Literary Expositions on Ants

BugsInTheNews is a VIEWER-PARTICIPANT WEBSITE. This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 1 July 2011, was revised last on 7 July 2012. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 12:07(01)


This series of expositions on the nature of the ant takes snippets and longer dissertations on the subject, as written by established authors who, in general, had no formal education in the biological sciences. Their observations, however, prove the value of informal venues of learning, particularly those dependent on the initiatives emanating from deep within the student’s breast.

Our first author in the series (one whom William Faulkner referred to as the father of American literature) is an excellent example of this.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) as photographed by A F Bradley in 1907

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) 1907

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the sixth of seven children born to John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton Clemens, left his mother’s womb and entered life in the bedroom of a clapboard house in the village of  Florida, Missouri, on 30 November 1835. Halley’s comet, though still visible in the night sky, had some two weeks earlier made its closest approach to earth.

Clemens, the son of a self-taught attorney and judge who died of pneumonia when young Samuel was 11, educated himself in the public libraries at night after a hard day at work. He later commented that he found more information and acquired more knowledge by so doing than would have been possible as a student, mentored by a teacher.

Throughout life his love for science and appreciation for scientific inquiry grew. Naturally curious, possessed of extraordinary powers of observation, and unafraid of taking risks, his life experience is littered with a long list of great literary successes and egregious financial miscalculations, the latter costing him dearly.

He spent over $7,590,000 (in 2011 dollars) developing the Paige typesetting machine, only to have it become obsolete before it was ready for market. The much simpler, less expensive, and easier to operate Linotype was introduced while Clemens was still working out the Paige typesetting machine’s numerous kinks.

A publishing house he started, which profited greatly from the sale of Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, soon went broke when the biography of Pope Leo XIII languished on bookstore shelves.

As evidence of his powers of introspection and relentless capacity for analyzing reality from every possible perspective, he refused to accept political “realities” as settled truths. In his early years an ardent imperialist, enthusiastically supportive of American incursions into the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and the Philippines, he later saw such maneuvers as dark blots on American history. It is, methinks, the mark of a great mind to be open to the acceptance of new and more reasoned ideas, even when they make one’s older ideas appear as the ruminations of a fool.

Samuel L. Clemens died on 21 April 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet, having returned to the night sky for the second time in his life, had made its closest approach to earth. He’d predicted, a year earlier, that his demise would occur in conjunction with Halley’s return. His last book was an autobiography whose publication, according to his express wishes, would be delayed 100 years following his death. Published in November 2010, it became a best seller overnight. One quote from that tome reveals much: “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself . . . His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world . . . and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! a mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden — it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written  . . . Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written.”

Writing under the pen name Mark Twain, Clemens penned the following opinion on the ant:

“It seems to me that in the matter of intellect the ant must be a strangely overrated bird.

During the many summers, now, I have watched him, when I ought to have been in better business, and I have not yet come across a living ant that seemed to have any more sense than a dead one. I refer to the ordinary ant, of course; I have no experience of those wonderful Swiss and African ones which vote, keep drilled armies, hold slaves, and dispute about religion. Those particular ants may be all that the naturalist paints them, but I am persuaded that the average ant is a sham.

I admit his industry, of course; he is the hardest working creature in the world,–when anybody is looking,–but his leather-headedness is the point I make against him. He goes out foraging, he makes a capture, and then what does he do? Go home? No,–he goes anywhere but home. He doesn’t know where home is. His home may be only three feet away,–no matter, he can’t find it.

He makes his capture, as I have said; it is generally something which can be of no sort of use to himself or anybody else; it is usually seven times bigger than it ought to be; he hunts out the awkwardest place to take hold of it; he lifts it bodily up in the air by main force, and starts; not toward home, but in the opposite direction; not calmly and wisely, but with a frantic haste which is wasteful of his strength; he fetches up against a pebble, and instead of going around it, he climbs over it backwards dragging his booty after him, tumbles down on the other side, jumps up in a passion, kicks the dust off his clothes, moistens his hands, grabs his property viciously, yanks it this way then that, shoves it ahead of him a moment, turns tail and lugs it after him another moment, gets madder and madder, then presently hoists in into the air and goes tearing away in an entirely new direction; comes to a weed; it never occurs to him to go around it; no, he must climb it; and he does climb it, dragging his worthless property to the top–which is as bright a thing to do as it would be for me to carry a sack of flour from Heidelberg to Paris by way of Strasburg steeple, when he gets up there he finds that that is not the place; takes a cursor glance at the scenery and either climbs down again or tumbles down, and starts off once more–as usual, in a new direction.

At the end of half an hour, he fetches up within six inches of the place he started from and lays his burden down; meantime he has been over all the ground for two yards around, and climbed all the weeds and pebbles he came across. Now he wipes the sweat from his brow, strokes his limbs, and then marches aimlessly off, in as violent a hurry as ever. He traverses a good deal of zig-zag country, and by and by stumbles on this same booty again. He does not remember to have ever seen it before; he looks around to see which is not the way home, grabs his bundle and starts; he goes through the same adventures he had before; finally stops to rest, and a friend comes along.

Evidently the friend remarks that a last year’s grasshopper leg is a very noble acquisition, and inquires where he got it. Evidently the proprietor does not remember exactly where he did get it, but thinks he got it “around here somewhere.” Evidently the friend contracts to help him freight it home. Then, with a judgment peculiarly antic, (pun not intentional) they take hold of opposite ends of that grasshopper leg and begin to tug with all their might in opposite directions.

Presently they take a rest and confer together. They decide that something is wrong, they can’t make out what.

Then they go at it again, just as before.

Same result.

Mutual recriminations follow. Evidently each accuses the other of being an obstructionist. They warm up, and dispute ends in a fight. They lock themselves together and chew each other’s jaws for a while; then they roll and tumble on the ground till one loses a horn or a leg and has to haul off for repairs.

They make up and go to work again in the same old insane way, but the crippled ant is at a disadvantage; tug as he may, the other one drags off the booty and him at the end of it. Instead of giving up, he hangs on, and gets his shins bruised against every obstruction that comes in the way. By and by, when that grasshopper leg has been dragged all over the same old ground once more, it is finally dumped at about the spot where it originally lay, the two perspiring ants inspect it thoughtfully and decide that dried grasshopper legs are a poor sort of property after all, and then each starts off in a different direction to see if he can’t find an old nail or something else that is heavy enough to afford entertainment and at the same time valueless enough to make an ant want to own it.

There in the Black Forest, on the mountain side, I saw an ant go through with such a performance as this with a dead spider of fully ten times his own weight. The spider was not quite dead, but too far gone to resist. He had a round body the size of a pea. The little ant–observing that I was noticing–turned him on his back, sunk his fangs into his throat, lifted him into the air and started vigorously off with him, stumbling over little pebbles, stepping on the spider’s legs and tripping himself up, dragging him backwards, shoving him bodily ahead, dragging him backwards, shoving him bodily ahead, dragging him up stones six inches high instead of going around them, climbing weeds twenty times his own height and jumping from their summits ,–and finally leaving him in the middle of the road to be confiscated by any other fool of an ant that wanted him.

I measured the ground which this ass traversed, and arrived at the conclusion that what he had accomplished inside of twenty minutes would constitute some such job as this,–relatively speaking,–for a man; to-wit: to strap two eight-hundred pound horses together,carry then eighteen hundred feet, mainly over (not around) bowlders averaging six feet high, and in the course of the journey climb up and jump from the top of one precipice like Niagara, and three steeples, each a hundred and twenty feet high; and then put the horses down, in an exposed place, without anybody to watch them, and go off to indulge in some other idiotic miracle for vanity’s sake.

Science has recently discovered that the ant does not lay up anything for winter use. This will knock him out of literature, to some extent.

He does not work, except when people are looking, and only then when the observer has a green, naturalistic look, and seems to be taking notes. This amounts to deception, and will injure him for the Sunday schools.

He has not judgment enough to know what is good to eat from what isn’t. This amounts to ignorance, and will impair the world’s respect for him.

He cannot stroll around a stump and find his way home again. This amounts to idiocy, and once the damaging fact is established, thoughtful people will cease to look up to him, the sentimental will cease to fondle him.

His vaunted industry is but a vanity and of no effect, since he never gets home with anything he starts with. This disposes of the last remnant of his reputation and wholly destroys his main usefulness as a moral agent, since it will make the sluggard hesitate to go to him any more.

It is strange beyond comprehension, that so manifest a humbug as the ant has been able to fool so many nations and keep it up so many ages without being found out.”

– A Tramp Abroad

“The several principles and mechanisms involved in the construction of an ant are as follows — that is a good ant, an ant that is made right: First, the antennae — so called because they are part of the ant. Butterflies have antennae, too, but that’s a plagiarism. Next, the legs, six in number — one on each corner, and two in the middle. They are not all needed for general business — some are to get home on when the others have been chewed off; ants are always chewing each others legs off, in arranging details connected with politics and theology.”

– Mark Twain’s Notebook

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), mostly known today by the pen name Mark Twain, is famous as an American author and humorist. His novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), are read by practically all Americans at some point in their literary education.


Henry David Thoreau, as photographed by Benjamin D Maxham, in June 1856

Henry David Thoreau, as photographed by Benjamin D Maxham, in June 1856

Henry David Thoreau was born, to John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar — who named him David Henry Thoreau — in Concord, Massachusetts, on 12 July 1817. He is known today as an American author, poet, abolitionist, naturalist, critic, surveyor, historian, philosopher, and — to some who misunderstand the thrust of his essay on “Civil Disobedience,” an ardent anarchist.

Some of my favorite quotes from his writings have nothing to do with insects, but with government (which, yes, begs a question that needn’t be asked): “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government …” and “That government is best which governs not at all…” The last line, by the way, is typically quoted as though it terminated with a period at “… all.” But it didn’t. The rest of the passage reads “… all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

A similar passage Thoreau often articulated, namely “That government is best which governs least” is often wrongly attributed, by some to Thomas Jefferson, and by others to Thomas Paine. Thoreau likely expressed it in those exact words, but he did not claim to be their author. He was referring to an earlier version written by John Louis O’Sullivan. In 1837, O’Sullivan wrote “The best government is that which governs least” in the introductory editorial for his periodical The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. The words thereafter became the motto of the Review until its demise in 1859.

Thoreau was homely in appearance, and large in nose (which he called his most prominent feature). Nathaniel Hawthorne, on commenting on Thoreau’s looks, said “… his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much more than beauty.” His habit of wearing a neck beard (shown in a photograph taken by Maxham in 1856) made him — to his way of thinking — attractive to women, but Louisa May Alcott, while conversing with Ralph Waldo Emerson, remarked that this feature “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.”

Thoreau studied at Harvard from 1833 to 1837, where he studied rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics, and science. He was never regarded, at any time in his life, as a scientist.

On ants, Thoreau wrote:

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – 1862) was an American essayist, poet, and naturalist. Among his lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism.


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