Edited by Alex Ayres
(Harper & Row)
Well, there are a few mots here that give a taste of Twain's mastery of the language. Like saying, of a book of Henry James, "Once you put it down, you simply can't pick it up." Or describing the day he bought stock in an insurance company:

    Ever since I have been a director in an accident insurance company I have felt that I am a better man. Life has seemed more precious. Accidents have assumed a kindlier aspect. Distressing special providences have lost half their horror. I look upon a cripple now with affectionate interest --- as an advertisement. I do not seem to care for poetry any more. I do not care for politics --- even agriculture does not excite me. But to me now there is a charm about a railway collision that is unspeakable.

But in the main, The Wit & Wisdom misses the boat, and we suspect it is because, maybe --- and this is only a guess --- because Ayres might be missing a bit of wit himself. What editor would choose to leave out Twain's great description of the German language?

    A verb has a hard time enough of it in this world when its all together. It's downright inhuman to split it up. But that's just what those Germans do. They take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder like another stake, and between these two limits they just shovel in German.

The other problem outside of Ayres' own failings is that the master's greatest knee-slappers are extended hyperbole --- ones that can't be shown in two or three lines. For instance, the entire sequence out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Tom Sawyer telling Nigger Jim what's expected of him as a prisoner:

    "You got any spiders in here, Jim?"

    "No, sah, thanks to goodness I hain't, Mars Tom."

    "All right, we'll get you some."

    "But bless you, honey, I doan' want none. I's afeard un um. I jis' 's soon have rattlesnakes aroun'."

    Tom thought a minute or two, and says:

    "It's a good idea. And I reckon it's been done. It must a been done, it stands to reason. Yes, it's a prime good idea. Where would you keep it?"

    "Keep what, Mars Tom?"

    "Why, a rattlesnake."

    "De goodness gracious alive, Mars Tom! Why, if dey was a rattlesnake to come in heah, I'd take en bust right out thoo dat log wall, I would, wid my head."

    "Why, Jim, you wouldn't be afraid of it, after a little. You could tame it."

    "Tame it?"

    "Yes --- easy enough. Every animal is grateful for kindness and petting, and they wouldn't think of hurting a person that pets them. Any book will tell you that. You try --- that's all I ask. Just try for two or three days. Why, you can get him so, in a little while, that he'll love you; and sleep with you; and won't stay away from you for a minute, and will let you wrap him round your neck and put his head in your mouth."

    "Please, Mars Tom --- doan' talk so! I can't stan' it! He's let me shove his head in my mouf --- for a favor, hain't it? I lay he'd wait a powful long time 'fo' I ast him ... Mars Tom, I's willin' to tackle mos' anything 'at ain't onreasonable, but ef you en Huck fetches a rattlesnake in heah for me to tame, I's gunjne to leave, dat's shore."

    "Well, then, let it go, let it go, if you're so bullheaded about it. We can get you some garter-snakes and you can tie some buttons on their tails, and let on they're rattlesnakes, and I reckon that'll have to do."

    "I k'n stan' dem, Mars Tom, but blame' 'f I couldn' get along widout um, I tell you dat. I never knowed b'fo' 't was so much bother and trouble to be a prisoner."

    "Well, it always is, when it's done right. You got any rats around here?"

    "No, sah, I hain't seed none."

    "Well, we'll get you some rats."

    "Why, Mars Tom, I doan' want no rats. Dey's de dadblamedest creturs to 'sturb a body, en rustle roun' over 'im, en bite his feet, when he's tryin' to sleep, I ever see. No, sah, gimme y garter-snakes, 'f I's got to have 'm, but don't give me no rats, I ain't got no use for um, skasely."

--- R. R. Doister  

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