My joy at reading a prepublication excerpt from Mark Twain's long-awaited autobiography in Granta was somehow tempered today by the sight of a Snapple advertisement, part of their new promotion the "Pursuit of Bestness," which trumpeted "Best, Bestier, Bestiest!" The fecundity of American language never ceases to astonish me, from the glories of Twain to the dubious disctinction of the Bestiest Stuff on Earth.
Mark Twain, one of the most extraordinary writers in American history, specified that his autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death. Finally, that year is here, and the University of California is producing the splendid Autobiography of Mark Twain, set for November 2010 release.
I got to read a bit of it in September, though, in Granta Summer 2010, Going Home. Issue 111 features their usual broad-ranging, thematically organized cornucopia of writing, photography, and poetry by some of the hottest new and highly esteemed creative talents around the English-speaking world. Going Home concludes with an amazing excerpt from Twain's autobiography, a memory of his childhood visits to a relative's Southern farm that masterfully becomes a meditation on slavery and the relationship of whites and blacks in America—one of the most central issues in the entire American psyche, if there can be said to be such a thing.
Twain's piece is a joy, so essentially and umistakably American, from its subject to its sly humor to its syntax, rhythms, and inimitable diction. Working in the 19th century, when U.S. authors were trying to establish themselves and their work in contrast to their former colonial overlords, the British, Twain joins Hawthorne, Melville, James, and a few others at the summit. From what great heights do they gaze on us today.
Then, at lunchtime yesterday, I scurried through a downpour on 34th Street only to be stopped in my tracks by Snapple's "Pursuit of Bestness" campaign. Immediately, I winced at the violence done to perfectly good comparatives and superlatives. Best, Bestier, Bestiest!?! What happened to the excellent English of Good, Better, Best?
I marveled again at the Mad Men & Women of Madison Avenue and their relentless pursuit of our attention. Language strange and yet familiar is what they use to catch us, from the warped comparatives and superlatives of Best, Bestier, Bestiest to last year's Snickers words campaign, which stunned innocent onlookers with words such as hungerectomy, peanutopolis, nougatocity, substantialicious, and satisfectellent.
As the University of Pennsylvania's always entertaining Language Log noted about the Snickers words, "People notice, and maybe, they'll then remember."
Frankly, I prefer Twain's play with language to Snickers' and Snapple's. Yet Twain was not only one of the great American writers but he was also one of the first great American self-marketers, and he and his 19th-century cohorts advertised themselves plenty.
But Twain's tours were never in the Pursuit of Bestness.
Whom do you consider the best, bestier, or bestiest 19th-century American novelist, and why? And how do you feel about the neologisms of 20th-century advertising?
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.