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November 30 in Literary History: Mark Twain Born

The most significant events in the history of books on the 30th of November

1554: Sir Philip Sidney is born. This Elizabethan poet wrote one of the earliest sonnet sequences in English (Astrophil and Stella), and in his prose romance the Arcadia, he invented the name Pamela. The name means ‘all sweetness’ (from pan meaning all, and mela from the Latin for ‘sweet’ or ‘honey’, whence ‘mellifluous’). Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (published posthumously in 1595) is widely regarded as the first sustained piece of literary criticism (or even literary theory) written in the English language. Read the rest of this entry

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Mark Twain’s Rules for Good Writing

Mark Twain’s 18 rules for writing – part of his response to the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper

Mark Twain (1835-1910) is the writer who once observed, ‘The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.’ (We include that pithy gem in our selection of Mark Twain’s best one-liners, and we’ve offered our favourite Mark Twain facts here.) In his essay, ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses‘ (1895), Twain took the author of The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans to task for his flawed writing style. Scathingly, but hilariously, he writes: Read the rest of this entry

Five Fascinating Facts about Mark Twain

Fun Mark Twain facts, including his inventions, unusual lecture topics, and numerous pen names

1. Mark Twain wrote a pornographic story set during Elizabethan times. Titled ‘1601’, this bawdy tale – known as a ‘squib’ – was written in 1876 and purports to be the excerpt from a diary written by Queen Elizabeth I’s cup-bearer. Elizabeth has conversations with numerous notable persons of the age, including William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh. When somebody breaks wind, Elizabeth tries to find out who did it. (Spoiler alert: Raleigh did it.) As John Bird notes, ‘one of Twain’s points’ was ‘that the figures we now hold in such high regard habitually used extremely coarse language’.

It is surprising to reflect that neither of the books which are now considered canonical and quintessential Twain – Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – was Twain’s bestselling book during his lifetime: Read the rest of this entry