The Memory Systems of Mark Twain

TwainThis article was originally printed in Issue 411 (May/June 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

In 1883, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, began work on a game designed to teach his children to remember the names of the English monarchs. The game involved using the garden path around his home to spatially represent the relative reigns of the kings and queens. As both a family activity and as a memory aid the game was a great success, and the idea began to take on new configurations in Twain’s mind. He began to reimagine and redesign the game and even stopped working on Huckleberry Finn so that he could devote more time to his new project. In 1885, he patented “Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates.” Twain believed that all of human knowledge could be learnt through his game and his notebooks reveal plans to organize national clubs and competitions organised around his game, as well as an accompanying book and periodicals. The game, however, was a failure and Twain (fortunately) returned to writing, stating to a friend that “If you haven’t ever tried to invent an indoor historical game, don’t.”

Twain had a tortured relationship with his memory throughout his life. In “Old Times on the Missisippi”, Twain identified memory as the “one faculty which a pilot must incessantly cultivate until he has brought it to perfection” and regarded a well-developed memory as “the most wonderful thing in the world”. Twain’s own memory, however, was famously bad. Albert Paine, a well-known biographer of Twain’s, wrote that, even as a young man, Twain would lose his way in familiar neighbourhoods, or fail to recognize pictures that had been hanging in his own home for years. Clearly, Mark Twain, the writer-lecturer, was in serious need of an aide de memoire.

In 1887, Twain crossed paths with Professor Loisette a ‘memory doctor’ who made a living peddling a system of memory techniques bearing his name. Inductees into the “Loisette system” were sworn to secrecy, and charged the modern equivalent of five hundred dollars to learn the “natural laws of memory” which the doctor claimed to have discovered. Twain enrolled in a several-week-long course and at first was deeply impressed, even going so far as to publish a testimonial in favour of the Loisette system. He was soon to regret this; only one year later a book was published titled “Loisette” Exposed” which revealed him to have invented not only his academic degree but also his name. ‘Alphonse Loisette’ was born Marcus Dwight Larrowe and had no qualifications to speak of. His entire system, it turned out, had been either plagiarised from other sources or oversold as to its effectiveness.

Eventually, Twain discovered a system that worked for him. As he wrote, “It was now that the idea of pictures occurred to me; then my troubles passed away…The lecture vanished out of my head more than twenty years ago, but I could rewrite it from the pictures – for they remain.” In 1880 he shared his system of mental “hieroglyphics” with his friend William Dean Howells. After Twain’s death, Howells revealed the method which Twain used to memorize his speeches:

“It was his custom to think out his speeches, mentally working them out and then memorizing them by a peculiar system of mnemonics which he had invented. On the dinner-table, a certain succession of knife, spoon, salt-cellar, and butter plate symbolized a train of ideas, and on the billiard-table a ball, a cue and a piece of chalk served the same purpose.”

Essentially, the dinner table and billiard table served as loci to which his mental pictures were affixed. Although Howells believed that Twain had invented the system, Twain was actually drawing from a two thousand year old tradition of memory training known as the “Art of Memory” and employing one of its oldest techniques: The method of loci.

The invention of the Art of Memory is usually attributed to the Ancient Greek poet, Simonides, and although the art was mentioned in writings by Aristotle, the earliest known systematic account of the memory techniques come from the anonymously written Rhetorica Ad Herennium as well as works by Cicero and Quintillian, all of which were penned around four hundred years later. We know that these techniques were almost universally practiced by thinkers of the ancient world precisely because of the shallow way in which writers treat the subject. Just as a modern writer about, say, the various uses of the internet, wouldn’t bother to spend much time explaining what the internet is or, for instance, what Google is, writers of ancient memory treatises simply took knowledge of the Art of Memory for granted.

Although the Art was originally developed to help aspiring students of rhetoric to remember the content of their speeches, the techniques of the Art of memory, and in particular the method of loci, was widely influential and found expression in a surprising number of ways. During the Middle Ages the Art of Memory was incorporated into the ethics of Thomas Aquinas. Another persuasive hypothesis put forward by modern historians is that Dante’s Divine Comedy is properly understood as a memory system with its striking images organized along a series of loci.

During the Renaissance period, the influence of the Art of Memory was ubiquitous in art, religion, philosophy and science, and its practitioners included Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Giordano Bruno and probably Shakespeare.

Mark Twain’s memory building game was an externalized version of the internal spatial mnemonic used in the Art of Memory. However, although he almost certainly didn’t know it, he was certainly not the first to do so.

In 1550, Italian thinker Giulio Camillo Delmino published an eighty-seven page book outlining plans for the construction of what he called a memory theatre.

The theatre was designed to act as a physical repository of memories and consisted of a small pulpit which opened onto an auditorium divided into seven sections. In each section, various images and messages would be inscribed, which Camillo claimed would allow the occupant of the pulpit to “be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero”.

Although hailed as a genius during his lifetime, Camillo and his work fell into obscurity after his death. It wasn’t until historian Frances Yates published “The Art of Memory” in 1966 that Camillo’s work once again caught the public imagination. Yates identified Camillo’s ideas as being a continuation of a much older tradition of the the method of loci. This mental technique is often considered the crowning jewel of the art of memory, and, like Twain, Camillo believed his personal contributions towards the memory theatre were a giant leap forwards in mnemonic techniques and in learning. Just like Twain, Camillo was wrong. His memory theatre was not the revolution he had hoped for. Indeed, it was never constructed.

Unlike the mysterious and mystical memory theatre of Camillo, however, Twain’s memory techniques were remarkably simple and were designed so that they could even be adopted by children. Consider his advice to children for learning historic dates:

“Dates are difficult things to acquire… But they are very valuable” wrote Twain in his article How to make history dates stick. Dates are hard to remember, he lamented, because “they consist of figures; figures are monotonously unstriking in appearance”. To aid memory Twain advised that would-be historians create vivid mental pictures; “Pictures are the thing. Pictures can make dates stick. They can make nearly anything stick”

The ‘trick’ to Twain’s memory system was to create mental simulacra and then organize them in locations, as described above. The distance between these locations encoded the comparative length of their reigns. To remember the reign of William I, for instance, Twain recommended using the image of a whale; “We choose the whale for several reasons: its name and William’s begin with the same letter; it is the biggest fish that swims, and William is the most conspicuous figure in English history…” Henry II was to be remembered as a hen and Richard the Lion-heart as a lion.

The Art of Memory, Twain believed, also benefited his writing: “The effort of inventing such things will not only help your memory, but will develop originality in art. See what it has done for me.”

Twain’s memory game was a financial failure. His dream of transfiguring education never came to fruition and his writings on memory techniques weren’t published until after his death. Nonetheless, his techniques supported a successful lecturing career, helped him conquer his chronically poor memory, inspired his literature and transformed his children’s attitudes towards their own learning; in their biographies both Susan and Clara Clemens recall fondly the outdoor memory game. Although our own memories may not be as bad as Twain’s, we could probably all nonetheless benefit from some of his memory techniques.


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