Monday, November 30, 2009

The Always Quotable Mark Twain

Actor Hal Holbrook has been honored for his portrayals of Mark Twain.

It was 174 years ago today that the man who is, perhaps, my favorite writer of all time was born.

His birth name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, but he is better known to history by his pen name — Mark Twain. He always said the name came from the lingo of Mississippi riverboats, on which he worked in his youth. When a riverboatman called out "mark twain," he was confirming that the water was two fathoms (12 feet) deep and, therefore, safe for a boat to pass.

He wrote about the origin of his pen name — and his experiences as a steamboat pilot in training — in his 1883 memoir, "Life on the Mississippi."

He was a prolific writer — a contributor to many American newspapers, a short–story writer and author of great novels. No less of a literary luminary than William Faulkner dubbed Twain "the father of American literature." Twain wrote many great stories in his life, including the one that is remembered by many as "the great American novel""Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Unfortunately, in some quarters, the story of Huck Finn has fallen victim to 20th century political correctness because of its frequent use of the word "nigger," which was commonly used in the 19th century.

Today, racism is a charge that seems to be almost casually tossed about, but if anyone wants to accuse Twain of racism because a 125–year–old book routinely uses that word, more evidence will be needed. And that evidence will have to be sufficient to outweigh the facts that Twain
  • was a resolute abolitionist, and

  • he paid the college expenses for blacks who wished to study law and theology.
Truth is, Twain was a progressive who supported women's suffrage (which became the law of the land about a decade after his death) and the labor movement.

Anyway, a couple of months ago, I observed H.L. Mencken's birthday by reminding my readers of some of his most quotable quotes. It is only fitting that I should do the same today in honor of Mark Twain.
  • "[A] classic — something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

  • "Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it."

  • "Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest."

  • "Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any."

  • "James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness; the report of my death was an exaggeration."

  • "[H]eaven for climate, Hell for society."

  • "The only reason why God created man is because he was disappointed with the monkey."

  • "I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough."

  • "Always acknowledge a fault frankly. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you opportunity to commit more."

  • "Familiarity breeds contempt — and children."

  • "None but the dead have free speech."

  • "Figures don't lie, but liars figure."
It would be great if a complete anthology of Twain's writings could be purchased, but he wrote many articles for obscure newspapers and he used several pen names during his life. As a result, previously undiscovered writings are frequently coming to light, like hidden gifts from history.

Perhaps more such gifts will emerge between now and April 2010, when we will observe the centennial of Twain's death.

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