Mark Twain on What You Learn at Election Time

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If we would learn what the human race really is at the bottom, we need only observe it in election time. — Mark Twain

Mark Twain Couldn’t Find it With A Dog

As a collector of Mark Twain books and paraphernalia, I recently came across a load of pictures, some of which I’d never seen before. Here is one of them and the perfect quote to go along with it!

MT with a dog copy

It takes me a long time to lose my temper, but once lost I could not find it with a dog. — Mark Twain

A Good Deal of Confusion

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Mark Twain at the time of the Civil War

I knew Mark Twain had served briefly in the confederate army when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He served 2 weeks, had enough of “retreating,” so he abandoned the confederate army and headed West (Nevada) with his brother to sit out the war. I had read about Twain’s Civil War service only in secondary material, but recently I finally got around to reading Twain’s own essay on his Civil War experience in a piece he called The Private History of a Campaign that Failed.

I should note, Twain grew up in Missouri, a slave state and largely southern in culture, and was piloting steamboats on the Mississippi River when the war broke out.

After reading Twain’s story, I couldn’t help but post the second paragraph, a model specimen of Twain’s humor and charm as a writer:

Out west there was a good deal of confusion in men’s minds during the first months of the great trouble, a good deal of unsettledness, of leaning first this way then that, and then the other way. It was hard for us to get our bearings. I call to mind an example of this. I was piloting on the Mississippi when the news came that South Carolina had gone out of the Union on the 20th of December, 1860. My pilot mate was a New Yorker. He was strong for the Union; so was I. But he would not listen to me with any patience, my loyalty was smirched, to his eye, because my father had owned slaves. I said in palliation of this dark fact that I had heard my father say, some years before he died, that slavery was a great wrong and he would free the solitary Negro he then owned if he could think it right to give away the property of the family when he was so straitened in means. My mate retorted that a mere impulse was nothing, anyone could pretend to a good impulse, and went on decrying my Unionism and libeling my ancestry. A month later the secession atmosphere had considerably thickened on the Lower Mississippi and I became a rebel; so did he. We were together in New Orleans the 26th of January, when Louisiana went out of the Union. He did his fair share of the rebel shouting but was opposed to letting me do mine. He said I came of bad stock, of a father who had been willing to set slaves free. In the following summer he was piloting a Union gunboat and shouting for the Union again and I was in the Confederate army. I held his note for some borrowed money. He was one of the most upright men I ever knew but he repudiated that note without hesitation because I was a rebel and the son of a man who owned slaves.

We all have to dig…from time to time

I remember Mark Twain using a shovel as symbolism to describe the need for checking one’s conscience—seeing if it’s still there under all the inevitable compromises and accumulating weight of life. I don’t remember the exact phrase, but roughly speaking it could be stated as follows:

I handed him a shovel.

“What’s this for?”

“Your conscience. Go dig for it.”

When I first read it I chuckled at the simplicity and blunt straightforwardness of it. I liked the metaphor. Twain was being humorous, of course. But humor can be one of the best ways—via the backdoor of laughter—to communicate a simple, but sometimes resisted, truth about ourselves or others. The idea of digging deep down to find the moral and spiritual ore is an archetype of the ages. Like most everyone I know, I have to find the symbolic shovel and go excavate from time to time…I hit rock periodically, break the damn thing, and have to get another shovel. They can break easy you see, and so the digging can be tiresome and frustrating and sometimes I throw the damn shovel in the bushes and storm off.

But, like all of us, I know the digging needs to be done, has to be done, from time to time, if I’m to keep my soul and not lose my way. And so I always keep a shovel near by and try never to let life’s weight get too burdensome before I go digging and clearing out the excess around the core.

Upping my Twain

My study and my home, for that matter, are starting to become overrun with books. Actually, this started a long time ago but I prefer to ignore the realization as long as possible. Regardless of sagging shelves, loaded boxes and growing stacks, I continue to collect books. I recently told my wife I would address this addiction immediately. I would attack it with energetic vigor and a dogged determination. I will hold the line!

So with that in mind this past week, I added three more books to my Mark Twain collection.

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I already have the Complete 29 Volume Oxford Collection of Mark Twain’s works, a CD collection of his private letters, and a couple boxes of his books in various paperback editions. You see, when I read I use a pencil to underline memorable passages and make marginalia. I’m a slow reader, taking in every word and every punctuation mark. If I don’t underline passages I’m not likely to find them when I go looking for them. I can’t bring myself to write in most of my hardcover books. That’s irreverent! Well at least not in the one’s I consider my collection stock. This means I collect the hardcover books and in some cases, like my Mark Twain collection, I buy a paperback version so I can write in that book.

If you don’t already, one day I’ll have to write a post on why you should read Mark Twain. But that’s for another day.

So as for the books pictured above:

Well if you weren’t already aware, Mark Twain’s writings, beside being humorous, a work of art and fun to read, mark a transition in the history of American literature. Ernest Hemingway famously commented:

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

That’s high praise coming from a winner of the nobel prize for literature. A part of Hemingway’s renown as a writer comes from his adopting a Twainesque style of writing. Not the humor so much, but the rule that a writer “Employ a simple and straightforward style,” and “Eschew surplusage.” Of course there’s a lot more to Hemingway’s particular art but he was clearly influenced by Twain.

Anyone who likes to read and write is usually attentive to prose style. I pick up books all the time and skim a few passages in order to get some feel for the writer’s prose. For me, this attentiveness to writing tends to spill over into an attentiveness to everyday speech, because good writing, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, is “the shadow of good talk.” This has become a habit. I find listening carefully to good talkers can help improve your writing. I listen for organization, rhythm, cadence, word choice, and structure. All the elements of an individual style or personality. People’s individuality and their particular way of thinking and expressing themselves is truly fascinating.

So naturally with a writer I admire, I’m interested in how they developed as a writer. What influenced and shaped their style. This is why I picked up The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. This history book outlines the beginning of Samuel Clemens’s (Mark Twain’s) career and how he and some other prominent writers of that time helped reinvent American literature.

Then we have the recently released Chasing the Last Laugh  by Richard Zacks. This book is about Twain’s great world wide tour. Mark Twain didn’t have much luck with investments and business ventures. He made a lot of money and he lost a lot of money. He got heavily in debt. He decided this wasn’t the way his story was going to end, he wasn’t leaving his family with massive debts to pay off. So Twain set out on very successful world wide tour. This book focuses on Twain’s tour around the world—chasing the last laugh.

Now, I haven’t read this book yet but I know Twain was able to pay back his debts and substantially rebuild his wealth. Full length biographies typically require a good investment of time, whereas books aimed at capturing a brief period or event in a Life are usually shorter reads and yet very informative. So this book along with, say, Man in White are good, short reads if you’re interested.

Finally, I picked up the 125th edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This edition is a copy of the original first edition with illustrations and notes as Twain originally approved. My goal is to read this one through carefully and write a review—eventually.