Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Large Impressions


When we were ages three to six, my dad read us a bedtime story every night. But we didn’t waddle with the likes of Puddle Duck or Winnie the Pooh, we jumped head-first into American literature – Steinbeck, Jack London, and best of all, Mark Twain.

My dad had no time for baby stories. He wanted to understand the country he had chosen, so he learned as we learned. And every night, at the end of the chapter, we’d shout “More! More!” tucked in a warm bed while listening to Huck wax philosophical in a Scandinavian accent. Dad was discovering America, we were discovering words. And all Dad’s kids became writers, in one capacity or another.

Mark Twain died a hundred years ago today.

Good night, sweet ornery princes, the both of you.

Mark Twain, on writing:

God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention … You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.
- Letter to Orion Clemens, 3/23/1878

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English--it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them--then the rest will be valuable.

I conceive that the right way to write a story for boys is to write so that it will not only interest boys but strongly interest any man who has ever been a boy.
- Letter to Fred J. Hall, 10 Aug 1892

One gets large impressions in boyhood, sometimes, which he has to fight against all his life.
- The Innocents Abroad

32 comments:

  1. When I was probably no more than six years old my parents took us to St. Louis and we stood on the banks of the Missisiippi
    River. In junior high we spent I don't know how many weeks on "Huckelberry Finn," "Life on the Misissippi" and "Roughing It." In my twenties I spent I don't know how many years (*years*) working on the Mississippi River.

    Cause and effect? Oh yeah.

    ReplyDelete
  2. OH my. One day your throw us into convulsive laughter and the next, you make us dare to think. Maybe good ole Mark knew how badly I wanted to be a writer. Well you are my friend. I'm happy with that.
    V

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh my, looks like a brunch of things happened/happening on this day!

    How much in youth do we spend just trying not to be our parents. Then, in post-youth later find we've become like them in a profound way.

    You've been handed down from good stock, KB. I beg you to keep up your Alta-style of writing. So, I bark more! more! No higher compliment can a k9 bestow upon a human.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I don't think I've strayed very far from Winnie the Pooh, but as I love your writing so much, KB, I'm glad you were dipped into Mark Twain waters at birth. My wv is poloo. Winnie the Poloo. Nope, sounds and looks better the other way.

    ReplyDelete
  5. That Mark Twain. It's like he knew his stuff. Hats off to him.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I grew up in St. Louis and spent a lot of time looking at the muddy Mississippi. Huckleberry Finn is one of my favorite books of all time. After we moved to Chicago, we brought friends from Bosnia to St. Louis for a visit. An absolute highlight for them was standing on the banks of the Mississippi. I was amazed that they'd even heard of it. It was Mark Twain who'd introduced them to it. Thanks for the wonderful post, Karin.

    ReplyDelete
  7. He has gotten such a bad rap by modern revisionists. I hope someday his writings will be taught in schools again in a meaningful, non-censored way. His "Huckleberry Finn" is genius and the non-fiction "Innocents Abroad" is spellbinding.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Mark has some excellent advice on writing. I am glad your dad read you such 'lofty' literature, as it has served you well!

    You, my favorite contemporary writer of all, Karin - keep your talent spoiling us.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I love Markin' on de Twine

    PIO: You mean Huck Finn is no longer considered the greatest American novel?

    KB: Your father sounds wonderful.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Fantastic Twain quotes and a nice story about you, the sibs, and the dad.

    I don't recall being read to very often, much less the classics. Whether or not that's the reason, I gravitate toward poetry, short stories and nonfiction. Reading is not a warm fuzzy; it can be very pleasant business, but it is business. For sheer pleasure in the telling of longer stories, I switch on the idiot box or go to the movies or meet the guys for breakfast.

    This confession of an English teacher brought to you by Verbal Hot Biscuits.

    ReplyDelete
  11. P.S. In case it needs to be said, you've learned well from Twain's wit and conciseness. One reason I tend to shun novels is that nobody seems to understand that you gotta KEEP IT MOVING, without devolving into a mere hyper-active graphic novel. You know how to blend substance and entertainment. Thank you. And harrruummmph.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I should quote genius more often -- it allows me to bask in reflected glory.

    Thank you for the lovely (and overly generous) comments. It also makes me happy to know we're fellow Twain fans.

    K, I don't suppose you'll share some stories? Banjo, as I said before, there's a big difference between the English major & the English prof.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Great insights. And I still remember reading Tom Sawyer as a kid.

    ReplyDelete
  14. You were fortunate to have a father that loved the written word. He gave you a great gift. I'm a HUGE fan of Mark Twain. Especially his witticisms and quotes. You do him proud.

    ReplyDelete
  15. "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say." MT

    GG

    ReplyDelete
  16. His gifts to writers go beyond the amazing opus of wit he left behind - Mark Twain also did quite a bit to protect authors' rights over their works.

    Would he have tweeted or blogged nowadays? He would have had us all in stitches.

    This is a great tribute to both your father and a good author. Lovely.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Sounds like quite a childhood. My Mom didn't read to me at bedtime, but she did come in and sing me to sleep. I did not, however, grow up to be a singer. Unless crooning to tunes in my car counts.

    ReplyDelete
  18. One of those books I always tell myself I'm going to read but never get around to it "The Innocents Abroad". Actually, I've never read Twain so your father has one over on me.

    I do remember hearing Toni Morrison dissect Twain on KPFK. It was not flattering. Discuss among yourselves.

    Like Twain, I haven't read it yet.

    ReplyDelete
  19. When he heard we were from Connecticut, our family doctor wrote me a "prescription" to read "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."

    ReplyDelete
  20. Great quotes.

    Just finished re-reading Steinbeck's "Travels With Charlie." I'm amazed (though I shouldn't be) how prescient he was about 1960s America.

    ReplyDelete
  21. To me the image looks like one of Grieg....somehow I also have to look at the St Bernard this time, looks like a calm and cheerful dog.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Do you have any idea how much we all admire and savor your wondrous words my friend?
    V

    ReplyDelete
  23. I had to go to the Hartford Courant on business a couple of years ago. A thrill to be at the grand old man's paper.

    For anyone who Netflixes, there's a Ken Burns bio of Twain you can play right off the site.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I re-read "Connecticut Yankee" last fall. It's really a strange story, when you think about it. Haven't read Tom or Huck in a long time. But you put me in mind of my dad, singing us to sleep. Brahams' Lullaby. We didn't do stories at bedtime, but we're all bookish in our individual ways.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.
    Mark Twain
    The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself.
    Mark Twain

    He's one of my favorites too!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Ken Burns's film on Twain made this point about Huck Finn: "Twain identified the two great issues of the American story: race and space. And he's still making us confront those issues." I love that distillation.

    Love his canine companion in the photo, K....

    ReplyDelete
  27. More, more, they shouted...made me smile.

    I used to watch the deckhands on the Mississippi-people said they made good money. I wonder if K was among them?

    ReplyDelete
  28. What a great post, Karen. My dad read Kipling and Greek myths to me and my brother and sister, so we went in a different direction I guess--but I've thanked him in my mind a milion times for doing that for us.

    I live in Missouri and have actually been to Hannibal a few times...the place is a bit faded, but it not hard to see Huck and Tom and Jim walking down the old main street there.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Great story, great man!
    I loved Mark Twain...

    ReplyDelete
  30. Dirk, now I know that's a place I must visit.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Dirk, thanks for that picture. The place should be faded, I think, like a sepia photograph.

    ReplyDelete