Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mark Twain inflamed

Writers who do not despise their editors are either spineless or unbelievably lucky. A century ago one great American writer had his problems with a certain editor, and while that was unfortunate for the author it still benefits his readers today. For a pissed-off Mark Twain is magnificent to behold.

Some background: In 1899, according to the new University of California edition of Twain's Autobiography, a maladroit editor named T. Douglas Murray asked the world-renowned author to write an introduction to a translation of the trial record for Joan of Arc. Without even asking, Murray edited the introduction heavily, provoking Twain's ire because the edits were not only high-handed but also ham-handed.

The University of California Press edition for the first time reproduces the entire piece containing Murray's misemendations. Twain's objections in a fiery letter to Murray follow, and they are a hilarious lesson in why even a decent editor should leave a masterly writer's prose the hell alone.

One of Murray's transgressions was to Frenchify the piece, changing every "Joan of Arc" to "Jeanne d'Arc." This caused Twain to write:

"'Jeanne d'Arc.' This is rather cheaply pedantic, and is not in very good taste. Joan is not known by that name among plain people of our race and tongue. I notice that the name of the Deity occurs several times in the brief instalment of the Trials which you have favored me with; to be consistent, it will be necessary that you strike out 'God' and put in 'Dieu.' Do not neglect this."

Twain is only warming up. A few paragraphs later he writes, "Now you have begun on my punctuation. Don't you realize that you ought not to intrude your help in a delicate art like that, with your limitations?"

He hits his stride with "It is discouraging 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. And you ought to use it sometimes; that would help. If you had done this every now and then along through life, it would not have petrified."

Of one altered sentence Twain observes: "It cost me an hour's study before I found out what it meant. I see, now, that it is intended to mean what it meant before. It really does accomplish its intent, I think, though in a most intricate and slovenly fashion."

And: "You ought never to edit when awake." "O unteachable ass." "It was sound English before you decayed it. Sell it to the museum." "You got it out of 'How to Write Literary Without Any Apprenticeship.'" "It seems to me that for a person of your elegance of language you are curiously lacking in certain other delicacies."

Twain's invective goes on like this for pages and pages, until every competent writer I know will be falling over with glee.

Later in life Twain would observe, "I am glad I said no harsh things to him, but spared him, the same as I would a tape-worm. It is reward enough for me to know that my children will be proud of their father for this, when I am gone. I could have said hundreds of unpleasant things about this tadpole, but I did not even feel them."

A pity that Twain never mailed the letter. A glory that he preserved it for us.

1 comment:

  1. "ha! go easy on the tape-worm! that's true greatness...." sayeth an old friend, carl weissner, when i tipped him to this item.