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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

The Best Medicine

February 25, 2015 | by

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“He just simply couldn‘t stop it / He never knew when it was coming”: Winsor McCay‘s Little Sammy Sneeze, 1905.

If you’re not sick, you soon will be, and all the hand sanitizer in the world won’t save you. Everyone is a potential foe; no one wants to admit it. This morning on the subway, everyone was coughing and sneezing with varying degrees of discretion. The only people who seemed at all comfortable were two Japanese tourists wearing paper surgical masks. Well, maybe also the old man with a roll of toilet paper hanging around his neck on a loop of string. I envied all of them. 

All you can do is read Mark Twain. He wrote “How to Cure a Cold” for the Golden Era shortly after arriving in San Francisco in September 1863. Twain may never have actually said the famous thing about a San Francisco summer being the coldest winter he’d ever known, but the Bay Area fog was presumably enough to aggravate a lingering head cold—well, that or a nineteenth-century cross-country train ride. According to a series of humorous letters to the editor Twain sent in to the Call and the Enterprise around this period, he’d had the cold—and an ensuing bout of bronchitis—for at least a month when he wrote this piece chronicling various home remedies. Read More »

Today’s Defacement Is Tomorrow’s Artifact, and Other News

February 23, 2015 | by

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Mark Twain’s annotations to translations by John Dryden. Photo via NYRB

  • The FBI kept a file on James Baldwin that ran to 1,884 pages. What was in it? Reasonably adept criticism, among other things: “The mixed bag of memos, letters, and clippings that composed the typical FBI author file included more than espionage reports … It also included outbursts of literary critical prose, a type of writing judgmental in nature, but always indebted to the prior writing it describes. FBI author files thus qualify as recognizable works of literary commentary, as state-subsidized assessments and interpretations quietly warring with those produced by English professors and less stuffy book reviewers.”
  • A new exhibition at the New York Society Library, “Readers Make Their Mark,” collected annotated books from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, thus continuing the culture’s growing fascination with marginalia. “Sometimes they are making proclamations about their own books: George Bernard Shaw identifies a printed text of his Too True to be Good as a ‘Provisional Prompt Copy’ for a particular production and calls it ‘Frightfully Private. No Press Agent to be let near it.’ And sometimes—as in the case of an early woman reader who judges the characters in Emma, one by one—they respond to their books in ways that still seem familiar.”
  • “Let’s get out of here” is one of the most common lines in film—people in movies just love to leave places. “It confers agency on whoever says it. It draws a line under what’s gone before. It propels action. It justifies a change of scene, no matter how abrupt.” But in more contemporary movies, “getting out of here” faces stiff competition from its longtime nemesis, “staying put.” “This emphasis on staying suits our times: The people writing and watching these movies are all part of an introspective, if not isolationist, culture that’s still licking its wounds after plotless wars and a traumatic recession.”
  • Is there anything more insufferable than our current predilection for all things twee? “Twee is a symptom of profound cultural exhaustion, a pop-cultural response to the death of grand narratives and radical politics: too weary to fight the corporate capitalist machine, the twee instead create hyper-stylized alternative worlds in which kittens play, ukuleles sound and childhood is eternal. Their basic disposition is melancholy rather than angry, and they will always opt for owl-print wallpaper over kicking against the pricks.”
  • I’ve always dreamed of winning an Oscar—I could put it up for auction, I thought, and make a lot of money, and that would be cool. But it turns out that selling your Oscar trophy is a great way to get sued by the Academy. In fact, the Academy thrills to a good lawsuit; they’ve also brought suits against “television shows that use the name ‘Oscar’ (i.e., ‘The Wine Oscars’); a website that predicts Oscar winners; and a chocolate-maker who produced Oscar-shaped candies.” Next up: people named Oscar, or people related to those people.

Sherlock Holmes Defends Civil Engineering, and Other News

February 20, 2015 | by

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An illustration of Sherlock Holmes from The Strand, 1920s.

  • In Selkirk, Scotland, a man has found a previously unseen Sherlock Holmes story in his attic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently wrote it around 1904 to help raise funds for a new bridge. “It is believed the story—about Holmes deducing Watson is going on a trip to Selkirk—is the first unseen Holmes story by Doyle since the last was published over eighty years ago.”
  • Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so beloved? Probably just because everyone was forced to read it growing up—in reality, it’s a “white-trash gothic” that infantilizes blacks and demonizes poor whites: “The central struggle in To Kill a Mockingbird involves class, not race. The book’s theme is the class war within the white South between the noble gentry and the depraved poor. In a clever twist, thanks to the community’s racism the white underclass villain wins in court, but the gentry hero enjoys revenge at the end, thanks to a killing that is covered up by the local sheriff.”
  • While we’re at it, we’ve made a mess of Huck Finn, too: “We persistently misread Twain’s messages on race and children for a simple reason: Americans still subscribe to many of the same myths and prejudices as their nineteenth-century ancestors. Twain’s novel is not a hymn to the carefree pleasures of a rustic childhood; it’s a barbed critique of precisely the sort of standardized education that has now led to the book’s adoption in countless classrooms … Common readings of the book are now trapped in the same sanctimonious clichés that Twain both punctured and perpetuated.”
  • How quickly is our spoken language changing, and how many of those changes should be reflected in print? “There is a natural problem, found the world over: how quickly to allow writing to adapt to changes in the spoken language? If spelling were adapted to pronunciation, the result would be a radical and destabilizing break with centuries of tradition … English-speakers are stuck with an archaic and anarchic system. Liberties with grammar—making the written language look like the spoken one—should be few and cautious. Giving the written language a little room to change, but not too much, is the only way to enjoy the best of both stability and vitality.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers David Carr, who was his boss at the Washington City Paper: “David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it … ”

Have You Seen This Plaque? And Other News

January 6, 2015 | by

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Photo: Stifehler, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Everyone says television has entered a new golden age, so it follows that books based on television have entered a new golden age, too. In other words, why write a novel when you can write a novelization? “For publishers, tie-in books have become cash cows that offer instant brand recognition and access to huge fan bases for vastly larger media … ‘Sometimes I meet writers who are like, “Why are you doing this?” but I would be betraying who I am if I said I’m never going to do this again because it’s beneath me as an artist … I combat the idea that these can’t be good novels.’ ”
  • Breaking: some hooligan has made off with the bronze plaque that hangs on Mark Twain’s grave marker in Elmira, New York. Authorities have ensured that it’s not on eBay.
  • Our literary critics have become less egotistical over the decades—have they also lost the touch? “Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make ‘interventions’ of world-historical importance.”
  • And Vanity Fair has done something of an about-face, too, if you look at its history. “That it has become such a celebratory document of the upper class is one of Vanity Fair’s ironies,” but the early iteration of the magazine, edited by Frank Crowninshield, “sought to break something. Its initial sharpness drove at some kind of point other than the enjoyment of fine food and clothing.”
  • Rediscovered credos on typography from a 1964 issue of Print magazine: “Is the typographer a prophet or a propagator of a new faith? Typography should be allowed individuality … [but] the aim of typography must not be expression, least of all self-expression, but perfect communication achieved by skill … Typography is a servant and nothing more.”

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Letters from the Earth

December 10, 2014 | by

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A still from The Adventures of Mark Twain, 1985.

The Internet is filled with half truths, dead ends, and flat-out lies. But to my mind the single greatest disappointment is on YouTube: the video called “Mark Twain’s Voice.” I’ll admit, it’s interesting in its own right. (And it does lead one to Val Kilmer’s Mark Twain impression, a service in itself.) But the title is, to say the least, misleading. 

Perhaps the strangest of all Twain’s many pop-cultural portrayals is his claymation iteration in 1985’s The Adventures of Mark Twain. If it’s been a while, allow me to refresh your memory: A stop-motion Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher have to convince a suicidal, disillusioned Mark Twain not to ram his magical, time-traveling balloon into Halley’s Comet. Along the way, there’s history, some dramatizations of Twain’s work, and more oddness than you could possibly imagine. But you don’t have to take my word for it!

Its creator, Will Vinton, was apparently inspired by the quote in which Twain prophetically predicted the year of his death: Read More »

Who Shot Van Gogh? and Other News

November 19, 2014 | by

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Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Van Gogh, 1887.

  • Mark Twain’s career as an author began at a place called Jackass Hill, a boomtown gone bust where, in the local tavern, he heard the story that would become “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” “[I] turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures,” Twain wrote. “Poor, pitiful business!”
  • Today in terrifyingly ambiguous headlines: “Family’s agony over when to tell mother her premature babies died while she was in a coma after she woke up.”
  • “O to sail to sea in a ship!” Walt Whitman inspired many things—one of them, it turns out, was a logo.
  • Was Van Gogh … murdered? Conventional wisdom has it that he shot himself, but the facts don’t really support his suicide. “What kind of a person, no matter how unbalanced, tries to kill himself with a shot to the midsection? And then, rather than finish himself off with a second shot, staggers a mile back to his room in agonizing pain from a bullet in his belly?”
  • “I sometimes see science like art. People don’t necessarily see the connections to how it makes their lives better—this is not going to give them a better toaster, or something like that—but there is this feeling, just like with art, that this is important in some way. It is worth expending vital resources on, whether it’s tax money or people’s focus. It just feels worthwhile to do.” What we talk about when we talk about landing spacecrafts on comets.

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