The following review appeared 16 November 1995 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1995.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Mary Leah Christmas
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
In the 1880s, Dan Beard--Mark Twain's frequent illustrator, and later the
the Boy Scouts of America--published The American Boy's Handy Book,
subtitled What to do and How to do it.
Soon after, the distaff Beards penned The American Girl's Handy
Now, over one hundred years later (and just in time for the holidays) R.
has issued some further instruction, on behalf of Mark Twain.
Rasmussen, whose recent book, Mark Twain A to Z (Facts on File, 1995), has been called "the most important Twain publication event of the year," now gives us, in Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls, Twain's version of what to do and how to do it--and it doesn't involve constructing pine-branch houses. Twain advised always obeying one's parents--when they are present. This book shows what can happen the rest of the time.
Mankind has not changed much since that fateful day in the Garden, when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit when they thought the Father wasn't looking. By that act, the predilection for mischief has been visited upon their children in perpetuity. Then, as now, the younger generation is full of energy, needing an outlet. Beard, in his book, tried to provide ways to harness some of that for constructive ends, such as building flatboats or making kites. But when children are not engaged in such formal pursuits, and are left to their own devices, the results, as seen in Rasmussen's book, can involve anything from a fresh watermelon rind to a borrowed skeleton to a furtive smoke.
Many adults yearn for those simpler days. Dan Beard wrote, in his autobiography, "I cannot think of it without a conscious willingness to give all I have acquired by years of hard labor and experience for the opportunity of living again my guileless childhood life in the forests and fields along the shores of old Lake Erie." Change "old Lake Erie" to "the Mississippi," and there you have it: what could pass for an excerpt from Twain's own correspondence.
The material selected by Rasmussen for Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls epitomizes this, the spirit of Mark Twain's existence, which his wife, Livy, captured in the pet name "Youth." Though he was indeed "the most serious man in the world," Twain's life and writings are indicative of a mind full of mischief, and Rasmussen has done an admirable job in editing this sampling.
Who can resist a book that addresses such matters as, "Experimenting with the Laws of Gravity," "Not Wasting A Watermelon," and "Disordering Auntie's Mind"? Some texts are, inevitably, harvested from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer ; but there are selections from less familiar sources, such as the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, California Youth's Companion, and the Galaxy.
The jacket flap of Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls states the Twainy postulate that, "'bad' people are often happier and more successful than those who strive to be 'good.'" The word "strive" is suggestive. There are, then, only two kinds of children: bad children, and bad children who try to be otherwise. Similarly, Mark Twain drew our attention to "the street called Straight," in The Innocents Abroad.
With Mark Twain, however, it's not where you finish, it's where you start. Where he started, of course, was in Hannibal. As Twain tells it, it was an early act of disobedience that sealed his destiny. "A Shade of Death's Door," in Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls, reiterates the particulars of the local measles epidemic featured in "The Turning-Point of My Life." It is in the latter piece, however, that Twain attests that if he hadn't consciously, defiantly (and quite literally) delivered himself into the hands of fate, thereby contracting the measles, his literary career might never have been. It was being "bad" that ultimately proved to be his ticket out of small-town life.
There is a lot of Hannibal in this book. Having lived there recently, this reviewer can attest to the fact that riverboats still land there, wildflowers still grow atop Cardiff Hill--and the currency--the legal tender of youth--still continues to change hands: marbles, doll parts, odd bits of string. Such evidence was occasionally found underneath my back porch. No doubt the neighborhood children continue to make strange pacts, too, from things read about robbers and pirates. As Huck says, in the present collection, "I've seen it in books, and so of course that's what we've got to do."
As the title would suggest, the passages in Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls are about childhood. There would surely be ample material if Rasmussen were at some point to edit a volume for nonconformist adults. In the spirit of Stephen Potter's witty Gamesmanship: The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, Rasmussen could avail himself of such real-life "gamespersonship" nuggets as Mark Twain's unfair advantage over Woodrow Wilson while playing miniature golf in Bermuda (this reviewer recently learned that the future President was, at the time, still recuperating from an injury that had earlier left him blind in one eye), and Twain's letting his cats wander through the midst of a billiard game.
Though it is compact, do not be deceived into thinking that Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls is a quick read. It is not. There is plenty of text, and much to savor. The illustrations were culled from first editions, and there are just enough of them to provide atmosphere without seeming extraneous. The touchable pages and attractive cover make for a tasteful, overall presentation. Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls is a pleasure to hold as well as to read.
R. Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls is the perfect gift for Christmas--or for anyone, for that matter. It is a delightful volume and, it has been said, is much better than coal. And, this reviewer would add, it burns with a truer light, the light of a youthful spirit.