Ah Shucks, Satan!: Mark Twain’s Style, Quantified

Mark Twain was an immensely popular author. Based on this apparent truth, it has been convenient to regard him as populist as well. Contemporaneous critics dismissed him as “merely a humorist,” a characterization which he clearly internalized. Even those who praise his literary style often, like his friend William Dean Howells, invoke the slightly backhanded adjective natural. “Mr. Clemens is the first writer to use in extended writings the fashion we all use in thinking,” Howells said in 1901, “and to set down the thing that comes into his mind without fear or favor of the thing that went before or the thing that may be about to follow.” The clear implication is that his friend is not a careful craftsman like himself, but a unselfconscious prodigy. The theatrically self-effacing Twain frequently acknowledged that his books were not the product of “great genius,” though his manuscripts demonstrate the patience and self-awareness he committed to revision.

The enduring perception of Twain as an effortless funnyman, careless of technique, is newly troubled by Ben Blatt’s recent quantitative study of literary craft, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve. Blatt compiles a set of general rules about effective writing, drawn from handbooks and testimonials, and tests them against the collected works of dozens of popular and critically-acclaimed novelists, both contemporary and historical. By the standards which Blatt uses, Twain is more “crafty” than his reputation would suggest. For instance, when it comes to “-ly” adverbs, which Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and Chuck Palahniuk all disparage, only Hemingway uses them more sparingly. When it comes to dependence on “thought verbs,” which violate the writer’s credo of “show, don’t tell,” Twain rates favorably as well, ranking #6 among the 50 novelists studied.

One of the more entertaining curiosities to emerge from Blatt’s works is the table of “favorite words” alluded to in his title. From his data, Blatt is able to discern which words each author uses disproportionately compare with the rest. Twain’s favorite words, by this measure, are hearted, shucks, and satan, a trio sure to provoke plenty of armchair psychoanalysis.