From Mark Twain's autobiography

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Like half of the U.S., I've been reading the first volume of Mark Twain's recently-published autobiography. I'm sure that there's some sociolinguistics in it somewhere, but for now you'll have to be content with this rumination about discourse structure, which I present to you just in case you're in the half that hasn't bought the book yet:

Finally, in Florence in 1904, I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography: start it at no particular time of your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.

Also, make the narrative a combined Diary and Autobiography. In this way you have the vivid things of the present to make a contrast with memories of like things in the past, and these contrasts have a charm which is all their own. No talent is required to make a combined Diary and Autobiography interesting.

And so, I have found the right plan. It makes my labor amusement — mere amusement, play, pastime, and wholly effortless. It is the first time in history that the right plan has been hit upon.

This is also the right plan for successful blogging, in my experience.

OK, one more quotation:

For many years I believed that I remembered helping my grandfather drink his whisky toddy when I was six weeks old, but I do not tell about that any more, now; I am grown old, and my memory is not as active as it used to be.  When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying, now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the latter. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.

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10 Comments »

  1. Kalim Kassam said,

    November 24, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    You vastly overestimate the literacy of Americans, Mr. Liberman.

    [(myl) It's true that Twain's Autobiography is only #2 on amazon.com's bestseller list, inexplicably behind George W. Bush's Decision Points. But Keith Richards' Life is #8, and Sarah Palin's America by Heart is #11.]

  2. Jonathan Badger said,

    November 25, 2010 @ 12:06 am

    What do you think of Orwell's essay "The Licensed Jester" which which he claimed Twain pulled his punches in trade for the fame that being a non-threatening dissident provided. He actually reminds me a lot of Voltaire as described in Blom's "A Wicked Company", in which he claims the greater fame of Voltaire over Diderot was that Voltaire always criticized the Church and the ancien regime with tongue in cheek, while Diderot was always in earnest.

  3. zoetrope said,

    November 25, 2010 @ 4:54 am

    and a good morning to you!

  4. Nelida said,

    November 25, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    I especially liked this sentence:

    When I was younger I could remember anything, "whether it had happened or not"…

    You could write an entire article, or even build a story, around this tought alone. Hidden treasures, and manifest signs of great writers, these gems. You just have to mine them….

    Greetings, Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks for sharing.

  5. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 25, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    As my grandfather told us stories, he was especially good at remembering things that happened before he was born. By that I mean his first person narratives frequently placed him in time several years before his birth. It would be like me recalling the radio coverage of Pearl Harbor. It made the stories richer, but we never could tell what was true and what was license.

  6. Terry Collmann said,

    November 25, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    Considering all the smart sayings that have been attributed to Twain with no evidence that he ever said them ("When I was 14 I thought my father was the most ignorant man in the world …" and so on), it seems almost miraculous to have after all this time genuine evidence of a previously unknown Twain paradoxical jest in When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not"

  7. Jesse Hochstadt said,

    November 25, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    @Terry Collmann:

    "When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not," etc., is not previously unknown. I have heard it for years, and a Google search on "younger remember anything happened Twain" turns up plenty of mentions of the quote well before the publication of Twain's autobiography. At http://www.twainquotes.com/Memory.html it is attributed to "original manuscript in the Mark Twain Papers as reprinted in Quotable Mark Twain by R. Kent Rasmussen."

    It reminds me of the White Queen's rejoinder, in "Through the Looking Glass," to Alice's claim that "one can't believe impossible things": "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

  8. zafrom said,

    November 25, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    @Jesse Hochstadt
    Thank you — "plenty of mentions of the quote" also includes Project Gutenberg's copy of "Chapters from My Autobiography" (released about 4 years ago), among many other of his writings.

  9. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » From Mark Twain’s autobiography [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    November 27, 2010 @ 12:11 am

    [...] Language Log » From Mark Twain’s autobiography languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2802#more-2802 – view page – cached November 24, 2010 @ 6:49 pm · Filed by Mark Liberman under Language and Tweets about this link [...]

  10. Stuff I Learned this Week – #47/10 « Real Virtuality said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 6:01 am

    [...] Mark Twain can give you advice on blogging. [...]

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