Nov. 30, 2010

The Snowstorm

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of snow.

"The Snowstorm" by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said: "Writing is the easiest thing in the world. ... Just try it sometime. I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees and I scribble away." That's American writer Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the pen names Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, Rambler, and W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab. But his most famous pen name of them all, and the one we know him by today: Mark Twain. (books by this author) He was born on this day 175 years ago in a log cabin in Florida, Missouri (1835).

He worked as a journalist and then published his first book, a short-story collection called The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867). But it was a nonfiction book based on his travels through Europe and the Middle East that first made him famous. That book, The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, sold 100,000 copies within two years. It remained his best-selling book while he was alive, outselling classics like Tom Sawyer, Pudd'nhead Wilson, and even Huck Finn, a book that Hemingway famously said that all modern American literature comes from. Hemingway stated, "There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

Mark Twain loved the story of Joan of Arc, and he hated the writings of Jane Austen. He once said that every time he read Pride and Prejudice,he wanted to dig up Austen and "beat her over the skull with her own shin bone." He was famously cantankerous and famously witty, he's sometimes referred to as "America's first stand-up comic." He especially loved cutting down people he thought were pretentious or haughty. Once, he was visiting a then-famous artist friend of his in London, a painter. He stepped out of the cold wet London air and into the artist's studio, and hunkered down closely over some newly painted potential masterpieces to get a good look at them. His painter friend came in yelling at him: "For the love of God! Be careful, Clemens! Apparently you don't realize that the paint is still fresh." Twain shot back: "No need to be concerned; I have my gloves on."

But despite his famous cleverness and marked skepticism, he was surprisingly gullible when it came to shady investments and far-fetched get-rich-quick plans. He lost his money investing in a number of inventions related to steam engines, health food supplements, men's suspenders that were supposed to adjust themselves, and in a way of printing illustrations using chalk that was called "Koalatype."

He skipped out on a chance to invest in Alexander Graham Bell's newly patented invention — the telephone. But he did throw $300,000 of his money — earnings from his books and his wife's inheritance — at a typesetting machine. The whole thing failed, and 10 years after he published Huck Finn,he went broke and had to declare bankruptcy.

He was 60 years old, a beloved best-selling author and in deep debt, and so he went on a reading tour around the world to make some money and pay his creditors. Along the way, he met Gandhi and Freud. His friends and fans wrote letters but didn't know where to mail them, so addressed them in ways like "Mark Twain, Somewhere in the World." He often got the letters and wrote back. To one addressed "Mark Twain, God Knows Where," Twain replied to the sender: "He did." People would sometimes write his name on an envelope and mail it to the White House, where Teddy Roosevelt's staff would obligingly forward it along to the famous author.

Around the time he was 70, he got serious about writing his autobiography. He'd made a few tries at it over the years, but it wasn't until then that he settled on a new approach and worked consistently at it. His new approach was to dictate his autobiography, which he felt would allow him to speak with a "whole frank mind." He hired a stenographer. Rather than giving a traditional, chronological account of his life, he decided to go with a structure he described like this: "Start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale."

He called it a "complete and purposed jumble" and also a "combined autobiography and diary." And he also said that with that form he'd created "one of the most memorable literary inventions of the ages ... it ranks with the steam engine, the printing press & the electric telegraph." He said, "I'm the only person who has ever found the right way to build an autobiography."

He left 5,000 pages of unedited memoir, and decreed that it could not be published until he had been dead for 100 years, when he'd be "unaware, and indifferent." He died in 1910 and the first volume of his autobiography was published just this month. It reached the No. 2 spot on the New York Times best-seller list weeks before it was released.

There are two more volumes of autobiography, which will be released in the next five years. The autobiography and Mark Twain's other works are being edited by a team of six scholars at the Mark Twain Archives, housed at the Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus. The archives contain hundreds of unfinished manuscripts by Twain, as well as 50 of his notebooks, books from his library, which he scrawled handwritten notes into, and thousands and thousands of personal letters.

Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography:
It was during my first year's apprenticeship in the Courier office that I did a thing which I have been trying to regret for fifty-five years. It was a summer afternoon and just the kind of weather that a boy prizes for river excursions and other frolics, but I was a prisoner. The others were all gone holidaying. I was alone and sad. I had committed a crime of some sort and this was the punishment. I must lose my holiday, and spend the afternoon in solitude besides. I had the printing-office all to myself, there in the third story. I had one comfort, and it was a generous one while it lasted. It was the half of a long and broad watermelon, fresh and red and ripe. I gouged it out with a knife, and I found accommodation for the whole of it in my person — though it did crowd me until the juice ran out of my ears. There remained then the shell, the hollow shell. It was big enough to do duty as a cradle. I didn't want to waste it, and I couldn't think of anything to do with it which could afford entertainment. I was sitting at the open window which looked out upon the sidewalk of the main street three stories below, when it occurred to me to drop it on somebody's head. I doubted the judiciousness of this, and I had some compunctions about it too, because so much of the resulting entertainment would fall to my share and so little to the other person. But I thought I would chance it.

I watched out of the window for the right person to come along — the safe person — but he didn't come. Every time there was a candidate he or she turned out to be an unsafe one, and I had to restrain myself. But at last I saw the right one coming.

(From Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by The Mark Twain Project of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, published by UC Press, 2010.)

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the Canadian children's author L.M. Montgomery, (books by this author) Lucy Maud Montgomery, born in Clifton, Prince Edward Island, in 1874. She wrote more than 500 short stories and poems, and 20 novels. Nineteen of these novels were set on Prince Edward Island, including her first, Anne of Green Gables (1908), about an old farm couple who think they have arranged to adopt a boy to help out with their farm in rural Prince Edward Island, and instead end up with Anne, a spunky red-headed orphan girl.

It's the birthday of the playwright David Mamet, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1947) whose father was a labor lawyer and loved to argue for the sake of arguing. Mamet said, "In my family, in the days prior to television, we liked to while away the evenings by making ourselves miserable, solely based on our ability to speak the language viciously." Mamet has gone on to write a series of plays about conmen, salesmen, thieves, and liars in plays such as American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. David Mamet said: "The revelation of modern drama is that you can apply the Aristotelian unities to ... a very, very small human interchange. ... It [doesn't] have to be about conquering France. It can be about who did or did not turn on the gas on the stove."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
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