Samuel Clemens vs. Jane Austen: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

The Chicago Examiner recently ran a fun list of the “50 Best Author vs. Author Putdowns of All Time.” The collection of gloriously vicious insults includes one of Mark Twain’s many stabs at Jane Austen: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Mark Twain in 1909

The irascible Mark Twain never tired of skewering Jane Austen.

Twain (Samuel Clemens to his friends and family) also wrote that “any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book,” and lamented that “it seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”

Ironically, that sounds just like the kind of barbed stuff Austen would write. Twain and Austen are two of my favorite authors, precisely because they are so adept at throwing literary darts. Austen had a much narrower focus and a much more contained life than did Twain, but in a lot of ways they aimed at similar targets.

I find Twain’s reference to “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ ” a trifle suspicious. Just how many times did he read it, anyway? I’m not the only one to think that perhaps Twain doth protest too much about Austen. An essay some years back in “The Virginia Quarterly Review” suggested that Twain’s hatred of Austen may have been at least partly a pose, and that he may have realized (albeit reluctantly)  that he and Austen shared a similar disdain for fools.

As for Twain, he didn’t escape skewering by other authors, either. William Faulkner called him a “hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe.” Ouch!

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