Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Western grammar, Twain-style

In one of my favorite episodes of my favorite show ever, my favorite character spends a good portion of time, in various hotel rooms across the Old West, reading Life on the Mississippi. Much of the humor in this episode comes from the conversations Kid Curry attempts to hold with Hannibal Heyes as he concentrates on reading his book until Kid, furious at being ignored, threatens to get a book of his own. Of course, it is extremely necessary for Heyes to reach chapter 31 and learn about fingerprints so he can successfully set up a suspected murderer late in the episode, but since Heyes has been shown in previous episodes reaching for whatever reading material is available in whatever town or stagecoach station he finds himself in, the reading in this one comes across as totally in character.

The writers of Alias Smith and Jones made blatant use of Mark Twain in other episodes as well—tweaking the title and the premise of "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" and putting forth some home-grown philosopher credentials for Curry with the notion that all he'd ever read was Tom Sawyer "two or three times" (kinda sorta impossible for him to have done, unless he read it very quickly after Heyes read Life on the Mississippi. Curry had never heard the name Mark Twain before that--he immediately pegs it as an alias and wonders what the man's wanted for. And not that Heyes could have read Life on the Mississippi anyway—publication date was still a few years off at the time the show was set).

One nod to Mark Twain that most fans of the show miss, however, occurs when Curry reads aloud the telegram they've received from the man they're working for (the boys are trailing a rancher's runaway wife and Heyes has been attempting to talk her into returning home to her husband). "A man doesn't crawl," Curry reads, then stops to ask Heyes if it's "doesn't" or "don't." Hardly glancing up from his book, Heyes assures him that it's "don't."

"And with all his money, too," Curry says, shaking his head.

See, that throwaway exchange is based on chapter 26, the section on "western grammar." The variable grammar in the show that's proved worrisome to some fans wasn't based on the writers' sloppiness, but on someone's knowledge of Mark Twain.

So, without further ado, and prompted by an email I received earlier this week from someone asking for help in locating the don't/doesn't discussion in Twain, the pertinent paragraphs on western grammar:

"The country gentleman who had told me these things has been reared in ease and comfort, was a man of good parts, and was college bred. His loose grammar was the fruit of careless habit, not ignorance. This habit among educated men in the West is not universal, but it is prevalent—prevalent in the towns, certainly, if not in the cities; and to a degree which one cannot help noticing, and marvelling at. I heard a Westerner who would be accounted a highly educated man in any country, say 'never mind, it don't make no difference, anyway.' A lifelong resident who was present heard it, but it made no impression upon her. She was able to recall the fact afterward, when reminded of it; but she confessed that the words had not grated upon her ear at the time—a confession which suggests that if educated people can hear such blasphemous grammar, from such a source, and be unconscious of the deed, the crime must be tolerable common—so common that the general ear has become dulled by familiarity with it, and is no longer alert, no longer sensitive to such affronts.

"No one in the world speaks blemishless grammar; no one has ever written it—no one, either in the world or out of it (taking the Scriptures for evidence on the latter point); therefore it would not be fair to exact grammatical perfection from the peoples of the Valley; but they and all other peoples may justly be required to refrain from knowingly and purposely debauching their grammar."

No comments:

Post a Comment

"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.