Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain, 1894.
Mark Twain died 100 years ago today, April 21st, 1910, and the anniversary is being marked in America by a variety of events throughout the year, some of which are listed on this dedicated site. I’ve always been grateful to Twain for cheering a portion of my dismal school days with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of two books we were forced to read that I actually enjoyed. (The other was Lord of the Flies; both stories, perhaps significantly, concern Wild Boys.) I’ve wanted to re-read Huckleberry Finn for years, perhaps now would be a good time to actually do so.
Unlike many writers of his generation, Twain’s work still seems vital today, and not only his fiction. His broadsides and polemics return continually to basic issues of tolerance and humanity and are often as relevant now as they were a century ago. Twain had little patience for the hypocrisies of his fellows when it came to matters of religion, warfare or the treatment of other human beings; like his contemporary, Oscar Wilde, he’s always been endlessly quotable. Consider these two extracts:
Citizenship? We have none! In place of it we teach patriotism which Samuel Johnson said a hundred and forty or a hundred and fifty years ago was the last refuge of the scoundrel—and I believe that he was right. I remember when I was a boy and I heard repeated time and time again the phrase, ‘My country, right or wrong, my country!’ How absolutely absurd is such an idea. How absolutely absurd to teach this idea to the youth of the country. True Citizenship at the Children’s Theater, 1907
But the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me. Letter to Mrs FG Whitmore, February 7, 1907
…then wonder what Twain would have to say about America’s current crop of blustering yahoos with their flags and crosses and misspelled signs.
A copy of the first edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, illustrated throughout by EW Kemble, can be downloaded at the Internet Archive. For Twain’s dim view of the Bible and its adherents, see his Letters from the Earth. The Tesla Memorial Society has another photograph of Twain in the great inventor’s laboratory.