Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mark Twain showed us ourselves

Samuel Clemens died a hundred years ago today, and Mark Twain with him. He was a newspaper reporter (“I hated to do it, but there wasn’t any honest work available”) before he became a novelist, and he wrote what both H.L. Mencken and Ernest Hemingway thought was the American novel, Huckleberry Finn.

That novel has everything in it that is central to the American character and experience: the impatience with convention, the impulse to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” the colloquial voice, the ribald humor, the deadpan humor, and the eternal, complex, heartbreakingly vexatious issue of race. We look into it, and we see who we are. If you haven’t yet read it, put it at the top of your list; and if you read it a while back, pick it up again.

Twain is easily the most quotable of American writers (“When angry, count four; when very angry, swear”) because he saw us so clearly, without illusions: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest” and “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.”

Trolling the Web, I came across a site with quotations of Twain’s remarks on writing: “God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.”

Listen to the master, and husband your own weather.


  1. For the headline collection:

    4-19 Star Democrat:

    Wagner named Dorc. school chief

  2. Re COD's post: I thought all school chiefs were Dorcs.

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

  3. Thanks for the reminder. I may just do that.

  4. Of course, the copy desk would have changed it to “God exhibits his thunder and lightning ONLY at intervals..."

  5. I have always treasured the nearly obscure piece by Clemons called "The War Prayer." Very powerful essay/poem with clearly-visible implications for our time. Excessive patriotism is as dangerous as some forms of terrorism.

  6. I needed an editor. Clemens, not Clemons.

  7. I've had a copy of Huckleberry Finn ever since I was a child (it was a gift), and have still never read it.

    I don't for a moment imagine that you would accept "not being American" as a valid excuse.