Mark Twain: The Edison of Our Literature

Quick: which icon of late 19th century America described an overly-busy man as one “inebriated with industry”? Or insulted another for having “a genius for stupidity”? Or likened birds singing at sunrise to a “canary seed orchestra”? If this lively language put you in mind of Mark Twain, don’t feel bad that the author was actually Thomas Edison. The comparison occurred to me in reverse. Edison’s prose is pretty familiar from my work at the Thomas Edison Papers, so my scalp tingled recently when I recognized a similar voice while rereading Twain’s memoir of Life on the Mississippi.

Edison was no Twain: he wrote mainly to inform or instruct, not to amuse or spin a coherent story. But he also had a liveliness and a knack for making words sound like informal speech, traits that make Twain’s narratives so distinctively American. Edison could wrap a trivial event around a forceful verb, used unexpectedly, to freshen the action. When he went boating on a windy day and got splashed, it was because the “water broke loose from the iron grasp of gravitation.” A gentleman whom Edison asked for directions didn’t mumble in reply; rather, he “worked his articulating apparatus so weakly I didnt hear a word he said.” The same with adjectives or adverbs: hair neatly combed has been “laid out by a civil engineer.”  A man in a place of responsibility is “clothed with authority.” Actually, that last phrase is Twain’s, as is the description of a treacherous bit of river where “twenty-nine steamboats had left their bones strung along” the bottom. But you see the point.

Edison didn’t usually stylize his writing this way, and I resorted to a bit of cherry-picking for those examples. They’re from entries in a diary that he read aloud as a parlor game with a group of friends on vacation in 1885. But the creative vigor in his voice jumps off his workaday pages, too. Quickly outlining a complex technical argument for an associate, he closed with: “Do you catch on with your intellectual grippers?” It’s there even in hasty directions. Drafting a set of patent applications in 1887 and 1888, he successively told his attorney to “Claim the Earth,” then to “Claim Everything,” then “the Solar System,” and finally to claim “Alpha Centauri Orion & the pole star.”

Those exaggerated commands are on the scale of Paul Bunyan, the woodsman of American legend, and they remind me that Edison and Twain both came from a time and place where vivid storytelling was a respected art. Born just twelve years apart, each grew up in the West (what we now call the Midwest), where a rich oral culture of humor and tall tales flourished before the Civil War. Edison’s “perceptible Western twang” was still evident years later. As a successful inventor, he became a magnet for newspaper reporters, who noted the ease with which he bantered and swapped stories with them—and with his employees.

Edison also shared with Twain a long connection with the newspaper business, which had its own traditions of spirited writing. Twain, of course, had been a reporter, and Edison had published his own paper as a boy. As a young man, Edison worked as a telegraph operator on the press lines, taking down stories filed from distant cities; working the telegraph sounders, he literally heard stories before they were printed. Telegrapher and reporter were both itinerant jobs, and Edison and Twain traveled extensively, no doubt picking up new linguistic habits from companions on trains and ships or in boardinghouses.

By the 1880s, Edison and Twain were in their successful middle years, each renowned for inventiveness—one with machines, the other with language. (Not for nothing did a newspaper call Twain “the Edison of our literature” in 1885.) Twain also was fascinated with new machines. A famously early user of the telephone, in 1888 he also sought out the new Edison phonograph—before it was ready—for dictating the manuscript of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a cautionary tale about new technology. He also dabbled at inventing, though only one of his creations ever made him any money. That was a self-pasting scrapbook, a copy of which Edison bought on his 1885 vacation.

-Louis Carlat, Associate Editor.