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Why Twain?

mark-twainIn nearly every interview or talk I’ve given this year, I’ve been asked to name my favorite author.

A literary landscape where my answer is not Mark Twain is inconceivable. If I ever give an answer that’s not Mark Twain it will mean I had a stroke.

The next question is usually “Why? Why Mark Twain? Didn’t he die like a hundred years ago?”

Well yes, he died in 1910, but what does the time in which Twain wrote or lived have to do with his relevance today? And that’s it, my answer is there in the question: everything. 

Twain’s humor is every bit as funny today as when he was writing. Interest in his books is still incredible. Think about that. Go watch a cherished comedy from the eighties that you have fond memories of. For me it was Planes, Trains, And Automobiles. I watched it about a year ago. Some of the humor has aged well. Some of it can’t even make me smile anymore.

So what does it take to write something that is still making people laugh a century or two into the future? Ponder that and tell me your answer in the comments.

In order to be a satirist, one has to care enough to understand the object which it satirizes. In Twain’s case, the object was almost always people and human nature, and he didn’t spare himself either. He cared about people. He cared about humanity. He mourned the worst that we can do to each other and tried to call attention to it through humor. (note: his writing wasn’t always funny. When he was truly disgusted by an atrocity he was a vicious fireball while remaining highly logical and meticulous in his indictments).

I’m going to leave off for there today, but here’s me answering my own question:

Why Twain? Because no matter what Twain I read, I feel like I am learning what it means to be a human. I gain a better understanding of how we treat each other, ourselves, and how we might do better. And I feel like I am being led by Twain to feel that way. If that’s what he planned on, that is mastery of the craft, no matter how far into the future his readers might be.

I also read for pleasure, and I learn best when I’m enjoying what I’m reading. That’s why Twain.

Here’s my favorite example of Twain the humorist. Please read Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses and rejoice that the man never frowned and furrowed his brow at your own writing.

Tomorrow I’ll start looking at specific pieces of Twain’s work.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris Plumb September 5, 2013, 11:07 am

    I just wrote a piece about how Twain recognized the value of life. I teach high schoolers, and Huck Finn is a perfect novel, because it shows how Jim, whom society deemed a commodity, was the most valuable character, and he got sold, “for 40 dirty dollars.”

    Unfortunately, my school no longer teaches Huck Finn, because it is too “volatile.” I think kids need edgy historical material. Twain, like you said, could scathe anyone he wanted to, and in Finn, it was the racist South. We need to know that history.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 5, 2013, 11:31 am

      Agreed agreed agreed. Where do you teach?

      • Chris Plumb September 5, 2013, 5:22 pm

        SHS: Springfield, Oregon.

        Great school; just caught up in modern PC-ism.

  • Isary Tamayo September 5, 2013, 11:19 am

    I wholly agree; Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses is the best…and the worst. A better question: Why not Twain?

  • kate September 5, 2013, 11:43 am


    Huck Finn Official music video – its lovely kkx

    • Lisa Guidarini September 5, 2013, 1:13 pm

      I visited Twain’s house (I know you did, too, but believe your tour was more extensive) in 2007 or so. Isn’t it incredibly beautiful? Anyway, I surreptitiously slid down part of his stair rail so a tiny part of his genius would rub off on me. I got away with it but can’t swear whether or not it changed me. I also like to tell people I went against orders and touched Mozart’s organ. In a cathedral! What were you thinking? Oh, and Dickens’s’s desk. Tell me not to touch something AND I WILL.

  • Kit Malone September 5, 2013, 12:49 pm

    The praise is deserved. Let’s also not forget to mention that he practically invented the terse writing style of modern fiction writers. See “The Literary Offenses of James Fennimore Cooper” for his brilliant take down of the overly mannered, verbose style of his peers.

    His ear for dialect and local color was awesome, and his ability to have characters speak in dialect without making fun or belittling them is something that few writers can approach.

  • Valerie Harover September 5, 2013, 3:55 pm

    I think it’s his affection for mankind that makes his writing so relevant today. Nothing changes under under the sun, right?

  • Bea September 5, 2013, 4:41 pm

    I’ve always felt I had to defend Cooper–who died in 1851 when Twain was 16–from unfair attack in that piece. It’s the debunking that rising young men do of the men with reputations who have come before them, and I have to confess that funny as it is, I don’t like it much. I think you’ve already found the characteristic of his writing that makes them perennially appealing: he did like people even when he fussed at them, even when he despaired of them, even when they absolutely proved that he could not and should not trust them. It’s easy to like someone who likes you, and to listen to what they have to say even tho’ you may not agree.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 5, 2013, 4:47 pm

      If I had never read this piece, I never would have had one critical thing to say about Cooper’s writing, which I still adore. I’d never be brave enough to write something this nasty, and I certainly wouldn’t want it directed at me!

      • Kit Malone September 5, 2013, 6:15 pm

        Oh, I’m certainly not going to rush to defend or attack Cooper. I’ve always felt fairly neutral about his writing – it never excited me but it certainly didn’t fill me with Twain’s sense of righteous anger.

        But the piece is important in that it also represents a mission statement for Twain. In skewering the excesses of the adventure novels of the era – you really see him setting out his own rules for writing. I love that.

        Like all great literary take-downs, it’s entirely unfair and totally mean spirited. That’s what’s great about it! Remember that this is the man who refers to humankind as “the damned human race” via his proxy, Satan. He was an irascible, cantankerous old fart!

        • Lisa Guidarini September 6, 2013, 11:08 am

          I think the essay has some valid points, in that Twain himself was weary of the “old,” more florid style of writing and preferred realism. It’s exaggerated but there’s a kernel of truth to it, or of honesty, I should say. I believe he meant it.

  • Lisa Guidarini September 5, 2013, 5:19 pm

    If you want to read some of his hilarious letters – to his friend William Dean Howells – visit http://www.marktwainproject.org/homepage.html Lots of other fantastic stuff there.

  • teri eddy September 5, 2013, 6:41 pm

    Innocents Abroad, 1869 Was so nonsensical, yet I could not stop laughing at the jumble of words translating languages I never spoke or understood. It was the first time I was awed by such a writing ability. Thank you for sharing.

  • ed young September 5, 2013, 6:56 pm

    Twain will be remembered for the ages in the same breath as Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dante. I cover “Letters from the Earth” in EVERY English, History and Literature class I teach.

    Been from Hannibal to Virginia City to Calaveras to Hartford. Oddly, my grandmother’s best childhood friend, Louisa Bigelow Paine (daughter MT’s biographer/literary executor), was Twain’s favorite pool playing companion. Grandmother met him many times, and had great stories about his after dinner speaking skills, which far exceeded his Olympian writing.

    Thanks for everything, Mark. You have enriched and deepened my life immeasurably. Ole!

  • Yorick Wellman September 5, 2013, 11:19 pm

    When I first read Cooper’s Literary offenses, I Thought Twain was telling the truth in humor. Then I read Cooper and realized that Twain was taking a shot in professional jealousy at Cooper. Doubtless Twain felt the main point against Cooper was true, but part was to clear away the literary star(s) of the past to make room for Twain.

    In another issue, I think one reason Twain advocated another author for the Shakespeare plays was related: if Shakespeare was the son of a glover in Stratford, then why couldn’t Twain from a somewhat similar background write as well and be an American Shakespeare? But if Shakespeare was really someone else, with a noble background and a university education, then of course Twain couldn’t be expected to top that.

  • Morris Matin September 6, 2013, 8:47 am

    I was taught in high school and in undergraduate school NOT to use the “surname” of pseudonym in referring to him: calm him “Mark Twain” or “Sam Clemons,” for instance! It still grates to have “my Mark” referred to in this way.

  • evelyne holingue September 6, 2013, 10:03 am

    Just to thank you for sharing your passion about Mark Twain. Since I grew up in France I had only read translations of Twain’s work until I moved to the U.S. Whether we read the original or a translated version leaves a whole different mark. And although human experience remains basically the same for all of us, our place of birth and our culture change the way we react to literature.
    It makes me realize that wherever we are from we all keep in our heart a writer who has left us breathless. Your Mark Twain is my Zola.
    I’m looking forward to reading your next piece about Twain.

  • Anne Holman September 6, 2013, 11:32 am

    14. Eschew surplusage.

  • Tom Southern September 7, 2013, 9:27 am

    Mark Twain was a genius! He saw through the thin veil of human nature to its basic core. He saw its nastiness, its goodness and its down right ridiculousness and writ it large. Holding up all our doings for us to see. Except I don’t think we do see them. Not nearly enough. Twain saw them. That’s what every writer should do when they write.

    I bet if he were with us still, he’d write a classic about how we prettify the past because its brutality and ignorance makes us blanche. And therefore, we make more hells for ourselves because by hiding the past, we don’t learn from it. And, we can’t see how far we’ve come.

    It’s a pity Twain’s novels have lost favour with educators, and the like. Because it’s only through the genius of writers like him that we see the world, and ourselves, stripped bare.