Mark Twain got bit by the fever sweeping the Nevada Territory—silver fever. Reports of great riches in Humboldt County where folks owned feet of silver mines spurred Twain and three other friends to set out on a two-hundred mile journey.
Fifteen days later, they arrived in Unionville during a snowstorm. Eleven cabins and a liberty pole made up the entire village set in a deep canyon. By building a small cabin, they added a twelfth dwelling to the tiny settlement.
Twain expected to find silver glittering in the sun. While his companions searched for a mine, he went off on his own. Finally his efforts were rewarded—a stone fragment with shining yellow flecks. He felt almost delirious with joy. He would have been content with silver and he had found gold.
He marked the spot and left in a roundabout way so that anyone watching would not know where he had been. Then he went back to his new mine and picked up a few treasures to show his friends.
Back at the cabin, he couldn’t talk or eat; dreams filled his mind. With monumental news that they would all soon be wealthy, Twain waited for an opportune moment to share his joy with his friends.
He decided to tease them. Hadn’t they been searching for silver and not found any? Did that mean they should give it up and return home?
Mr. Ballou, the oldest and most experienced of the bunch, believed they should try a bit longer.
His companions scrambled for the stones to hold them close to the candlelight.
Mr. Ballou pronounced his opinion: granite rubbish and glittering mica. The whole pile wasn’t worth ten cents an acre in his estimation.
Twain’s dreams crumbled. They weren’t to be wealthy after all. He commented that all that glittered wasn’t really gold.
Ballou replied that nothing that glittered was gold. Twain learned the hard way that gold in its natural state is dull; only inexpensive metals fool the uninformed with shining outer surfaces.
Twain then observed: “However, like the rest of the world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of mica. Commonplace human nature cannot rise above that.”
-Sandra Merville Hart
Twain, Mark. Roughing It, Penguin Books, 1981.