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
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 Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.