Rasmussen, R. Kent (ed.). _Mark Twain's Book for Bad
Boys and Girls_. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1995.
Pp. xvi + 173. Cloth, 5-1/4" x 7-1/2". $12.95. ISBN
Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Mary Leah Christmas <[log in to unmask]>
Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1995. This review may not be
published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
In the 1880s, Dan Beard--Mark Twain's frequent illustrator, and later the
founder of the Boy Scouts of America--published _The American Boy's Handy
Book_, subtitled _What to do and How to do it_. Soon after, the distaff
Beards penned, _The American Girl's Handy Book_. Now, over one hundred
years later (and just in time for the holidays) R. Kent Rasmussen has
issued some further instruction, on behalf of Mark Twain.
Rasmussen, whose recent book, _Mark Twain A to Z_ (Facts on File, 1995),
has been called "the most important Twain publication event of the year,"
now gives us, in _Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls_, Twain's
version of what to do and how to do it--and it doesn't involve constructing
pine-branch houses. Twain advised always obeying one's parents--when they
are present. This book shows what can happen the rest of the time.
Mankind has not changed much since that fateful day in the Garden, when
Adam and Eve ate of the fruit when they thought the Father wasn't
looking. By that act, the predilection for mischief has been visited
upon their children in perpetuity. Then, as now, the younger generation
is full of energy, needing an outlet. Beard, in his book, tried to pro-
vide ways to harness some of that for constructive ends, such as building
flatboats or making kites. But when children are not engaged in such
formal pursuits, and are left to their own devices, the results, as seen
in Rasmussen's book, can involve anything from a fresh watermelon rind to
a borrowed skeleton to a furtive smoke.
Many adults yearn for those simpler days. Dan Beard wrote, in his
autobiography, "I cannot think of it without a conscious willingness to
give all I have acquired by years of hard labor and experience for the
opportunity of living again my guileless childhood life in the forests and
fields along the shores of old Lake Erie." Change "old Lake Erie" to "the
Mississippi," and there you have it: what could pass for an excerpt from
Twain's own correspondence.
The material selected by Rasmussen for _Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and
Girls_ epitomizes this, the spirit of Mark Twain's existence, which his
wife, Livy, captured in the pet name "Youth." Though he was indeed "the
most serious man in the world," Twain's life and writings are indicative of
a mind full of mischief, and Rasmussen has done an admirable job in editing
Who can resist a book that addresses such matters as, "Experimenting with
the Laws of Gravity," "Not Wasting A Watermelon," and "Disordering Auntie's
Mind"? Some texts are, inevitably, harvested from _Huckleberry Finn_ and
_Tom Sawyer_; but there are selections from less familiar sources, such as
the _Virginia City Territorial Enterprise_, _California Youth's Companion_,
and the _Galaxy_.
The jacket flap of _Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls_ states
the Twainy postulate that, "'bad' people are often happier and more
successful than those who strive to be 'good.'" The word "strive" is
suggestive. There are, then, only two kinds of children: bad children,
and bad children who try to be otherwise. Similarly, Mark Twain drew our
attention to "the street _called_ Straight," in _The Innocents Abroad_.
With Mark Twain, however, it's not where you finish, it's where you
start. Where he started, of course, was in Hannibal. As Twain tells it,
it was an early act of disobedience that sealed his destiny. "A Shade of
Death's Door," in _Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls_, reiterates
the particulars of the local measles epidemic featured in "The Turning-
Point of My Life." It is in the latter piece, however, that Twain attests
that if he hadn't consciously, defiantly (and quite literally) delivered
himself into the hands of fate, thereby contracting the measles, his
literary career might never have been. It was being "bad" that ulti-
mately proved to be his ticket out of small-town life.
There is a lot of Hannibal in this book. Having lived there recently,
this reviewer can attest to the fact that riverboats still land there,
wildflowers still grow atop Cardiff Hill--and the currency, the legal
tender, of youth still continues to change hands: marbles, doll parts,
odd bits of string. Such evidence was occasionally found underneath my
back porch. No doubt the neighborhood children continue to make strange
pacts, too, from things read about robbers and pirates. As Huck says, in
the present collection, "I've seen it in books, and so of course that's
what we've got to do."
As the title would suggest, the passages in _Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys
and Girls_ are about childhood. There would surely be ample material if
Rasmussen were at some point to edit a volume for nonconformist adults. In
the spirit of Stephen Potter's witty _Gamesmanship: The Art of Winning
Games Without Actually Cheating_, Rasmussen could avail himself of such
real-life "gamespersonship" nuggets as Mark Twain's unfair advantage over
Woodrow Wilson while playing miniature golf in Bermuda (this reviewer
recently learned that the future President was, at the time, still
recuperating from an injury that had earlier left him blind in one eye),
and Twain's letting his cats wander through the midst of a billiard game.
Though it is compact, do not be deceived into thinking that _Mark Twain's
Book for Bad Boys and Girls_ is a quick read. It is not. There is plenty
of text, and much to savor. The illustrations were culled from first
editions, and there are just enough of them to provide atmosphere without
seeming extraneous. The touchable pages and attractive cover make for a
tasteful, overall presentation. _Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls_
is a pleasure to hold as well as to read.
R. Kent Rasmussen's _Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls_ is the
perfect gift for Christmas--or for anyone, for that matter. It is a
delightful volume and, it has been said, is much better than coal. And,
this reviewer would add, it burns with a truer light, the light of a