Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The disappearance of literature

From an address by Mark Twain 119 years ago tonight:
We have heard a discussion to-night on the disappearance of literature. That's no new thing. That's what certain kinds of literature have been doing for several years.

The fact is, my friends, that the fashion in literature changes, and the literary tailors have to change their cuts or go out of business.

Professor Winchester here, if I remember fairly correctly what he said, remarked that few, if any, of the novels produced to-day would live as long as the novels of Walter Scott. That may be his notion. Maybe he is right; but so far as I am concerned, I don't care if they don't.

Professor Winchester also said something about there being no modern epics like Paradise Lost. I guess he's right. He talked as if he was pretty familiar with that piece of literary work, and nobody would suppose that he never had read it.

I don't believe any of you have ever read Paradise Lost, and you don't want to. That's something that you just want to take on trust. It's a classic, just as Professor Winchester says, and it meets his definition of a classic—something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.

Professor Trent also had a good deal to say about the disappearance of literature. He said that Scott would outlive all his critics. I guess that's true. The fact of the business is, you've got to be one of two ages to appreciate Scott. When you're eighteen you can read Ivanhoe, and you want to wait until you are ninety to read some of the rest. It takes a pretty well-regulated, abstemious critic to live ninety years.

But as much as these two gentlemen have talked about the disappearance of literature, they didn't say anything about my books. Maybe they think they've disappeared. If they do, that just shows their ignorance on the general subject of literature.

I am not as young as I was several years ago, and maybe I'm not so fashionable, but I'd be willing to take my chances with Mr. Scott to-morrow morning in selling a piece of literature to the Century Publishing Company. And I haven't got much of a pull here, either.

I often think that the highest compliment ever paid to my poor efforts was paid by Darwin through President Eliot, of Harvard College. At least, Eliot said it was a compliment, and I always take the opinion of great men like college presidents on all such subjects as that.

I went out to Cambridge one day a few years ago and called on President Eliot. In the course of the conversation he said that he had just returned from England, and that he was very much touched by what he considered the high compliment Darwin was paying to my books, and he went on to tell me something like this:

“Do you know that there is one room in Darwin's house, his bedroom, where the housemaid is never allowed to touch two things? One is a plant he is growing and studying while it grows” (it was one of those insect-devouring plants which consumed bugs and beetles and things for the particular delectation of Mr. Darwin) “and the other some books that lie on the night table at the head of his bed. They are your books, Mr. Clemens, and Mr. Darwin reads them every night to lull him to sleep.”

My friends, I thoroughly appreciated that compliment, and considered it the highest one that was ever paid to me.

To be the means of soothing to sleep a brain teeming with bugs and squirming things like Darwin's was something that I had never hoped for, and now that he is dead I never hope to be able to do it again.
Source: Mark Twain Speeches

No comments:

Disclosure

Links to Amazon.com are affiliate links and earn commissions.

Your support is appreciated.

Blog Archive

2013

You don't launch a popular blog,
you build one.
Seth Godin