Profaning A Name

I sometimes kid around about swearing but no one did it as well a Mark Twain. I mean no one kidded about swearing as well as Mark Twain. I also think he was very skilled in the noble craft itself. In December of 1893, Mark Twain spoke at a dinner honoring writer and scholar (James) Brander Matthews. Here is Paul Fatout’s reconstruction of Twain’s speech.

You have spoken of him well, and lovingly and heartily and given him the praises which he has earned and which are his right. But you have overlooked that I think is the most notable achievement of his career – namely, that he has reconciled us to the sound of his sombre and awful name – namely -Bran-der Mathews! his lurid and desolating name – BRAND-er MATH-thews! B-r-r-r-an-der Math-thews! makes you think of an imprisoned god of the Underworld muttering imprecations and maledictions. B-r-a-n-d-e-r – it sounds like the mutterings of imprisoned fiends in hell!. B-r-ran-der Math-thews! It is full of rumblings and thunderings and rebellions and blasphemies – B-r-ran-der Math-thews! The first time you hear it you shrivel up and shudder and say to yourself that a person has no business using that kind of language when children are present. B-r-a-d-d-e-r – why, it was months after I knew him before I dared to breathe his name on the Sabbath day. It is a searching and soul-stirring sound and makes the most abandoned person resolve to lead a better life. And on the other hand when the veteran profane swearer finds all his ammunition damp and ineffectual from long exposure, how fresh and welcome is the dynamite in that name – B-r-r-RANder M-m-ATHews! You can curse a man’s head off with that name if you know how and where to put the emphasis.
To have overcome by the persuasive graces, sincerities and felicities of his literature the disaster of a name like that and reconciled men to the sound of it, is a fine and high achievement; and this, the owner of it has done. To have gone further and make it a welcome sound and changed its discords to music, is a still finer and higher achievement; and this he has also done. And so, let him have full credit. When he got his name it was only good to curse with. Now it is good to conjure with.

A Mark Twain Forum post by Alex Effgen reminded me of this speech. Alex cited one of its sources, a letter Twain wrote to his wife Olivia.

Fatout, Paul, ed, Mark Twain Speaking, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1976, 269-70.