“Advice to Youth” by Mark Twain (1882)

Mark Twain caricature published in Life‘s “Biographettes” series on March 22, 1883, highlighting his commitment to “petrified truth.”

Mark Twain, born Samuel L. Clemens (1835-1910), was an American author and humorist, perhaps best known for the novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Clemens was the sixth child of seven born to John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton Clemens in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835. After the fifth grade, Clemens began an apprenticeship with Joseph Ament setting type for the Hannibal Courier, a local newspaper. Here, he was inspired by news of the world and embarked on a career as a riverboat pilot, but the outbreak of the Civil War halted his vocation.

While he held a variety of occupations, perhaps the most important to his career as a writer was his stint as a traveling reporter. During the 1860s, Clemens traveled across the American West and on to the Hawaiian Islands. He published well-received newspaper articles about his experiences, which enabled him to begin a career as a public lecturer and later opened publishing doors for his novels. Clemens had an uncanny ability to capture the truth of his own life and 19th century America. While his essays are not widely published, they can be identified as his lectures, dinner speeches, and writings on his own experiences, especially concerning the Mississippi River.

Essay’s Form

Mark Twain thoughtfully constructs “Advice to Youth” by creating skewed expectations through unpredictability and satiric voice.

Early 20th century photograph of the Ether Monument: Boston, Massachusetts. In “Advice to Youth,” Twain references the monument’s immortal scandal surrounding the birth of medical anesthesia.

The essay is structured around a string of traditional instructions. Once Twain references a piece of advice, he immediately subverts expectations and undermines the initial statement to suggest a new take on familiar clichés. He admonishes his audience to “always obey your parents,” but he quickly follows with “when they are present,” making this longstanding piece of advice seem ridiculous.

The core of the essay rests on the topic of lying. Twain states that “a lie well told is immortal,” referencing the lie behind the Ether Monument in Boston–a monument honoring the first surgical use of ether, but which has been purported to depict the wrong medical pioneer. While Twain admits he has not successfully learned the art of lying, his reliability as a narrator is called into question.

In closing, Twain references “character,” claiming if his audience follows his advice, their characters will “[resemble] everybody else’s,” an undesirable outcome. Through Twain’s wit, the absurdity of this essay encourages the audience to think for themselves and suggests that an individual’s own advice could be her wisest resource.

Essay’s Immediate Context

Twain delivered “Advice to Youth” as a speech at the Saturday Morning Club on April 15, 1882 in Boston. Julia Ward Howe founded the club for her daughter’s social education. While documentation is not readily available on how the Saturday Morning Club regarded the speech, it can be assumed that Twain was an honored guest. Mark Twain was widely popular at the time of the talk; his essays and travelogues had already made him an iconic humorist. By 1882, Clemens was a father to three girls, Olivia,Clara, and Jane, with his wife, Olivia Langdon. His son, Langdon, had died shortly after birth.

This time in history is referred to as the “Gilded Age,” a term coined by Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), a novel that criticizes economic and industrial boom of post Civil War America. Twain’s view of the time provided grounds to inspire youth to think for themselves.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884. This novel, narrated by a young boy, provides further social critique: on society as a whole, on slavery as an institution, and on the questionable morals of youth. In the same year, Twain began his own publishing house, Charles L., Webster & Company, publishing the first American edition of Huckleberry Finn.

Essay’s Subsequent Appearances

While little is known about the Saturday Morning Club, “Advice to Youth” has been anthologized in many collections of Mark Twain’s work, categorized under his speeches.

Today, the essay manages to remain active in modern culture. “Advice to Youth” is often used as a teaching tool. Students are asked to imitate the essay in an effort to discover the inner workings of satiric technique. The essay has been imitated in various contexts, from freshman composition courses to Brian Funaki’s 2005 parody in Seminars in Interventional Radiology.

Selected Bibliography

Compton Label Works. ” Smoke the Popular Mark Twain Cigars Sold Everywhere.” 1877-1885Known to Everyone—Liked by All: The Business of Being Mark Twain. The Carl A. Kroch Library, Ithica. Cornell University. 2010. Web. 11 Mar.  2011.

“Ether Monument, Boston, Massachusetts.” Roadside America – Guide to Uniquely Odd Tourist Attractions. n.d.Web. 11 Mar. 2011.

Ether Monument, Public Garden, The. 1900-1906. Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Boston. Library of Congress. Detroit Publishing Company. n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.

Funaki, Brian. “Advice to Fellows and Residents (with Apologies to Mark Twain).” Seminars in Interventional Radiology 22.03 (2005): 145. Print.

“Gilded Age (1878-1889).” America’s Story from America’s Library. Library of Congress. n.d. Web.  10 Mar. 2011.

Hawes, J.J. “Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Vol. I.” Digital library Server at Penn Libraries. n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2011.

Keppler, Joseph. “Mark Twain: America’s Best Humorist.” 1885. Portrait. Known to Everyone—Liked by All: The Business of Being Mark Twain. The Carl A. Kroch Library, Ithica. Cornell University. 2010. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.

“Mark Twain on Stage.” The Business of Being Mark Twain. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Cornell University. 8 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2011.

Merriman, C.D. Mark Twain. The Literature Network. 2006. Web. 14 Mar. 2011.

Quirk, Tom. The Portable Mark Twain. New York: the Penguin Group, 2004. Print.

Railton, Stephen. “As Life Saw Him.” Mark Twain in His Times Homepage. University of Virginia Library. The Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia. n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.

Saturday Morning Club (Boston, Mass.) Additional Records, 1971-1996: A Finding Aid. OASIS Online Archival Search Information System; Office for Information Systems; Harvard University Library. Harvard University Library, July 1997. Web. 12 Mar. 2011.

“The Man.” The Mark Twain House & Museum. n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2011.

“Twain’s Life and Works.” Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2011.

Twain was widely popular for his lecture tours. This portrait was published in the 1881 the American periodical Puck.

Text and images: Kristina DiPano.