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Mark Twain's Helpful Hints for Good Living: A Handbook for the Damned Human Race is the second book from University of California Press in the Jumping Frog series--a new series of titles showcasing Twain's "Undiscovered, Rediscovered, and Celebrated Writings." The first book in the series was Twain's previously unpublished play Is He Dead? with extensive introduction and annotations by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Fishkin's research set high expectations for future titles in the Jumping Frog lineup.
Scholars who expected Mark Twain's Helpful Hints for Good Living to be a publication of his unfinished 1881 manuscript burlesquing etiquette books or, perhaps, his last 1910 manuscript often referred to as "Advice to Paine," will be disappointed. Mark Twain's Helpful Hints for Good Living is best described as a "gift book" designed for the general reader who has never sampled a wide variety of Twain's writing. The publicist for the Press explains, "The publisher is promoting it as a gift book through the trade to the general public, not as a scholarly work. I am pitching it to media people who cover general interest subjects, especially travel, cooking, parenting, and humor." One advance publicity blurb best described it as "wit and humor loosely tied together under the guise of an advice book." The book is neither all advice, nor hints. Much of it could be better classified as thoughts and observations as only Twain's eye and pen could report them.
For this collection, the editors of the Mark Twain Project have harvested fifty-one short pieces, most from Twain's longer works, speeches and letters. Thirty-eight selections have been retitled by the editors. Only thirteen works retain titles written by Twain or titles that were provided by his original publishers. A handful of maxims and quotations are scattered throughout. The book is divided into eight sections: Everyday Etiquette; Modest Proposals and Judicious Complaints; The American Table; Travel Manners; Health and Diet; Parenting and the Ethical Child; Clothes; Fashion and Style; and In Case of Emergency. End notes provide information regarding the original sources of each selection. The majority of this content can be found in previously published editions of Twain's autobiography, editions of Twain's speeches, editions of Twain's letters from University of California Press, previously published sketches, Albert Bigelow Paine's Mark Twain: A Biography, Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, Roughing It, The Gilded Age, Following the Equator, and Europe and Elsewhere.
Even though the book is edited with the general reader in mind, there are several items that will be new to many scholars who do not have access to the microfilm editions of Twain's letters and manuscripts. These include an 1883 letter to J. W. Bouton regarding an unwanted magazine subscription. The letter is one of several illustrating that Twain had the ability to compose a letter of complaint that remains unrivaled. One essay titled "On Telephones and Swearing" from his 1906 autobiographical dictation is a different version than was printed in the New York Times on December 23, 1906 which was titled "Twain and the Telephone." An 1883 letter to the Magnetic Rock Spring Company, herein titled "The Miracle Cure," and published in 1883 in the Colfax (Iowa) Clipper illustrates Twain's ongoing fascination with home remedies and is served with a dose of typical Twain humor. There is a generous sampling from Twain's manuscript of "A Record of the Small Foolishnesses of Susy & 'Bay' Clemens (Infants)." However, the most poignant piece in the collection is from a manuscript that continues to slowly trickle piecemeal out of the Twain archives in scattered short quotes and segments--"A Family Sketch." In this fragment written in 1906, titled by the editors "On Training Children," Twain discusses why for the past fifty-five years he has never intentionally injured a dumb creature:
When I was a boy my mother pleaded for the fishes and the birds and tried to persuade me to spare them, but I went on taking their lives unmoved, until at last I shot a bird that sat in a high tree, with its head tilted back, and pouring out a grateful song from an innocent heart. It toppled from its perch and came floating down limp and forlorn and fell at my feet, its song quenched and its unoffending life extinguished. I had not needed that harmless creature, I had destroyed it wantonly, and I felt all that an assassin feels, of grief and remorse when his deed comes home to him and he wishes he could undo it and have his hands and his soul clean again from accusing blood. One department of my education, theretofore long and diligently and fruitlessly labored upon, was closed by that single application of an outside and unsalaried influence, and could take down its sign and put away its books and its admonitions permanently (p. 123-4).
A photo Isabel Lyon snapped of Clemens in Bermuda in his bathing suit and carrying
his white shoes serves as the jacket cover and will be new to many Twain scholars.
A rare photo from the Kevin Mac Donnell collection featuring actor John Raymond
with a bowl of turnips accompanies the turnip dinner story from The Gilded
Age, (retitled "A Remarkable Dinner"). There are family photos
throughout and several photos of Twain's actual manuscript pages. Other photos
and illustrations have been previously published and will be familiar to most
If criticism is to be directed at this volume, it has to be directed at the graphic designer. A number of photos that serve as section frontispieces seem to have been cropped too closely. The main frontispiece of the book is an intentionally "reversed" or "flopped" photo that shows Clemens aiming a pistol with his left hand--pointing it toward the book's title for the purpose of graphic emphasis. (This photo, snapped by Isabel Lyon shortly after a burglary at Stormfield, was previously published in Hamlin Hill's God's Fool and accurately shows Clemens holding the gun in his right hand.) Although a tiny version of the same photo appears correctly oriented on the back jacket, the reader is never told which photo is the correct photo nor offered any explanation that Clemens was actually right-handed.
Overall, the book contains a varied sampling of Twain's works--some hard to
find elsewhere. Those readers who are familiar with only the Huck Finn and Tom
Sawyer adventures may be pleasantly surprised at the massive body of Twain material
this book samples and is yet waiting for them to discover. The relatively inexpensive
price of under $20 combined with the selected items of fresh material makes
it a nice gift for the scholar's bookshelf as well.