Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls: Witty Counsel to Young Ladies of 1865

Mark Twain

Every Amer­i­can has appre­ci­at­ed at least a lit­tle bit of the oeu­vre of late-19th- and ear­ly-20th-cen­tu­ry humorist Samuel Clemens, bet­ter known as Mark Twain. Some only man­age to get through the chap­ters of The Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn their Eng­lish class­es test them on, but even those give them the inkling that they hold before them the work of a writer worth read­ing. Oth­ers go as far as to become enthu­si­asts of all things Twain, but per­haps stop just short of read­ing his “Advice to Lit­tle Girls,” a brief piece that offers the fol­low­ing points of coun­sel to the young ladies of 1865:

  • Good lit­tle girls ought not to make mouths at their teach­ers for every tri­fling offense. This retal­i­a­tion should only be resort­ed to under pecu­liar­ly aggra­vat­ed cir­cum­stances.
  • If you have noth­ing but a rag-doll stuffed with saw­dust, while one of your more for­tu­nate lit­tle play­mates has a cost­ly Chi­na one, you should treat her with a show of kind­ness nev­er­the­less. And you ought not to attempt to make a forcible swap with her unless your con­science would jus­ti­fy you in it, and you know you are able to do it.
  • You ought nev­er to take your lit­tle broth­er’s “chew­ing-gum” away from him by main force; it is bet­ter to rope him in with the promise of the first two dol­lars and a half you find float­ing down the riv­er on a grind­stone. In the art­less sim­plic­i­ty nat­ur­al to this time of life, he will regard it as a per­fect­ly fair trans­ac­tion. In all ages of the world this emi­nent­ly plau­si­ble fic­tion has lured the obtuse infant to finan­cial ruin and dis­as­ter.
  • If at any time you find it nec­es­sary to cor­rect your broth­er, do not cor­rect him with mud—never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is bet­ter to scald him a lit­tle, for then you obtain desir­able results. You secure his imme­di­ate atten­tion to the lessons you are incul­cat­ing, and at the same time your hot water will have a ten­den­cy to move impu­ri­ties from his per­son, and pos­si­bly the skin, in spots.
  • If your moth­er tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is bet­ter and more becom­ing to inti­mate that you will do as she bids you, and then after­ward act qui­et­ly in the mat­ter accord­ing to the dic­tates of your best judg­ment.
  • You should ever bear in mind that it is to your kind par­ents that you are indebt­ed for your food, and for the priv­i­lege of stay­ing home from school when you let on that you are sick. There­fore you ought to respect their lit­tle prej­u­dices, and humor their lit­tle whims, and put up with their lit­tle foibles until they get to crowd­ing you too much.
  • Good lit­tle girls always show marked def­er­ence for the aged. You ought nev­er to “sass” old peo­ple unless they “sass” you first.

“Amer­i­can children’s lit­er­a­ture in those days was most­ly didac­tic,” writes chil­dren’s-book author and illus­tra­tor Vladimir Radun­sky in a post at the New York Review of Books. It was often addressed to some imag­i­nary read­er, an ide­al girl or boy, who, “upon read­ing the sto­ry, would imme­di­ate­ly adopt its heroes as role mod­els. Twain did not squat down to be heard and under­stood by chil­dren, but asked them to stand on their tip­toes — to absorb the kind of lan­guage and humor suit­able for adults.” And Twain also under­stood that, humor, at the height of the craft, lim­its itself to no one audi­ence in par­tic­u­lar. Just as any­one, even today, can enjoy Huck­le­ber­ry Finn — any­one, that is, with­out a teacher look­ing over their shoul­der — “Advice to Lit­tle Girls” plays, like every­thing Twain wrote, to both girls and boys, to both the lit­tle and the big, at once irre­sistibly enter­tain­ing and vicious­ly sat­i­riz­ing the whole of what he called “the damned human race.”

Then again, Twain also knew, as any mas­ter humorist does, that noth­ing fun­ny ever ben­e­fit­ed from too much expla­na­tion. We’ll thus leave you with a link to Project Guten­berg’s col­lec­tion of 216 free e‑books of his work, among which a bit of time spent should turn any one of us into enthu­si­asts of all things Twain.

via the NYRB

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Shirt­less in 1883 Pho­to

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer

Mark Twain Drafts the Ulti­mate Let­ter of Com­plaint (1905)

Mark Twain Cap­tured on Film by Thomas Edi­son in 1909. It’s the Only Known Footage of the Author.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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