Editorial Wild Oats
Typical Mark Twain slightly caustic, complex humor. Six of Mark Twain's recollections his early experiences in newspaper work on topics such as his first editorship at age 13, the weaponry needed to edit a newspaper in Tennessee, a character study, and a couple of blunders he made along the way.
Editorial Wild Oats
by Mark Twain
My First Literary Venture
I was a very smart child at the age of thirteen – an unusually smart child, I thought at the time. It was then that I did my first newspaper scribbling, and most unexpectedly to me it stirred up a fine sensation in the community. It did, indeed, and I was very proud of it, too. I was a printer’s “devil,” and a progressive and aspiring one. My uncle had me on his paper (the Weekly Hannibal Journal, two dollars a year, in advance – five hundred subscribers, and they paid in cord-wood, cabbages, and unmarketable turnips), and on a lucky summer’s day he left town to be gone a week, and asked me if I thought I could edit one issue of the paper judiciously. Ah! didn’t I want to try! Higgins was the editor on the rival paper. He had lately been jilted, and one night a friend found an open note on the poor fellow’s bed, in which he stated that he could no longer endure life and had drowned himself in Bear Creek. The friend ran down there and discovered Higgins wading back to shore. He had concluded he wouldn’t. The village was full of it for several days, but Higgins did not suspect it. I thought this was a fine opportunity. I wrote an elaborately wretched account of the whole matter, and then illustrated it with villanous cuts engraved on the bottoms of wooden type with a jack-knife – one of them a picture of Higgins wading out into the creek in his shirt, with a lantern, sounding the depth of the water with a walking-stick. I thought it was desperately funny, and was densely unconscious that there was any moral obliquity about such a publication. Being satisfied with this effort, I looked around for other worlds to conquer, and it struck me that it would make good, interesting matter to charge the editor of a neighboring country paper with a piece of gratuitous rascality and “see him squirm.”
I did it, putting the article into the form of a parody on the “Burial of Sir John Moore”—and a pretty crude parody it was, too.
Then I lampooned two prominent citizens outrageously – not because they had done anything to deserve it, but merely because I thought it was my duty to make the paper lively.
Next I gently touched up the newest stranger – the lion of the day, the gorgeous journeyman tailor from Quincy. He was a simpering coxcomb of the first water, and the “loudest” dressed man in the State. He was an inveterate woman-killer. Every week he wrote lushy “poetry” for the Journal, about his newest conquest. His rhymes for my week were headed, “To Mary in H – L,” meaning to Mary in Hannibal, of course. But while setting up the piece I was suddenly riven from head to heel by what I regarded as a perfect thunderbolt of humor, and I compressed it into a snappy footnote at the bottom – thus:
“We will let this thing pass, just this once; but we wish Mr. J. Gordon Runnels to understand distinctly that we have a character to sustain, and from this time forth when he wants to commune with his friends in h – l, he must select some other medium than the columns of this journal!”
The paper came out, and I never knew any little thing attract so much attention as those playful trifles of mine.
For once the Hannibal Journal was in demand – a novelty it had not experienced before. The whole town was stirred. Higgins dropped in with a double-barrelled shot-gun early in the forenoon. When he found that it was an infant (as he called me) that had done him the damage, he simply pulled my ears and went away; but he threw up his situation that night and left town for good. The tailor came with his goose and a pair of shears; but he despised me, too, and departed for the South that night. The two lampooned citizens came with threats of libel, and went away incensed at my insignificance. The country editor pranced in with a warwhoop next day, suffering for blood to drink; but he ended by forgiving me cordially and inviting me down to the drug-store to wash away all animosity in a friendly bumper of “Fahnestock’s Vermifuge.” It was his little joke. My uncle was very angry when he got back – unreasonably so, I thought, considering what an impetus I had given the paper, and considering also that gratitude for his preservation ought to have been uppermost in his mind, inasmuch as by his delay he had so wonderfully escaped dissection, tomahawking, libel, and getting his head shot off. But he softened when he looked at the accounts and saw that I had actually booked the unparalleled number of thirty-three new subscribers, and had the vegetables to show for it – cord-wood, cabbage, beans, and unsalable turnips enough to run the family for two years!
Journalism in Tennessee
The editor of the Memphis Avalanche swoops thus mildly down upon a correspondent who posted him as a Radical: “While he was writing the first word, the middle, dotting his i’s, crossing his t’s, and punching his period, he knew he was concocting a sentence that was saturated with infamy and reeking with falsehood.”—Exchange.
I was told by the physician that a Southern climate would improve my health, and so I went down to Tennessee and got a berth on the Morning-Glory and Johnson County Warwhoop as associate editor. When I went on duty I found the chief editor sitting tilted back in a three-legged chair with his feet on a pine table. There was another pine table in the room and another afflicted chair, and both were half buried under newspapers and scraps and sheets of manuscript. There was a wooden box of sand, sprinkled with cigar-stubs and “old soldiers,” and a stove with a door hanging by its upper hinge. The chief editor had a long-tailed black cloth frock-coat on, and white linen pants. His boots were small and neatly blacked. He wore a ruffled shirt, a large seal ring, a standing collar of obsolete pattern, and a checkered neckerchief with the ends hanging down. Date of costume about 1848. He was smoking a cigar, and trying to think of a word, and in pawing his hair he had rumpled his locks a good deal. He was scowling fearfully, and I judged that he was concocting a particularly knotty editorial. He told me to take the exchanges and skim through them and write up the “Spirit of the Tennessee Press,” condensing into the article all of their contents that seemed of interest.
I wrote as follows:
“Spirit of the Tennessee press
“The editors of the Semi-Weekly Earthquake evidently labor under a misapprehension with regard to the Ballyhack railroad. It is not the object of the company to leave Buzzardville off to one side. On the contrary, they consider it one of the most important points along the line, and consequently can have no desire to slight it. The gentlemen of the Earthquake will, of course, take pleasure in making the correction.
“John W. Blossom, Esq., the able editor of the Higginsville Thunderbolt and Battle-Cry of Freedom, arrived in the city yesterday. He is stopping at the Van Buren House.
“We observe that our contemporary of the Mud Springs Morning Howl has fallen into the error of supposing that the election of Van Werter is not an established fact, but he will have discovered his mistake before this reminder reaches him, no doubt. He was doubtless misled by incomplete election returns.
“It is pleasant to note that the city of Blathersville is endeavoring to contract with some New York gentlemen to pave its wellnigh impassable streets with the Nicholson pavement. The Daily Hurrah urges the measure with ability, and seems confident of ultimate success.”
I passed my manuscript over to the chief editor for acceptance, alteration, or destruction. He glanced at it and his face clouded. He ran his eye down the pages, and his countenance grew portentous. It was easy to see that something was wrong. Presently he sprang up and said:
“Thunder and lightning! Do you suppose I am going to speak of those cattle that way? Do you suppose my subscribers are going to stand such gruel as that? Give me the pen!”
I never saw a pen scrape and scratch its way so viciously, or plough through another man’s verbs and adjectives so relentlessly. While he was in the midst of his work, somebody shot at him through the open window, and marred the symmetry of my ear.
“Ah,” said he, “that is that scoundrel Smith, of the Moral Volcano—he was due yesterday.” And he snatched a navy revolver from his belt and fired. Smith dropped, shot in the thigh. The shot spoiled Smith’s aim, who was just taking a second chance, and he crippled a stranger. It was me. Merely a finger shot off.
Then the chief editor went on with his erasures and interlineations. Just as he finished them a hand-grenade came down the stove-pipe, and the explosion shivered the stove into a thousand fragments. However, it did no further damage, except that a vagrant piece knocked a couple of my teeth out.
“That stove is utterly ruined,” said the chief editor.
I said I believed it was.
“Well, no matter – don’t want it this kind of weather. I know the man that did it. I’ll get him. Now, here is the way this stuff ought to be written.”
I took the manuscript. It was scarred with erasures and interlineations till its mother wouldn’t have known it if it had had one. It now read as follows:
“Spirit of the Tennessee press
“The inveterate liars of the Semi-Weekly Earthquake are evidently endeavoring to palm off upon a noble and chivalrous people another of their vile and brutal falsehoods with regard to that most glorious conception of the nineteenth century, the Ballyhack railroad. The idea that Buzzardville was to be left off at one side originated in their own fulsome brains – or rather in the settlings which they regard as brains. They had better swallow this lie if they want to save their abandoned reptile carcasses the cowhiding they so richly deserve.
“That ass, Blossom, of the Higginsville Thunderbolt and Battle-Cry of Freedom, is down here again sponging at the Van Buren.
“We observe that the besotted blackguard of the Mud Springs Morning Howl is giving out, with his usual propensity for lying, that Van Werter is not elected. The heaven-born mission of journalism is to disseminate truth: to eradicate error; to educate, refine, and elevate the tone of public morals and manners, and make all men more gentle, more virtuous, more charitable, and in all ways better, and holier, and happier; and yet this black-hearted scoundrel degrades his great office persistently to the dissemination of falsehood, calumny, vituperation, and vulgarity.
“Blathersville wants a Nicholson pavement – it wants a jail and a poor-house more. The idea of a pavement in a one-horse town composed of two gin-mills, a blacksmith-shop, and that mustard-plaster of a newspaper, the Daily Hurrah! The crawling insect, Buckner, who edits the Hurrah, is braying about this business with his customary imbecility, and imagining that he is talking sense.”
“Now that is the way to write – peppery and to the point. Mush-and-milk journalism gives me the fan-tods.”
About this time a brick came through the window with a splintering crash, and gave me a considerable of a jolt in the back. I moved out of range – I began to feel in the way.
The chief said: “That was the Colonel, likely. I’ve been expecting him for two days. He will be up now right away.”
He was correct. The Colonel appeared in the door a moment afterwards with a dragoon revolver in his hand.
He said: “Sir, have I the honor of addressing the poltroon who edits this mangy sheet?”
“You have. Be seated, sir. Be careful of the chair, one of its legs is gone. I believe I have the honor of addressing the putrid liar, Colonel Blatherskite Tecumseh?”
“Right, sir. I have a little account to settle with you. If you are at leisure we will begin.”
“I have an article on the ’Encouraging Progress of Moral and Intellectual Development in America’ to finish, but there is no hurry. Begin.”
Both pistols rang out their fierce clamor at the same instant. The chief lost a lock of his hair, and the Colonel’s bullet ended its career in the fleshy part of my thigh. The Colonel’s left shoulder was clipped a little. They fired again. Both missed their men this time, but I got my share, a shot in the arm. At the third fire both gentlemen were wounded slightly, and I had a knuckle chipped. I then said I believed I would go out and take a walk, as this was a private matter, and I had a delicacy about participating in it further. But both gentlemen begged me to keep my seat, and assured me that I was not in the way.
They then talked about the elections and the crops while they reloaded, and I fell to tying up my wounds. But presently they opened fire again with animation, and every shot took effect – but it is proper to remark that five out of the six fell to my share. The sixth one mortally wounded the Colonel, who remarked, with fine humor, that he would have to say good-morning now, as he had business up-town. He then inquired the way to the undertaker’s and left.