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Add to My CitationsTo Orion Clemens
26 February 1880 • Hartford, Conn.
(MS: NPV, UCCL 01763)
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Feb. 26/80.

My Dear Bro:

I believe I told you I bought four-fifths of a patent some ten days ago for several thousand dollars. Yesterday I thought out a new application of this invention which I think will utterly annihilate & sweep out of existence one of the minor industries of civilization, & take its place—an industry which has existed for 300 years—& doubtless many attempts have been made to knock the bottom out of its costliness before. Perchance I am mistaken in this calculation, but I am not able to see how I can be.

However, never mind about that—I only wrote it to get it out of my mind, for I am grinding away, caretnow,caret with all my might, & with an interest which amounts to intemperance, at the “Prince & the Pauper”—& when one is writing literature he must purge his mind clean of other interests before he tackles his work, else his mind caretwillcaret be sure to wander.

Well, I must get one more exciting thing out of my head, & then I shall be ready to slide back into Edward VI’s time wholly [untrameled]. It is this—to suggest to you to write two books which it has long been my purpose to write, but I judge they are so far down on my docket that I shan’t get to them in this life. I think the subjects are perfectly new. One is “The Autobiography of a Coward,” & the other “Confessions of a Life that was a Failure.”

My plan was simple—to take the absolute facts of my own life & tell them simply & without ornament or flourish, exactly as they occurred, with this difference, that I would turn every courageous action (if I ever performed one) into a cowardly one, & every success into a failure. You can do this, but only in one way; you must banish all idea of an audience—for no man caretfew mencaret can straitly & squarely confess shameful things to others—you must tell your story to yourself, & [to] no other; you must not use your own name, for that would keep you from telling shameful things, too.

There is another plan which is still better, but it will be very difficult—it will require a mighty practised pen I suspect:—to tell the story of an abject coward who is unconscious that he is a coward; & to tell the story of an unsuccessful man who is blissfully unaware that he was unsuccessful & does not imagine the reader sees he was unsuccessful. In these cases the titles I have suggested would not be used. This latter plan is the one I should use. I should confine myself to my own actual experiences (to invent would be to fail) & I would name everybody’s actual name caret& localitycaret & describe his character & actions unsparingly, then change these names & localities after the book was finished. To use fictitious names, & localities while writing is a befogging & confusing thing.

The supremest charm in Casanova’s Memoires (they are not printed in English) is, that he frankly, flowingly, & felicitously tells the dirtiest & vilest & most contemptible things on himself, without ever suspecting that they are other than things which the reader will admire & applaud. That is what your coward should do. Your coward should also be, unconsciously, the meanest & lousiest of the human race,—but he must throw in just a single sentence of detraction of immorality & irreligion here & there to enrage the reader.

Rousseau confesses to masturtbation, theft, lying, shameful treachery, & attempts made upon his person by Sodomites. But he tells it as a man who is perfectly aware of the shameful nature of these things, whereas your coward & your Failure should be happy & sweet & unconscious. of their own contemptibility.

Tackle one of these books, now, & send me the first chapter for suggestion & comment. Mind, you must expect to have to tear up & rewrite the opening chapters several times till you get the hang—for a man who, at your time of life still uses such phrases as “He looks like he wants to go home,” and “Suppose you go & lay down a while,” plainly lacks the faculty of nice observation, & as plainly lacks literary training—apprenticeship.

Tackle one of these books, & simply tell your story to yourself, laying all hideousnesses utterly bare, reserving nothing. Banish the idea of an audience & all hampering things. If the book is well done, there’s a market for it. There is no market yet, for the one you are now writing—it should wait. Love to Molly & all.

Yrsem spaceSam

Textual Commentary



glyphglyphCopy-text:glyphMS, Jean Webster McKinney Papers, Special Collections, NPV.

glyphglyphPrevious publication:glyph MTBus, 142–44, partial publication.

glyphglyphProvenance:glyphSee McKinney Family Papers in Description of Provenance.

glyphglyphEmendations and textual notes:glyph


untrameled • [sic]

to • to ǁ to