Friday, December 11, 2015

How to Cure a Cold

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
Reprinted in Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

Metamorphic trade card for Hayner's Pine Tar Cough King, lithograph, circa 1880. Troy, Ohio. Image posted on eBay.
While the Civil War was raging back East, Samuel Clemens (who had recently begun using the pseudonym Mark Twain) lived in Virginia City, Nevada, where he came down with a serious cold and bronchitis that plagued him for the much of the summer in 1863. His ailments didn’t keep him from traveling, first to the home of his friend Adair Wilson near Lake Bigler (now Lake Tahoe) and then to Steamboat Springs. In a series of letters and reports to newspaper editors in Virginia City and San Francisco, Clemens detailed his adventures and the spirited (if half-hearted) attempts to attack his illness with various remedies. “Lake Bigler is a paradise to a healthy person, but there is too much sailing, and fishing, and other dissipation of a similar nature going on there to allow a man with a cold time to nurse it properly,” he admitted.

Finally, in early September, Clemens headed for San Francisco, where he hoped to get some rest. During the first week or so after his arrival, he wrote “How to Cure a Cold,” embellishing anecdotes and digressions he had included in various newspaper pieces. The University of California Press editors of Mark Twain’s writings note that the remedies described by the author, although they seem ludicrous today, “were standard prescriptions of folk medicine: unexamined rituals and superstitions inflicted on the sufferer and only occasionally—as with the gin and whisky—enjoyed by him.” In fact, Twain’s illness seems to have taken on the aura of a local legend. A blind item in a newspaper published in another San Francisco newspaper at the end of September noted his attendance at a ball in Washoe County, Nevada, the previous month: “He’s such a favorite—stops here for his health—hoping to find out how to cure a cold.”

Five years later, in a letter to his friend and occasional editor Mary Mason Fairbanks, Twain added an item to his list of ineffective cold remedies:
One should not bring sympathy to a sick man. It is always kindly meant, & of course it has to be taken—but it isn’t much of an improvement on castor oil. One who has a sick man’s true interest at heart will forbear spoken sympathy, & bring him, surreptitiously soup, & fried oysters & other trifles that the doctor has tabooed. That is much better than saying, “O, I am so sorry you are so ill; you look meaner & meaner all the time, poor man; your eyes are turning yellow & your nose looks like a wen; O, if you were to be taken away from us in your present state, how sad it would be; I will make you some weak gruel & send you up some tracts.”
“How to Cure a Cold” would be one of the few pieces from his early years that Twain would republish—and he revised and polished it a number of times, including it under the title “Curing a Cold” in his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867), and in an 1875 collection of his sketches.

Notes: Earlier in the year during which he wrote this piece, Mark Twain lived in the White House, a recently completed boardinghouse in Virginia City. A fire on July 26, 1863, consumed most of his belongings. Gould and Curry was a mining company headquartered in Virginia City; the stock certificates Twain claims to have lost in the fire would have been extremely valuable. A Columbiad (page 40) is a large cannon developed for coastal defense.

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