Albert Bigelow Paine

Mark Twain: A Biography



(Written in 1886. Delivered at an Army and Navy Club dinner in New York City)

Lately a great and honored author, Matthew Arnold, has been finding fault with General Grant’s English. That would be fair enough, maybe, if the examples of imperfect English averaged more instances to the page in General Grant’s book than they do in Arnold’s criticism on the book—but they do not. It would be fair enough, maybe, if such instances were commoner in General Grant’s book than they are in the works of the average standard author—but they are not. In fact, General Grant’s derelictions in the matter of grammar and construction are not more frequent than such derelictions in the works of a majority of the professional authors of our time, and of all previous times—authors as exclusively and painstakingly trained to the literary trade as was General Grant to the trade of war. This is not a random statement: it is a fact, and easily demonstrable. I have a book at home called Modern English Literature: Its Blemishes and Defects, by Henry H. Breen, a countryman of Mr. Arnold. In it I find examples of bad grammar and slovenly English from the pens of Sydney Smith, Sheridan, Hallam, Whately, Carlyle, Disraeli, Allison, Junius, Blair, Macaulay, Shakespeare, Milton, Gibbon, Southey, Lamb, Landor, Smollett, Walpole, Walker (of the dictionary), Christopher North, Kirk White, Benjamin Franklin, Sir Walter Scott, and Mr. Lindley Murray (who made the grammar).

In Mr. Arnold’s criticism on General Grant’s book we find two grammatical crimes and more than several examples of very crude and slovenly English, enough of them to entitle him to a lofty place in the illustrious list of delinquents just named.

The following passage all by itself ought to elect him:

“Meade suggested to Grant that he might wish to have immediately under him Sherman, who had been serving with Grant in the West. He begged him not to hesitate if he thought it for the good of the service. Grant assured him that he had not thought of moving him, and in his memoirs, after relating what had passed, he adds, etc.”

To read that passage a couple of times would make a man dizzy; to read it four times would make him drunk.

Mr. Breen makes this discriminating remark: “To suppose that because a man is a poet or a historian he must be correct in his grammar is to suppose that an architect must be a joiner, or a physician a compounder of medicine.”

People may hunt out what microscopic motes they please, but, after all, the fact remains, and cannot be dislodged, that General Grant’s book is a great and, in its peculiar department, a unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece. In their line there is no higher literature than those modest, simple memoirs. Their style is at least flawless and no man could improve upon it, and great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter, and not by the trimmings and shadings of their grammar.

There is that about the sun which makes us forget his spots, and when we think of General Grant our pulses quicken and his grammar vanishes; we only remember that this is the simple soldier who, all untaught of the silken phrase-makers, linked words together with an art surpassing the art of the schools and put into them a something which will still bring to American ears, as long as America shall last, the roll of his vanished drums and the tread of his marching hosts. What do we care for grammar when we think of those thunderous phrases, “Unconditional and immediate surrender,” “I propose to move immediately upon your works,” “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Mr. Arnold would doubtless claim that that last phrase is not strictly grammatical, and yet it did certainly wake up this nation as a hundred million tons of A-number-one fourth-proof, hard-boiled, hide-bound grammar from another mouth could not have done. And finally we have that gentler phrase, that one which shows you another true side of the man, shows you that in his soldier heart there was room for other than gory war mottoes and in his tongue the gift to fitly phrase them: “Let us have peace.”

Rendered into HTML on Mon Dec 8 14:58:40 2003, by Steve Thomas for The University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection.