Posted: April 28, 2005
Mark Twain's Helpful Hints for Good Living: A Handbook for the Damned Human Race, edited by Lin Salamo, Victor Fischer, and Michael B. Frank
hen you're handing out advice to the human race, you can't be too careful.Three editors labored mightily, by their own admission, to whittle down the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain into a helpful 207 page handbook; they had a treasure trove to work with, and they were respectful and painstaking in their labors, as they will be the first to tell you. And the product bears them out.
But that does not suffice for confidence. My King James Version of the New Testament—offering its own helpful hints for the damned human race—is only 182 pages. A handful of inspired scribes and epistolarians put their best efforts into the first edition, prayerfully selecting from an apparently unlimited supply of promising raw material. But they ran into centuries of copyright wrangles and endless charges of plagiarism, and their work languished for a millennium and a half, available mainly in a dead-language version. They were marketing the infinite wisdom of the Almighty Himself, and He had name recognition to die for, but the trimmed down sampler was a tough sell.
Finally, a richly-funded crew of skilled translators, abetted by all the media access of an absolute monarch and the monopoly of an established church, ventured to put the book into shape for popular consumption in the English-speaking world, and it can't be denied they did admirable work. But, as I say, that does not suffice in this market niche. To fight off the "censures of illmeaning and discontented persons" and all manner of "calumniations and hard interpretations," their publishers had to roll out threats from the "dread Sovereign" with the first printing. And wars broke out anyway among discontented readers. To this day, the reading public still harbor doubts about parts of the book. It probably wasn't just for show that Jesus spoke in parables. Human beings are a proud race, and don't take kindly to meddlers.
But Salamo, Fischer, and Frank are no mavericks. They make no claims to divine inspiration, and I see no evidence that they got a king or a church involved, but they had backing. If we can believe their testimony, they belong to a Project that is housed among Papers that belong to a Library that is part of a University. That is The Mark Twain Project "housed within the Mark Twain Papers at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley." The Mark Twain Papers claim to be "the world's largest archive of primary materials" by Mark Twain, and the Mark Twain Project is producing "the first comprehensive edition of all of Mark Twain's writings," thirty-some volumes of which are already in print. And that's not all.
The selections, annotations, design, research, photography, historical scrupulosity, and proofreading that went into this volume are credited variously to the work of an editorial staff "over several decades"; still other titled editors ("General," "collegial," "project," and "sponsoring" [!]); one named professor and graduate student; "staff photographers" and their boss; and "many talented colleagues," a few of whom were talented enough to get their names in the book. If the four evangelists had had such an apparatus at the beginning, they might have made a smoother go of it.
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With all this help, the editors were able to protect their author considerably from the ravages of the public, and vice versa. They kept innocently out of the book about 997 available Twain words per thousand, and what they let in they apologize for profusely and hide amongst pictures and drawings and other usually inoffensive decorations. Nor do they leave his words, alone and delinquent, to sprawl all over the pages unchaperoned. Fifty-one Twain fragments, excerpts, and selections, ranging from a few lines to a few pages, are escorted decorously onto the premises under eight themes made up by the editors to preserve the proprieties: "Everyday Etiquette," "Travel Manners," "Health and Diet," etc. Each of the editors' matronly themes has an entire page devoted to itself in large letters: "the american table," and so on. Of the 51 sanitized bits of Twain, sandwiched as inconspicuously as possible in small print between these title pages, 38 are given "nonauthorial descriptive titles supplied by the editors." You could hardly show more care for his words if Twain were the sacred Word himself. (In fact, I've seen the Word protected from Itself this way in some modern Bible editions, and they are said to be safe even with children.)
As a result of these precautions, some 74 of Helpful Hints's 207 pages are innocuously devoted to Introduction, titles, epigraphs, photographs, drawings, notes, works cited, and acknowledgments. Still, this leaves 133 pages for Mark Twain to get into trouble. And as you'd expect, he rarely disappoints, despite the most careful attentions of his editors. Some of his better gags are almost as hoary as scripture, but Salamo and her confreres say they have been reading them to one another in the Library for over 30 years and are still laughing, so maybe it is safe to retail a few of them here.
In a half-page selection from a 1906 speech on American Manners, Twain lets slip the code under which the professoriate has been conducting business since the death of Socrates: "[I]t is noble to teach one's self; but still nobler to teach others—and less trouble." The corollary of this rule, seen universally to be at work not only among academics but wherever journalists or clergy congregate, is emblazoned in large print on one of the editors' specially designed Maxim pages, extracted (as we learn from their erudite notes) from Pudd'nhead Wilson: "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits." On another large font Maxim page is reprinted Twain's Biblically unsettling paean to the southern watermelon, also from Pudd'nhead Wilson: "…It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took: we know it because she repented."
Were Twain with us still, he would be a regular on the cover of Cigar Aficionado. On the question of smoking, which has assumed not merely social and ethical but legal, financial, and nearly religious dimensions in our time, Twain seems as reliable as ever: "As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake." But Twain was known to tell some stretchers, and here the editors earn their tenure. They let Twain's exaggerations onto their pages, but they occasionally keep him honest in their notes, as here, citing some clarifications from his friend William Dean Howells: "[Twain] always went to bed with a cigar in his mouth, and sometimes, mindful of my fire insurance, I went up and took it away, still burning, after he had fallen asleep…."
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Every renegade needs an orthodoxy as a straight man, so to speak, which is why all renegades are fated to be conservatives in our heterodox times. But Twain lived and wrote at a time when there was a superfluity of orthodoxies—of the old-fashioned kind. As he was growing up, there was hardly a more authoritative American orthodoxy than the moralizings of Ben Franklin as Poor Richard—urging honesty, and a penny saved, and early to bed, and the rest. In one of the longer pieces in this sampler, Twain is allowed a few pages to expose this cherished sage as the man of "vicious disposition" that every red-blooded boy recognizes him to be, "[who] early prostituted his talents to the invention of maxims and aphorisms calculated to inflict suffering upon the rising generation of all subsequent ages…. Nowadays a boy cannot follow out a single natural instinct without tumbling over some of those everlasting aphorisms…." Among other afflictions, "[i]f he does a virtuous action, he never gets anything for it, because 'Virtue is its own reward.'"
As a kind of antidote to the confining orthodoxies of Poor Richard, Twain elsewhere offers some of his own edifications, calculated to be more satisfying to boys of any generation: "Always obey your parents, when they are present…. Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any…. [B]e very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught…. An awkward, feeble, leaky lie is a thing which you ought to make it your unceasing study to avoid; …Why, you might as well tell the truth at once and be done with it."
On orthodoxies of attire, another Maxim page entry: "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society."
There is more such enlightenment and entertainment, conveniently packaged, in the remaining few pages of the book. And the editors and their Project deserve our gratitude for it. But have they neglected the lessons of history and erred on the side of boldness in letting so much in? The reading public is so fickle that you never know what might set them to censuring and calumniating. Those evangelists edited out a world of potentially controversial material, and King James obscured what remained under the most beautiful English known at the time, and all hell broke loose. What if they had swallowed their pride and just confined production to the Ten Commandments? Well-conducted focus groups could have shown that anything more would probably just confuse the multitudes and cause potential embarrassment to the Almighty. Even the Ten Commandments would predictably stir up some skirmishes: "Which version is authoritative? There are three, you know." "What qualifies for a 'graven image'? " "Can it be right to visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children? " "Which day is the Sabbath, anyway?" "How can Heather honor her father and mother if she has two mommies? " Such problems are bound to arise whenever you are dealing with the damned human race. You might possibly cut down the carnage by just printing the Golden Rule as the sum of Divine Wisdom. But you would want to put some large illustrations around it.
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And this is the policy I would suggest to the Twain editors, for the second printing: You're on the right track. You've kept Twain's most combustible stuff out of harm's way, and what slipped past your staff of thousands won't distract the casual reader from the photographs, which are mostly edifying (you might reconsider the naked one, though it is not without a certain natural dignity). But to avoid all possible misunderstandings, and to safeguard the honor of an author you hold in the highest esteem, though dead: keep a few dozen pages of your best pictures and such, and in the middle, in small italics, possibly rendered into an obscure foreign language or hidden in a footnote, quietly print the first two lines of that short Twain poem containing the sum of all secular wisdom, ancient and modern, respectively:
Be good, be good, be always good,
And now & then be clever . . . .
Do not be moved if your educated readers complain and demand to see more of Twain and less of the editors and their minions. That's just the kind of highbrow editorial policy that got the saintly scribes and the king in hot water. Stick to your principles, and aim for the other readers—it's a more promising market.