The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it. —Mark Twain, How to Tell a Story (1897)
At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Mark Twain presents a notice that recalls the book curses of old: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.” Looking at this quote today, one might think that it is meant to apply not just to his most famous work, but to his whole corpus and public persona alike. After all, Twain has been alternately canonized and deputized not just by enthusiasts of American Literature but by whole swaths of the populace, from humorists to skeptics to golf-haters, with the result being a profusion of quotations erroneously attributed to the great novelist. In honor of his 181st birthday, let’s dwell a while on some quotations that actually do belong to Mark Twain.
Twain himself did, in fact, say (in one of his notebooks), “The funniest things are the forbidden.” As such, the watchword of Twain’s brand of humor was always based on irreverence, whether in regard to religion, history, or, frankly, almost anything else.
In The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865), he notes, “I haven't a particle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming petty vices whatsoever,” and proceeds to fault George Washington for his lack of vices. “He was ignorant of the commonest accomplishments of youth,” Twain said. “He could not even lie.”
Twain notably had much to say on the Bible and matters of faith. In Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) he says, “Adam was but human — this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple's sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.”
In light of his general tone, there are certain misattributed quotes that should jump out to readers as having come from elsewhere. How anyone could believe that Mark Twain said “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you,” (actually this was Friedrich Nietzsche) seems entirely mysterious. More understandable is the misattribution of “Golf is a good walk spoiled,” though that one (probably) rightfully belongs to H.S. Scrivener. And though Twain did say that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” it may be worth noting that he always credited that particular line to Benjamin Disraeli.
Though Twain apparently respected Disraeli enough to quote him, it may be surprising that he would heap such an honor upon a political figure. After all, one of the great subjects of his satire was often politics. In a draft manuscript from the 1880s, Twain writes, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
Many have held up quotes like this one as signifiers of pointed political commentary, and while Twain was capable of that, the more one looks at his corpus the more one must consider that generally, when Twain was at his most quotable, he was just aiming for humor. Case in point: “Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education,” (Pudd’nhead Wilson) or “Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet,” (from his notebooks).
Indeed, deputizing Twain and his quotes for any remotely serious purpose, leveraging his status as a great writer, would likely be to go against the author’s express wishes. As the man himself told it in a speech to the Savage Club in 1899, “I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors, because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, Spenser is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I’m not feeling so well myself.”