In Mark Twain's essay "Corn-Pone Opinions," what are some examples of understatement? Explain their effects.

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Like many of his other writings, Mark Twain’s essay “Corn-Pone Opinions” effectively uses the technique of understatement.  Understatement appears in a number of different places in the essay, including the following:

  • Early in the essay, Twain describes a boyhood friend of his – who happened to be a slave – by saying that in the world’s “distribution of rewards he was overlooked.” This is a highly ironic and understated way to call attention to the youth’s condition of enslavement. Instead of writing a long paragraph denouncing slavery and showering pity and sympathy on this black youth, Twain quickly mentions that he was a slave and then just as quickly moves on.  The brief reference comes as a shock, especially in light of all the praise of the youth that precedes it. Twain lulls us into assuming that the black youth was his equal – his “friend” – and then quietly but firmly reminds us that true friendship between blacks and whites was impossible at the time. The brief reference to slavery shames us more than an impassioned harangue might have done.
  • Later, Twain mentions that a particular lesson was “deeply impressed” upon him by his mother -- “Not upon my memory, but elsewhere.” This is an understated – and therefore all the more comic way – of saying that his mother smacked his rear end. Twain’s understated way of communicating this idea is funny for several reasons: (1) it is original; (2) it plays cleverly with the idea of being deeply “impressed”; (3) it is humorously polite and decorous.
  • Even later, when discussing how easily and quickly humans take up and discard styles in clothing (as in many other things), Twain humorously comments,

If Eve should come again, in her ripe renown, and reintroduce her quaint styles--well, we know what would happen. And we should be cruelly embarrassed, along at first.

The understated reference to Eve’s “quaint styles” – meaning her nakedness – is far funnier than if Twain had said “If Eve should come again, in her nakedness.” The understatement is inventive; it comically implies that Twain is far too polite ever to write the word “nakedness”; and it is a kind of joke between Twain and the reader.  We know the idea he has in mind, so he doesn’t need to state it openly. Indeed, stating it openly would be either crude or obvious or both. Instead, Twain compliments our intelligence by implying that we know what he means without his having to openly state his meaning.

  • Similarly comic in its understatement is Twain’s assertion that in literature,

Shakespeare is a standard, and fifty years ago we used to write tragedies which we couldn't tell from--from somebody else's . . . .

There would have been no humor here if Twain, instead of writing “from somebody else’s,” had instead openly and plainly written “from Shakespeare’s.” In the latter case he would have been making an obvious accusation of plagiarism.  Instead, by writing “from somebody else’s,” it is as if he winks at the reader and implies “You know what I mean; I don’t have to spell it out for you and, besides, I am too well-mannered to do that in any case.”

  • Finally, one more case of understatement is worth mentioning.  When Twain writes that “some authority or other” helped to make prose simpler and clearer, he clearly alludes to himself, but his understatement comically implies his modesty, refinement, and humility.

 

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