitz, resurrected the old chestnut about the dangers of novel reading; he censured, particularly, "fictitious writings, specially addressed to the amative propensity, full of lewd images, impure conceptions, and lust-engendering" situations (p. 121). Victims of their own artistic bent were as easy to spot, so John H. Ruttley claims, as the striped pole outside a barber shop; shunning the company of others, they turn inward, gradually wearing a sneaking expression or a permanently stupid look. S. F. Salter observed that the hardened masturbator is notorious for talking to himself in his solitary retirement, laughing much and frequently. For Salter, the addicted masturbator was easy to spot: "He will feel meanly and act as though he had plundered a hen roost."

Twain's own list of incriminating evidences stands in sharp contrast: "The signs of excessive indulgence in this destructive pasttime are easily detectable. They are these: A disposition to eat, to drink, to smoke, to meet together convivially, to laugh, to joke, and tell indelicate stories—and, mainly, a yearning to paint pictures," the latter a friendly gibe, most likely at Edwin Austin Abbey. Given the nature of the audience and the evening's program of entertainment, Twain here enjoyed a dispensation denied him a year and a half earlier when he tried a similar effect before a banquet of Boston's literary Brahmins gathered to celebrate John Greenleaf Whittier's seventieth birthday. Included among the after-dinner speakers, Twain comically represented three reprobates who, passing themselves off as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (all in attendance at the banquet) invade the cabin of a lonely miner and spend the night drinking, card-sharking, and quarreling, all the while echoing passages from the works of these worthies. Margaret Fuller's complaint that Emerson was seemingly always on stilts applied equally well to the audience that met Twain's humor with frozen silence.

No doubt, the physiological crusaders also had something much different in mind from the likes of the Stomach Club when they urged young men to join any number of clubs or organizations whose aim, as Haller and Haller point out, was to teach skills and, more importantly, provide moral uplift. They envisioned something along the order, say, of the Captains of Ten, which taught carving and weaving, or the Agassiz Association, which devoted itself to science. The Brotherhood of St. Andrew and the Orders of the Knights of King Arthur aimed at enhancing knightly values while the Loyal Temperance Legion, the Band of Hope, and the Juvenile Good Templars made temperance their special focus. The Epworth League and the YMCA aimed at training the "moral athlete." To say the least, the goals of such organizations were a good bit loftier than the gustatory, imbibitional, and merely social functions of the Stomach Club.

By way of putting a exclamation point on this evening's spoofing, Twain offered an admonition of his own: "I say, 'If you must gamble away your lives sexually, don't play a Lone Hand too much.' When you feel a revolutionary uprising in your system, get your Vendome Column down some other way—don't jerk it down" (p. 127). This conclusion conveys the structuring, or lack thereof, of the whole speech, which is largely a series of one-liners whose humor arises from a bawdy play on words.

The speech itself reflects Twain's lifelong penchant for parody. He made fun of Sunday school reform tracts in "The Story of Mamie Grant, the Child-Missionary" (1868) and lampooned sentimental poetry through the writings of the character Emmeline Grangerford in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) (1885). He also skewered Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward's The Gates Ajar (1868) in his story "Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" (1907).

That he chose to parody this anti-masturbatory literature is also in character; from his lifelong contempt for politicians to his philippic "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" (1901), he assumed in one form or another the guise of social critic, reformer, satirist, and moralist. In the anti-masturbation crusaders, Twain recognized the same qualities for which he denounced Charles C. Duncan of the Quaker City in the New York World in 1877—"a canting hypocrite, filled to the chin with sham godliness, and forever oozing and dripping false piety and pharisaical prayers" (Kaplan, p. 204). He bridled at this crusade's moral absolutism and the quackery it fostered that, in turn, gave rise to the torment and, ultimately, the kind of self-hatred that so unnecessarily bedevil mankind. The Stomach Club on that spring evening also provided Twain with an opportunity to pun at the expense of the Old Masters who had collectively subjected him to the agony over the past few months of attending museums and exhibitions. Playing off the term masturbator, Twain maintains that the term Old Masters is "clearly an abbreviation, a contraction" (p. 125). Furthermore, when citing the distinguished lineage of self-abusers, he names Michelangelo as the foremost among them.

See alsoSatire, Burlesque and Parody; Sex Education


Primary Works

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts. Edited by William M. Gibson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals. Edited by Frederick Anderson, Michael B. Frank, and Kenneth M. Sanderson. Vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Twain, Mark. "Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism." In Mark Twain Speaking, edited by Paul Fatout. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1976.

Secondary Works

Haller, John S., Jr., and Robin M. Haller. The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.

Laqueur, Thomas W. Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. Cambridge, Mass.: Zone Press, 2003.

Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. 3 vols. New York: Harper & Bros., 1912.

Arthur Wrobel