Picks and Pans Review: The Selected Letters of Mark Twain

UPDATED 05/24/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/24/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

edited by Charles Neider

These letters span Sam Clemens' life from the time he was 18 until just before he died at 74 in 1910. They touch on his lives as a riverboat pilot, miner on the frontier, newspaper writer, world traveler and successful author and lecturer. Even in the most casual correspondence, there is a transcendent joy in the way he uses English. So, until the space runs out, some quotes. On hearing a band play a familiar tune: "It was like meeting an old friend. I tell you I could have swallowed that whole band, trombone and all, if such a compliment would have been any gratification to them." On a visit at 47 to Hannibal, his childhood home: "That world which I knew in its blossoming youth is old and bowed and melancholy now. Its soft cheeks are leathery and wrinkled. The fire is gone out of its eyes and the spring from its step. It will be dust and ashes when I come again." On war: "Why was the human race created? Or at least why wasn't something creditable created in place of it? God had his opportunity. He could have made a reputation. But no, he must commit this grotesque folly—a lark which must have cost Him a regret or two when he came to think it over and observe its effects." On letters: "What does possess strangers to write so many letters? I never could find that out. However, I suppose I did it myself when I was a stranger. But I will never do it again." Thank goodness there weren't many telephones back then. (Harper & Row, $16.95)

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