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  • T. W. Emory

Mark Twain on Manner and Method.

The New York Times obituary for Mark Twain hailed him as “the best-known American man of letters,” and acclaimed him as the nation’s “greatest humorist.” Mark Twain’s writings show him to have been a keen observer of people, places, and things. And in recounting his observations, he was the consummate teller of tall tales—i.e. stories with unbelievable elements or exaggerations, but related as if true and factual. In his travelogue Following the Equator, Twain engagingly comments on the part “manner and method” can play in making one’s tall tales credible.

While on a ship sailing the Indian Ocean, Mark Twain contrasted two of his dinner companions, the ship captain and an “austere Scot.” According to Twain, “the captain cannot tell the truth in a plausible way” whereas the Scot “cannot tell a lie in an unplausible way.” Twain explained: “When the captain finishes a statement the passengers glance at each other privately, as who should say, ‘Do you believe that?’ When the Scot finishes one, the look says, ‘How strange and interesting.’

The whole secret is in the manner and method of the two men. The captain is a little shy and diffident, and he states the simplest fact as if he were a little afraid of it, while the Scot delivers himself of the most abandoned lie with such an air of stern veracity that one is forced to believe it although one knows it isn’t so.”

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