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Mark Twain Said What?

According to a recent article in the New York Times, celebrated author Mark Twain was “often savage in his commentary” on other literary works. Writing in the margins, as was common among voracious readers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Twain edited already-published volumes by renowned authors Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and our own Lew Wallace.

So what did he think of Wallace’s writing style? Twain’s handwriting on one of the endpages of his copy of Wallace’s 1906 Autobiography is pictured here, and the transcription below spells it out clearly:

“The English of this book is incorrect & slovenly & its diction, as a rule, barren of distinction. I wonder what ‘Ben-Hur’ is like.”

This may be professional jealousy on Twain’s part. After all, Wallace’s epic – which Twain had apparently not read – outsold Twain’s work handily.

On the other hand, he’s kind of right. I mean, a two-volume autobiography? I’m not sure if he learned to be long-winded or if it was just his personality, but Lew could go on a bit. Modern readers in particular can get lost in the flowery, descriptive sentences that fill Lew’s writings.

But if it was “slovenly”, as Twain puts it, then why was Ben-Hur so popular? Was Mark Twain’s grammatical knowledge that far above the masses, or was he nitpicking other authors of popular works?

Frankly, even as the self-proclaimed “grammar police,” I find Twain’s comments unnecessarily abrasive. True, some of his better-known works – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance – contain diction that is quite distinctive, enough to prompt some school districts to ban some of them from the required reading list.

But is his work “correct” enough to qualify him to criticize so harshly? Wallace was not the only recipient of his reproach. Perhaps the question for the ages is not so much, “did Lew Wallace’s writings measure up?” as, “can Mark Twain make these claims?”

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