Mark Twain’s Italian Buzz Cut

Mark Twain was living in the hills north of Florence when he was complaining to a New York Times reporter about the Italian language, and describing his difficulties in learning to converse with the locals. “Why should there be fifty-seven ways of conjugating the verb, ‘to love’, and none of them convincing,” he asked. That was in the Spring of 1904.

Here’s some of the rest of the story, as reported in the Times:

One day Mark returned home to Settignano, where the family had a villa. To the horror of his wife, his beautiful white mane was cropped close to his head, after the manner of Italians in the Summer. When asked to account for this mutilation, he explained in his comic way what he had resorted to this as forlorn hope, a last desperate effort to learn the Italian language. He had, he said, slept for weeks in vain with an Italian dictionary under his pillow. Finally, it occured to him to watch the natives and see if he could catch any peculiarity of theirs that might account for their capacity to master the language. Then he noticed that their heads were all as smooth a billiard balls. Who knew whether the secret did not reside here? Perchance his heavy crop prevented the tongue from filtering through. So he went straight to a barber, with this result. However, this drastic measure does not seem to have proved sucessful, for he expresses himself as much as ever at sea with the tongue.

“I never got hold of an entire sentence” he said. “Just a word here and there that comes in handy, but they never stay with me more than a day.”

(Yes, of course, the picture is Photoshopped. And, no, Italian is not as difficult a language as Sam pretended that it was.)

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8 responses to “Mark Twain’s Italian Buzz Cut

  1. I just got a four-dimensional understanding of both fact and fiction from this post, Roy. I’ll not be googling Twain and The Times; I’ll be playing instead with my own slide rules, calibrating them as I see fit.

    Excellent buzz you’ve presented herein.

    • Thanks for letting me know that, Jan. The pleasure is mine to know that I’ve passed something along I enjoyed learning for others to enjoy.

  2. WOW! This really gave me a lot to think about! I really appreciate the info.
    A while back I tried to blog for extra income to no avail. I continue to read posts such as this in search of a ‘winning formula’

    • Just keep in mind Mark Twain went bankrupt investing in new publishing technology. He ended up in Italy on a speaking tour to pay his debts.

  3. To be precise Mark Twain died April 21, 1910. This is going to be amazing to read from a literary perspective. He must have been pretty confident to assume people would still want to read his autobiography 100 years after he died.
    His autobiography could have come out 100 years ago and I still wouldn’t have read it.
    No one can read my autobiography until 100 years after I die, too!

    • Mark Twain was such a big celebrity in his day, big enough to warrant some confidence that people would want to read about his amazing life a hundred years later.

  4. After looking over this blog post I took a look around the site. You have done a good job gathering all this information.

  5. Thanks! I’m a hunter-gatherer by nature.

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