Mark Twain and the Art of Swearing

     Lyle Larsen

      Mark Twain sagely observed that under certain trying circumstances swearing provides relief denied even to prayer.  Most people, of course, unlike Mark Twain, never acquire proficiency in this field, but remain amateurs all their lives.  They seek relief in trying circumstances by uttering a series of flat and commonplace vulgarities that fail to solace themselves or to inspire others.  These people--that is to say, most of us--would do better to stick with prayer and leave swearing to the masters.

     Mark Twain, pen name of Samuel Clemens, learned to swear from the best practitioners of the art--mostly steamboatmen on  the Mississippi River, and miners in the West.  This was at a time when vivid swearing captured the youth, spirit, and vitality of young America, a time when gifted swearers commanded respect and admiration.

     When the mate of a Mississippi steamboat, for instance, gave the simplest order, wrote Clemens, "he discharged it like a blast of lightning and sent a long, reverberating peal of profanity thundering after it."  The average landsman, if he wanted the gangplank moved a little forward, might say, "James, or William, one of you push that plank forward, please."  The mate of a steamboat, on the other hand, would roar, "Here, now, start that gang-plank for'ard!  Lively, now!  What're you about!  Snatch it! snatch it!  There! there!  Aft again! aft again!  Don't you hear me?  Dash it to dash! are you going to sleep over it!  'Vast heaving.  'Vast heaving, I tell you!  Going to heave it clear astern?  WHERE're you going with that barrel! for'ard with it 'fore I make you swallow it, you dash-dash-dash-dashed split between a tired mud-turtle and a crippled hearse-horse!"  Clemens wished at the time that he could talk like that.

     Several years after Clemens himself became a riverboat pilot, the Civil War shut down traffic on the Mississippi, and Clemens decided to try his fortunes in the gold fields and silver mines of California and the Nevada Territory.  There he discovered that miners were no less adept at swearing than steamboatmen.  He found that "when it comes to pure ornamental cursing," the American miner "is gifted above the sons of men."  He admired their talents: "There is nothing like listening to an artist--all his passions passing away in lava, smoke, thunder, lightning, and earthquake."

     Clemens eventually became an artist himself.  By the time he gave up the rugged life of the West for more sedate living in the East, he had learned to swear with the best of them.  He could blaspheme, he said, "in a way that made my breath smell of brimstone."  Swearing by then had become so deeply ingrained in the fabric of his character, that even after he established himself as a famous writer, married a New England girl of good social standing, bought a fashionable house in Hartford, and started raising a family, he could not curb his blasphemous speech.  "There ought to be a room in this house to swear in," he told a friend.  "It's dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that."

     A recent biographer mourned the fact that he had never heard Jenny Lind sing or Mark Twain swear.  The juxtaposition seems appropriate, for those who did hear Mark Twain swear have testified that it was the performance of a master and not at all vulgar or offensive.  A woman named Elizabeth Wallace occasionally heard Clemens in his billiard room: "Gently, slowly, with no profane inflexions of voice, but irresistibly as though they had the headwaters of the Mississippi for their source, came this stream of unholy adjectives and choice expletives."  She was not all shocked but rather impressed.

     The maid, Katy Leary, recalled that Mark Twain's profanity was too imaginative to really seem bad.  "It was sort of funny," she remembered, "and a part of him somehow.  Sort of amusing it was--and gay--not like real swearing."

     One day Jean, Clemens's young daughter, was offended to hear a man swearing in the street outside.  Katy Leary reminded her that she often heard her father swear in the same way.  "Oh, no, Katy!" said Jean.  "You're mistaken.  That wasn't swearing.  That was only one of papa's jokes!"

     Clemens's wife, Livy, was one of the few who did not appreciate her husband's swearing, and he tried to keep watch on his tongue when she was close by; but one day something irritated him, and, thinking his wife could not hear, he launched into a torrent of red-hot profanity.  When he entered his wife's room a short time later, she coolly repeated word-for-word everything he had said.

     "Livy," he replied, astounded yet amused, "did it sound like that?"

     "Of course it did," she said, "only worse.  I wanted you to hear just how it sounded."

     "Livy, it would pain me to think that when I swear it sounds like that.  You got the words right, Livy, but you don't know the tune."

     Mark Twain lived during Victorian times.  That may explain why so many people commented on the brilliance of his profanity, but nobody recorded exactly what he said.  The best indication we have of Mark Twain's talents in this area comes from a letter in which he refers to an editor as a "quadrilateral astronomical incandescent son of a bitch."

     Said Mark Twain towards the end of his life, "If I cannot swear in heaven I shall not stay there."

 

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