Love What You Love

Twain and Whitman

What great births you have witnessed! The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the railroad, the perfected cotton-gin, the telegraph, the phonograph, the photograph, photo-gravure, the electrotype, the gaslight, the electric light, the sewing machine, & the amazing, infinitely varied & innumerable products of coal tar, those latest & strangest marvels of a marvelous age. And you have seen even greater births than these; for you have seen the application of anesthesia to surgery-practice, whereby the ancient dominion of pain, which began with the first created life, came to an end in this earth forever; you have seen the slave set free, you have seen the monarchy banished from France, & reduced in England to a machine which makes an imposing show of diligence & attention to business, but isn’t connected with the works. Yes, you have indeed seen much — but tarry yet a while, for the greatest is yet to come.

– Mark Twain to Walt Whitman

That was Mark Twain writing to wish Walt Whitman a happy birthday in 1889.  At seventy, Whitman had lived through a great deal, and Twain celebrated it all with gusto.  Had Whitman gone on to live the further thirty years Twain requested in the letter, I like to think he’d have proved to be a lucky charm of sorts.  It would have been swell to have had him there in the twentieth century, offering his take on things. 

I love Walt Whitman.  I try to read his stuff if I have to go to the hospital waiting room or to see the bank manager.  I’d like a bracelet for my wrist with What Would Whitman Do? stitched across it.  That’s a fun game, actually, and one worth playing if you’re stuck in the bus queue or walking down Oxford Street.  The only rule is this: you have to view each and every person around you, their armpits and all, as a celebration of the human body and soul.  I find this game hardest very early in the morning and easiest after a few glasses of whiskey.

I believe in the flesh and its appetites,

Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;

The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,

This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds

– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (24), first edition

This letter of Twain’s is kept in the Beinecke, but I discovered it on a great site called  You can’t fail to find something that interests you there.  The Beatles, Benjamin Franklin, Kurt Vonnegut, all these are present.  Every day, its curator Shaun Usher updates it with a new letter, providing both a scan of the manuscript and a typed transcription.  It’s such a worthwhile project, a showpiece of what the internet’s good for, and it’s deservedly nominated for the 2011 Webby Awards (you can vote to help it win via a link on the site).

Now here’s my favourite.  This brilliantly ebullient and mistyped missive from Ray Bradbury.


If anybody reading this wants to improve their own writing, I’d recommend a lesson at the hands of Bradbury.  Read Zen in the Art of Writing and take his advice on list-making.  He suggest that you sit down with a blank sheet of paper and fill it with nouns and phrases, anything that kick-starts something in your head.  It helped me tremendously.  I like to stick bits of paper to the walls and write lists on them with paint or marker pen.  The trick is never to stop writing the list.  Just let it flow. 

Kids, do the same.  Be your own self.  Love what you love.