“Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.”
By Maria Popova
In the summer of 2011, I chanced upon a lovely Italian edition of a little-known, playful short story young Mark Twain (November 30, 1835–April 21, 1910) 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.
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.
Earlier this week, a new book gave us a glimpse of the heart-warming fan mailMark Twain received over the course of his career. But for every person who showered Twain with genuine and unconditional gratitude, there seemed to be a dozen demanding a range of outrageous things — the curse that comes with the blessing of inhabiting the public eye as a national celebrity. And while the art of asking without shame remains essential and commendable, some of the audacious requests Twain received, collected in R. Kent Rasmussen’s excellent Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers (public library), merit a scowl or at least a scoff for their sheer impudence. Here is a small sampling.
Letters requesting endorsement were not uncommon, but on April 12, 1875, Twain received one of particular absurdity from a Goorgia “journeyman printer” by the name of B. W. Smith:
Mr. Clemens —
Dear Sir —
As this letterhead will tell you, I am on the ragged edge of sending a book of nonsense to the nonsense reading public. Being my first, with only a few years reputation as a humorous writer to back it, it needs all the stimulus possible. I want the people to see that I am known to the literary world, and my object in writing to you is simply to give me a few words — no matter how indefinite or irrevelent to the matter in hand — with your name (Mark Twain) attached. Thus, a few scratches of your pen will cost you nothing and will help me a great deal. For instance, you might say “It ought to sell” or something similar — You see my object —
A number of the letters were preserved with Twain’s comments. On this one, he scribbled:
From some unknown person who probably has brains & modesty in about equal proportions.
Solicitations for feedback were equally bountiful. In a lengthy letter from November of 1875, an Alabama woman by the name of Louise Rutherford asked:
I have written a book and can’t get it published. What, do you suppose, is the cause of my failure? It is a novel — the book I mean — and is sensationally perfect. In fact, it is so far ahead of most of the “roughing it” species of publications, that I am amazed beyond mea sure, at the refusal of the publishers to issue it. How did you manage to get your first work before the public? It is a “dark and bloody mystery” to me; and I would like you to explain. Perhaps if you let me into the secret I may succeed with mine.
I plead guilty to being romantic; but I believe I am more ambitious than romantic; and I wish you would help me with a little advice about my book. I am not able to pay beforehand, for its publication, and I don’t know whether I could do anything with it, unless I had money. Can I, do you think? Please be so obliging as to tell me. I have no friend who is informed in such matters.
From a muggins in Alabama.
Though clearly self-aware of his audacity, this 18-year-old boy writing Twain in May of 1876 was anything but self-conscious about it:
I am going to make bold to ask of you a great favor. I wish to publish a small sheet, say, about 16×22 inches — divided into four pages of three columns each.
And I wish your permission to use the title (Mark Twain) as editor. I want you to furnish such matter as would in your own opinion, be suitable, for such a paper, as I wish to have this filled with your fun and sentiment. I, shall, if you oblige me, sell them at Philadelphia, this summer, and I assure you that everything shall be conducted in such a manner as you would agree to. There shall be no advertisements in the paper — but all space shall be filled with reading matter. Paragraphs can be selected from other Authors, which will lessen your labors, somewhat. The matter need not of necessity, all be fresh, but of course you will use your own judgment in that matter.
I am aware that in presuming to ask such a favor of you, since your time must be so completely occupied that I am rather audacious, and perhaps, impertinent. . . .
I will allow you what remuneration you consider just and right, either paying you a certain sum at the start or allowing you a percentage on the sales —
If you think it best and necessary I will come to Hartford and see you, about the plan. I hope and trust that you will grant me this favor, and greatly oblige,
Your Obedient Servant
Charles. S. Babcock.
From a muggings
In November of 1879, Twain — born Samuel Clemens — received one of many frequent requests to explain his pseudonym:
My dear Sir
Will you have the goodness to send me as fully as you may be able the history of y’r pseudonym –“ Mark Twain.” How it was originated when you first used it, & in what connection on all these points I sh. be exceedingly glad to be informed.
I am preparing a handy book on pseudonyms — to include the history of the more important ones — wh. the Harpers are to publish — and it is extremely desirable th. I have the information for wh. I ask. With the hope th. I am putting you to no great inconvenience
Believe me Dear Sir
to be faithfully:
Rev. J. Dewitt Miller
Though he tended to generally ignore such inquiries, Twain was particularly annoyed by this one, due in part to its tone of especial entitlement and in part, no doubt, to its vexing abbreviations. His irritated comment:
From an ass — Not answered
In August of 1870, a moderately successful Canadian humorist asked:
Dear Sir, —
What will you charge to write me a lecture. One that will take about 1 ¼ hours to deliver it. Humorous and stirring, but not too pathetic. An early answer will very much oblige
R. T. Lowery
Petrolea Ont Can.
Twain wrote in the margin:
Autograph solicitations were among the most common requests, which Twain found invariably annoying — but hardly so much so as this laconic yet entitled one from an Iowa man named Clarence E. Ash:
The favor of your Autograph is respectfully solicited.
Twain couldn’t curtail his irritation, scribbling in outrage:
In March of 1875, he received the following behest:
Mr. Sam Clemens
A few young people in town are about forming a literary club, and as we cannot decide upon a name, it was proposed that I should write to you and ask your advice.
The object of the club is improvement combined with pleasure.
At our meetings we have an entertainment about an hour long, consisting of declamations, readings, music &c., and then the rest of the evening is spent in social amusements.
Several names have been proposed, but we cannot find an appropriate one.
If you will help us out, provided it does not inconvenience you too much, we shall feel greatly indebted to you
Very truly yours,
S. P. Moor house
Twain, suspecting the letter was an autograph grub masquerading as an already audacious request, jotted a comment:
This is the worst piece of cheek of all.
Such autograph ploys were, in fact, quite common. In November of 1901, Twain received the following short letter:
Dear Mr. Mark Twain: —
I am a little girl six years old. I have read your stories ever since they first came out.
I have a cat named Kitty, and a dog named Pup.
I like to guess puzzles. Did you write a story for the Herald Com-pe-ti-tion?
I hope you will answer my letter.
Observing the mature handwriting, Twain commented unforgivingly:
Lame attempt of a middle-aged liar to pull an autograph.
Some of the most common requests Twain received were for loans, ranging from the naive to the auspiciously audacious. In 1874, for instance, he received a letter from a woman who signed as Mrs. Mary Margaret Field. She outlined her financial problems plaguing her life of relative privilege, even noting she still owns a fair amount of valuable assets and real estate, the asked Twain for a one-hundred-dollar loan:
I write to you, because I have read sketches of yr life, and it seems to me, that, as you have raised yourself from obscurity and poverty, by your own talents and energy, you may feel some interest in the struggles of a Woman, who has supported herself, entirely, creditably, and honorably, by her pen.
I cannot tell you how earnestly I pray that your heart may be moved to assist me. — In your happy home, — wealthy, fortunate, famous and beloved, as you now are, you may have forgotten the old days of struggle. — Yet call them up once more, for a moment, to your mind, & for their sake, & because of the knowledge of suffering they gave you, have compassion on me, — for indeed, my distress is very deep, & genuine, and I know not which way to turn for relief.
Twain rarely responded to these letters, but when pushed beyond the limits of his irritation-tolerance, he did — and he did with fierce comedic bile:
Madam: Your distress would move the heart of a statue. Indeed it would move the entire statue if it were on rollers. I have seen looked upon poverty & its attendant misery in many lands, & in my own person I have suffered in this sort: but I never have heard of a case so bitter as yours. Nothing in the world between you & starvation but a lucrative literary situation, a few diamonds & things, & three thousand seven hundred dollars worth of town property. How you must suffer. I do not know that there is any relief for misery like this. Suicide has been recommended by some authors.
In April of 1880, a Massachusetts spinster named Ola A. Smith made a similar request, far more modest in both sum and word count, yet doubly entertaining in its blend of “logical” reasoning and witty audacity:
Gracious Sir; —
You are rich. To lose $10.00 would not make you miserable.
I am poor. To gain $10.00 would not make me miserable.
“This world would not be satisfying unless one person were allowed to express gratitude and thanks to another.”
By Maria Popova
One spring day in 1909, a little boy found his mother’s magazine clipping — the portrait of a man bearing “the aureole of sunny hair” — and asked her this was God. She chuckled with equal parts amazement and amusement, and got to writing the man in question a letter to recount the delightful incident — not only because of its inherent charm, but because her son had intuited a shared cultural sentiment: The man pictured was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain — one of the most revered men in all the land.
Over the course of his prolific career, Twain received countless letters from his adoring readers and, occasionally, his critics. Two hundred of them, written according to the style of he era’s wonderfully quaint epistolary etiquette, are collected in Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers (public library) — a magnificent, remarkably researched book by Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen, featuring adulation, criticism, and a range of audacious requests Clemens received between 1861 and his death in 1910 from correspondents spanning school children, businessmen, farmers, political activists, con artists, teachers, and housewives. Most stirring of all, however, is the fan mail Twain received — a timeless testament to the soul-stirring power of earnest gratitude. A small sampling:
On April 18, 1894, Twain heard from a young lawyer named Henry E. Barrett:
Dear Sir: —
It seems that this world would not be satisfying unless one person were allowed to express gratitude and thanks to another. It has struck me as wrong that I should go on and not say to you what I feel.
From my boyhood, when I was kept from play by my interest in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn,” till now, your books and stories have given me more genuine pleasure than those of any other author. I think so often of the many pleasant hours you have given me and have made up to me the lack some times of pleasant companions. Mr. Clemens, please accept this in the spirit that it is sent for the intention is good.
My wishes are that you may for many years continue to cheer the sorrowful and make burden bearing easier.
Henry E. Barrett.
On October 17, 1906, a dying man wrote Twain:
Dear Mark Twain:
Writing this letter is one of the pleasantest duties I have to perform before leaving for “Hell or Hadleyburg” — which the doctor tells me must be soon now.
In fact I’m living beyond my time, — because he said Oct 15 was my last day “on live” — The only reason I didn’t die on that date was that I wanted to read your latest story in Harpers. Some people see Naples and die, — I prefer to read Mark Twain & die. I’ve never seen Naples, — and dont expect to. I’ve read almost everything youve written, — and when I finish your whole output I’ll give up seeing Naples and die happily without that privilege.
I want to thank you for all the pleasure your books have given me during many years of confinement to my room. Life would frequently have been dull indeed had it not been for the companionship of Huck Finn, Col. Sellers, et al.
When I get to Hell the greatest torture that I will have will be the possible knowledge that you shall have written something else I shall not be permitted to read.
On October 19 of the same year, an Irishman named Chris Healey sent Twain this heart-warming and deeply personal story, one of many he received:
Dear Mr Clements,
As an Irish admirer of yours who has travelled 4000 miles mainly to see you, may I request the privilege of calling on you to pay my respects.
Indeed I might claim this as a right. Here is the proof: Twenty four years ago a little Irish boy lay dying in a Liverpool hospital. The nurse spoke to him very kindly — a bad sign –& asked if there was anything he would like, which was even worse. In hospitals politeness is saved only for those who will soon be beyond the need of it. He wearily asked for a book to read, & they gave him “Babylon” by Grant Allen. There was a quaint American interest in the book which made the boy discover America for the first time. Before that it had been only a place on a map. Then he became interested, threw the first book away, & demanded one about America –& they gave him Huckleberry Finn. He read it, & laughed, & laughed, & laughed, until he fell into the first sound sleep he had had for a fortnight. When he awoke twenty six years later — it was only hours, but it seemed years since he had read the book — he hollered for it again, & got it, & had some breakfast, the first for a week, The nurse was rude to him but he didn’t mind — he had Huckleberry under his pillow. This is why he didn’t pay much attention to the doctor’s remark that it was a miraculous recovery, & Nature still had a fat purseful of miracles left. The boy only grinned, & knew better: it was Mark Twain.
On December 13 of the same year, a young women who had grown up cherishing Twain’s writing, wrote him:
Dear Mark Twain:
Ever since I read, in my childhood, my first story from your pen, it has been the great desire of my life to meet Mark Twain.
Now, I am a woman of five and thirty, and the years are flying, and the goal of my desire seems to recede as I approach. Yet, strange to say — strange, because nearly all childish desires change in the lapse of years — the desire is still as strong within me as ever it was.
Once I saw you. I was only a child — but I marked that day with a white stone. You were driving, and it was all I could do to keep myself from running after your carriage and crying, “Please, Mr. Mark Twain, stay long enough to speak to a little girl who thinks you are the greatest man on earth.”
I am sure I should not have so much self control now. But youth is so hopeful of opportunities. — You must be overwhelmed with such communications as this — and yet. The longing is still great within me to run after your carriage and cry “Stop long enough to speak to a little girl who still thinks you the greatest man on earth.”
On rare occasions, Twain replied to his readers in a few well-measured words, as he did Ryland:
Dear Miss Ryland:
I am thankful to say that such letters as yours do come — as you have divined — with a happy frequency. They refresh my life, they give it value; like yours, they are always welcome, and I am always grateful for them. Sincerely
Twain received a plethora of requests for photos and autographs, most of which he found gratuitous and didn’t respond to . But on December 29, 1906, a poor and barely literate Englishwoman sent him an irresistibly sincere personal story, coupled with a modest request:
Mr S. L. Clemens,
I wonder if you would care to hear how much my husband & self appreciate your books. We have been married 4 years & I have bought him one of your works each birthday & at Christmas. He is never tired of reading them & they keep him at home many a time when he would be out at night He reads them aloud to me & I enjoy the reading as much as himself. The reason I am writing is to beg a favour of you. Would you be kind enough to give me your phota so that I can give my husband a surprise on his next birthday? We have one hung up that I cut from a paper but I should dearly prize a real phota I dont seem able to come across one here & we arent so well off else I might if I was rich. My husband earns £ 1/-per week as a booking clerk on the railway. We have a little boy six months & his father says when he is older he will tell him about poor little Huck & Tom Sawyer. Perhaps you will be too great a man to answer this & grant my request as we are only humble cottagers. I trust Ive done no harm writing. I have just been reading some extracts in our paper copied from your articles in the “North American Review” I am sorry you lost your daughter Susy you seem to have had a lot of trouble in your life but you always come up smiling. This seems a long letter but I will have to pay 2 ½ to post so I will get my money’s worth. The only thing is I am sorry you arent an Englishman & more especially a Lancashire man, perhaps you will put this in the fire I hope I have a phota from you
I beg to remain
Clemens wrote back a little over two weeks later:
I will comply with pleasure, dear Mrs Edith. My secretary will choose a photo which will go handily in the mail & I will autograph it. Indeed I shouldn’t regret it if I were an Englishman –& particularly a Lancashire man.
S L . Clemens
[enclosure, written on a photograph of Clemens on a rocking chair:]
To Mrs. Edith Draper
with the best wishes of
On Clemens’s seventy-second birthday, he received the following sweet note from a fourteen-year-old girl named Florence Benson:
My dear Mr. Clemens: I have seen in the New York Tribune this morning that to-day is your birthday — and it is mine too! I am writing to wish you many happy returns of the day and to tell you that I think Tom Sawyer is the nicest boy I have ever known.
(written in my best handwriting)
Twain, true to his beat, wrote back:
Dear Florence: Thank you for your nice note.
[Private.] I have always concealed it before, but now I am compelled to confess that I am Tom Sawyer!
Sincerely Your friend
S L . Clemens
On September 19, 1908, Twain received this moving personal confession from a Brooklyn minister named Frederick A. Wright:
Mr. S. L. Clemens,
I have wanted for a long time to time to thank you for the pleasure which your books have given me, but I have hesitated for fear that even thanks ought not to intrude on the privacy of a public character. But now I am making the venture. Having known Huck Finn twenty two years, and Tom and Sid and Mary and Aunt Polly still longer, I feel as if these friends might give me an introduction, especially so since the thing that I have enjoyed most in your books is the glimpse of yourself between the lines. So I have known you, though you have not known me. I only say how long I have enjoyed this, for if I should say how much I have enjoyed it, you might think me extravagant or insincere. My wife, (who remembers meeting you with her sister and cousins, when she was a little girl at the house of her uncle, Mr. Cable in New Orleans) says that I read Mark Twain the way old ladies read the Bible (I am a clergy man) — a chapter before going to bed.
Those boys and girls of your novels seem to me the most remarkable thing in American literature, and for me they have proved altogether the most enjoyable thing in American literature. I do not believe that any other literature has any representations of child life which are so universal and yet so concrete. I have a boy of my own now, and I am just having the fun of introducing them to him — these children that never grew up, “whose mortal years immortal youth became — ”
By the spring of 1910, newspapers were regularly reporting on Twain’s deteriorating health. On April 19, Twain received the following desperately heart-warming letter of support:
Dear Mark Twain: —
Together with all other reading men and women, I deeply sympathise with you in your illness, and also together with them I rejoice at the favorable reports from your bed-side which we receive from day to day.
You have given me more delights than any other author I ever read, and if everyone whom you have charmed as you have charmed me, were to write you now and tell you about it, the post-office at Redding would be blockaded for months to come. — I believe you are better loved than any other living man, and if the heart-felt wishes of each and all of us for your speedy recovery can avail you anything, I am sure you cannot remain long sick. Dear Mark, we simply cannot spare you, you must get well.
Again expressing my very best wishes,
I am Very Truly Your Friend
Geo. B. Byron
Three days later, Twain passed away. This was the last note from an adoring stranger he ever read.
“If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.”
By Maria Popova
“His voice seemed to say like the river, ‘Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait,'” Helen Keller marveled upon meeting Mark Twain. Indeed, while Twain may be America’s most celebrated humorist, underpinning — and fueling — his remarkable wit was unparalleled insight into the human condition, a kind of profound philosophical prism through which his comedic genius was bent. That gift of Twain’s comes to life with astounding eloquence and elegance in this passage from The Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 (public library), in which he turns a cautious eye towards the relationship between human morality and the intellect, wincing at our anthropocentric sense of entitlement — something all the more tragically palpable a century later, amidst environmental degradation, overpopulation, and economic collapse. Twain writes:
We have no respectworthy evidence that the human being has morals. He is himself the only witness. Persons who do not know him value his testimony. They think he is not shallow and vain because he so despises the peacock for possessing these qualities. They are deceived into not regarding him as a beast and a brute, because he uses these terms to disapprovingly describe qualities which he possesses, yet which are not possessed by any creature but himself. On his verbal testimony they take him for every creditable thing which he particularly isn’t, and (intentionally?) refrain from examining the testimony of his acts. It is the safest way, but man did not invent it, it was the polecat. From the beginning of time the polecats have quite honestly and naively regarded themselves as representing in the animal kingdom what the rose represents in the vegetable kingdom. This is because they do not examine.
However, moralless man, bloody and atrocious man, is high above the other animals in his one great and shining gift — intellectuality. It took him ages and ages to demonstrate the full magnitude and majesty of his gift, but he has accomplished it at last. For ages it was a mean animal indeed that was not vastly his superior in certain splendid faculties. In the beginning he had nothing but the puny strength of his unweaponed hands to protect his life with, and he was as helpless as a rabbit when the lion, the tiger, the elephant, the mastodon and the other mighty beasts came against him; in endurance he was far inferior to the other creatures; in fleetness on the land there was hardly an animal in the whole list that couldn’t shame him; in fleetness in the water every fish could excel him; his eyesight was a sarcasm: for seeing minute things it was blindness as compared to the eyesight of the insects, and the condor could see a sheep further than he could see a hotel. But by the ingenuities of his intellect he has equipped himself with all these gifts artificially and has made them unapproachably effective. His locomotive can outstrip all birds and beasts in speed and beat them all in endurance; there are no eyes in the animal world that can compete with his microscope and his telescope; the strength of the tiger and the elephant is weakness, compared with the force which he carries in his mile-range terrible gun. In the beginning he was given ‘dominion’ over the animal creation — a very handsome present, but it was mere words and represented a non-existent sovereignty. But he has turned it into an existent sovereignty, himself, and is master, of late. In physical talents he was a pauper when he started; by grace of his intellect he is incomparably the richest of all the animals now. But he is still a pauper in morals — incomparably the poorest of the creatures in that respect. The gods value morals alone; they have paid no compliments to intellect, nor offered it a single reward. If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.