Saturday 30 November 2013

By the Mark Twain

It's his birthday today!  Samuel Clemens was born on St Andrew's Day 1835 in Florida, MO and grew up down the road in Hannibal, Missouri on the Mississippi River.  Four of his 6 siblings died in childhood and his father contracted pneumonia and died with Samuel was 11.  That sort of thing doesn't happen to families nowadays because of antibiotics, which we really under-appreciate.  Samuel had to earn a living for what was left of his family and his mother and worked as a gopher on the local newspaper before spending several years as a riverboat pilot.  Mark Twain as any fule kno is what the leadsman would cry when there was 12 feet (3.75m) of water.  Twain because 12 feet is two fathoms; "a quarter less twain" is 10-and-a-half feet.  More details including how each depth is marked (leather tags, red white and black cloth strips woven in) on the cord at boatsafe.  "By the mark twain" meant that for the moment the boat was safe from grounding, although with the ever-shifting silting and sand-banks, that margin of safety could rapidly shoal to nothing.  "No bottom" was defined as anything greater than "by the mark four" 24 feet, 7.5m.

Twain in Tesla's Lab
Clemens spent about four years in his early 20s as a pilot on the river, two years learning his trade and 2 practicing it until the Civil War put a stop to all civilian traffic on the river, and he always cherished his time there.  His younger brother Henry was not so fortunate as a riverboat pilot, getting killed when the boiler of the steamboat Pennsylvania exploded.  Clemens went Went West Young Man and worked, unsuccessfully, as a miner and, more successfully, as a journalist and writer, in Nevada and California.  Later on he moved East to New York and Connecticut where he was great pals with Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and other technologists.  But he's not really famous for his techie inventions (self-adhesive scrapbooks and improved suspenders) but for his writing - understated, ironic and vehemently anti-pretentious.  Reading, say, Moby Dick by his contemporary Herman Melville you know you're in Victorian times; reading Twain you are outside of time or for all time.  And he's so quotable:
  • It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” which I've quoted before.
  • A lie can make it half way around the world before the truth has time to put its boots on
  • Every generalization is false, including this one. 
All of which are also attributed to a wild array of different people.
  • Pilgrim's Progress, about a man that left his family, it didn't say why. I read considerable in it now and then. The statements was interesting, but tough. Which might well apply to Moby Dick.
  • It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand. 
  • Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it. 
  • The more I know about people, the better I like my dog.  
  • The difference between truth and fiction is that the latter must always be credible in order to work.
  • Irreverence is the champion of liberty, if not its only defender.  
  • Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
  • It may be called the Master Passion, the hunger for self-approval. 
 You'll find his books in any good library: Europeans try Innocents Abroad; Atheists - good copy on Mormons in Roughing It.

1 comment: