Secret Origins: Mark Twain, Profanity, and Science Fiction

Yesterday, I posted the following Mark Twain quote on Facebook: “Profanity is more necessary to me than is immunity from colds.”

I came across the actual letter where Twain scribbled this comment earlier this week using the awesome online archive of Mark Twain’s letters hosted by UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.  I’m doing preliminary research for a visit the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley on Friday.

One of the real joys of literary research is coming across little wild, unknown bits of history during trips to research libraries.  Digging through an author’s collected papers is a thrill.

At NIU, I discovered letters written to the Boys of New York dime novel series asking for instructions of how to fight in Cuba against Spain–over two years before the sinking of the Maine when the U.S. entered that war officially.  The publisher was basically using a science-fiction “boy inventor” series to convince American kids that Cuba should be a sovereign nation.  And it was working.

I did a bit of work with W.B. Yeats’s papers at KU, looking at his writing about Walt Whitman. Got chills trying to decipher the man’s handwriting.

In Twain’s case, I’m researching his comments about Jules Verne.  Twain pretty much hated Verne.  And he hated the science fiction novel his brother Orion tried to write because it seemed like he was copying Verne.  Some of the letters he exchanged with his brother, Orion, are online at the Berkeley site.  Some of the other material Orion wrote are less accessible, and I’m hoping to read them Friday.

Fingers are crossed.  I hope I have another spell of chills when I dig into this stuff.  And, no doubt, a few laughs.  That Twain guy was occasionally somewhat funny.

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