The following review appeared 16 June 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
University of Texas, Austin
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
[Many thanks to Shelley Fisher Fishkin for coming to the rescue and writing this review so quickly, at short notice. I apologize to the Forum and to Mark Dawidziak for the delay between publication and this review, which had nothing to do with the reviewer, and everything to do with me. --review ed.]
Whether the book is designed to help the reader be a better manager, salesperson, parent, party- giver, or partner, a standard formula prevails in the self-help tomes of the '90s: simple principles expressed in pithy prose accompanied by celebrity endorsements. Twain was never shy about trying his hand at popular genres that were new to him (as his experiments in detective stories and science fiction demonstrate), or about recycling and repackaging his words. Were he to miraculously reappear today, he would probably size up the market and its demands, and set about compiling a how-to book for writers--only to find that Mark Dawidziak had beaten him to it on his own turf.
Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing, is the kind of book Twain himself might well have assembled. It is also the kind of book Twain might have enjoyed--which is saying a lot, given the high standards to which Twain held all books (his own and others').
Let me say at the outset that (1) I have no financial stake in the sales of this book, (2) I have never met its author, and (3) I am not fond of hyperbole and exaggeration. That being said, I'd like to assert that (1) every Twainiac needs this book, (2) anyone trying to learn to write can't help but learn something from this book, and (3) every Twainiac looking for a gift for graduates, drop-outs, teachers, students, parents, children, friends or enemies, should give this book. (Why give this book to your enemies? To keep them guessing. And to let them imagine themselves as the implicit targets of Twain's more spiky barbs.)
Twain's most familiar quips on writing are, of course, widely known ("The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug"), as is his withering attack on the literary offenses of James Fenimore Cooper. Less known, as Dawidziak makes clear, is the fact that Twain "was constantly writing about writing. Indeed he rarely strayed too far from an ongoing discussion of the literary life."
The experience is familiar to everyone who has spent any time with Twain. From his earliest books to his latest, the same thing keeps happening. You pick up a volume persuaded that you will leave it edified about some new subject or other only to find that you are once again hearing Twain ruminate on writing. His narrative of his trip to Europe in Innocents Abroad (1869), for example, often absorbs itself with the challenge of how to write with originality and freshness about scenes so many writers have tackled before, while his criticisms of Mary Baker Eddy in Christian Science (1907) often center on his problems with her prose style. The subject of writing allows Twain to address obliquely issues of honesty, authenticity, and moral integrity while on the surface at least, simply holding forth on what it means to communicate clearly.
It was an inspired idea to collect Twain's comments on writing in one place. Lucky for the reader, Dawidziak, sensible, witty, eloquent, wise and well-read, seems to have been the right man for the job. He has read Twain avidly and appreciatively, and has culled his quotes with careful attention from Mark Twain's works, from memoirs about Twain written by his friends, from interviews, from letters (mailed and unmailed), from autobiographical dictations. The result is a masterful compendium of the best things Twain said about writing and the writing life. Mark My Words combines useful insights into Twain's aesthetic and moral values, with a cornucopia of helpful tips for the aspiring writer. It is both encouraging and intimidating--for Twain can be a rather daunting taskmaster.
Chapter One, "On the Mark," prefaces Twain's comments on writing with celebrity endorsements. The wide range of writers with something good to say about Twain reminds the reader of Twain's richness and complexity. Who else, after all, could garner praise from E. B. White and Theodore Dreiser? From Jack London and T. S. Eliot? From George Bernard Shaw, Willa Cather, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, H. L. Mencken, Ben Hecht, Edmund Wilson, and Robert Penn Warren? On those rare occasions when Dawidziak's own authorial voice intrudes, it is usually to segue into a capper from Twain himself--such as his hypothesis about how Twain might respond to the foregoing bouquet of compliments on Huck Finn: "Perhaps we should look to an 1893 speech where he said, 'I have seldom in my lifetime listened to compliments so felicitously phrased or so well deserved.'"
Chapter Two, "The Clemens Companion to Good Writing," reminds the reader of the emphasis Twain put on the joy of writing, and on the importance of taking joy in our work. "I am hard at work . . . merely for the love of it," Twain wrote his friend William Dean Howells in 1881. Or, as he remarked to an interviewer in 1905, "No Sir, not a day's work in all my life. What I have done I have done because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn't have done it." The assemblage of quotes in this section is fresh and appealing, a reminder that Twain took enormous pleasure from producing work that in turn gave his readers great pleasure.
Twain displays his self-confidence with playful audacity ("There is no such thing as 'the Queen's English,'" he remarked in Following the Equator. "The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!") and airily dismisses the guardians of grammatical exactitude. (He quotes with approval a comment from a writer named Henry H. Breen that "'To suppose that because a man is a poet or an historian, he must be correct in his grammar, is to suppose that an architect must be a joiner, or a physician a compounder of medicine.'" Twain adds, "Mr. Breen's point is well taken. If you should climb the mighty Matterhorn to look out over the kingdom of the earth, it might be a pleasant incident to find strawberries up there. But Great Scott! You don't climb the Matterhorn for strawberries!") Here we find Twain's famous utterances on "unconscious influences" and plagiarism, on truth and fiction, on the three ways of pleasing an author. Some of the subheads may be rather arbitrary, but every quote is there for a reason and repays our attention.
Twain, Dawidziak tells us, "was literary godfather of many of the liberating rules of Strunk and White," and Twain's "sleekly modern" prose style, Dawidziak maintains, anticipates many twentieth-century style books. In Chapter Three, "Tips from Twain," Twain dramatizes many of those rules by following them before our very eyes. "I never write metropolis for seven cents because I can get the same price for city. I never write policeman because I can get the same money for cop," Twain tells us. Or, "With a hundred words to do it with, the literary artisan could catch that airy thought and tie it down and reduce it to a . . . cabbage, but the artist does it with twenty, and the result is a flower." "A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader's way and makes it plain," Twain writes. His marvelous images and memorable turns of phrase prove his point: "Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."
While some of Twain's comments here are familiar ("As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out"), others are less known and quite useful, such as the following quote from an 1876 letter to Frank E. Burroughs: "There is one thing which I can't stand and won't stand, from many people. That is sham sentimentality, the kind a schoolgirl puts into her graduating composition, the sort that makes up the Original Poetry column of a country newspaper, the rot that deals in 'the happy days of yore,' the 'sweet yet melancholy past,' with its 'blighted hopes' and its 'vanished dreams'--and all that sort of drivel." Or consider the following, from an 1878 letter to his brother Orion: "God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed by and by."
Anyone who has ever argued with a copyeditor will be heartened by the excerpts included here from a l900 letter to a presumptuous editor ("It is curious and interesting to notice what an attraction a fussy, mincing, nickel-plated word has for you," or "It was sound English before you decayed it. Sell it to the museum."). Some of the advice Twain offers is sage in an oxymoronic vein ("The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction.") Other advice is irrefutably practical ("Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.")
Chapter Four, "Training is Everything," assembles Twain's astute remarks on the role of experience and direct observation culled from sources that span Twain's entire career. One of the intriguing benefits of this assemblage is that the reader is reminded of how certain themes weave through Twain's writing life with pedal-point insistence. It is fun to see him explore the same theme in very different tones and timbres. "Experience is an author's most valuable asset; experience is the thing that puts the muscle and the breath and warm blood into the book he writes," Twain wrote in 1909. Or, as he put it in 1894, "a person that started in to carry a cat home by the tail was gitting knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and warn't ever going to grow dim or doubtful."
Chapter Five, "Bringing In A Book (from Manuscript to Library Shelves)," helps make Twain come to life as a writer as it addresses his "writing gait"--his daily output of pages at different points in his career. It also includes tart rejoinders to his editor ("It is discouraging to try to penetrate a mind like yours. You ought to get it out and dance on it. That would take some of the rigidity out of it."), his frustration with reviewers ("Haven't you had reviewers talk Alps to you, and then print potato hills?"), his exasperation with proofreading, and his comments on the crucial importance of revision.
Chapter Six, "Riding the Range of Styles" includes advice on letter-writing and speech-writing as well as a useful mini-tour of Twain's aesthetics, and concludes with a roundup of some of Twain's most memorable similes.
Chapter Seven, "The Write Stuff" brings together Twain's fascinating comments on other books and writers--including Cervantes' Don Quixote, the Bible, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Julius Caesar's Commentaries, and writing by Jonathan Swift, Benvenuto Cellini, Samuel Pepys, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Dickens, Booth Tarkington, George Washington Cable, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Oliver Goldsmith, Helen Keller, William Dean Howells, and Emile Zola.
In Chapter Eight, "Literary Wrongs," Twain grumbles about writers he prefers not to read--Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bret Harte, John Milton, and others. He famously refers to the Book of Mormon as "chloroform in print," and waxes eloquent over the literary sins of Mary Baker Eddy, Sir Walter Scott, and James Fenimore Cooper.
In Chapter Nine, "Twain on Twain," Twain weighs in with his opinions of various of his own books--comments that are handy to have together in one place.
Mark My Words is handsomely put together. Elegant typography, ample white space, the occasional apt illustration, a useful bibliography, and an index add to its appeal. It can be read straight through or in small segments--gulped or sipped, according to the reader's preferences and time constraints. The reader leaves it with fresh appreciation for Mark Twain's genius, judgment, and generosity of spirit.