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kottke.org posts about Mark Twain

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, a previously unpublished children’s book by Mark Twain

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2017

Prince Oleomargarine

To Mark Twain’s posthumously published works, add one more: a book for children called The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Twain jotted down notes for the book — which was discovered a few years ago in the Twain literary archive — but never finished the story. Doubleday bought the rights and worked with Philip and Erin Stead (an author and illustrator, respectively) to complete the story and turn it into a book.

In a hotel in Paris one evening in 1879, Mark Twain sat with his young daughters, who begged their father for a story. Twain began telling them the tale of Johnny, a poor boy in possession of some magical seeds. Later, Twain would jot down some rough notes about the story, but the tale was left unfinished…until now.

Plucked from the Mark Twain archive at the University of California at Berkeley, Twain’s notes now form the foundation of a fairy tale picked up over a century later. With only Twain’s fragmentary script and a story that stops partway as his guide, author Philip Stead has written a tale that imagines what might have been if Twain had fully realized this work.

The Steads introduced several changes to the story, including making the book’s hero black. This New Yorker piece by Mythili Rao explores how much artistic license should be taken with a story that ultimately has Twain’s name on it.

“I was surprised by that,” Bird told me, when I asked him about the Steads’ interpretation of the character. “I just didn’t see the textual evidence for it. If Mark Twain wanted to make somebody black, he would make them black. He was not shy about dealing with matters of race.” When Twain told his daughters bedtime stories, he often incorporated household objects or magazine illustrations in the narrative. In his journals, he wrote, “The tough part of it was that every detail of the story had to be brand-new — invented on the spot — and it must fit the picture.” (Susy, in particular, was an “alert critic.”) The journals suggest that Johnny, a recurring character in Twain’s bedtime stories, was based on a rather clinical William Page illustration of the male figure that the Clemens daughters spotted in an April, 1879, issue of Scribner’s Monthly magazine. It seems likely that neither Twain nor his daughters imagined Johnny as the Steads do.

Mark Twain’s “new fangled writing machine”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2015

Mark Twain Typewriter

From the still-excellent Letters of Note, a scan of Mark Twain’s first correspondence typed on the Remington typewriter he bought in 1874. The note, written to his brother, expressed Twain’s hope that the machine would allow him to write more quickly in the near future.

I love that the first line is just a bunch of gibberish — “BJUYT KIOP N LKJHGFDSA:QWERTYUIOP:_-98VX5432QW RT”. Twain (or his two-year-old daughter Susie) likely was just testing out the keys and instead of wasting the paper, started his correspondence below.

In a dictation taken in 1904, Twain recalled seeing and then buying the typewriter.

Nasby and I saw the machine through a window, and went in to look at it. The salesman explained it to us, showed us samples of its work, and said it could do fifty-seven words a minute — a statement which we frankly confessed that we did not believe. So he put his type-girl to work, and we timed her by the watch. She actually did the fifty-seven in sixty seconds. We were partly convinced, but said it probably couldn’t happen again. But it did. We timed the girl over and over again — with the same result always: she won out. She did her work on narrow slips of paper, and we pocketed them as fast as she turned them out, to show as curiosities. The price of the machine was $125. I bought one, and we went away very much excited.

At the hotel we got out our slips and were a little disappointed to find that they all contained the same words. The girl had economized time and labor by using a formula which she knew by heart. However, we argued — safely enough — that the first type-girl must naturally take rank with the first billiard-player: neither of them could be expected to get out of the game any more than a third or a half of what was in it. If the machine survived — if it survived — experts would come to the front, by-and-by, who would double this girl’s output without a doubt. They would do a hundred words a minute — my talking-speed on the platform. That score has long ago been beaten.

Update: In the letter, Twain states he paid $125 for the typewriter, which, according to this inflation calculator, is about $2600 in 2014 dollars, or a couple hundred dollars more than the starting price of the 27-inch 5K iMac. I would love to see the first letter written by Twain on one of those. (via @spsheridan)

Only surviving film footage of Mark Twain

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2012

It was shot by Thomas Edison in 1909 about a year before Twain’s death.

(via the atlantic)

Mark Twain on the telephone

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2011

From the June 1880 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Mark Twain writes about the telephone, then a relatively recent invention. Or rather, he writes about hearing other people use the telephone:

Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world, — a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise, or sorrow, or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says.

No “nigger” in new edition of Huck Finn

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2011

A new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn replaces occurrences of “nigger” in the text to “slave”.

The idea of a more politically correct Finn came to the 69-year-old English professor over years of teaching and outreach, during which he habitually replaced the word with “slave” when reading aloud. Gribben grew up without ever hearing the “n” word (“My mother said it’s only useful to identify [those who use it as] the wrong kind of people”) and became increasingly aware of its jarring effect as he moved South and started a family. “My daughter went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl. She loathed the book, could barely read it.”

I wonder how many times that word was used in songs appearing on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart last year? Or perhaps nigga != nigger.

Mark Twain’s Autobiography

posted by Aaron Cohen   May 24, 2010

Mark Twain’s will stipulated that his autobiography remain unpublished for 100 years after his death, the 100th anniversary of which was April 21st. In November, the University of California Press will release the first volume of what’s anticipated to be a rip roaring good time.

Although parts of the autobiography have appeared in previous biographies of the author, Hirst said that over half of it had never been published before. Running to half a million words, the trilogy of books will cover Twain’s relationship with his secretary Isabel van Kleek Lyon, his religious doubts and his criticisms of Theodore Roosevelt.

More information here.