a writer's blog

A Letter From Mark Twain: An Update on Quack, Bad Advertising Copy, and Writer’s Wrath

creed of reason

creed of reason

Mark Twain in response to a sales letter for a “patent medicine” to cure meningitis, diphtheria, and other ailments.

As Shaun Usher, who also provided the transcript, points out at Letters of Note, Twain had lost a daughter to meningitis and a son to diphtheria.

Nov. 20. 1905

J. H. Todd
1212 Webster St.
San Francisco, Cal.

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

It’s not immediately obvious which genre this “letter” belongs to. Contextually, and physically, it’s a letter—but it reads more like one of those ironic comments in letter form, which once was a popular genre in newspaper writing but fell out of fashion some time ago. Also, he signs with “Mark Twain” instead of “Samuel Clemens,” which also hints at a more public destination. Then again, from a certain point of celebrity status on, one can be reasonably sure that almost everything written will see publication sooner or later, and there’s no point in differentiating anymore between public writing and private correspondence, between literary or essayistic and informal style.


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