Mark Twain


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.

4 thoughts on “Mark Twain”

  1. I think my favourite Twain quote is:

    “My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!”

    Only Wilde and Bierce are in the same league as far as wit is concerned.

  2. I think of Twain, Bierce and HL Mencken as being a kind of triumvirate of vituperation (so to speak). Oscar was witty but he was never as vicious, even when he had good reason to be. Twain, Bierce and Mencken all had a lot to say about religion (Mencken covered the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925); I wonder what they’d make of America today, with parts of the country still clinging to Creationism and using the Bible as a justification for all kinds of oppression.

  3. I reckon they ‘d be appalled. It’s quite shocking to realise that ridiculous ideologies that have been debunked a century ago, are still around (I ‘m a biologist, so the aggressive stupidity of creationism really annoys me). Still, their work will always be an answer to the pompus and the bigoted and that counts for a lot.

  4. Twain would have a field day right now- absolutely. Every pol is a character, charlatan or worse. Huck is still fairly required reading-and still controversial because of dialect. We seem to be so caught up in the ME that an opportunity for lesson learned is blighted. Do read it again-I read it a few years ago when my nephew was reading it for an English class and it is better the second time around. Mark Twain was a complicated man-and all the better for it, Don’t forget the American sage Will Rogers.

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