Friday, January 8, 2010

Mark Twain: A Tribute

Mark Twain (1835-1910) was a printer, riverboat captain, secretary to the Nevada Territorial Governor (his brother), a silver miner, newspaper reporter, lecturer, travel reporter, short-story and novel writer, anti-Imperialist, gifted after-dinner speaker, stand-up comedian, publisher (of the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant) , inveterate wanderer, billiards player, cigar smoker, father of four children (who lost three of them in his lifetime), a wealthy man, a bankrupt, and a revered sage who today is adored by any American with half a brain (and some Canadians as well I'm told.)
Mr. Twain also told the truth about human nature (or a facsimile of it) so well in his voluminous works that in one lifetime he went from a nobody in a little hamlet in the state of Missouri called Hannibal to be awarded an honorary degree from Oxford University and his works are the standard for popular American letters.

Not bad.

"Mark Twain was an autodidact, of course. His schoolbooks were steamboats and mining camps and newspaper offices and so on. His eventual greatness might be taken as an insult to formal education in America It begs the question "What good is school?"

"This is the best reply, I think. "School is for people who are not nearly as gifted as was Mark Twain, who need lessons in counterfeiting gifts they do not have." ...Twain was as shrewd and puritanical in managing his literary talent as John D. Rockefeller was in managing money, it seems to me. He squandered almost none of it. His collected works works are, among other things, a monument to nineteenth-century ambition, single-mindedness and efficiency--like Standard Oil.

They are a good deal funnier than Standard Oil."

---Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922--2007) from the introduction to "The Unabridged Mark Twain" (1976)

You Tube essay by


  1. Well said Mike. As Winston Churchill also said, "my education was only interrupted by my schooling."

  2. There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.I am told he liked to say it. He was quite the character. I would like to have been able to sit down with him over a drink and discuss the world. I believe I would be listening far more than speaking

  3. I don't think Mark Twain would be not surprised about modern events, Frank, unlike some I can think of who have been dead for a century or so.

  4. Biting satire was only one of the services the pen of Mr. Twain offered. Thanks Good Stuff.

  5. I totaly agree Fred. Just shut yourself up and listen to the man go on any topics he wanted.

    I would like to think he and his old friends and perhaps some new ones like Kurt Vonnegut (who named his son Mark Twain Vonnegut) are sitting around heaven sharing some great conversation.

  6. I think my favorite quote of his is "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society." - quoted in More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927

    Several years ago, I discovered something I had never known. Calaveras County is in CALIFORNIA... in fact, they still have jumping frog contests there. Take a look at this site -- it's very interesting:

  7. Another side note: I loved Hal Holbrook's portrayal of him. It really felt like I was watching Mark Twain.

  8. That's a great quote, Christy. There are so many great observations he made in print you can always discover new ones. Thanks for the link.

  9. Gosh the times I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and watched the film.

    I suppose Mark Twain's caste free literature owed nothing to European tradition, this made him America's own man...

  10. Ernest Hemingway said that "American literature begins with a book called 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'". While some might dispute that, Cassandra, I think Twain's striving to show the rural Mississippi world of his youth and the theme of a freer life floating down that great river with an escaped slave and friend Jim probably is the best 19th Century popular Americana ever offered.

    It amazed me in reading books and seeing a major documentary how much time Twain spent in Europe. As amatter of fact, the book put him the map with before "Tom Sawyer" was 1870's "The Innocents Abroad", a travel book about Americans seeing Europe and the Mediterrean. It takes good-natutred swipes at culture-hungry Yanks and the layers of cultural custom they encounter and are bemused or befudfdled by. So, yes, he was a genuine American author!

  11. I do feel that Huckleberry Finn is the book people will first mention when asked about American literature. Even though you had the great Ernest Hemingway.

    It is said that Twain grew pessimistic about America as he got older and I'm not sure why this was.

    The book did influence the American prose style and I think it was popular because all ages enjoyed the storyline.

    Ah, yes I myself have encountered the confusion Americans seem to battle with. I get questioned when I have written a blog sometimes. Our use of a word can be entirely different to yours.

    I think Twain had an endearing frontier humour.

    He earned his living sometime in his life as a printer, newspaper reporter and also a river pilot. I guess working on a steamer, shows in the way he knows the river and all its changing moods so well. Also his humour comes out in his choice of
    name. :-)

    I haven't read "The Innocents Abroad", that maybe a good read.

  12. Part of Twain's pessimism, Cassandra, I understand came from the rise of colonialism and monopoly capitalism, two major issues at the opening of the last century.

    The Spanish-American war and the taking of the Philippines by the US Military, and the the ensuing loss of life under the guise of "liberation" disturbed him greatly, as did attacks by the European nations against China and Africa. He felt it was based on racism and was abhorrent.

    Although not a socialist, Twain was also disturbed by the power of a few men over the whole American economy. His debts also weighed him down (he was not a good investor) and he had to undergo an exhausting world speaking tour from America to all over the British Empire and back again. (He lost a daughter while lecturing abroad abroad, the first of several personal losses that hit him hard in his last decade.) If there was any consultation to this, Twain paid off all his large personal debts (at 100 percent on the dollar) from the tour and his humor, demeanor and broad range of topics were a huge success.

    That gift of "frontier humor" served him well.

    I'm always amazed about how he managed as a young man to learn the arduous trade of riverboat pilot; it was one of the most difficult professions---Twain and others were apprenticed and had to learn how to navigate the ever-changing Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis. It was only the advent of the Civil War that sent him west and, eventually, to free-lance writing and a newspaper job in San Francisco.

    Britain was a large part of Twain's success. After his first books were published, he went ot England in 1873 with plans to do a book on London and English life. But his books and lectures had already made such a public celebrity that it was impossible for him to gather information with all the attention that was thrust upon him. (Rather like Charles Dickens' two tours of America; its a shame these men never had a chat!)

    "The Innocents Abroad" was a very popular book until a couple decades after Twain's death. It's tough to find today, except in an anthology. I found it a fun read. "Roughing It" (his reflections on life out West and in Hawaii as a young man ) is also full of fun and wry observations. Parts of these can be sampled at The Complete Mark Twain Website.

    It was from this site that I copied this brief description of Twain's last great triumph abroad: the Honorary Doctorate of Literature at Oxford, 1907:

    " He had thought never to cross the ocean again, but he declared he would travel to Mars and back, if necessary, to get that Oxford degree. He appreciated its full meaning-recognition by the world's foremost institution of learning of the achievements of one who had no learning of the institutionary kind. He sailed in June, and his sojourn in England was marked by a continuous ovation. His hotel was besieged by callers. Two secretaries were busy nearly twenty hours a day attending to visitors and mail. When he appeared on the street his name went echoing in every direction and the multitudes gathered. On the day when he rose, in his scarlet robe and black mortar-board, to receive his degree (he must have made a splendid picture in that dress, with his crown of silver hair), the vast assembly went wild. What a triumph, indeed, for the little Missouri printer-boy! It was the climax of a great career."