What are some important examples of rhetorical strategies in Mark Twain's essay "Corn-pone Opinions"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Mark Twain uses a variety of rhetorical devices and strategies in his essay “Corn-pone Opinions.” Among those strategies are the following:

  • The opening sentence of the essay establishes the speaker’s modesty and thus makes him almost immediately appealing. Thus, rather than saying, somewhat pompously, that he “resided in” a Missouri village, he merely (and humorously) says that he was “helping to inhabit it.” Humor and especially humor at his own expense are two of the ways Twain appeals to audiences in many works, including this essay.
  • Twain next uses surprise, paradox, and humor when he says that he had a friend

whose society was very dear to me because I was forbidden by my mother to partake of it.

The paradoxical word here is “because”: just when we expect him to give a rational, logical explanation of his friendship, he gives us one that we could never have expected. This explanation is funny, not only because it catches us by surprise but also because it suggests that Twain, even as a boy, was a rebellious, independent lad who thought for himself. We usually respect persons who have some backbone and who admire and desire liberty, and so Twain once again makes himself seem rhetorically appealing, precisely because he implies his virtues without every egotistically extolling himself.

  • Another superb bit of rhetoric from the opening paragraph is the sentence that begins to describe Twain’s friend:

He was a gay and impudent and satirical and delightful young black man -- a slave -- . . .

All the qualities of character that Twain praises here in his friend reflect well on Twain himself; we have already begun to sense that Twain himself was (and is) “gay and impudent and satirical and delightful” because he admired those traits in his friend. Notice, too, how Twain here first mentions that his friend was “a young black man” (thereby speaking of his friend in a dignified, respectful tone) and then and only then mentions in passing that he was “a slave.” It is as if the term “slave” doesn’t really matter to Twain; what matters is that the young black man was his friend. The term “slave” is society’s designation for the youth, not Twain’s.  Notice, too, how Twain shocks us by delaying the appearance of the word “slave.” Instead of writing that his friend was “a young black slave,” Twain uses the word “slave” only after all the earlier adjectives had suggested a man who enjoyed life because he possessed freedom.

  • Finally, consider the following passage from the opening paragraph:

To me he was a wonder. I believed he was the greatest orator in the United States and would some day be heard from. But it did not happen; in the distribution of rewards he was overlooked.

These sentences are rhetorically effective for several reasons: (1) They show Twain’s capacity to admire talent in another human being, and thus they reflect well on Twain. (2) They show Twain’s naïvete as a boy, and thus make him seem appealing because of his youthful innocence. (3) The final sentence quoted here is both highly ironic but also very subtle and insinuating, depending for its effectiveness less on what it says than on what it implies. Instead of saying, “But it did not happen because he was a black slave and was thus oppressed,” Twain leaves it to us to draw that shameful conclusion on our own.