Writer’s Quote Wednesday // Mark Twain

Hello there! Welcome to Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen at Silver Threading. Each week bloggers share their favorite quotes to inspire and motivate each other to keep going, to keep writing, and to keep working toward our goals. My contribution this week is from iconic American author and humorist, Mark Twain.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835, Twain is best known for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), often called “the Great American Novel”. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri which is where both these novels are set.

He also worked as a typesetter and contributed articles to his older brother Orion’s newspaper. After toiling as a printer in various cities, he became a master riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River, before heading west to join Orion. He was a failure at gold mining, so he next turned to journalism. While a reporter, he wrote a humorous story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which proved to be very popular and brought him nationwide attention.

He achieved great success as a writer and public speaker. His wit and satire earned praise from critics and peers, and he was a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty.

Though he made a great deal of money from his writings and lectures, he squandered it on various ventures, in particular the Paige Compositor, and was forced to declare bankruptcy. With the help of Henry Huttleston Rogers, however, he eventually overcame his financial troubles. Twain worked hard to make sure that all of his creditors were paid in full, even though his bankruptcy had relieved him of the legal responsibility.

Born during a visit by Halley’s Comet, he died on its return on April 21, 1910. He was lauded as the “greatest American humorist of his age”, and William Faulkner called Twain “the father of American literature”.

I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

– Mark Twain, in a letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898

So this quote might not at first seem very inspiring but considering I am currently, and have been for awhile, slogging my way though Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I found it quite a relief that there was someone else who hated it too. (In fact, there were many other author’s who hated it.) Wait, hate is too strong a word for how I feel. It’s not strong enough to describe Twain’s feelings though. I at least can see the genius in her work. I think she is very good at witty dialog and her attention to detail is phenomenal.

It’s just that the story is dragging and the plot is centered very narrowly around the social wants and needs of quite a large group of characters. It’s hard to keep straight the names of every person in this novel and remembering how each is related to the others is almost impossible for me. I need a damn chart to reference every time a new person walks in or out of a scene or whenever two people are discussing a third. And oh do they talk so much about each other!

Each of these characters is sickening good on the outside and passive aggressively cruel on the inside. I think I hate every one of them. It’s hard to enjoy a book where you cannot even like just one of the characters. Don’t get me wrong, Elizabeth’s attitude toward the personalities and views of those around her is amusing, and I find myself agreeing with her a lot but she seems like such a damn spoil sport and a drag to be around that I can’t even like her!

I think though that the problem must lie with me and not Austen. Everyone likes her so much and she is regarded as one of the greatest novelists of all time so surely my opinion of her must be wrong. But again Twain makes me feel like it is at least understandable in this telling of why he hates Austen so much:

Whenever I take up “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility,” I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, I feel as he would probably feel, would almost certainly feel. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be — and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. Be- cause he considered himself better than they? Not at all. They would not be to his taste—that is all.

She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.

– “Jane Austen,” published in 2009 in Who Is Mark Twain?

I see this as a sort of jealousy. He does start by saying “Whenever I take up…” as if he continues to try over and over. I think if he really felt her work inferior he would stop trying but I think he sees her genius too but can’t get past his irritation at the goodness of it all. He can’t be good like those people, and he doesn’t know why they would want to be so good and so he hates them. More than that he cannot understand why Austen would want to write them that way. On that we agree if my assessment is correct.

I, too, find them boring, and their talks of their petty cares and worries are irritating. I hope Twain is right and maybe I am only going to hate everyone in this novel until the middle and the something will happen and I will at least like one or two.

Then again, it isn’t just the characters I hate. I find the setting and the telling of the story a bit dull. I wish I didn’t feel this way because I always take others to task for thinking this about movies I like that have an interesting message or a particularly good ending. I always try to get them to see the movie for what it was supposed to be rather than what they think the movie ought to be but I am having a hard time taking my own advice when it comes to Pride and Prejudice.

It’s as if the whole thing gives me a claustrophobic feeling. As if I am closed into a small space with so many other people breathing hot, stifling air and all I want is for something refreshing to happen already!

To me his prose is unreadable — like Jane Austin’s [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.

– Mark Twain, Letter to W. D. Howells on Edgar Allen Poe, 18 January 1909

No, I do not feel the same hate for Austen that Twain does. I do not think it a “pity that they allowed her to die a natural death”. I think she really is a great author, just maybe not to my taste, that’s all. I do think I will reserve final judgment of her work until I have actually finished Pride and Prejudice and maybe I’ll even wait until I’ve read Sense and Sensibility too. I worry it will take me forever to finish though since every time I try to read her I end up putting the book aside and looking for something more exciting to do.

P.S. If your interested, here are a few more author-to-author insults to enjoy :)

Original image via Kate Hiscock

Biographical information via Goodreads

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Lisa

Hello! My name is Lisa. I find the human condition fascinating and I often write stuff about that. I blog at zenandpi.com but you can also find me on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, and if you like what I do, consider signing up for my newsletter. Thanks :)

8 thoughts on “Writer’s Quote Wednesday // Mark Twain”

  1. Wow! It’s a good thing that Mark Twain did not edit his own books because it seems to me that he had no editing skills––whatever he thought, he wrote. Ha, ha! I’ve learned a long time ago that you can’t please everyone. That it doesn’t matter how good your book is there will always be people that don’t care for it. That’s how it is. But, there’s no reason for such hate that you’d like to exhume the author’s body and crush her skull with her own shin-bone. Yikes! No book is written for everyone. You know, if Mark Twain and Jane Austin were the same age and lived in the same era I’d swear they were lovers. I wonder what Jane-look-alike did him wrong.

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  2. Interesting. This reminds me of a recent long thread on metafilter: http://www.metafilter.com/151267/Wheres-My-Cut-On-Unpaid-Emotional-Labor
    It seems to me that Jane Austin wrote about what a woman “of her station” was allowed to think about and do, and that she is writing about the surface and what she sees on a deeper level…. you say that the characters are “good” on the surface and “ugly” on the inside and you don’t like them. And that it is petty and too claustrophobic: think if you had been a woman in that time period. I think Jane Austin dealt with it in a creative way that still resonates.
    If the “social glue” and unpaid emotional labor that our culture expects women to do does not in fact matter, why does it still exist? For example, writing thank you letters for wedding presents. Is it the wife’s job? If the couple doesn’t do it, is it their mother’s fault on each side? Why the mother’s and not the father’s? Social pressure relating to how we “should” be and the conflict between how we are “inside” seems to me to be a topic that both Mark Twain and Jane Austin wrote about…..

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  3. Wow! This is interesting. So vicious. I had no idea. I guess there were no boundaries to this incivility. LOL. And that link to the other snipers was priceless. Makes me wonder just what was going on in all their lives. And how much of this had to do with professional jealousy. Like Kottaway above I think her writing had more to do with what was taking place at that time. So did his. You are what you write, right! Great post.

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