Mark Twain on Small-Town Southern Journalism

twainFebruary 1, 2013

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Twain wrote the following short story 140 years ago. Some details are perhaps exaggerated, but modern-day readers of the Cape Charles Wave nevertheless may draw some parallels. The story has been condensed for modern attention spans.

Journalism in Tennessee
By Mark Twain

I was told by my physician that a Southern climate would improve my health, and so I went down to Tennessee, and got a berth on the Morning Glory and Johnson County War-Whoop as associate editor.

When I went on duty the chief editor told me to take the exchanges and skim through them and write what seemed of interest.

I wrote as follows:

“The editors of the Semi-Weekly Earthquake evidently labor under a misapprehension with regard to the Dallyhack railroad. It is not the object of the company to leave Buzzardville off to one side. The gentlemen of the Earthquake will, of course, take pleasure in making the correction.

* * *

“John W. Blossom, Esq., the able editor of the Higginsville Thunderbolt and Battle Cry of Freedom, arrived in the city yesterday. He is stopping at the Van Buren House.

* * *

“We observe that our contemporary of the Mud Springs Morning Howl has fallen into the error of supposing that the election of Van Werter is not an established fact, but he will have discovered his mistake before this reminder reaches him, no doubt.

* * *

“It is pleasant to note that the city of Blathersville is endeavoring to contract with some New York gentlemen to pave its well-nigh impassable streets. The Daily Hurrah urges the measure with ability, and seems confident of ultimate success.

* * *

I passed my manuscript over to the chief editor. He glanced at it and his face clouded. Presently he sprang up and said:

“Thunder and lightning! Do you suppose my subscribers are going to stand such gruel as that? Give me the pen!”

While he was in the midst of his work, somebody shot at him through the open window, and marred the symmetry of my ear.


“Ah,” said he, “that is that scoundrel Smith, of the Moral Volcano – he was due yesterday.” And he snatched a revolver from his belt and fired. Smith dropped, shot in the thigh. The shot spoiled Smith’s aim, who was just taking a second chance and he crippled a stranger. It was me. Merely a finger shot off.

Just as the chief editor finished, a hand grenade came down the stovepipe, and the explosion shivered the stove into a thousand fragments. A vagrant piece knocked a couple of my teeth out.

“I know the man that did it. I’ll get him. Now, here is the way this stuff ought to be written.”

The manuscript now read as follows:

`”The inveterate liars of the Semi-Weekly Earthquake are evidently endeavoring to palm off another of their vile and brutal falsehoods with regard to the Ballyhack railroad. The idea that Buzzardville was to be left off at one side originated in their own fulsome brains — or rather in the settlings which they regard as brains.

* * *

“That ass, Blossom, of the Higginsville Thunderbolt and Battle Cry of Freedom, is down here again sponging at the Van Buren.

* * *

“We observe that the besotted blackguard of the Mud Springs Morning Howl is giving out, with his usual propensity for lying, that Van Werter is not elected.

* * *

“Blathersville wants pavement — it wants a jail and a poorhouse more. The idea of pavement in a one-horse town composed of two gin-mills, a blacksmith shop, and that mustard-plaster of a newspaper, the Daily Hurrah!

* * *

“Now that is the way to write — peppery and to the point. ”

About this time a brick came through the window with a splintering crash, and gave me a considerable jolt in the back.

The chief said, “That was the Colonel, likely. I’ve been expecting him for two days. He will be up, now, right away.”

He was correct. The Colonel appeared in the door a moment afterward with a revolver in his hand.

He said, “Sir, have I the honor of addressing the poltroon who edits this mangy sheet?”

“You have. Be seated, sir. I believe I have the honor of addressing the putrid liar, Colonel Blatherskite Tecumseh?”

“Right, Sir. I have a little account to settle with you. If you are at leisure we will begin.”


Both pistols rang out their fierce clamor at the same instant. The chief lost a lock of his hair, and the Colonel’s bullet ended its career in the fleshy part of my thigh.

They fired again. Both missed their men this time, but I got my share, a shot in the arm.

I then said, I believed I would go out and take a walk, as this was a private matter. But both gentlemen begged me to keep my seat, and assured me that I was not in the way.

The next shot mortally wounded the Colonel, who remarked that he would have to say good morning now, as he had business uptown. He then inquired the way to the undertaker’s and left.

The chief turned to me and said, “I am expecting company to dinner, and shall have to get ready. It will be a favor to me if you will read proof and attend to the customers.”

He continued, “Jones will be here at three — cowhide him. Gillespie will call earlier, perhaps — throw him out of the window. Ferguson will be along about four — kill him. That is all for today, I believe.

At the end of the next three hours I had been through perils so awful that all peace of mind and all cheerfulness were gone from me.

Gillespie had called and thrown me out of the window.

Jones arrived promptly, and when I got ready to do the cowhiding he took the job off my hands.

An encounter with a stranger, by the name of Thompson, left me a mere wreck and ruin of chaotic rags.

And at last, at bay in the corner, and beset by an infuriated mob of editors, blacklegs, politicians, and desperadoes, who raved and swore and flourished their weapons about my head till the air shimmered with glancing flashes of steel, I was in the act of resigning my berth on the paper when the chief arrived, and with him a rabble of charmed and enthusiastic friends.

Then ensued a scene of riot and carnage such as no human pen, or steel one either, could describe. People were shot, probed, dismembered, blown up, thrown out of the window. There was a brief tornado of murky blasphemy, with a confused and frantic war-dance glimmering through it, and then all was over.

In five minutes there was silence, and the gory chief and I sat alone and surveyed the ruin that strewed the floor around us.

He said, “You’ll like this place when you get used to it.”

I said, “I’ll have to get you to excuse me; I think maybe I might write to suit you after a while. But to speak the plain truth, that sort of energy of expression has its inconveniences, and a man is liable to interruption.

“You see that yourself. Vigorous writing is calculated to elevate the public, no doubt, but then I do not like to attract so much attention as it calls forth.

“I can’t write with comfort when I am interrupted so much as I have been today.

“No, I like you, and I like your calm unruffled way of explaining things to the customers, but you see I am not used to it. The Southern heart is too impulsive; Southern hospitality is too lavish with the stranger.

“The paragraphs which I have written today, and into whose cold sentences your masterly hand has infused the fervent spirit of Tennessean journalism, will wake up another nest of hornets. All that mob of editors will come — and they will come hungry, too, and want somebody for breakfast.

“I shall have to bid you adieu. I decline to be present at these festivities. I came South for my health, I will go back on the same errand, and suddenly. Tennessean journalism is too stirring for me.”

After which we parted with mutual regret, and I took a room at the hospital.




2 Responses to “Mark Twain on Small-Town Southern Journalism”

  1. Bob Meyers on February 2nd, 2013 12:02 pm

    SUPERB! You have outdone yourselves again. Please do not stop!

  2. Judy McKnight on February 3rd, 2013 7:45 pm

    Thanks for sharing, and for editing, this short story. If my Dad were still living, I would send the story to him, though he surely would have already read it. He was an avid reader and a big fan of Mark Twain.

    Your piece reminded me of my Dad’s stories of his life before marriage. It also reminded me that I have a very large container of little black books in which he collected quotes and thoughts that informed his thinking and guided his living. Twain was often cited.

    A number of years ago, I created a database and started keying in his collected thoughts. Inspired by your sharing, I am going to pull out one of those notebooks and continue this project. My plan was and still is to pass a database of my father’s truths on to his grandchildren and great grandchildren.