Mark Twain’s Viciously Funny Marginalia Took Aim at Some Literary Greats


Hem­ing­way once said that “all mod­ern Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huck­le­ber­ry Finn.” Twain, how­ev­er, was not only a mas­ter of sub­tle­ty and humor in fic­tion, but also a pierc­ing­ly fun­ny and some­times scathing essay­ist whose pen ranged from pol­i­tics to lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. Despite pub­lish­ing many bit­ing essays, many of Twain’s best barbs nev­er reached their tar­gets. Instead they remained with­in the mar­gin­a­lia of his books. In a series of doc­u­ments made pub­lic by the New York Times, Twain’s ire at slop­py writ­ing makes itself known. Some com­ments, like this one regard­ing his friend, Rud­yard Kipling, are fair­ly innocu­ous:


While Kipling got off light­ly, John Dryden’s trans­la­tion of Plutarch’s Lives seems to have hit a nerve, caus­ing Twain to change the inscrip­tion to “trans­lat­ed from the Greek into rot­ten Eng­lish by John Dry­den; the whole care­ful­ly revised and cor­rect­ed by an ass.” (Up top)


Notes in the mar­gins of Lan­don D. Melville’s Sarato­ga in 1901 show that it fared no bet­ter. Twain, it appears, renamed the vol­ume, dub­bing it “Sarato­ga in 1891, or The Drool­ings of An Idiot.”

He also deemed some of the writ­ings to be the “Wail­ings of an Idiot.”


And, just so there was­n’t any ambi­gu­i­ty about what he thought, Twain labeled Melville a “lit­tle mind­ed per­son.”

For more of Mark Twain’s jot­tings, head over to the New York Times’ doc­u­ment archive and The Mark Twain House & Muse­um.

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Plays With Elec­tric­i­ty in Niko­la Tesla’s Lab (Pho­to, 1894)

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

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