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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

17 MAY, 2013

Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling Critique the Press

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“There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”

Modern history is peppered with public intellectuals speaking up against the follies of popular media, including E. B. White, Einstein, and David Foster Wallace. But among the most articulate critics of the press are Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, who famously met in 1889.

On March 31, 1873, Twain — adviser of little girls, recipient of audacious requests, cat-hater — gave a talk before the Monday Evening Club at Hartford, titled “License of the Press” and critiquing the state of the popular press. It was later included in the altogether indispensable volume The Complete Essays Of Mark Twain (public library). Though his admonitions target the newspaper as the archetypal press, it’s remarkable to consider how prescient his remarks are in the context of today’s online media. Twain writes:

[The press] has scoffed at religion till it has made scoffing popular. It has defended official criminals, on party pretexts, until it has created a United States Senate whose members are incapable of determining what crime against law and the dignity of their own body is, they are so morally blind, and it has made light of dishonesty till we have as a result a Congress which contracts to work for a certain sum and then deliberately steals additional wages out of the public pocket and is pained and surprised that anybody should worry about a little thing like that.

I am putting all this odious state of things upon the newspaper, and I believe it belongs there — chiefly, at any rate. It is a free press — a press that is more than free — a press which is licensed to say any infamous thing it chooses about a private or a public man, or advocate any outrageous doctrine it pleases. It is tied in no way. The public opinion which should hold it in bounds it has itself degraded to its own level.

There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.

[…]

It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm. We ought to look upon the establishment of a newspaper of the average pattern in a virtuous village as a calamity.

After bemoaning the downward spiral of newspaper integrity over the previous 30 years, Twain takes Raymond Chandler’s belief that “the reading public is intellectually adolescent at best” to an even more unforgiving degree:

It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people — who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations — do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.

Among us, the newspaper is a tremendous power. It can make or mar any man’s reputation. It has perfect freedom to call the best man in the land a fraud and a thief, and he is destroyed beyond help.

He then foretells with astounding, uncompromising accuracy the “sponsored content” and “native advertising” debates of today and laments:

In the newspapers of the West you can use the editorial voice in the editorial columns to defend any wretched and injurious dogma you please by paying a dollar a line for it.

He ends with his signature package of keen cultural observation tied with a bow of irreverent satire:

I have a sort of vague general idea that there is too much liberty of the press in this country, and that through the absence of all wholesome restraint the newspaper has become in a large degree a national curse, and will probably damn the Republic yet. There are some excellent virtues in newspapers, some powers that wield vast influences for good; and I could have told all about these things, and glorified them exhaustively — but that would have left you gentlemen nothing to say.

More than a quarter century later, in September of 1899 — a decade after he had met Twain and had his fanboy moment — Kipling penned a poem of similar sentiment. Titled “The Press”, it is one of fifty newly discovered Kipling poems found in the recently released hardback set The Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 3 (public library). It echoes the heart of Twain’s concerns with a satirical tone, perhaps ironically, more typical of Twain and his own little-known verses:

The Press

Why don’t you write a play —
Why don’t you cut your hair?
Do you trim your toe-nails round
Or do you trim them square?
Tell it to the papers,
Tell it every day.
But, en passant, may I ask
Why don’t you write a play?

What’s your last religion?
Have you got a creed?
Do you dress in Jaeger-wool
Sackcloth, silk or tweed?
Name the books that helped you
On the path you’ve trod.
Do you use a little g
When you write of God?

Do you hope to enter
Fame’s immortal dome?
Do you put the washing out
Or have it done at home?
Have you any morals?
Does your genius burn?
Was you wife a what’s its name?
How much did she earn?

Had your friend a secret
Sorrow, shame or vice –
Have you promised not to tell
What’s your lowest price?
All the housemaid fancied
All the butler guessed
Tell it to the public press
And we will do the rest.

Why don’t you write a play?

Whether or not Twain’s essay was a direct influence on Kipling’s poem, of course, will never be known, for the anatomy of influence is a complicated matter. But what we do know is that all great art builds on what came before, every “new” idea a combination of past fragments, and creativity is a slot-machine of knowledge end experience. After all, it was Twain himself who told Helen Keller that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

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08 APRIL, 2013

On Loves, Lunacies, and Losses: The Little-Known Poetry of Mark Twain

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“Advance your cue and shut your eyes / And take the cushion first.”

Literary history is peppered with famed novelists who also wrote verse — James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury. Even such unlikely cultural icons as Marilyn Monroe found refuge in poetic practice.

Some time ago, while doing some research for my Twain-related labor of love, I came upon On the Poetry of Mark Twain with Selections from His Verse (public library) — a 1966 gem, published by the University of Illinois, in which Arthur L. Scott sets out to debunk Twain’s famous “literary declaration” that he detests poetry. Instead, Scott demonstrates that Twain’s impulsive remark was more likely a reflection of his skill at poetic practice — “the Muse of formal poetry held Mark Twain at arm’s length,” writes Scott — rather than of his affection for the form. For a man who “detested poetry,” Twain produced more than 120 poems over the course of his life — 95 humorous and 31 serious, with the majority of the latter written after 1890, when life began to throw Twain devastation after devastation.

Scott notes:

To compare Mark Twain’s early verse to his late is a bit like comparing a clown to a tragedian. In their unpretentious areas, many of the early poems are quite successful. The serious poems are less spontaneous, but their lack of gusto is offset by the increase in emotional and intellectual content. They show also that Mark Twain had improved in poetic imagination, sensitivity, and discipline. His good ear and his originality were qualities he had from the start; but it took time for him to cultivate expository power, verbal felicity, and — above all — a genuine respect for poetry as a vehicle of serious expression.

[…]

The worst is embarrassing. The best may not make the soul soar, but it is good enough and extensive enough to prove that here is a novelist who did more than merely dabble in verse. The range of his poetry in both topic and mood is immense. The trivialities and ‘hogwash’ are offset by poems of unquestionable power in a number of diverse fields.

[…]

They help suggest that Mark Twain’s so-called ‘literary declaration’ about detesting poetry has been common currency for too long. … It may take time for us to learn to ignore Mark wain’s hasty declaration and to convince ourselves that the evidence all proves that, in truth, he loved poetry.

Here are seven of Twain’s poems that fall on various points of the spectrum, from the playful to the poignant, and land with equal delight.

'Last Meeting & Final Parting,' which Scott calls 'the gayest poem of the early 1890's,' was not written for publication but entered in the guest book of Twain's good friend Laurence Hutton, then literary editor of Harper's Magazine.

More than four decades after his advice to little girls, Twain penned some verses for one of the favorite little girls in his club, which he called the Aquarium, trailing off into complete deviation from the meter and ending with a note of playful self-awareness:

POEM TO MARGARET

Be good, be good, be always good,
And now & then be clever,
But don’t you ever be too good,
Nor ever be too clever;

For such as be too awful good
They awful lonely are,
And such as often clever be
Get cut & stung & trodden on by persons of lesser mental capacity, for this kind do by a law of their construction regard exhibitions of superior intellectuality as an offensive impertinence leveled at their lack of this high gift, & are prompt to resent such-like exhibitions in the manner above indicated — & are they justifiable? Alas, alas they

(It is not best to go on; I think the line is already longer than it ought to be for real true poetry.)

Though spoken by the narrator of Twain’s Jumping Frog tale, this sketch could easily apply to the author himself:

HE DONE HIS LEVEL BEST

Was he a mining on the flat —
He done it with a zest;
Was he a leading of the choir —
He done his level best.

If he’d a reglar task to do,
He never took no rest;
Or if twas off-and-on — the same —
He done his level best.

If he was preachin on his beat,
He’d tramp from east to west,
And north to south — in cold and heat
He done his level best.

He’d yank a sinner outen (Hades)
And land him with the blest —
Then snatch a prayer ‘n waltz in again,
And do his level best.

He’d cuss and sing and howl and pray,
And dance and drink and jest,
And lie and steal — all one to him —
He done his level best.

Whate’er this man was sot to do,
He done it with a zest:
No matter what his contract was,
HE’D DO HIS LEVEL BEST.

Adding to history’s famous fatherly advice, Twain takes on Hamlet:

POLONIUS’ ADVICE TO HIS SON — PARAPHRASED FROM HAMLET

Beware of the spoken word! Be wise;
Bury thy thoughts in thy breast;
Nor let thoughts that are unnatural
Be ever in acts expressed.

Be thou courteous and kindly toward all —
Be familiar and vulgar with none;
But the friends thou hast proved in thy need
Hold thou fast till life’s mission is done!

Shake not thy faith by confiding
In every new-begot friend,
Beware thou of quarrels — but in them
Fight them out to the bitter end.

Give thine ear unto all that would seek it
But to few thy voice impart;
Receive and consider all censure
But thy judgment seal in thy heart.

Let thy habit be ever as costly
As thy purse is able to span;
Never gaudy but rich — for the raiment
Full often proclaimeth the man.

Neither borrow nor lend — oft a loan
Both loseth itself and a friend,
And to borrow relaxeth the thrift
Whereby husbandry gaineth its end.

But lo! above all set this law:
UNTO THYSELF BE THOU TRUE!
Then never toward any canst thou
The deed of a false heart do.

Though a far cry from John Updike’s heartbreaking poem about the last days of his dog, Twain’s verses mourning the loss of his beloved canine companion don’t fail to stir:

MY DOG BURNS

No more shall bear beauteous form
Be seen in the raging storm.
No more shall her wondrous tail
Dodge the quickly dropping hail.

She lived a quiet harmless life
In Hartford far from madding strife;
Nor waged no War on peaceful rat
Nor battled with wild fierce tomcat.

No, No, my beloved, dear ’cause dead
What tough thy coat was a brick dust red?
Like a good author, thou was a trusty friend
And thy tail, like his, red to the very end.

Written at a German health resort in 1891-1892, this tongue-in-cheek “love song” first appeared in St. Louis’s Medical Fortnightly on May 15, 1892:

LOVE SONG

I ask not, “Is thy hope still sure,
Thy love still warm, thy faith secure?”
I ask not, “Dream’st thou still of me? —
Longest alway to fly to me?” —
      Ah, no — but as the sum includeth all
            The good gifts of the Giver,
      I sum all these in asking thee,
            “O sweetheart, how’s your liver?”

For if thy liver worketh right,
Thy faith stands sure, thy hope is bright,
Thy dreams are sweet, and I their god,
Doubt threats in vain—thou scorn’st his rod.
      Keep only thy digestion clear,
      No other foe my love doth fear.

But Indigestion hath the power
To mar the soul’s serenest hour —
To crumble adamantine trust,
And turn its certainties to dust —
To dim the eye with nameless grief —
To chill the heart with unbelief —
To banish hope, & faith, & love,
Place heaven below & hell above.

      Then list — details are naught to me
            So thou’st the sum-gift of the Giver —
      I ask thee all in asking thee,
            “O darling, how’s your liver?”

Susy Clemens

Twain penned this shorter, more unguardedly serious and beautiful meditation on love, in 1896 — it is believed to be a loving tribute to his daughter Susy, who died of spinal meningitis in August of that year at the age of twenty-four, leaving Twain heartbroken:

[LOVE CAME AT DAWN]

Love came at dawn, when all the world was fair,
When crimson glories’ bloom and sun were rife;
Love came at dawn, when hope’s wings fanned the air,
      And murmured, “I am life.”

Love came at eve, and when the day was done,
When heart and brain were tired, and slumber pressed;
Love came at eve, shut out the sinking sun,
      And whispered, “I am rest.”

Olivia Langdon Clemens as a young wife

Twain turned to poetry as a salve for mourning once more in February of 1904 when Livy, his wife of thirty-four years, was on her deathbed in Florence. The poem has never previously been published.

[GOODNIGHT, SWEETHEART, GOODNIGHT]

Goodnight, Sweetheart, goodnight —
The stars are shining bright,
The snow is turning white,
Dim is the failing light,
Fast falls the glooming night, —
      All right!
      Sleep tight!
      Goodnight.

The collection ends on a more empowering note, with a poem said to have been inspired by Twain’s favorite billiard shot, embodying his remarkable gift for weaving from the thread of everyday life poignant existential metaphors for life itself:

CUSHION FIRST

When all your days are dark with doubt;
      And drying hope is at its worst;
When all life’s balls are scattered wide,
With not a shot in sight, to left or right,
Don’t give it up;
Advance your cue and shut your eyes,
      And take the cushion first.

Complement On the Poetry of Mark Twain with Twain’s mischievous advice to little girls and some heart-warming letters from his readers.

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03 APRIL, 2013

Advice to Little Girls: Young Mark Twain’s Little-Known, Lovely 1865 Children’s Book

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“Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.”

In the summer of 2011, I chanced upon a lovely Italian edition of a little-known, playful short story young Mark Twain had written in 1865 at age of 30, with Victorian-scrapbook-inspired artwork by celebrated Russian-born children’s book illustrator Vladimir Radunsky, mischievously encouraging girls to think independently rather than blindly obey rules and social mores. I was instantly in love. So I approached my friend Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Brooklyn’s Enchanted Lion Books, whom I’d befriended through her beautiful books and with whom I’d already begun collaborating on another side project, to see if she’d be willing to take a leap of faith and help bring this gem to life in America. It took a bit of convincing, but we eventually joined forces, pooled our lunch money to pay Vladimir his advance, and found a printer capable of reflecting the mesmerism of the Twain/Radunsky story in the book’s physicality — rich colors, crisp text, thick beautiful paper with a red fabric spine.

I’m enormously delighted to announce that Advice to Little Girls (public library) is officially out this week — a true labor of love nearly two years in the making. (You might recall a sneak peek from my TED Bookstore selections earlier this year.) Grab a copy, enjoy, and share!

While frolicsome in tone and full of wink, the story — like the most timeless of children’s books — is colored with subtle hues of grown-up philosophy on the human condition, exploring all the deft ways in which we creatively rationalize our wrongdoing and reconcile the good and evil we each embody.

Good little girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offense. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.

If you have nothing but a rag-doll stuffed with sawdust, while one of your more fortunate little playmates has a costly China one, you should treat her with a show of kindness nevertheless. And you ought not to attempt to make a forcible swap with her unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.

One can’t help but wonder whether this particular bit may have in part inspired the irreverent 1964 anthology Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls and its mischievous advice on brother-sister relations:

If at any time you find it necessary to correct your brother, do not correct him with mud — never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is better to scald him a little, for then you obtain desirable results. You secure his immediate attention to the lessons you are inculcating, and at the same time your hot water will have a tendency to move impurities from his person, and possibly the skin, in spots.

If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.

Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.

There are no words to describe how much Advice to Little Girls makes my heart sing — let’s make a choir.

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