A Complaint About Correspondents, Dated in San Francisco

By Mark Twain
From The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (New York: C. H. Webb, 1867).

What do you take us for, on this side of the continent? I am addressing myself personally, and with asperity, to every man, woman, and child east of the Rocky Mountains. How do you suppose our minds are constituted, that you will write us such execrable letters -- such poor, bald, uninteresting trash? You complain that by the time a man has been on the Pacific coast six months, he seems to lose all concern about matters and things and people in the distant East, and ceases to answer the letters of his friends and even his relatives. It is your own fault. You need a lecture on the subject -- a lecture which ought to read about as follows:

There is only one brief, solitary law for letter-writing, and yet you either do not know that law, or else you are so stupid that you never think of it. It is very easy and simple: Write only about things and people your correspondent takes a living interest in.

Can not you remember that law, hereafter, and abide by it? If you are an old friend of the person you are writing to, you know a number of his acquaintances, and you can rest satisfied that even the most trivial things you can write about them will be read with avidity out here on the edge of sunset.

Yet how do you write? -- how do the most of you write? Why, you drivel and drivel and drivel along in your wooden-headed way about people one never heard of before, and things which one knows nothing at all about and cares less. There is no sense in that. Let me show up your style with a specimen or so. Here is a paragraph from my Aunt Nancy's last letter -- received four years ago, and not answered immediately -- not at all, I may say:

"St. Louis, 1862.

"Dear Mark: We spent the evening very pleasantly at home yesterday. The Rev. Dr. Macklin and wife, from Peoria, were here. He is an humble laborer in the vineyard, and takes his coffee strong. He is also subject to neuralgia -- neuralgia in the head -- and is so unassuming and prayerful. There are few such men. We had soup for dinner likewise. Although I am not fond of it. O Mark! why don't you try to lead a better life? Read II. Kings, from chap. 2 to chap. 24 inclusive. It would be so gratifying to me if you would experience a change of heart. Poor Mrs. Gabrick is dead. You did not know her. She had fits, poor soul. On the 14th the entire army took up the line of march from ----"

I always stopped there, because I knew what was coming -- the war news, in minute and dry detail -- for I could never drive it into those numskulls that the overland telegraph enabled me to know here in San Francisco every day all that transpired in the United States the day before, and that the pony express brought me exhaustive details of all matters pertaining to the war at least two weeks before their letters could possibly reach me. So I naturally skipped their stale war reports, even at the cost of also skipping the inevitable suggestions to read this, that, and the other batch of chapters in the Scriptures, with which they were interlarded at intervals, like snares wherewith to trap the unwary sinner.

Now what was the Rev. Macklin to me? Of what consequence was it to me that he was "an humble laborer in the vineyard," and "took his coffee strong"? -- and was "unassuming," and "neuralgic," and "prayerful"? Such a strange conglomeration of virtues could only excite my admiration -- nothing more. It could awake no living interest. That there are few such men, and that we had soup for dinner, is simply gratifying -- that is all. "Read twenty-two chapters of II. Kings" is a nice shell to fall in the camp of a man who is not studying for the ministry. The intelligence that "poor Mrs. Gabrick" was dead, aroused no enthusiasm -- mostly because of the circumstance that I had never heard of her before, I presume. But I was glad she had fits -- although a stranger.

Don't you begin to understand, now? Don't you see that there is not a sentence in that letter of any interest in the world to me? I had the war news in advance of it; I could get a much better sermon at church when I needed it; I didn't care any thing about poor Gabrick, not knowing deceased; nor yet the Rev. Macklin, not knowing him either. I said to myself, "Here's not a word about Mary Anne Smith -- I wish there was; nor about Georgiana Brown, or Zeb Leavenworth, or Sam Bowen, or Strother Wiley -- or about any body else I care a straw for." And so, as this letter was just of a pattern with all that went before it, it was not answered, and one useless correspondence ceased.

My venerable mother is a tolerably good correspondent -- she is above the average, at any rate. She puts on her spectacles and takes her scissors and wades into a pile of newspapers, and slashes out column after column -- editorials, hotel arrivals, poetry, telegraph news, advertisements, novelettes, old jokes, recipes for making pies, cures for "biles" -- any thing that comes handy; it don't matter to her; she is entirely impartial; she slashes out a column, and runs her eye down it over her spectacles -- (she looks over them because she can't see through them, but she prefers them to her more serviceable ones because they have got gold rims to them) -- runs her eye down the column, and says, "Well, it's from a St. Louis paper, any way," and jams it into the envelope along with her letter. She writes about every body I ever knew or ever heard of; but unhappily, she forgets that when she tells me that "J. B. is dead," and that "W. L. is going to marry T. D." and that "B. K. and R. M. and L. P. J. have all gone to New-Orleans to live," it is more than likely that years of absence may have so dulled my recollection of once familiar names, that their unexplained initials will be as unintelligible as Hebrew unto me. She never writes a name in full, and so I never know whom she is talking about. Therefore I have to guess -- and this was how it came that I mourned the death of Bill Kribben when I should have rejoiced over the dissolution of Ben Kenfuron. I failed to cipher the initials out correctly.

The most useful and interesting letters we get here from home are from children seven or eight years old. This is petrified truth. Happily they have got nothing to talk about but home, and neighbors, and family -- things their betters think unworthy of transmission thousands of miles. They write simply and naturally, and without straining for effect. They tell all they know, and then stop. They seldom deal in abstractions or moral homilies. Consequently their epistles are brief; but, treating as they do of familiar scenes and persons, always entertaining. Now, therefore, if you would learn the art of letter-writing, let a little child teach you. I have preserved a letter from a small girl eight years of age -- preserved it as a curiosity, because it was the only letter I ever got from the States that had any information in it. It runs thus:

"St. Louis, 1865.

"Uncle Mark, if you was here, I could tell you about Moses in the Bulrushers again, I know it better now. Mr. Sowerby has got his leg broke off a horse. He was riding it on Sunday. Margaret, that's the maid, Margaret has took all the spittoons, and slop-buckets, and old jugs out of your room, because she says she don't think you're ever coming back any more, you been gone so long. Sissy McElroy's mother has got another little baby. She has them all the time. It has got little blue eyes, like Mr. Swimley that boards there, and looks just like him. I have got a new doll, but Johnny Anderson pulled one of its legs out. Miss Doosenberry was here to-day; I give her your picture, but she said she didn't want it. My cat has got more kittens -- oh! you can't think -- twice as many as Lottie Belden's. And there's one, such a sweet little buff one with a short tail, and I named it for you. All of them's got names now -- General Grant, and Halleck, and Moses, and Margaret, and Deuteronomy, and Captain Semmes, and Exodus, and Leviticus, and Horace Greeley -- all named but one, and I am saving it because the one that I named for You's been sick all the time since, and I reckon it'll die. [It appears to have been mighty rough on the short-tailed kitten, naming it for me -- I wonder how the reserved victim will stand it.] Uncle Mark, I do believe Hattie Caldwell likes you, and I know she thinks you are pretty, because I heard her say nothing couldn't hurt your good looks -- nothing at all -- she said, even if you was to have the small-pox ever so bad, you would be just as good-looking as you was before. And my ma says she's ever so smart. [Very.] So no more this time, because General Grant and Moses is fighting. Annie."

This child treads on my toes, in every other sentence, with a perfect looseness, but in the simplicity of her time of life she doesn't know it.

I consider that a model letter -- an eminently readable and entertaining letter, and, as I said before, it contains more matter of interest and more real information than any letter I ever received from the East. I had rather hear about the cats at home and their truly remarkable names, than listen to a lot of stuff about people I am not acquainted with, or read "The Evil Effects of the Intoxicating Bowl," illustrated on the back with a picture of a ragged scalliwag pelting away right and left, in the midst of his family circle, with a junk bottle.

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