Mark Twain drew a number of sketches that he (hopefully) never intended for publication. Four of them appear here.
Perhaps Twain drafted them as a starting point for a one-day illustrator. It’s odd to think they were intended to appear in their initial, rough state. However, since “How to Make History Dates Stick” was published posthumously, Harper’s Monthly Magazine decided to capitalize on the use of the author’s own “illustrations.”
Calling the scribblings “illustrations” is quite generous. The manuscript drawings remind one of the quick drawings that C.S. Lewis sometimes included in his correspondence.
In this essay, Twain says the key to learning and remembering key historical dates is associating them with pictures.
These chapters are for children . . . Dates are difficult things to acquire; and after they are acquired it is difficult to keep them in the head. But they are very valuable.
They are like the cattle-pens of a ranch—they shut in the several brands of historical cattle, each within its own fence, and keep them from getting mixed together.
Dates are hard to remember because they consist of figures; figures are monotonously unstriking in appearance, and they don’t take hold, they form no pictures, and so they give the eye no chance to help.
Pictures are the thing. Pictures can make dates stick. They can make nearly anything stick—particularly if you make the pictures yourself. Indeed, that is the great point—make the pictures yourself. I know about this from experience.
Setting aside the merits of Twain’s suggestion, the final encouragement to personally draw the illustrations is intriguing. It suggests that Twain may have honestly desired that these very sketches would be included in the published text. In this scenario, the writer would be setting the illustrative bar so low that no one could doubt their ability to draw at least as well as the author of Tom Sawyer.
Twain’s Antipathy Towards Editors
Many writers sympathize with how Twain wielded the blade of his wit against unsympathetic editors. “I hate editors,” he declared, “for they make me abandon a lot of perfectly good English words.” (Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field)
He also praised the French emperor for committing a misguided murder. “How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember with charity, that his intentions were good.” (Correspondence, 1906)
Editors played a major (usually unwelcome) role in Twain’s existence. Thus, it is unsurprising that a major digression in “How to Make History Dates Stick” involves these denizens of the publishing world.
Incorporating editors into his study requires a bit of a stretch, and each sketch is associated in the text with a British monarch. You can see them in that context at TwainQuotes.
I’ve culled the four editors from Twain’s work, and provided a portion of his description about each. They appear here out of order since I wish to end with the one I find most entertaining . . . because it evokes the image of an impish helper in Screwtape’s sulfurous scriptorium.
That is an editor. He is trying to think of a word. He props his feet on a chair, which is the editor’s way; then he can think better. I do not care much for this one; his ears are not alike . . .
I could make him better if I had a model, but I made this one from memory. But it is no particular matter; they all look alike, anyway. They are conceited and troublesome, and don’t pay enough.
That is a society editor, sitting there elegantly dressed, with his legs crossed in that indolent way, observing the clothes the ladies wear, so that he can describe them for his paper and make them out finer than they are and get bribes for it and become wealthy.
That flower which he is wearing in his buttonhole is a rose—a white rose, a York rose—and will serve to remind us of the War of the Roses, and that the white one was the winning color when Edward got the throne and dispossessed the Lancastrian dynasty.
This editor is a critic. He has pulled out his carving-knife and his tomahawk and is starting after a book which he is going to have for breakfast.
This one’s arms are put on wrong. I did not notice it at first, but I see it now. Somehow he has got his right arm on his left shoulder, and his left arm on his right shoulder, and this shows us the back of his hands in both instances. It makes him left-handed all around, which is a thing which has never happened before, except perhaps in a museum.
That is the way with art, when it is not acquired but born to you: you start in to make some simple little thing, not suspecting that your genius is beginning to work and swell and strain in secret, and all of a sudden there is a convulsion and you fetch out something astonishing.
This is called inspiration. It is an accident; you never know when it is coming. I might have tried as much as a year to think of such a strange thing as an all-around left-handed man and I could not have done it, for the more you try to think of an unthinkable thing the more it eludes you; but it can’t elude inspiration; you have only to bait with inspiration and you will get it every time.
Look at Botticelli’s “Spring.” Those snaky women were unthinkable, but inspiration secured them for us, thanks to goodness.
It is too late to reorganize this editor-critic now; we will leave him as he is. He will serve to remind us. [One can only imagine what a delightful time an editor would enjoy, chopping up that stream of consciousness writing?]
And now for the goblinesque editor. It offers Twain’s most artistic element, which was most likely an accident. Note how the end of the pencil serves to substitute for the eye which may or may not reside behind it.
Another editor. That thing behind his ear is his pencil. Whenever he finds a bright thing in your manuscript he strikes it out with that. That does him good, and makes him smile and show his teeth, the way he is doing in the picture.
This one has just been striking out a smart thing, and now he is sitting there with his thumbs in his vest-holes, gloating. They are full of envy and malice, editors are.
Hopefully, if you are a writer who has submitted your work to an editor, you have been fortunate enough to have avoided these characters.
Editors are, after all, our friends. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but good editors can certainly help make our work better. May God graciously lead you to editors of that sort.