Monday, March 26, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"An author values a compliment even when it comes from a source of doubtful competency."

Mark Twain  (1835-1910)


JES said...

I don't know if you know the source of this line or not...

U.S. Grant had undertaken to write his autobiography but was very nervous about it. He was a soldier and politician -- what did he know about writing? He had Twain give him some help, but apparently worried quite a bit about Twain's never having offered an overall opinion. (The "He must have hated it!" syndrome.)

In his own autobiography, Twain said that when he learned of this issue, he "just happened" to be studying Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic wars. This enabled him, or so he said, to compare the merits (or absence thereof) of the two works. He said he met with Grant (although no actual correspondence or other record exists of this particular meeting), asserting that Grant's work was every bit the equal of Caesar's in its "clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike, soldierly candor and frankness and soldierly avoidance of flowery speech."

He added, "I learned afterward that General Grant was pleased with this verdict. It shows that he was just a man, just a human being, just an author. An author values a compliment even when it comes from a source of doubtful competency."

So even though on its face the line appears to be a sly comment about the vanity of authors, it is in fact a slyly modest assertion about Twain's own competency to offer any opinion at all.

(Found this story at Google Books, in a volume called Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America.)

Froog said...

Rich background indeed. Thank you for that, JES.

In regard to Twain, this seems obviously false modesty.

In regard to Grant, I am impressed by how many 'positive' comparisons he managed to make in his appraisal without commenting on the quality of the actual writing.

Did Grant publish an autobiography? Was it ghost-written or re-written or heavily edited? Do we know anyone who's read it?

I'm not sure that Caesar deserved all of those implied compliments, but he is a damned good read.

JES said...

Wikipedia's got a good summary of the book's composition (not ghost-written at all), Grant's personal circumstances at the time, and the critical response. I've never read it (not much of a bio fan), but have heard it referred to as one of the best autobiographies of the last hundred-plus years. Even without having read it, I have to say I love the story around its publication.

I thought of the false-modesty angle, too. But the bits I read in that book about the two men's friendship led me to believe that Twain, for once, might've been genuinely touched.

John said...

U gud ritor. I lyke ur blug

Froog said...

Yes, odd, isn't it, how 'textspeak' is starting to resemble Anglo-Saxon... or maybe Icelandic?