Mark Twain, How to cure a cold (Review)
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.
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.
“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 …