Mark Twain's Advice To Little Girls
July 15, 2011 5:13 PM   Subscribe

[Mark Twain] did not squat down to be heard and understood by children, but asked them to stand on their tiptoes—to absorb the kind of language and humor suitable for adults.
posted by Fiasco da Gama (21 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
This is brilliant! It's hard to imagine that this was ever meant for children, though -- the writing seems so dense. Then again, there's over a hundred years of changing language usage, so it probably wasn't as bad as it might seem from 2011's perspective.
posted by phenylphenol at 5:41 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm reading Huck Finn with a very serious and well read 12 year old. We read a few chapters, then talk about it, do some research, talk about it some more. So many questions.

I think this is my fourth time reading HF.

The older I get, the more in awe of this i stand.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:15 PM on July 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

Twain was an irrepressible shit disturber.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:20 PM on July 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

phenylphenol, it's intended purely as humor:

'Good little girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offense. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.

If you have nothing but a rag-doll stuffed with sawdust, while one of your more fortunate little playmates has a costly China one, you should treat her with a show of kindness nevertheless. And you ought not to attempt to make a forcible swap with her unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.

You ought never to take your little brother's "chewing-gum" away from him by main force; it is better to rope him in with the promise of the first two dollars and a half you find floating down the river on a grindstone. In the artless simplicity natural to this time of life, he will regard it as a perfectly fair transaction. In all ages of the world this eminently plausible fiction has lured the obtuse infant to financial ruin and disaster.

If at any time you find it necessary to correct your brother, do not correct him with mud--never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is better to scald him a little, for then you obtain desirable results. You secure his immediate attention to the lessons you are inculcating, and at the same time your hot water will have a tendency to move impurities from his person, and possibly the skin, in spots.

If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won't. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.

You should ever bear in mind that it is to your kind parents that you are indebted for your food, and for the privilege of staying home from school when you let on that you are sick. Therefore you ought to respect their little prejudices, and humor their little whims, and put up with their little foibles until they get to crowding you too much.

Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to "sass" old people unless they "sass" you first.'

posted by Robin Kestrel at 6:47 PM on July 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

[Mark Twain] did not squat down to be heard and understood by children, but asked them to stand on their tiptoes—to absorb the kind of language and humor suitable for adults.

I remember reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn at the age of 10 or 11 and understanding the story just fine.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:55 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

phenylphenol, it's intended purely as humor:

Try reading these with John Hodgeman's voice in your head. No?
posted by R. Mutt at 7:00 PM on July 15, 2011

Anecdata from the other side: A few months ago I tried reading Tom Sawyer aloud to a 12 and 10 year old (may have been 11 and 9 at the time) and they couldn't follow the combination of old-timey language, old-timey "stuff" (switches to spank people, etc) and irony. Too many variables at once.
posted by DU at 7:03 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please forgive me, good sir.
posted by R. Mutt at 7:03 PM on July 15, 2011

Try reading these with John Hodgeman's voice in your head
Good, so I'm not the only one.

I actually had a hard time imagining this being written and published by Mark Twain. It seems so modern. (You know, like a modern parody of these kinds of things..)
posted by bleep at 9:09 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Twain was a master of his craft. And once, in his youth, of the Mississippi River.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:18 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Try reading it in the voice of William S. Burroughs.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:09 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just a little side-note regarding children's fiction... I've been reading Enid Blyton's "Faraway Tree" series to my son. I have some objections to Blyton, but my son loves it, so I'm cool with it. Anyway, the various books I'm reading to him have different vintages, in terms of when they were printed. One was printed in the 1960s, one in the 1980s, and one very recently.

Throughout this period, the girl "Fannie" suddenly had her name changed to "Frannie".

"Dame Slap", that dastardly master of corporal punishment for bad elves and pixies, is now "Dame Snap". What does that even mean?

My son's more confused by the fact that names keep changing, than by any effort I would have had to put into explaining things if they had just left them alone.
posted by Jimbob at 12:31 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

This posts causes me to wonder whether Go the Fuck to Sleep will outlive the Mark Twain era.
posted by 7segment at 1:18 AM on July 16, 2011

Try reading it in the voice of William S. Burroughs .

I think everything should be read in the voice of William S. Burroughs, though. Also makes for a very good Winnie-the-Pooh.
posted by Grangousier at 2:07 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post. I want to obtain this book for my grand daughter. Slight problem, she does have a little brother and I want him to be o.k. too ت
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:59 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm always amazed that no recording exists of Twain's voice. I'd love to know the cadence and tone in which he would say this sort of thing - would he have sounded like Hodgman? Would he have sounded like Burroughs? We'll never know.
posted by waitingtoderail at 5:00 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Waitingtoderail, he actually used phonograph machines to record parts of his biography, he was trying to use it in conjunction with a stenographer. He got frustrated with the process and scrapped it. It's a damn shame they didn't save any of the records.
posted by pomegranate at 8:37 AM on July 16, 2011

Didn't he sound like Hal Holbrook? I'm disappointed.
posted by jgaiser at 9:15 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know, I think this advice extends well to bigger girls, too. I plan on applying several of these today.
posted by chatongriffes at 10:04 AM on July 16, 2011

I think the advice grew out of Twain's astute observations of actual little girl behavior.
posted by fredludd at 1:25 PM on July 16, 2011

Can we hear Mark Twain's voice?

For many years, the optimists among us were sure the answer was

Long ago (1955) I saw an old-fashioned acetate recording, supposedly made by Twain himself, on display in the Mark Twain House in Hannibal, Missouri. I was never able to learn anything further, nor what became of that.

We do know there used to be some recordings of Twain. In early 1891 he attempted to dictate a new novella, The American Claimant, into a machine rented for him by his friend William Dean Howells. But he quit after "filling four dozen cylinders," complaining, "You can't write literature with it."
[ . . . ]
Luckily, William H. Gillette (1853-1937), a favorite actor and playwright of pre-World War I America, happened to be a long-time friend of Mark Twain, and as a sideline he used to do impersonations of Twain and other popular figures. In 1934 Gillette reprised his Twain impersonation for a group of Harvard students — his text was the opening of the celebrated “Jumping Frog” story — and happily for us the performance was captured by Professor Frederick C. Packard, Jr. of the Speech Department.
[ . . . ]
Thanks to this happy confluence of interests, we have a reasonably authentic (albeit second-hand) experience of Mark Twain’s living voice.

Is it a faithful rendition? Almost certainly, it doesn't convey what Twain's audiences heard in the 1870s and '80s; that youthful voice is gone forever — though a sufficiently gifted performer might yet give us a persuasive reconstruction. On the other hand I think Gillette's credentials make it a safe bet this recording really does sound like the white-haired Twain of the 1890s and beyond. Gillette was widely known as a gifted mimic, and he knew Twain for decades as a neighbor and a mentor — in fact, he made his stage debut in an 1875 Hartford production of The Gilded Age.

The recording offered here was found online by Jerry Dean, who kindly forwarded it to me. It has been processed to remove some of the hiss and other background noise. For ease of comprehension, I've included a transcription below.

A few more links about recordings of Mark Twain & re-creators:[1][2][3]

Additionally, it is thought that Thomas Edison made a recording, but it got destroyed in a fire. Current opinion is that there is no longer an extant recording, but some of the recreations are realistic.
posted by Tuesday After Lunch at 8:15 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

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