Home | Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search

The New York Times, December 25, 1939

An Old Letter

Four years after Mark Twain captured the boyhood of America with "Tom Sawyer" a 12-year-old lad in Dallas, Texas, prompted by his teacher, sent the author one of his English themes together with his report card for the term. This led to a two-year correspondence. The boy, D. W. Bowser, grew to manhood and only recently died. But he always heeded Twain's warning: "Don't let any of this private letter get into print, old fellow."

That first letter, dated at Hartford, March 20, 1880, has now come to light. The writer gently rags his young friend on the perfection of his report card. "I notice that you do not go over 100 in Absence and Tardiness," he says, "That is very good, indeed. I used to strike 1,000 in those studies, sometimes, when I had my hand in." The body of the letter is devoted to sunset reflections on existence as a Mississippi River pilot. Mark Twain concludes that if he had to live his life over again it would be only on condition that he could return as a cub pilot and that it should be always Summer on the river, with the oleanders in bloom.

Author to Young Writers

There is one passage in the letter which should be made a part of every school course in English. The advice it contains is as sound today as is was nearly sixty years ago when it was written. And the amount of loose writing still pouring forth from the world's typewriters shows that it is as hard to follow now as it was then.

This is the passage:

"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice."

Return to The New York Times index

Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search