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Mark Twain, How to cure a cold (Review)

January 6, 2016

I haven’t reviewed anything by Mark Twain on this blog, though I have posted on an interview with him by Rudyard Kipling, so when his story “How to cure a cold” appeared in December as a Library of America Story of the Week, I figured it was time.

Mark Twain, by Matthew Brady, 1871 (Public Domain in the US, via Wikipedia)

Mark Twain, by Matthew Brady, 1871 (Public Domain in the US, via Wikipedia)

According to LOA’s notes, “How to cure a cold” was written in response to a serious cold followed by bronchitis that Twain suffered through the summer of 1863 – during the American Civil War, in fact, though you wouldn’t really know it from the story. He wrote several letters and reports detailing his experiences to newspaper editors in Virginia City (Nevada) and San Francisco, but didn’t write this dedicated piece until he arrived in San Francisco in September of that year. LOA says that this is one of the few pieces from his early years that he republished, revising and polishing it several times. He included it in his first book, The celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County (1867), and in a collection of his sketches published in 1875.

As you can probably imagine, given the topic and the Mark Twain factor, the piece – barely 6 pages in my version – is replete with all sorts of weird and wonderful cures. LOA tells us that the editors at the University of California Press,  which publishes Twain’s writings, say that ‘the remedies described by the author, although they seem ludicrous today, “were standard prescriptions of folk medicine …”‘.

I’m not going to write a long post about this piece, because it is short enough that you can read it quickly yourselves – at the link below, if you are interested. But, what I particularly love about this article – besides Twain’s trademark humour, and its careful construction – is that whole plus ça change thing. After taking a page to tell us how he got the cold – a page full of tongue-in-cheek humour – he tells us:

The first time I began to sneeze, a friend told me to go and bathe my feet in hot water and go to bed.

I did so.

Shortly afterward, another friend advised me to get up and take a cold shower-bath.

I did that also.

You can see where this is going can’t you? What follows is a chronicle of remedy after remedy that he tries – “feed a cold and starve a fever”, take the waters, apply a mustard plaster – and so on. He tries them all, to no avail, but the telling is entertaining. Some remedies are pretty harmless, some are rather enjoyable (like gin, and gin and molasses, not to mention whisky), but some are downright unpleasant, such as the warm salted-water one. He writes:

It may be a good enough remedy, but I think it is too severe. If I had another cold in the head, and there was no course left me but to take either an earthquake or a quart of warm salt water, I would cheerfully take my chances on the earthquake.

He did not like the warm salted-water much!

But honestly, nothing has changed has it? As soon we get sick, our family and friends are ready with remedies. All very kindly meant, but the offerings can be confusing, contradictory, and often ineffective. And if it’s not advice from friends and family, we do it to ourselves by finding concoctions over the counter or natural health remedies over the internet. I love the universality of this – the urge to help, the wanting to get better, and the desire to not offend one’s loving advisers. I’m not surprised Twain kept this story, and that LOA chose it as one to share.

I will leave it there, but before I finish I can’t resist sharing a comment on that opening page where he describes a house fire in which “I lost my home, my happiness, my constitution and my trunk”. He discusses the relative import of these, saying of losing his happiness that

I cared nothing for the loss of my happiness, because, not being a poet, it could not be possible that melancholy would abide with me long.

Ya gotta love it (no offence to poets intended). I do recommend this article.

Mark Twain
“How to cure a cold”
First published: In the San Francisco Golden Era, September 20, 1863.
Available: Online at the Library of America

NB I did say that my first review of 2016 would be for a farm novel. I lied! But it will be coming soon …

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2016 11:00 am

    But did he mention that when he was sick Howell’s threatened to come visit and bring Pride and Prejudice and read that to him? (Howell probably wrote this to him after Twain wrote How to Cure a Cold.) Twain is said to have loathed Jane Austen.

    • January 6, 2016 3:19 pm

      Haha, Bekah, no he didn’t – but maybe he did in one of the revised versions. If he had you can be sure I’d have mentioned it! Now you remind me, though, I seem to recollect that he wasn’t a fan.

  2. Jim KABLE permalink
    January 6, 2016 12:03 pm

    A great read – thanks for alerting me. I was just sending a note to Marc STEINER (Baltimore) about having met up for lunch in San Francisco late last June with his guest for later to-day on his radio program – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Red Dirt: Growing up Okie, 1997) and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) when your piece arrived… I have long felt that colds run their course – that nothing much helps – though if a sore throat is involved – then warm lemon and honey concoction can not harm – and carries with it the comforts of childhood as a bonus!

    • January 6, 2016 3:22 pm

      Red dirt: Growing up Okie sounds like a good read. It rings a vague bell. But, yes, I totally agree re colds. Some “remedies” can relieve symptoms for a while but that’s about it. Bacterial infections – now that’s another matter.

  3. January 6, 2016 5:04 pm

    Mark Twain is wonderful. We had an old family friend in the U.SA. who was one of the scholars in America who knew everything there was to know about Twain. He spent 7 years of his life travelling around American book stores looking for Mark Twain paraphernalia. He did a doctorate at Berkley in Calif on him. His library was wonderful . He had books signed by Twain dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe. He was an amazing man. He came out to see us when we first moved to Australia . He died at the age of 86 and I still have all his letters. Yourost made me think of him today as we really miss him.

  4. January 7, 2016 4:20 am

    This is hilarious! The funny thing about our present day cold concoctions is that science studies have shown they don’t work yet we persist anyway. Humans are so good at magical thinking.

    Now I expect the next post I see here to be that farm book review 😉

    • January 7, 2016 8:21 am

      Oh, glad you enjoyed it Stefanie … You are so right about magical thinking.

      As for that farm book review. You could probably lay a bet on it, though I only say probably so don’t come and complain if you lose your money.

  5. Tom Cunliffe permalink
    January 7, 2016 6:41 am

    Very nice Sue – an amusing post indeed. Have a great 2016 blogging!

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