Mark Twain, A presidential candidate (Review)

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)

Towards the end of his life, Mark Twain wrote, the Library of America (LOA) says,

The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.

I’m not sure the US had/has a monopoly on this. However, let me get to the point. LOA published Twain’s column, “A presidential candidate”, back in 2012 but, given the current political shenanigans in the USA (no offence to my American readers intended), I couldn’t resist sharing it with you today. It’s very, very brief, so my post will be too. In fact, I suggest you ignore my post, and just click on the link below to read it yourself.

Sometimes, I think, we forget – at least I do – how little things have changed really. Just read Twain’s opening:

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate, to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done …

And he then proceeds to own up to a wide range of rather bizarre “wickedness” as you would expect from Twain, wickedness like running “a rheumatic grandfather” up a tree in the middle of a night because he snored, and burying a dead aunt under a tree to fertilise his vine. He also ran away, he says, at the battle of Gettysburg. His friends try to excuse him, he writes, on the basis that he was trying to emulate George Washington at Valley Forge, but no, he says, the reason is that he was scared. He’d like his country to be saved but would prefer someone else to save it. Indeed, he writes,

My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two­-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

I like his style! He also discusses his financial views and what he would do with poor people, but you can read those for yourself.

LOA tells us that the piece was written the year before the presidential race between Republican James A. Garfield and Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock. Twain supported Garfield. As American readers would know, Garfield won, but was assassinated before he finished his first year.

But that’s another story. Twain’s “A presidential candidate” is an entertaining piece of political satire in which Twain suggests that all he need do to be a valid candidate is to make known upfront his “wrongdoings”. What sort of man he is, he implies, is far less relevant. Indeed, Twain once wrote that “an honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere”. If Twain is at all representative of his times, it makes me think that not as much has changed in the last hundred or so years regarding our attitudes to politics and politicians as current commentators think.

Mark Twain
“A presidential candidate”
The Library of America
Originally published as Mark Twain as a presidential candidate, 1879
Available: Online

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.

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 …