“Buy It, Laugh, & Grow Fat”: The 1869 Reviews of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad

At the Center for Mark Twain Studies we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s first book. Sales of The Innocents Abroad began on August 10, 1869 and soon thereafter reviews started appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive. Twain was already a well-known writer and lecturer who many journalists regarded as one of their own. This affinity, as well as the aggressive and innovative marketing strategies of the American Publishing Company, may have help secure good press for the book. Many editors expressed their appreciation at being sent gratis copies and many of the same papers which reviewed it also had advertising contracts with the publisher and/or local book agents. That said, the work was clearly capable of living up to the effusion. Many editors chose simply to reprint excerpts from the text.

Below I have collected a series of blurbs from the first wave of reviews which appeared during the remaining months of 1869. This is not a comprehensive collection, but the selections I have made, I hope, demonstrate something of the critical consensus that developed around what many characterized as a groundbreaking travel narrative. I have tried to include excerpts from both metropolitan and small-town papers, and from various regions of the country.

“The propriety of filling a book of six hundred odd pages with mere jokes may be questioned. But it is not questionable that, if this be granted, ‘Mark Twain’ has produced a very laughable and enterprising book. No American book of travels, except Ross Browne’s ‘Yusef,’ is written with the same humorous spirit, and certainly none contains so much genuine fun…The book does not profess to instruct, and it does not. It aims to entertain, and it does. There is a genuine American tone about it which is refreshing to see after the snobberies of some other American travellers.” – Buffalo Morning Express (August 18, 1869)

“Certainly, Mark Twain succeeds is dispelling many of the old traditions which travelers have so long inflicted upon a confiding and long-suffering public. He has gone over the ground with a genuine Yankee spirit; determining to see everything that is to be seen, to see it thoroughly and like a man of sense. To go into ecstasies over but few things, and to speak the plain, unvarnished truth under all circumstances. And this truth is told to us in such a winsome form that we cannot but listen to it with agreeable sensations. Throughout runs an undercurrent of genuine native humor. Not what we are so apt to accept as such, and which is principally remarkable for its vulgarity and insipidity, but a real, crisp, tangible wit, that speaks in every line of the vitality, the vigorous honesty of the man, and of how fully he is imbued with all the better of the national characteristics.” – New York Express (August 20, 1869)

“If any one, troubled with hifaluten notions, contemplates a trip to the old world, he had better read this book before he makes the trip. It will greatly improve his self-respect and make him appear better than if he went and put on the unnecessary airs that many do.” – Rutland Daily Herald (August 23, 1869)

“Mr. Clemens has an abominable irreverence for tradition and authority, – which sometimes unfortunately degenerates into an offensive irreverence for things which other men hold sacred, – and makes not the slightest hesitation at expressing his opinions in the very plainest possible language, no matter how unorthodox they may be. There is nothing he fears to laugh at, and though some people may wish that he had been a little more tender of the romance of travel, it is certainly refreshing to find a tourist who does not care what other tourists have said before him.” – The New York Tribune (August 27, 1869)

“Unlike the majority of American humorists, Mark Twain never indulges in bad spelling and worse grammar, which vulgarities most frequently comprise the joke. He uses nothing but good Anglo-Saxon, and when the readers laugh, as they will many time over and over, merriment arises solely from the subject written of, not from the manner in which it is written, and is therefore all the more enjoyable. ‘The Innocents Abroad’ is undoubtedly an oasis in the desert of works on foreign travel with which we are deluged at the present day. We have read it throughout with great pleasure, and if Mark Twain will do no worse in future efforts at bookmaking we’ll always heartily welcome him to our desk.” – New York Herald (August 31, 1869)

“The volume abounds in pleasant incident, racy description, and incongruous scenes, which, depicted by the pen of one who has so keen a perception of the ridiculous and so bold a purpose to expose it, gives a book unusually readable, and with burlesque enough in it to satisfy the veriest lover of the grotesque in Christendom.” – St. Louis Globe Democrat (September 6, 1869)

“Mark Twain always interesting, in this book has outrivaled himself. It is instructive, humorous, racy, full of quaint expressions that make you laugh unexpectedly, and before you are quite ready; critical, sometimes caustic, but always good natured; never prosy or wearisome. You begin the book and do not want to leave it till the last line is reached. Mark never describes a place or sees a sight as others do. His is intensely original; and for us there is where the charm lies.” – New Jersey Standard (September 24, 1869)

“There is no writer of the present day who can begin with Mark Twain in weaving into a story fact and fiction, philosophy and humor, so as to excite the risibles beyond control, and at the same time without violating the rules of good taste, in either the orthography or syntax of our language. Mark is a trump, and his book is a gem of the first water. – Buy it – laugh and grow fat.” – Wyndette Commercial Gazette (September 25, 1869)

“We must truthfully say that we had no idea so much humor, wit, geniality, fine description and good sense, could be contained within the covers of any one book…Our sides ache, and we lay aside the book to rest, and to advise our friends and readers, one and all, to buy the book at the first opportunity, and read it through.” – Monmouth Inquirer (September 30, 1869)

“Criticism of the work is almost impossible; as sufficient gravity of countenance for the purpose can hardly be maintained over the volume. To think of, or look at it, is to smile, but to read it is to overwhelm all criticism with uncontrollable laughter.” – Public Weekly Opinion (October 5, 1869)

“The standard shams of travel which everybody sees through suffer possibly more than they ought, but not so much as they might; and on readily forgives the harsh treatment of them in consideration of the novel piece of justice done on such a traveller as suffers under the pseudonym of Grimes. It is impossible also that the quality of the humor should not sometimes be strained in the course of so long a narrative; but the wonder is rather in the fact that it is strained so seldom.” – William Dean Howells, Atlantic Monthly (December, 1869)

150 Years of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad

On August 11, 1869, Samuel Clemens received his first copy of Innocents Abroad while visiting the Langdon home in Elmira. He signed it and presented it to Olivia Langdon, his fiance. The book described the inaugural cruise of the Quaker City steamer, aboard which Sam had met Charley Langdon, Olivia’s brother, as well as first laid eyes upon her visage, in a photo Charley carried with him.

Livy’s approval of this book would signal that Sam had succeeded in making himself respectable, or respectable enough. During the composition, he had been determined to create from the trip something more than the humorous sketches which he had published as newspaper dispatches. Something less vulgar and cynical, but also something which would demonstrate his ability to use his literary talent and celebrity to provide a stable, comfortable lifestyle for his new wife, as she was accustomed to.

Clemens wrote to his publisher, Elisha Bliss, the next day: “I was at Elmira yesterday and saw the book, and my faith in it has all come back again. It is the very handsomest book of the season and you ought to be very proud of your work. It will sell. Between us we will make it sell.”

Sell it did. More than 70,000 copies in the first year. Though Twain would write a series of bestsellers, none would surpass the total sales of Innocents, which remained a reliable money-maker for the remainder of his life.

Over the next several weeks, we will continue celebrating the anniversary of this work.

Put The Reader Through Hell: In Memory of Toni Morrison, Twain Scholar

Toni Morrison died today. It addition to being one of the most renowned writers of the past century, Morrison was an incisive critic and passionate reader of Mark Twain’s works. The Twain Studies community of teachers and scholars has lost one of our more notable friends.

In 1993, Morrison told The Paris Review that “Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I have ever read.” In her 1996 introduction to the Oxford edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Morrison narrates her decades-long, evolving relationship with Twain and his critics. During what was arguably the peak of her literary celebrity, from the publication of Beloved (1987) to her receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Morrison repeatedly and forcefully came to the defense of Twain, who was, during this same period, being subjected to what she called the “purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”

Giving the Tanner Lectures at University of Michigan in 1988, she placed Twain, along with Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and Henry James, on a list of canonical authors who “I, at least, do not intend to live without.” She said, “”There must be some way to enhance canon readings without enshrining them.” Thus began her exploration of Africanism in American Literature which climaxed with the Massey Lectures at Princeton University, where she was a faculty member. These lectures were published as Playing In The Dark: Whiteness & The Literary Imagination (1991). Morrison argued that many of the familiar themes and writers of the American literary canon were inspired by “the imaginative encounter with Africanism.” Some writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, were driven by the terror of increasingly desperate clinging to the precarious ideology of white supremacy. Others, like Twain and Melville, narrated the unraveling of that ideology unsentimentally, even eagerly.

“Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.”

Toni Morrison, Playing In The Dark (1991)

Among the centerpieces of Playing In The Dark is what remains one of the most-cited readings of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a masterpiece of deconstruction, though Morrison would never call it that, as she shows how the novel anticipates and amplifies all its ensuing controversies. She seeks to “release it from the clutch of sentimental nostrums about lighting out for the territory” and revive “its contestatory, combative critique of antebellum America.” “The hell it puts the reader through” is exactly the point, according to Morrison. The novel produces and reproduces “palpable alarm.” It discomforts. It triggers. It interrogates our preconceptions about childhood, morality, community, and, of course, race. It is resiliently controversial, and therein lies the evidence of its merit.

Morrison’s reading ends with the phrase, “it simulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom.” Simulates. What does it mean for a novel to “simulate”? It is something more than mere representation. The subjects of a simulation are not creations, but participants. Not characters, but readers. When we read Twain’s novel as Morrison wishes, we are compelled not only to recognize that Huck and Tom do not understand their freedom independent of Jim’s enslavement, but that we don’t. The novel places its readers in a position of knowing complicity, which explains, in part, why so many of them hate the ending. It asks us: Your freedom, to the extent you have it, comes at whose expense?

“For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed.”

Toni Morrison, Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1996)

The 3rd Quadrennial Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri

On the final weekend in July, a dedicated contingent of Twain Studies scholars gathered in Hannibal, Missouri for the third quadrennial Clemens Conference, sponsored by the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. The weather was surprisingly agreeable for midsummer in the Mississippi River Valley and the conference organizers made sure there was plenty of time for adventuring between panels and plenary sessions.

Kerry Driscoll Delivers Keynote Address, “Historicizing Injun Joe”

The keynote address was delivered by Kerry Driscoll, author of Mark Twain Among the Indians. She explored the apocryphal association between “Injun Joe,” the antagonist of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and “Indian Joe,” a longtime resident of Hannibal. Dr. Driscoll’s compelling argument includes analysis of an essay on Native American and mixed race populations in and around Hannibal written by Sam’s brother, Orion Clemens.

Thomas A. Tenney Award Winner, Henry Sweets, Holds Up Commemorative Plate While Larry Howe Looks On

After the keynote address, the Mark Twain Circle and Center for Mark Twain Studies surprised the conference host, Henry Sweets, by awarding him with the Thomas A. Tenney Award for service to Mark Twain Studies. The award was not scheduled to be presented again until 2021, but in recognition of Sweets’s 42 years as Director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, a position which he is relinquishing later this year, it seemed appropriate to deliver the award on his home turf. Noted collector of Twain-related artifacts, Kevin Mac Donnell, sweetened the ceremonial plaque with a collectible plate designed and sold in Hannibal during Twain’s lifetime.

Past & Present Presidents of the Mark Twain Circle of America: Alan Gribben, Bruce Michelson, Ann Ryan, John Bird, Kerry Driscoll, & Larry Howe.
Conference Organizer, Ann Ryan, Summarizes Melissa Scholes Young’s Argument in “Reimagining Becky Thatcher”
Alan Gribben on “Surprises Abound in Mark Twain’s Library”
The Devil’s Backbone in Mark Twain Cave

Friday’s plenaries featured a preview of the forthcoming and much-anticipated volumes of Mark Twain’s Literary Resources by Alan Gribben and an exploration of intimacy, celebrity, and literary wit by Bruce Michelson. After an afternoon exploring the museums and attractions of downtown Hannibal, conference participants were treated to a guided tour of the cave where crucial scenes in Tom Sawyer are set.

On Saturday, John Bird discussed the lessons of his years editing the Twain section in American Literary Scholarship and editors of various Twain-related publications answered questions from the audience. Another panel focused on the influence of Twain’s authorized biography, Albert Bigelow Paine.

John Bird’s “Reflections on Writing the Mark Twain Chapter for American Literary Scholarship”

The weekend climaxed with a steamboat cruise on the Mississippi River. Henry Sweets arranged for two of the conference organizers, John Bird and Ann Ryan, to take turns in the pilot house.

Ann Ryan Takes Her Turn At the Wheel of Mark Twain Riverboat
John Bird Seems Fairly At Ease In The Pilot House
Drs. Joe Csicsila and Ben Click Discuss Bromance of the Mississippi While Hiding Their Cocktails from Intrusive Cameras

The Center for Mark Twain Studies would like to heartily thank our hosts from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, the Mark Twain Cave, Mark Twain Riverboat, Mark Twain Brewery, and Finn’s Food & Spirits.

Teachers Convene At Quarry Farm and Elmira College to Discuss Mark Twain and Generation Z

Thanks to Jan Kather of Elmira College for providing the video and photography from the Summer Teachers Institute.

A group of forty-six K-12 teachers, librarians, and other educators gathered in Elmira this week for the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute to discuss the challenges and opportunities created by using Mark Twain’s life and work with students from “Generation Z.” The Institute was led by Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recent President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and author of numerous books on literature and literacy education.

“We had the opportunity to grapple with ways to integrate Twain in our already full curriculums. Dr. Chadwick was a delight to work with! Clearly a gifted educator herself, she was able to enrich us all with her experience and expertise in a truly accessible way.”

Michelle Halperin, Hendy Elementary (4th Grade)

Dr. Chadwick began the Institute by defining what she means by “Generation Z,” a category loosely describing those born after 9/11 and encompassing all the students currently working their way through the K-12 system. Over the past several years, Dr. Chadwick has been conducting fieldwork for NCTE, NBC Learn, and Pearson Publishing by visiting classrooms across the country and conducting interviews with students and teachers. She shared selections from a couple of those interviews and discussed what she was learning about this generation and their educational environments. She described a young student who proclaimed there was no longer any “American Dream,” and suggested that this was indicative of a broader dissatisfaction among Gen Z students with the idea of education as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself. Dr. Chadwick assured the audience of teachers that their students will do the work if they are persuaded that the texts and tasks being assigned are directly and immediately relevant to their lives and communities. Furthermore, she insisted, Twain’s enormous body of public and private writings is well-suited to addressing many of Gen Z’s most common concerns, including financial precarity, community service, blended families, and technological change.

A selection of interviews with teachers and students about sensitive texts, produced by Jocelyn Chadwick & John Grassie.

During the second session, Matt Seybold, the resident scholar from the Center for Mark Twain Studies, used the example of social media as something which Gen Z students and their teachers were likely to have strong opinions about. Using demographic tables from the U.S. Census, Dr. Seybold summarized the media environment of Twain’s life, as new printing technology made periodicals less expensive, more accessible, and more diversified. He asked participants to imagine the butterfly effects of changing, over the course of a few decades, from a nation with a few hundred periodicals concentrated on the eastern seaboard to one which published 2.5 billion issues in a single year. Participants speculated that people would be more informed and more inclined to imagine the world beyond their daily experiences, but would also be unprepared to be discerning about what they were reading and might depend primarily upon publications that reinforced their existing beliefs. Dr. Seybold also pointed out that celebrities like Mark Twain (or Taylor Swift) are one manifestation of Americans’ desire for national identity amidst this cultural cacophony.

“The past two days were especially valuable to me as a new teacher preparing for my first year because I was able to glean ideas from local educators and scholars.”

Rebecca Heagy, Campbell-Savona (8th Grade English Language Arts)

During the first breakout session, small groups of teachers discussed how the generic Generation Z student who Dr. Chadwick described resembled students in their classes and how some of the Twain texts they had read could be used to generate or supplement discussion of the topics which resonated with such students. Upon reconvening, one group of primarily elementary instructors reported that unconventional and fractured family structures were common in their districts and that students were likely to empathize with characters and narrators who felt insecure and who struggled to adjust to changing environments. A second group of elementary instructors were drawn to the theme of community-building and also community exclusivity, as in Adventures of Tom Sawyer and “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.” They suggested that these texts could be leveraged to increase student “buy-in” for cross-curricular and blended classrooms. They wanted to look particularly for ways Twain could be paired with historical contexts and visual arts projects. They also expressed a desire for texts which dealt with diversity and human rights, but did so without vulgarity or other potentially incendiary content.

A group of middle school teachers reiterated the desire for pairing and blending fiction with non-fiction, literature with history, literacy with other subject matter instruction. They wanted to know more about how Twain used games to educate his own children. With reference to “disenfranchised students,” they were looking for how Twain represented struggles for self-definition and self-esteem. A group of secondary teachers reiterated the importance of framing texts around the inevitable questions of adolescence and young-adulthood: “What I am doing and why am I doing it?”, “Where am I going and how do I get there?,” and “Who am I?” They also acknowledged the sticky wicket which they need to navigate: they want to engage with topics that are important to their students but they also want to teach texts which create a safe distance between the classroom and the frightful world. They want relevance to Gen Z, but without making students feel “at risk.”

“The teacher conference was an intellectual experience I will not forget for some time…Teachers of all subjects should seek out this professional development opportunity, to experience Elmira, Mark Twain, and to share in the sincere interest of helping teachers be the best for their students.”

Nathan Morrill, Brady High School in Brady, Texas (English)

After lunch, Dr. Seybold gave a brief history of Mark Twain’s connection to Elmira with particular attention to the domestic instability of Samuel Clemens’s youth and the conflict between his habitual itineracy and his desire to provide his wife and daughters with a stable home. Dr. Chadwick proceeded to address some of the cross-curricular opportunities which could be explored using primary sources, including Bills of Sale from slave auctions, selections from African-American Newspapers, artwork by Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, and speeches by Frederick Douglass. The first day closed with an open-ended discussion, as Dr. Chadwick called upon individual teachers to articulate what had surprised them about either Generation Z or Mark Twain during the first day of the Institute. Several teachers expressed surprise at the breadth and diversity of Twain’s writing and particularly at the potential to move away from teaching Twain exclusively as a commentator on race in America. Others admitted to being unaware of how influential Twain became in his own lifetime, amassing enough cultural power to influence political campaigns, amplify the voices of younger artists and activists, and bring publicity to colonial atrocities.

On Thursday morning, Institute participants congregated on the porch at Quarry Farm. After breakfast, Dr. Chadwick led a session on one of her favorite subjects: using Twain’s fiction as a model for teaching the formal elements of writing, particularly as they are outline in the education standards of New York State. For more than an hour, the group discussed how a single famous passage from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could be used to teach genre, audience, allusion, symbolism, anaphora, verisimilitude, and many other ELA terms and concepts. During the breakout session, participants analyzed other passages of their choosing from the reader and shared their ideas for using these passages to teach close-reading and writing. Selections discussed came from Twain’s poems, speeches, sketches, and letters, as well as his novels. Several groups recommended pairing with texts by other authors, from Harper Lee and Toni Morrison to Pope Urban II and The Beatles.

The second session of the day began with Dr. Chadwick reading Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It” on the very spot which the story is set. After her reading, Dr. Chadwick led a wide-ranging discussion of the story.

Dr. Chadwick reads Twain’s “A True Story” on the Porch at Quarry Farm, where the story is set

During lunch, teachers toured the grounds at Quarry Farm and mingled with one another, as well as with a few fourth-graders from Michelle Halperin’s class at Hendy Elementary in Elmira. During the Spring term, Dr. Chadwick visited Mrs. Halperin’s class both via video-conferencing and in person to discuss what they had been doing with Twain, including reading “A True Story” and Adventures of Tom Sawyer. After lunch, the students joined the teachers on the porch and answered questions about their experiences reading and listening to Twain’s works. These precocious young Elmirans felt that Tom Sawyer, in particular, compelled them and their classmates to be imaginative, even those who weren’t naturally inclined to be. They were able to remember specific details from the story and even half-remember direct quotations. Even under pressure they refused to admit that any of their classmates had not been enthusiastically engaged by the material. If nothing else, this proves they had learned to consider their audience.

The final session of the Institute focused on memory and memorization. Dr. Seybold began by reading a short selection from a work-in-progress about how Twain used specific works of music to memorialize his wife and daughters after they died. He listened to these specific works of music almost daily, using them to stimulate both his memory and his imagination. In other places, like the speech “Memory & Morals,” Twain discusses the importance of converting the vagaries of memory into productive lessons. Dr. Seybold also summarized some of the games and pneumonic devices Twain developed for the purposes of memorizing historical facts and his own lectures. This prefaced a discussion of what we require students to remember and why. What are the justifications for memorization and how can memorization be better integrated with imaginative and creative work?

“Regardless of your role in educating students of any age, like Mark Twain’s writings this seminar was inspirational, motivational, and rewarding.”

Sonia Barchet, Elmira City Schools (EDA Library Media Specialist)

Dr. Chadwick and the Center for Mark Twain Studies left the Institute with promises of updated resources and continued support. In addition to the provided reader, Institute participants have access to a digital archive of primary sources, opportunities for continued engagement with Dr. Chadwick and other Twain scholars, including eligibility for a six-week graduate course at Elmira College during Fall semester.

2019 Summer Teachers Institute Resources

The following is primarily a repository of resources related to the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies on Wednesday, July 16 and Thursday, July 17. While a few of these resources are password-protected for intellectual property reasons, many of them are open access and may be of interest to teachers, students, and scholars, even if they are not attending the STI this year. This page will continue to be updated throughout the duration of the Institute, after which it will stay active.


Mark Twain in Elmira


Teaching With Sensitive Texts


Mark Twain & Sensational Journalism


Twain on Memory & Memorization


Testimonials to Twain’s Influence


Twain on Business & Economics

Archives of Mark Twain Circular Now Online

The Mark Twain Circular is a newsletter published by the Mark Twain Circle which has been in continuous publication since 1987, offering anywhere from two to twelve issues a year. The new editor of the Circular, James W. Leonard (The Citadel), has digitized the back issues, creating a valuable resource for Twain scholars and aficionados, new and old. The Circular features updates on the activities and projects of the Mark Twain Circle, including a message from the President, as well as a wide variety of Twain-related ephemera, including summaries of recent publications, conference proceedings, and interviews with scholars. The most recent issue, for instance, happens to include interviews with four members of the staff of the Center for Mark Twain Studies (the motley crew pictured below).

Back issues of the long-running newsletter are now available in digital form.

Early issues provide insight into the scholarly community of the late 20th century, as well as some more candid and casual commentary from seminal figures, several of whom are no longer with us.

Check it out!

The Apocryphal Twain: “The things you didn’t do.”

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines! Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover!”

David Sivak of CheckYourFact.com did a story on this ubiquitous piece of Twain apocrypha this week and contacted me for comment, so I figured it was a good time to add it to our own archive. David rightly deduced that this is not something Mark Twain said. The more interesting part of these columns, as far as I’m concerned, is who did the quote actually come from and how did it come to be associated with Twain. Unlike many of the apocryphal aphorism I have trace over the past couple years, this false attribution traces back to before the social media era. Because of that endurance, the attribution seems more credible. Books and periodicals produced by reputable publishers and institution – including, for instance, the US Navy – attributed the quote to Twain before the turn of the 21st century.

As David notes, citing the reliable work of Garson O’Toole, the quote in this particular phrasing likely originated with H. Jackson Brown’s 1990 book, P.S. I Love You, in which Brown attributes the quote to his mother, Sarah Frances Brown. But the basic formula dates back somewhat further. In 1982, as part of a syndicated interview about his retirement, the longtime NBC anchor and host, Hugh Downs, said,

“Don’t be afraid to try something. It never hurts as bad as you think to fail. You seldom regret what you do. You regret what you didn’t do. Don’t try to be invulnerable. Don’t worry too much about security. If you build a wall around yourself, you become a prisoner of that wall. Take a chance!”

Register & Tribune Syndicate (February, 1982)

A couple years earlier, Harry Haun had published his Movie Quote Book, in which he reported that on the set of Mildred Pierce (1945), 31-year-old Zachary Scott told 41-year-old Joan Crawford, “As you grow older, you’ll find the the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do.”

A.B. Guthrie, a writer of midcentury Westerns, notably Shane (1953) and The Kentuckian (1955), wrote in his 1965 autobiography,

“I am free of most encumbrances, so I am free of regret, the most debilitating of indulgences. If you must be regretful, regret what you didn’t do, not what you did. A man lets too many smiling opportunities pass him by.”

The Blue Hen’s Chick (1965)

So how did this bit of wisdom come to be associated with Mark Twain? As best I can tell, we can blame the Peace Corps. In January 1999, they circulated a recruitment advertisement in New York City papers which featured the quote prominently with Twain’s byline.

The next year it showed up in publicity materials from the U.S. Navy and soon thereafter in advertisement for real estate agencies and funeral homes, then became a familiar trope in newspaper editorial and valedictorian speeches.

In Memory of Noted Twain Scholar, Carl Dolmetsch, Listen to His 1988 Trouble Begins Lecture

Carl Richard Dolmetsch, Jr. passed away earlier this month. He was 94. Dolmetsch wrote an influential book in Mark Twain Studies, “Our Famous Guest”: Mark Twain in Vienna, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. His history of the modernist magazine, The Smart Set, was also highly acclaimed and he published both academic and popular articles on early American literature and classical music.

For more about Dr. Dolmetsch’s legacy, we refer you to obituaries written by the Provost of William & Mary, where he spent most of his academic career, by his fellow Williamsburg journalist, and by the Virginia Gazette.

Dr. Dometsch was a guest of Elmira College and the Center for Mark Twain Studies in October of 1988. As a Distinguished Academic Visitor, he led courses in English and American Studies, and was part of the Trouble Begins lecture series. That lecture, “Mark Twain and The Jews,” would become part of “Our Famous Guest”. It was preserved, recently digitized, and is now available for streaming and download from our online archives.

New American Studies Prize Named for Mark Twain Scholar, Shelley Fisher Fishkin

The American Studies Association is inaugurating a new prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies. The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize is named in honor of the contributions Fishkin has made to developing the field of Transnational American Studies.

Fishkin Receives John S. Tuckey Prize in 2017

Fishkin is among the most well-known and highly-regarded scholars in Mark Twain Studies. She edited the 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain and has published two influential books, Was Huck Black? (1993) and Lighting Out For The Territory (1996), as well as numerous articles. In 2017, she received the John S. Tuckey Award for achievements in Twain scholarship from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

Fishkin has also devoted considerable time and energy to building international networks for Twain criticism, including Global Huck, a digital archive of translations of Adventure of Huckleberry Finn currently in development. Fishkin was a founding editor of The Journal of Transnational American Studies, launched in 2009. She has been instrumental in mentoring emerging Twain scholars and publicizing groundbreaking Twain scholarship.

Tsuyoshi Ishihara, author of Mark Twain in Japan (2005), writes, “Thanks are due first to Prof. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the great Twain scholar and Americanist, for her encouragement, suggestions, care, and patience. Her encyclopedic knowledge and sparkling insights were vital in developing this project.”

Selina Lai-Henderson, author of Mark Twain in China (2015), calls Fishkin an “intellectual giant…whose vision, breadth of knowledge, and dedication have made many of my dreams become possible.”

The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies will be awarded annually to a scholar based at institutions outside the United States who have published excellent original research in the past three years. More information and submission guidelines are available from the American Studies Association.

Congratulations to Dr. Fishkin from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.