Mark Twain is most well known for his humorist approach to his literature, usually utilizing Horatian satire. The use of such light satire allows for Twain to approach realism differently than most conventional speakers would when instructed to deliver a speech to the youth of America. In Advice to Youth, Twain lists six various advice-like statements, to aid youth in their transition into adulthood. The advice goes from the kind one would hear from their parents, such as ‘Always obey your parents’, ‘Be respectful of your superiors’ and ‘Go to bed early, Get up early’. Stretching to a more excessive range from ‘Art of lying’ to ‘Never handle firearms carelessly’, both subjects catching the readers attention. Twain’s use of wit, tone, realism and sarcasm allow the young audience to dismiss his advice as comical and a diversion to what the real idea is of the literature.
Twain begins the speech with a serious tone in his writing, a relatable aspect for the older adults who may be indulging in the knowledge brought by Twain. “Being told I would be expected to talk here, I inquired what sort of talk I ought to make. They said it should be something suitable to youth–something didactic, instructive, or something in the nature of good advice.” (Peterson 550) Examining the wording of this segment is what uncovers the real motive behind why Twain was to give this speech.
The word choice of didactic, meaning ‘intended to teach, moral instruction as ulterior motive’, shows that Twain was to give a speech instructing the youth what society says they should do and how they should react to situations as an ‘adult’. The tone of this segment is poised and lofty sounding, putting Twain in the role of an elder in the society, as compared to the youths. Mark Twain ends the first paragraph with a contradiction to his earlier quote, “First, then. I will say to you my young friends–and I say it beseechingly, urgingly—“ (550), by calling the audience, who are clearly younger than himself, ‘young friends’, Twain removes the hierarchy between elders and youth.
By the age of young adult, one has usually heard the phrase “Always obey your parents” thrown around, quite a few times. Mark Twain refreshes Confucius’ idea of respecting one’s elders, with a twist of “when they are present”. He suggests humoring one’s parents by allowing them to continually believe that they know better than the youth, in an attempt to prevent issues in the long run. Twain’s next piece of advice stands true no matter the time period, “Be respectful of your superiors if you have any” (550). The youth reading this may find themselves chuckling at Twain’s use of conditional word choice, by selecting ‘if’.
Twain addresses the predicament one may find them in when another offends them. The matter of which to handle the situation, by hitting them with a brick, is Twain’s twist on giving the youth advice. The strategy behind suggesting a immature and uncivilized manner to handle such a trivial confrontation, is that the reader understands Mark Twain’s use of satire to show that one should ‘Leave dynamite to the low and unrefined’, meaning one should let the uncivilized be violent. The main points of advice being that one should ignore remarks made by the less intelligent, and move on with one’s own life.
The last contemporary piece of advice Twain is addressing is the idea of getting up early, a piece of advice mocking towards to the adult reader. The use of the word authorities as in “Some authorities say get up with the sun; some say get up with one thing, others with another.” (550) It puts Twain, the one giving the advice, as one of authorities that he speaks of. Twain suggests getting up with the lark, a bird that is usually the one waking the world up. Mockingly, Mark Twain says “if you get the right kind of lark, and work at him right, you can easily train him to get up at half past nine, every time–it’s no trick at all.” (550), a poke towards the relativism between what adults think sleeping in late is and what young adults consider late. The differences between the age groups in attitudes can become clearer through analyzing the tone Twain speaks with.
In regards to the youth’s highly impressionable moral values, Mark Twain surprises the reader with a lecture on the art of lying, as one might say. Without understanding Twain’s stance and famous rhetoric language, it’s easily to misinterpret his words as advocating lying, only if you don’t get caught. The first lesson in Twain’s riddled language exists in the line, “Many a young person has injured himself permanently through a single clumsy and ill finished lie, the result of carelessness born of incomplete training” (550).
His first lesson stands true as a timeless piece of advice, that many a young person can get themselves in deeper trouble by telling a poorly executed lie, before possessing the appropriate amount of experience, this is reiterated later on in the paragraph, “ I do maintain, and I believe I am right, that the young ought to be temperate in the use of this great art until practice and experience shall give them that confidence, elegance, and precision which alone can make the accomplishment graceful and profitable.” (551) Twain’s main idea behind that line is to inform the audience that they better make sure that they can go the limits necessary when telling a lie, to execute it successfully. Like to the reason for his fame, Mark Twain adds dimension to his words in the form of entertainment for the reader.
The lesson of lying is taught humorously, showing the audience that lying is wrong without having to say it. Twain hints at the ideology that the first man to advocate for the truth, was actually simply telling the best lie, “Think what tedious years of study, thought, practice, experience, went to the equipment of that peerless old master who was able to impose upon the whole world the lofty and sounding maxim that ‘Truth is mighty and will prevail’–the most majestic compound fracture of fact which any of woman born has yet achieved.” (551) Twain’s intelligence shows through when humoring the audience with tips on how to lie, Twain is using his own advice towards the readers.
How would Twain be able to give accurate advice to his readers without having enough experience with lying, like he just advised his audience to do so? In the earlier paragraph about throwing at brick at the person when offended, he states “If you shall find that he had not intended any offense, come out frankly and confess yourself in the wrong when you struck him; acknowledge it like a man and say you didn’t mean to. “ (550) Once one relates this to the aspect of lying, it’s discovered that Twain is suggesting that one should lie and say it wasn’t intentional. In order to understand why Twain would tell the youth to learn to lie is a divergence from the normality of what most adults instruct kids to do.
Another twist thrown at the audience by Twain, was the aspect of handling firearms. At first read, it appears that Twain is telling a anticlimactic comical story of how a young boy assumes a gun isn’t loaded and points it at his grandmother, shoots, and to his luck, the gun isn’t loaded, as the young boy expected (Peterson 550).
Digging deeper into the story, the idea that youth shouldn’t be careless in checking the gun, unaware of the consequences. Some adults may not find the story of the young boy shooting towards his grandmother, but Twain makes note of the fact that a youth with a gun that can’t aim when necessary will always hit their target when unintentional. This plants the idea in the young readers minds that even if the gun is unloaded, there may be a bullet in the chamber, and one is more prone to hit their target than when aiming at the target at a range. The use of such example makes the audience rethink the way that society actively uses examples on the youth.
The real meaning behind this essay lies not entirely in the word choice, tone, organization or the advice he suggests, the real point is to not be like everyone else. The fact that the older generations give repeated advice to each generation creates a society in which everyone forms the same morals and values, limiting individuality. Mark Twain sets the stage for the youth to understand the unfair and immoral world that they are entering as adults. The idea presented in this essay is if one should conform to what the past generations have reiterated over years or to diverge and become one’s own entity. The reader also begins to question whether or not the advice they have been given in the past, was truly advice or if the advisor was telling them what other people wanted them to say. Our society would never rightfully justify an older adult telling a youth that lying, when done well, can be successful, would be viewed as a social norm violation.
Twain ends the speech with a questionable statement with the point that he wants the audience to follow his instructions and “make them a guide to your feet and a light to your understanding.” (551) The tone changing from satirical to serious helps shed light on the fact that people who give out advice are more instructing the listener, with an expectation of them to follow the advice without questioning the factuality at all. Twain remarks that the types of books that one reads, is effective to the character and person they become, Twain then continues onto list books for the youth to read, being either Religion or written by himself.
The expectation of such is shown by Twain stating that one should base their character on the general idea of the advice and that Twain theorizes that the youth will be surprised by the fact that they have designed their morals and values upon what society wanted them to mold themselves into. (Peterson 552) In a comical end to the satire brought by the great Mark Twain, the reader realizes the youth often aren’t known to follow the instructions they are given.
Peterson, Linda, John Brereton, Joseph Bizup, Anne Fernald, and Melissa GoldthwaiteNew York, NY: 550-552.