Presenting “Fifty Words of Fair Use”

Most of my summer will be spent reading for my department’s qualifying exams. So it seems like the perfect time to kick off a new feature I’m calling “Fifty Words of Fair Use”—basically, an excuse to post a short passage that I found beautiful, moving, profound, or whatever. Selections should provide both an implicit endorsement and an opportunity to just wallow around in some gorgeous prose.

Let’s start with a paragraph from a recent biography of Mark Twain (about whom much more in the coming weeks). It comes from a chapter set in 1839, and Twain’s family has just moved to Hannibal, Missouri.

Nothing compared to the featured attraction. First the deep coughing of the engines from perhaps a mile distant. Then a series of whistle blasts that echoed off the hillsides. Then the emergence from behind the bluff of the towering white emissary from Somewhere unmistakably Else: first the prow of the three-tiered superstructure, the thirty-foot smokestacks pumping plumes of soot into the air; the high pilothouse and a figure at the knobbed wheel, staring ahead through the unglassed window; and then the rest of the boat’s curving three-hundred-foot length, festooned with fluttering banners, pennants, the American flag; the boat’s name written in bright decorative script across the paddle-wheel casing to break the whiteness. . . . Sammy Clemens, who lived a block from the river, regularly took in the show. Yet he showed remarkable restraint–he did not try to hitch a ride on a riverboat until he was nine.

Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life (2005)

Powers says he wanted to write an interpretative biography, and he did. In the first few pages, he goes on a (slightly bizarre) tangent about how being born prematurely shaped Twain’s artistic consciousness, where most biographers would have just stated the fact in a simple declarative sentence. We’ll see how this tactic–and the ornate prose–holds up across 700 pages. But right now, I’m digging it.

(Also, that quote was more like 300 words; this is a work-in-progress.)


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