Clerihew of American Literary Greats

Edgar Allan Poe
always lacked for dough.
Still, he always strived
to not be buried alive.

Emily Dickinson
lived a bit like a nun,
but her verse was insightful —
even sans an earthly eyeful.

Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain,
wrote personas known to speak plain.
His nom de plume
means “fathoms, two!”

The poet Walt Whitman
had a startled milkman.
Never one to be subdued,
if you just dropped by, he might be nude

BOOK REVIEW: Tom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer, DetectiveTom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn continue in this novella as the duo travels to visit Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas in Arkansas. On the riverboat, they meet an old acquaintance who they didn’t know was still alive, the twin of a man who still lives near Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas. He tells them how he’s in a bind because he conspired in a diamond theft with two partners, and subsequently swindled the two by making off with the diamonds. The reason he’s headed home is because he figures he can hide out there as long as he makes himself look like his twin, as long as no one sees the two twins together, he can play like he’s his brother. While Tom and Huck agree to be helpful, the last time they see this man, he’s jumped ship and is being followed by the two men, and Tom and Huck assume he’s a goner.

In time Tom and Huck arrive at Aunt Sally’s. Shortly thereafter a man goes missing, the twin of the diamond thief. Eventually, evidence mounts that the murderer is none other than Uncle Silas. Despite the fact that Silas has been a little off, Tom doesn’t believe his kind uncle, a pastor, is capable of such a feat. However, Silas confesses, having thwacked the man on the head, he believes that the man must have died from it. Testimony convinces Silas that he must have gone out to bury the man in an act of incredible somnambulism, and while he has no recollection of it, he believes it must be true.

When it comes to the trial, Tom sits in with the incompetent public defender, committed to proving Silas’s innocence — despite his Uncle’s vociferous admissions. At the last second, Tom does figure it out, and explains what really happened. He’s furthermore able to substantiate his claims using no more than the individuals in the courtroom. By the times he’s finished, even Uncle Silas acknowledges that he didn’t commit a murder.

This is a fine little mystery story, but what makes it really enjoyable is the first-person narration by Huck Finn. While Tom Sawyer does the brainwork to solve the crime, Huck offers a telling that is humorous and whimsical.

If you like “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huck Finn” don’t miss this follow-up.

View all my reviews

TODAY’S RANT: Emerson Haters

Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouchedI began reading the Best American Essays of 2012 and was disappointed by the first  essay entitled, The Foul Reign of Self-Reliance by Benjamin Anastas.

Self-Reliance: In or out of the canon?:

Anastas rails against the essay Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The only nice thing he has to say about Emerson (as a parenthetical insert) was that the philosopher spoke out against slavery and the poor treatment of American Indians.  Anastas suggests Emerson’s essay should be eliminated from the  canon of required reading. This desire to censor ideas that he (or his collective) find objectionable is a telling indicator of why he finds Emerson so vile. In my ideal world, students would read Emerson and Marx and Jefferson and Socrates and Confucius and eventually even the likes of Hitler and they’d make up their own minds about what ideas were sound and which were suspect. I’m  confident that on the whole that a free-thinking people will overwhelming reject the poorest and most vile of ideas. Obviously, not all will draw the same conclusions as I about which ideas are best, but I prefer the company of such people to those who completely agree with me but have turned their thinking caps off. Anastas seems to favor control of the flow of ideas to those society or teachers or some collective finds agreeable.

An undeniably powerful idea:

About all that Anastas and I agree on is that the thesis of Emerson’s Self-Reliance is powerful. By a powerful idea, I mean one that has the ability to grab a reader by the collar and demand his or her attention –whether they like it or not. Where Anastas sees Emerson’s ideas as perniciously powerful, I see them as sagely powerful. While we seem to be in near complete disagreement, I don’t want to go into a point by point refutation. I want to focus on what I believe is Anastas’s central point, that our current political dysfunction is the fault of Emersonian thinking. On this I think Anastas is shows perfection in his wrongheadedness.

The reason I don’t bother arguing point by point is because  much of my difference of opinion with Anastas comes down to being on radically different places on the Borg-Anarchist continuum. Reasonable people may disagree. I have a set of beliefs that inform my position on the Borg-Anarchist continuum that range from my opinion on free will to ideas about the value of optimizing (minimizing) what I would call “social friction” (others have used that term in another way.) That’s neither here nor there, Anastas may have his own justification for his views, though he doesn’t lay them out. For example, he uses the phrase, “excessive love of individual liberty” without indicating what he believes would be the appropriate amount to love liberty, let alone how he drew his conclusion. It may be that he doesn’t have a rationale, but rather has suborned his views to some collective that he believes is representative of society (that would be the true anti-Emersonian approach.)

The Borg-Anarchist continuum:

I should explain what I call the “Borg-Anarchist continuum” for those who are neither Star Trek fans nor wonky. Humans are inescapably both individualistic and social creatures. We know that people get morbidly depressed when they feel they aren’t valued as individuals (Tom Hanks at the beginning of Joe Versus the Volcano), but it’s also true that people go nuts when they are completely isolated from others (Tom Hanks in Castaway.) [Please, don’t draw conclusions about which is “better” on the relative merit of those two movies.] This leads to one of our most fundamental dilemmas. Where our individuality bumps up a social unit, how does one reconcile theses conflicts?

We can imagine a continuum where at one end are the Borg and at the other end are Anarchists. Borg were a powerful enemy in the Star Trek universe. The Borg were a collective in which any given individual was inconsequential and all gave themselves fully to the objective of the collective (i.e. universal domination.) Anarchists are those who feel there should be no authority over the individual. Virtually no one fits into the extreme camps because they’re both blatantly flawed. No one would have any incentive to do anything in Borg world, and an anarchy will inevitably devolve into chaos. No one would invite the Borg or Anarchists to their cocktail party. In practice, one might think of a Communist-Libertarian continuum. Communists believe the state owns the means of production and should be able to regulate ideas as intimately personal as religion, but they don’t attempt to completely stamp out all vestiges of individuality (e.g. people still have names instead of the Borg’s “4 of 7.”) Libertarians believe that authority over the individual should be minimal, but that there’s a role for governance in punishing the illegitimate use of force or the use of fraud.

Yes, I realize that in being one-dimensional, a Republican and a Democrat could occupy the exact same space on the continuum (i.e. wanting the same amount of governance, just not in the exact same domain.)

Is political dysfunction a product of Emersonian thought?:

So, let’s go back to the issue of blaming political dysfunction on Emersonian ideals. It’s my belief that we have political dysfunction because politicians aren’t following Emerson’s advice, rather than that too many are doing so. Let’s consider Anastas’s argument.

“’A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition,’ Emerson advises, ‘as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.’ If this isn’t the official motto of the 112th Congress of the United States, well, it should be.”

Anastas is saying that the idea that one shouldn’t bend to the ideas of other men, as suggested by Emerson, is the cause of the problem. However, this requires us to believe that politicians engaged in free thinking consistently come down in the perfectly bifurcated set of positions required for grid-lock to take hold on a wide range of issues.  This is dubious. I find it much more probable that politicians do not think freely, but rather they subordinate their opinion to their party and to what the people of their district think. That, my friends, is the source of the problem. Politicians are doing exactly what Anastas wants, which is subordinating their opinion to the majority in their districts. The two-part problem is that: a.) districts are drawn to have clear winners. b.) our society has abandoned the Emersonian idea and taken party and sect as a substitute for thinking. We’ve created a two-party grid-lock machine, and we’re surprised that it works.

Yes, Emerson tells us to be obstinate in holding to ones own beliefs in the face of other people. If every politician did this, our political field would be much richer with many sets of opinions and not just the two captured by the party platforms of the two ruling parties. (At least it wouldn’t hold sway always on anything important.)  What Emerson does not ask of us is to be obstinate in the face of new or better information. Anastas’s own selection of quotes says as much.

“Speak what you think now in hard words,” Emerson exhorted, “and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”

In other words, Emerson is suggesting that one should be able to change one’s mind (one just shouldn’t do this in deference to the views of other people.) One should changes one’s mind when one has new or better information or one’s thinking about the subject is clearer. Changing one’s mind has a bad rap in our political system. There’s a kind of changing of one’s mind that should leave us with a bad taste in our mouths, and that’s pandering. However, not all mind-changing is pandering. If we ask a politician why he changed his mind and he says, “Because I learned X, and that new information made me conclude Y,” then that person should be applauded. The ideas of people of party and sect don’t change regardless of new information. This stagnancy is part of the problem as well. An individual can change his or her mind rapidly but an ideological organization is never swift. When people subordinate their thinking to their sect, this is when we end up unable to get out-of-the-way of slow-moving freight train problems like many that we face today.

The animus that characterizes our political domain is not a function of Emersonian thinking. While Emerson may not address it because it isn’t part of what he’s trying to get across in this essay, it stands to reason that if everyone thinks for themselves people will draw different conclusions. The Maytag repairman is not the loneliest person; the loneliest person in the world is a free-thinker who can’t get along with people who don’t share his exact slate of thinking across a range of  subjects. Thinking for oneself is not only consistent with tolerance, it breeds it. It’s only when one conforms one’s thinking to that of a collective that one can afford to act like people who think differently from one are pure evil.

Other thoughts on the subject:

For another post of mine about Emerson’s Self-Reliance see here.

Also, Emerson was not the only one in the 19th century who was dismayed by the trend toward subordinating political views to party, Mark Twain had a lighter essay on the subject called Corn Pone Opinions.

10 of My Favorite Quotes on Writing

Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. –Kurt Vonnegut


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. –Mark Twain


The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are.  –Ray Bradbury


Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. –Elmore Leonard


The first draft of anything is shit.—Ernest Hemingway.


Omit needless words. –William Strunk


The only rule for writing I have is to leave it while I’m still hot… –William Faulkner


Whoever wants to tell a story of a sainted grandmother, unless you can find some old love letters, and get a new grandfather?  –Robert Penn Warren


When you write the thing through once, you find out what the end is. Then you can go back to the first chapter and put in a lot of those foreshadowings. –Flannery O’Connor


As far as I’m concerned the entire reason for becoming a writer is not having to get up in the morning.  –Neil Gaiman