Mark Twain’s politics can be slippery to pin down, in large part because the modern popular conception of Twain is of a man who loathes and disrespects politics. By all accounts Twain himself did everything in his power to foster that conception. He may not have given the quote about politicians and diapers which is often erroneously attributed to him (that they “should be changed often, and for the same reason”), but he did assert that “often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man's reasoning powers are not above the monkey's,” and that “In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.” In spite of his expressed aversion to the political, however, Twain’s true political leanings shone through in both his work and his public persona.
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.
In a Slate article in 2014*, Ruth Graham argued that adults who read young adult fiction should feel embarrassed. For her, YA meant simplistic story-telling, straightforward characters, and satisfying, unambiguous endings—all things that readers should, for her, outgrown before graduating to the moral, thematic, and structural ambiguity of adult literary fiction. Those who stick with YA ostensibly miss out on these things, as well as all the other benefits that adult literary fiction offers. These claims are not uncommon, and many readers who associate young adult fiction with the likes of Twilight (2005) are inclined toward a certain sort of knee-jerk agreement; but are they borne out by the history of YA literature?
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or Mark Twain as he’s more commonly known, has become one of the most quintessential nineteenth-century American authors. Given his longstanding popularity, visits to regions of the country that influenced his work have become popular destinations for readers and fans of such novels as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). While some might argue that the whole of the Mississippi River and the many towns surrounding it play an important historical role in Twain’s collected works, there are a handful of sites where the author actually lived (and in some cases wrote) that can be toured.
When you hear the phrase ‘great American novel,’ a few titles immediately jump to mind. The Grapes of Wrath. The Great Gatsby. Catcher in the Rye. But long before these classic novels helped redefine what is meant by the ‘great American novel,’ Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn defined the term in such a way that the novel is still regarded today as perhaps one of the most seminal works in the American literary landscape.
First published in the United States in 1885—the novel was actually released in December 1884 in the U.K.—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn chronicles the title character’s fortunes and friendships in Missouri and neighboring states along the Mississippi River.
Satire is as old as folly. There have always been abuses of power, mad societies, blundering citizens, and flawed customs. And not far behind them, there has often been a clever observer with a pen. Satirists, as these people are called, use the palliative of humor to address the ills and errors of their time. It’s an impulse that’s as old as time, but just what is it for?
There’s no clear-cut way to become a writer. A writer’s start, however, is almost always a small one. It takes a considerable amount of time to cultivate the talent that will amass attention, better pay, praise and prestige. That is, if those are the kind of things you’re into. But the road to artistic glory is necessarily a humble one. Few blossoming writers are in a position to turn down opportunities that pay and reach readers. And many times, a writer will settle for just the latter. In the end, these less glamorous ventures and gigs can prove essential to both the professional and artistic growth of the author. Let's explore how the following famous authors got their start.
Mark Twain, the father of American Literature, captured the limelight of his age in a way that no writer has since. The stories that surround him are the stuff of myths and legends. His influence as America’s greatest “funnyman” has lasted for over a century. Twain’s relationships are just as interesting as Twain himself. From presidents to inventors, Twain brushed shoulders with many of history’s giants. Today, we explore some of Twain's many famous friendships.
"Lord, I loathe that woman so! She is an idiot—an absolute idiot—and does not know it ... and her husband, the sincerest man that walks...tied for life to this vacant hellion, this clothes-rack, this twaddling, blethering, driveling blatherskite!"
-Mark Twain, referring to Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s wife, Lillian
To be called "the sincerest man that walks" by Mark Twain, one of the fathers of American fiction and whose contributions still loom after more than a century and a half, is certainly a rare honor. You have to imagine, however, that New England-born poet, novelist, travel writer, and editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich would have preferred the compliment couched in slightly less venomous language. Indeed, given only that quotation, you would have gleaned very little about a writer whose influence has outlived his name recognition.