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:

-K- said...

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.

Virginia said...

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

Cafe Observer said...

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.

Shell Sherree said...

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.

Amy said...

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

Terry B, Blue Kitchen said...

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.

pasadenapio said...

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.

Brenda's Arizona said...

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.

Mister Earl said...

I love Markin' on de Twine

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

KB: Your father sounds wonderful.

BANJO52 said...

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.

BANJO52 said...

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.

altadenahiker said...

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.

Michael Coppess said...

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

BaysideLife said...

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.

Anonymous said...

"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

Quid said...

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.

Carolynn said...

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.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

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.

Bec said...

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

Miss Janey said...

LOVE this post...

Karen said...

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.

Anonymous said...

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.

Virginia said...

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

altadenahiker said...

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.

Petrea said...

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.

Linda said...

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!

Linda Dove said...

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....

bandit said...

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?

Dirk said...

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.

Pat Tillett said...

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

altadenahiker said...

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

Petrea said...

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