ONE OF MY MOST CHERISHED books as a young boy was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Still is. Less than a month after its first publication educators deemed it to be “trash and suitable only for the slums.” More recently it has been labeled as “racially insensitive” and a story that “perpetuates racism.”
Huckleberry Finn has a long history of being banned. It was first removed from library shelves in Concord, MA in 1885 due to the whole “trash and slums” thing. When told of this Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain responded in his usual sardonic style, “Good, now it’s bound to sell at least 25,000 copies.”
So did Twain realize his tale of Huck Finn and “N-Jim” was racist? Notice, I had to take the teeth out of the story by changing one word. I was never allowed to use that word in our home growing up, in Louisiana no less. Mark Twain wanted no such sanitized words. He knew exactly what he was doing with Huck and “N-Jim because he never wasted a word. He understood that words have a power to themselves, and just the right word can propel a story far better than pages of almost right words.He understood that words have a power to themselves, and just the right word can propel a story far better than pages of almost right words.
If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmild teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. – Ray Bradbury
Mark Twain and the Right Words
Though I was never allowed to use the aforementioned derogatory word, Huck Finn and Jim were the first to open my impressionable young mind to the true nature of their plight. Jim is an outcast because of his color and Huck because he didn’t care what society demanded he believed.
It was the use of just the right word that proved the difference in a lightning bug and lightning for me. Like Huck, I came to see that demeaning a people simply because of what they looked like made no sense to me either. Twain’s use of the aforementioned distasteful word doesn’t mean that he was indiscriminate in his use of words simply for their shock value. It simply followed his belief that the best words are direct and easy to understand.
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.” Mark Twain ~ Letter to D. W. Bowser, March 1880
Twain’s top 10 for good writing:
- Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.
- Use the right word, not its second cousin.
- As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.
- You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.
- Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.
- Use good grammar.
- Damnation (if you will allow the expression), get up & take a turn around the block & let the sentiment blow off you. Sentiment is for girls. . . . There is one thing I can’t stand and won’t stand, from many people. That is, sham sentimentality.
- 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.
- The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.
- Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.
Testament to the power of Twain’s well-chosen words is found in my memory of them. “You can’t pray a lie — I found that out.” That one is burned into my memory as I had just finished reading about Huck and Jim for the first time when my father called me into his office. My prayers for deliverance made it no higher than the ceiling that day. It took a little longer for me to see the irony of Tom Sawyer having no problem with tricking Jim into being locked up while at the same time becoming indignant at the reality of the slavery Jim had fled from.
“They hain’t no RIGHT to shut him up! SHOVE!—and don’t you lose a minute. Turn him loose! He ain’t no slave; he’s as free as any cretur that walks this earth!”
Never doubt the power of just the right word. What modern-day writer have you read who has Twain’s gift for a well-placed word?