Rhetorically Roughing It

Mark Twain was not a genius. In fact, his biography is marred by the types of blemishes indicative of a first-rate fool: low education, low income, high unemployment, frequent vagrancy, recurrent profligate business ventures, et cetera—indeed, everything we monitor for today on our little credit-risk charts when we are deciding who gets to live or die. How is it, then, that we praise this penniless backwater yokel as The Grandfather of American Literature? Mark Twain is a master of the memorable line, a champion of leaving us in awe at a turn of phrase. He undoubtedly possesses the roguish slant required of a good writer of the Picaresque, but being a disreputable swashbuckler alone does not propel one to become one of the finest Wits literature has ever known. The disappointing secret is that Mark Twain practiced, a lot. More specifically, this past master of the quip diligently practiced the figures of rhetoric. Like all great writers before him (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, et cetera) who make us contemporary hacks want to close up shop just by glancing at the page, Twain mercilessly enforced on himself the conscientious employment of what the Ancient Greeks invented and developed for the sole purpose of persuasion and delight. Twain’s bravura of Western Frontier hilarity, Roughing It, is a scintillating showcase of wit, and, by investigating Twain’s frequent use of the figures of rhetoric therein, one may ascertain that the ability to dazzle is not divinely endowed to the chosen few, but rather may be learnt by anyone, even foolhardy hicks.

Twain used a great many clever modes of narrative and literary devices, as well as upwards of thirty figures of rhetoric in Roughing It. In truth, the book is essentially an elite-level exercise in these scholarly disciplines (as well as of plain old lying), hence it would be impossible to chronicle every occurrence. Therefore, I shall focus on a few instances of particularly pithy and mellifluous forms of rhetoric, beginning with everyone’s favorite: Alliteration.

Alliteration is everyone’s favorite rhetorical form for two reasons: it pleases the ear and makes the author seem more clever than he really is. Consider Twain’s depiction of the aftermath of eleven Mormon wives demanding a valuable love-trinket from their husband: “Eleven promised breastpins purchased peace once more.” In this case, in addition to having a lovely rhythm, the four ps were placed punctiliously. Alliteration should be used with the utmost judiciousness, lest one begins to sound foolish; when used with extreme care, however, it is a most mellifluous piece of rhetoric. It is best used to audibly mimic the writerly action or idea one wants to develop: the soft sibilance of the flooded freshets. Hear the water?

Shall we move on? Rhetorical Questions are a surprisingly powerful form of rhetoric on account of not providing room for an answer. And we tend to like answers. Moreover, rhetorical questions often signal something important to which we should likely lend a cellphoneless ear. Reflect upon Twain’s usage of rhetorical questioning as he critiques Adam Smith’s magnum opus, the Mormon Bible, and its depiction of certain past followers ascending to heaven: “and they were in number about two thousand and five hundred souls; and they did consist of men, women, and children.” To which, Twain posits: “And what else would they be likely to consist of?” But how is one to answer a question like that?

An especially favorite form amongst humorous Wits is the Transferred Epithet. It is indeed a favorite due to its inherently eloquent absurdity. The form is, according to Mark Forsyth in his book The Elements of Eloquence, “when an adjective is applied to the wrong noun.” The effect is usually a species of pleasant confusion. Cogitate on Twain’s eating of “a hasty breakfast.” The last I checked (but we do live in progressive times) morning meals have not the ability to move, let alone with the relative consistency to be judged by their speed. Of course, the line referred to Twain’s eating a breakfast hastily, but I am certain Twain did not mean this book to be used as a soporific, and so he used a transferred epithet instead of boring his readers to sleep.

Evidence of humans enjoying symmetry is everywhere. We find it incredibly pleasing to look upon, even use it to decide both our paramours and lifelong mates. It is only logical, then, that we might find some private stimulation when it is found in print.

Parallelism, known to sterner people as Isocolon, is, simply put, a sentence devised of alike parts, a construction grammatically alike or symmetrical in form, or, according to Mark Forsyth, “two clauses that are grammatically parallel, two clauses that are structurally the same.”

Our senses are constantly assailed by many an unattractive sentence shaped like the following: We enjoy drinking, fighting, and some sex. 

This rather warm-blooded statement includes a successful first-person plural pronoun as its subject, an intransitive verb describing their feelings on the matter, and two spirited gerunds pertaining to how these ruffians find pleasure. Then, just at the climax of the series, a break in symmetry renders what was at first an exciting sentence flaccid: instead of a third gerund to complete the holy trinity, a grotesque adjective is placed before a common noun, thus rendering it, as Forsyth put it, a “formless heap.”

And Twain had the abovementioned formless heap on his mind when he describes a change in American Frontier currency: “…if one wanted a cigar, it was a quarter; if he wanted a chalk pipe, it was a quarter…”

But the figures of rhetoric need not be sold separately. Anaphora is when one begins each clause, sentence, or paragraph with the same word(s); epistrophe is when one finishes each clause, sentence, or paragraph with the same word(s). But don’t take my word(s) for it, instead take a second glance at that same line, and Twain’s aphoristic trifecta of Isocolon, Anaphora, and Epistrophe “…if one wanted a cigar, it was a quarter; if he wanted a chalk pipe, it was a quarter…”

Twain’s rhetorical muscle is fully flexed, however, when he is sporting his might with the figure of hyperbole. Indeed, he is at full horsepower whenever he lies, just as he does when his stallion is frightened by a heated bull: “[it] seemed to literally prostrate my horse’s reason… stand on his head for a quarter of a minute and shed tears.” Certainly, there is not a better bold-faced liar on the planet than Samuel Langhorne Clemens—play me the fool again, Samuel, we seem to say. Consider Twain’s delightful propaganda as regards the staggering width of the Humboldt River: “One of the pleasantest and most invigorating exercises one can contrive is to run and jump across the Humboldt River till he is overheated, and then drink it all dry.” I have never been to, seen, or even know where the Humboldt River is, but my suspicions lead me in the direction that this activity be exaggerated. 

Mark Twain is the best American humorist and Wit to date and stands as a shining example of what one can do when one is not afraid of a bit of practice. The forms of rhetoric are proven formulas against the perfunctory and the prosaic. Slave not after the Romantic notion of untutored artistic afflatus: this is a hoax—they all had Classical educations before they decided school was for fools. School should never be over. Twain voraciously read the Classics, enjoyed the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary as much as any novel, and diligently practiced rhetoric. Roughing It, one of the most sophisticated and awe-inspiring works of American fiction, was written by a former steamboat pilot and self-proclaimed tramp with a fifth-grade education.

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