Last modified on October 5, 2023, at 17:23

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), best known under the pen name Mark Twain, was a great American writer and humorist. On his death, the New York Times wrote that "his personality and his humor have been an integral part of American life for so long that it has seemed almost impossible to realize an America without him."[1] Mark Twain was famous as both a writer and a performer, having toured many years as a comedic lecturer. His cynical witticisms earned him a reputation as one of America's foremost personalities. Twain wrote 1,400 to 1,800 words per day in 4-5 hour sittings,[2] and penned 28 books plus many short stories.[3]

The Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, considered the greatest southern writer, said about Mark Twain: "The first truly American writer, and all of us since are his heirs." Today all of Twain's works are in the public domain and freely available online.[4] Mark Twain was also instrumental in U.S. Grant's memoirs.[5]

In his semi-autobiographical Roughing It (1871), Twain comically wrote, “God save you from ever being obliged to beat in a game of chess, whose stake is your life, you having but four poor pawns and pieces and your adversary with his full force unshorn. But if you are, provided you have any strength with breadth of will, do not despair. Though mesmeric power may not save you, it may help you; try it at all events.”[6]

Mark Twain was a devotee of Saint Joan of Arc, and even spent twelve years researching (including traveling to France to access archives) and writing a biography of her that he called his "best and favorite work":[7]

I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.

In his biography of Saint Joan of Arc, Twain passionately wrote that she was:[7]

asked at her trial why it was her standard (The standard depicts the Virgin Mary and two angels) [that] had a place at the crowning of the King in the Cathedral of Reims rather than the standards of the other captains, she uttered that touching speech, "It had borne the burden, it had earned the honor" -- a phrase which fell from her lips without premeditation, yet whose moving beauty and simple grace it would bankrupt the arts of language to surpass.


Twain worked as an author most of his life. Most of his books are considered classics, and have been adapted for stage and screen. His most famous works are the short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer[8], The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[8] and Pudd'nhead Wilson.


  • “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”[9]
  • "Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example."[10]
  • "Man is the Only Animal that Blushes. Or needs to."
  • "It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you: the one to slander you, and the other to get the news to you."
  • "When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not."
  • "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."
  • "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man."
  • "I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him."
  • "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."
  • "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please."
  • "Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't."
  • "Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge."
  • "An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven't been done before."
  • "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."
  • "A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain."
  • "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."
  • "No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the congress is in session."
  • "In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards."[11]
  • "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."
  • "It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled."
  • "By this time you will have noticed that the human being's heaven has been thought out and constructed upon an absolutely definite plan; and that this plan is, that it shall contain, in labored detail, each and every imaginable thing that is repulsive to a man, and not a single thing he likes!" [12]
  • "I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any."[13]
  • "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to." [14]
  • "Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education." [15]

Many quips attributed to Mark Twain are not his, due to what Ralph Keyes call the "the flypaper effect." The habit of unclaimed comments "sticking" to famous quotable figures. He quotes a librarian as saying "if it's humorous and cynical, it must be Mark Twain."[16] A famous disputed quote is "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." This has long been attributed to Twain. According to Keyes, quotation sleuths traced it to an unsigned editorial in the Hartford Courant and decided it was most likely by Charles Dudley Warner. However, there is evidence suggesting it may really be Twain's remark after all.[17]

A "Hymn to Liberty"

George Orwell said that "all that is best in [Twain]'s work centers about the Mississippi river and the wild mining towns of the West."[18] He specifically mentions Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi.

Orwell, who later would write Nineteen Eighty-Four, was writing during the Second World War, when individual freedom in Europe and England were at a low point. Orwell says that these books are set in "the golden age of America, the period when the great plains were opened up, when wealth and opportunity seemed limitless, and human beings felt free, indeed were free, as they had never been before and may not be again for centuries." He considered the books "ragbag[s] of anecdotes, scenic descriptions and social history both serious and burlesque" but Orwell also felt that they had a central theme: "This is how human beings behave when they are not frightened of the sack (being fired). Orwell says Twain did not mean to write "a hymn to liberty," but did so simply by reporting what he saw. He feels that Twain's colorful characters were able to develop their "strange and sometimes sinister individuality because of the lack of any outside pressure: If you disliked your job you simply hit your boss in the eye and moved further west.... The "log cabin to White House" myth was true while the free land lasted. In a way, it was for this that the Paris mob had stormed the Bastille, and when one reads Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Whitman it is hard to feel that their effort was wasted.[19]


Mark Twain was a practicing Presbyterian and a devotee of Saint Joan of Arc. Historians debate his personal religious beliefs, which if publicized could have hampered his successful career as a cynical humorist. A series of personal tragedies in his life, namely the deaths of his son, wife, and two of his daughters, could have pushed him closer to or further from God. Twain's favorite book was the biography he wrote admiring Saint Joan of Arc, but Twain also wrote Letters from the Earth and The Mysterious Stranger, both of which he was afraid to publish during his lifetime and which contained criticisms of Christianity. Some of his quotes on the subject are listed below.

  • Saint Joan of Arc was "the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced."[7]
  • "Faith is believing something you know ain't so." [Following the Equator]
  • "'In God We Trust.' I don't believe it would sound any better if it were true."
  • "It ain't the parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand."
  • "Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of."
  • "There is no other life; life itself is only a vision and a dream for nothing exists but space and you. If there was an all-powerful God, he would have made all good, and no bad." [Mark Twain in Eruption]
  • "Our Bible reveals to us the character of our god with minute and remorseless exactness... It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere. It makes Nero an angel of light and leading by contrast"[20]

The pen name "Mark Twain"

Clemens began using the pen name "Mark Twain" in his early newspaper columns.

Some believe "Mark Twain" was a reference to a leadsman's call. The leadsman's job was to toss a weighted line overboard to measure the depth of the water. On a Mississippi steamboat, he would do this again and again, calling out the results to the pilot. The depth was measured in fathoms, where a fathom is six feet. "Twain" is an old-fashioned word for "second." "Mark" meant the depth was on the exact fathom mark, much like describing a time as "on the dot." So "mark twain" literally means "two fathoms."

Others believe that "Mark Twain" refers to a then-common method of ordering whiskey. "Mark Twain" referred to a double shot of the cheapest whiskey in the bar. Twain's penchant for cheap whiskey and cheap cigars lends credence to this theory.

In Life on the Mississippi, Twain says that he worked for a captain who used to send "brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river" to the New Orleans Picayune (the famous newspaper), signed "Mark Twain." According to Twain, this captain always added little reminiscences about things like islands that "disappeared in 1807, if I remember rightly," which were annoying and drew the scorn of other captains. Twain wrote a humorous parody, without thinking about the captain's feelings, and was printed in a newspaper:

There was no malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again signed "Mark Twain" to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner's discarded one.[21]

In this way he was able to tap into the popularity of an existing and well known name without having to establish his own reputation. There is no documentary evidence of Mark Twain ever having been a riverboat captain beyond his own claims in Life on the Mississippi.

Books Online

See also

External links


  1. "His Countrymen's Tribute," The New York Times, April 22, 1910, p. 2
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2
  8. 8.0 8.1 Brian Innes. The Book of Dreams. Amber Books Ltd. ISBN 978-1-905704-21-7. 
  11. Following the Equator, chapter LXI
  12. Letters From the Earth, Crest Books, 1963. p.20
  13. Mark Twain's Seventieth Birthday Speech
  14. Following the Equator, chapter XXVIL
  15. Pudd'nhead Wilson Page Number Needed
  16. Keyes, Ralph (1992), Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations, p 24.
  17. Keyes p 194-5. Keyes also notes that the quotation, as printed in the Courant, actually opened with the words "A well known American writer once said," and that a 1923 memoir by a journalist who had known Twain mentioned never having seen in print Mark's saying about the weather
  18. Orwell, George (1943), "Mark Twain—The Licensed Jester;" The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, volume 2, pp. 325. Spelling brought into conformance with American usage.
  19. ibid., p. 326
  20. "Reflections on Religion" Full text online
  21. Twain, Mark (1863), Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 50