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Hello Goodbye Hello: Rudyard Kipling Meets Mark Twain Meets Helen Keller

“His voice seemed to say like the river, ‘Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.'”

Given my Circles of Influence collaboration and my fascination with first-hand accounts of famous encounters, it’s of little surprise I find myself mesmerized by Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (public library) — an enchanting daisy chain of true encounters spanning more than a century of cultural heroes (and some villains) — from Freud to Tchaikovsky to Hitchcock to Hitchens — spanning science, literature, art, music, film, politics, and more, culled by British writer Craig Brown from diaries, personal correspondence, and various other historical ephemera. Martha Graham strikes fear and awe in a young Madonna. Marilyn Monroe asks Frank Lloyd Wright to design “an elaborate house with which to impress the world.” Walt Disney edits Igor Stravinsky and sparks his creative indignation.

But my favorite intersections revolve around the inimitable Mark Twain.

In 1889, a 23-year-old Rudyard Kipling sets out to meet and interview his hero, Mark Twain. Determined, he dashes from Buffalo to Toronto to Boston on a wild-goose chase that eventually takes him Elmira, where he is told by a local policeman that Twain or “someone who looks like him” (a surprisingly unhelpful description at the time) lives nearby, at East Hill. Brown writes of the encounter:

He is led into a big, dark drawing room. There, in a huge chair, he finds the fifty-three-year-old author of Tom Sawyer with ’a mane of grizzled hair, a brown mustache covering a mouth as delicate as a woman’s, a strong, square hand shaking mine and the slowest, calmest, levellest voice in all the world … I was shaking his hand. I was smoking his cigar, and I was hearing him talk — this man I had learned to love and admire 14,000 miles away.’

Kipling is transfixed. ’That was a moment to be remembered; the landing of a twelve-pound salmon was nothing to it. I had hooked Mark Twain, and he was treating me as though under certain circumstances I might be an equal.’

The two men discuss the difficulties of copyright before moving on to Twain’s work. ’Growing bold, and feeling that I had a few hundred thousand folk at my back, I demanded whether Tom Sawyer married Judge Thatcher’s daughter and whether we were ever going to hear of Tom Sawyer as a man.’

Twain gets up, fills his pipe, and paces the room in his bedroom slippers. ’I haven’t decided. I have a notion of writing the sequel to Tom Sawyer in two ways. In one I would make him rise to great honor and go to Congress, and in the other I should hang him. Then the friends and enemies of the book could take their choice.’

Kipling raises a voice of protest: to him, Tom Sawyer is real.

We now know that Tom Sawyer was real, in the most literal sense, but Twain’s response bespeaks, metaphorically, the magic of suspending disbelief:

’Oh, he is real. He’s all the boys that I have known or recollect; but that would be a good way of ending the book, because, when you come to think of it, neither religion, training, nor education avails anything against the force of circumstances that drive a man. Suppose we took the next four and twenty years of Tom Sawyer’s life, and gave a little joggle to the circumstances that controlled him. He would, logically and according to the joggle, turn out a rip or an angel.’

’Do you believe that, then?’

’I think so; isn’t it what you call kismet?’

’Yes; but don’t give him two joggles and show the result, because he isn’t your property any more. He belongs to us.’

And yet, Twain shares his own fascination with fact over fiction:

Twain talks of the books he likes to read. ’I never cared for fiction or story-books. What I like to read about are facts and statistics of any kind. If they are only facts about the raising of radishes, they interest me. Just now for instance, before you came in, I was reading an article about mathematics. Perfectly pure mathematics. My own knowledge of mathematics stops at “twelve times twelve” but I enjoyed that article immensely. I didn’t understand a word of it; but facts, or what a man believes to be facts, are always delightful.’

After two hours, the interview comes to an end. The great man, who never minds talking, assures his disciple that he has not interrupted him in the least.

But the most magical part of all, as is the case with many of the encounters in the book, is the way in which influence and admiration come full-circle:

Seventeen years on, Rudyard Kipling is world famous. Twain grows nostalgic for the time he spent in his company. ’I believe that he knew more than any person I had met before, and he knew I knew less than any person he had met before … When he was gone, Mr Langdon wanted to know about my visitor. I said, “He is a stranger to me but is a most remarkable man — and I am the other one. Between us, we cover all knowledge; he knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.”’

Twain, now aged seventy, is addicted to Kipling’s works. He rereads Kim every year, ’and in this way I go back to India without fatigue … I am not acquainted with my own books but I know Kipling’s books. They never grow pale to me; they keep their colour; they are always fresh.’

The worshipped has become the worshipper.

A decade later, in 1909, Twain gets a visit from Helen Keller, whom he has befriended fifteen years earlier and with whom he has forged a unique relationship of intellectual and creative camaraderie. Brown writes:

For his part, Twain is in awe. ’She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.’ Shortly after their first meeting, Twain formed a circle to fund her education at Radcliffe College, which led to her publishing an autobiography at the age of twenty-two, which in turn led her to become almost as celebrated as Twain himself.

But the intervening years have struck Twain some heavy blows. One of his daughters has died of meningitis, 7 another of an epileptic fit in a bathtub, and his wife Livy has died of heart disease. Throughout Helen’s stay he acts his familiar bluff, entertaining old self, but she senses the deep sadness within.

’There was about him the air of one who had suffered greatly. Whenever I touched his face, his expression was sad, even when he was telling a funny story. He smiled, not with the mouth but with his mind — a gesture of the soul rather than of the face.’

In a vignette perfectly prototypical of his character, Keller recounts seeing card on the mantelpiece instructing burglars where the valuables of the house were located. There had recently been a burglary and, Twain’s rationale went, the note would prevent future burglars from bothering him once they break in.

Keller, like Kipling, is transfixed by Twain’s billowing voice:

’He seemed to have absorbed all America into himself. The great Mississippi River seemed forever flowing, flowing through his speech, through the shadowless white sands of thought. His voice seemed to say like the river, “Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.”’

The closing scene of that encounter gives you the kind of chills that grip you, often by surprise, frequently throughout the rest of Hello Goodbye Hello:

As she says goodbye, Helen wonders if they will ever meet again. Once more, her intuition proves right. Twain dies the following year. Some time later, Helen returns to where the old house once stood; it has burnt down, with only a charred chimney still standing. She turns her unseeing eyes to the view he once described to her, and at that moment feels someone coming towards her. ’I reached out, and a red geranium blossom met my touch. The leaves of the plant were covered with ashes, and even the sturdy stalk had been partly broken off by a chip of falling plaster. But there was the bright flower smiling at me out of the ashes. I thought it said to me, “Please don’t grieve.”’

She plants the geranium in a sunny corner of her garden. ’It always seems to say the same thing to me, “Please don’t grieve.” But I grieve, nevertheless.’

BP

All Ideas Are Second-Hand: Mark Twain’s Magnificent Letter to Helen Keller About the Myth of Originality

“The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.”

The combinatorial nature of creativity is something I think about a great deal, so this 1903 letter Mark Twain wrote to his friend Helen Keller, found in Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 2 of 2 (public library | IndieBound), makes me nod with the manic indefatigability of a dashboard bobble-head dog. In this excerpt, Twain addresses some plagiarism charges that had been made against Keller some 11 years prior, when her short story “The Frost King” was found to be strikingly similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.”

Keller was acquitted after an investigation, but the incident stuck with Twain and prompted him to pen the following passionate words more than a decade later, which articulate just about everything I believe to be true of combinatorial creativity and the myth of originality:

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Steve Jobs, of course, knew this when he famously proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things” — and Kirby Ferguson reminds us that Jobs didn’t technically invent any of the things that made him into a cultural icon, he merely perfected them to a point of genius. Still, this fear of unoriginality — and, at its extreme, plagiarism — plagues the creative ego like no other malady. No one has countered this paradox more eloquently and succinctly than Salvador Dalí:

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

Letters of Note

Top image, ‘Miss Keller and Mark Twain, 1902,’ courtesy of American Foundation for the Blind

BP

From Mark Twain to Ray Bradbury, Iconic Writers on Truth vs. Fiction

Why art exists, or what a stage magician can teach us about the fine points of literary make-believe.

Famous writers have previously shared insights on symbolism, reading, and writing itself. Underlying many of these meditations is a broader curiosity about the intricate interplay of fact and fantasy. To untangle that knotty relationship, here are a handful of iconic authors’ thoughts on truth, art, and fiction — culled from their finest nonfiction.

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ Stephen King in On Writing

Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.” ~ Ralph Ellison in Advice to Writers

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” ~ Mark Twain in Following the Equator

Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. There are other things of greater value in any novel or story… humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels, etc., etc. Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing… and as unobtrusive.” ~ Ray Bradbury

The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.” ~ Tom Wolfe in Advice to Writers

Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” ~ Tennessee Williams in The Glass Menagerie

The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt in The Autobiography Of Eleanor Roosevelt

You should never read just for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick ‘hard books.’ Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for god’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, ‘I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.’ Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of ‘literature’? That means fiction, too, stupid.” ~ John Waters in Role Models

Fiction that adds up, that suggests a ‘logical consistency,’ or an explanation of some kind, is surely second-rate fiction; for the truth of life is its mystery.” ~ Joyce Carol Oates in The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982

The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” ~ Wallace Stevens in Opus Posthumous: Poems, Plays, Prose

Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.” ~ Eudora Welty in On Writing

We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.” ~ Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You

BP

Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing

“Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing

Complementing the recent reading list of nine essential books on reading and writing is an epic, exquisite rant by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (November 30, 1835–April 21, 1910), listing eighteen rules of fiction violated in popular writer James Fenimore Cooper’s final tale, The Deerslayer.

So peeved was Twain by the critical acclaim the story received that he unpacked it with meticulous, delightfully spiteful attention to distasteful detail, his fury culminating in one passage where “in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115.” His philippic was eventually included in The Complete Works of Mark Twain (public library) under the title “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Mark Twain

Writing twenty years after his irreverent and empowering advice to young women, Twain fumes:

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Twain concludes:

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”

To avoid these offences, and many more, pay heed to some of humanity’s greatest writers’ advice on writing.

BP

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