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Mark Twain: the Wisecracker who became a Cynic

Posted December 13, 2012 by Jonathan Baron


Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens, was an American author who brought American literature to new heights.  As a younger man, he piloted a steamboat on the Mississippi River, which would come to inspire parts of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the first of which is credited as the first "Great American Novel."  He did not meet with success in everything he did, as he lost a great deal of money on a typesetting machine that became obsolete and was unreliable.  His publishing house lost a great deal of money as well, and he embarked on a speaking tour to pay his debts.

Twain was successful as a speaker, and many think of him as the father of American standup comedy, as well, due to his humorous speaking style.  Below you'll find some of the best Mark Twain quotes, culled from his diverse literary works.

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."
- Draft manuscript (circa 1881), quoted by Albert Bigelow Paine in Mark Twain: A Biography (1912).

Mark Twain was often critical of authority, as evidenced by the above quote.  He thought a healthy skepticism and distrust of the establishment, or at least established ideas, fostered progressive thinking. 


"I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, "All right, then, I'll GO to hell." " - Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 31.

Perhaps the single most famous line from the ever-controversial Huckleberry Finn, this line was Huck's plainly stated decision to side with Jim, a runaway slave and Huck's friend.  It is a powerful statement of human rights; that is, the character decides that despite previous teachings, he will side with the human he knows regardless of the color of his skin.


"Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising."
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Chapter 22.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court tells the story of an industrial man, transported back in time to a romanticized medieval time.  Through his application of modern techniques to an older world, the main character brings what he thinks is civilization to a people ill-suited for it. 

The main character eventually realizes that his changes to the old world may have harmed it more than helped it; that is, that its simplicity was its greatest treasure.


"All creatures kill--there seems to be no exception; but of the whole list, man is the only one that kills for fun; he is the only one that kills in malice, the only one that kills for revenge." - Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 (2010).

While Twain did believe in human ingenuity and the power of humans to change and become better (as evidenced by Huckleberry Finn and his interactions with others), he had a cynical streak and a deep distrust for humanity as a whole.

" "In God We Trust." It is the choicest compliment that has ever been paid us, and the most gratifying to our feelings. It is simple, direct, gracefully phrased: it always sounds well -- In God We Trust. I don't believe it would sound any better if it were true. And in a measure it is true -- half the nation trusts in Him. That half has decided it." - Mark Twain's notebook

As Mark Twain got older he became somewhat more bitter, and took to writing satirical and harsh passages against God and human nature.  His daughter Clara would not allow what she viewed as his bitterness to be published while she was alive, preferring to let him be remembered for his earlier works.  The above quote is one such thing that had been unpublished.


"Before taking final leave of me, my instructor inquired concerning my physical strength, and I was able to inform him that I hadn't any." - What is Man? and Other Essays

Twain wrote a few humorous essays, and the above quote is taken from Taming the Bicycle, a gratifyingly funny short story of how he learned to ride a bike.  "Only laughter can blow [a colossal humbug] to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." - The Mysterious Stranger (1916).

Written in Twain's last foray into novel-writing, the above quote displays the wit that made him known as a pioneer of serious yet humorous writing. "I have no race prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse." - Concerning the Jews (Harper's Magazine, Sept. 1899)

Thanks to Huckleberry Finn, Twain was known as a man who was assuredly for abolition and equality.  The discrimination and blaming of Jews was a topic discussed at the time, and some would say continued to be discussed hotly leading up to WWII.  Twain here does not think a Jew is any better or any worse than the average man.  We are all equally bad.


"I must have a prodigious quantity of mind; it takes me as much as a week sometimes to make it up." - The Innocents Abroad (1869)

The Innocents Abroad is a travel book where Twain recorded his thoughts on the cultures he encountered on his trip on the Quaker City (a retired Civil War ship).  His musings created one of the best-selling travel books of all time.


"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." - How To Tell A Story (1895)

It is easy to see how Mark Twain could be viewed as one of the fathers of stand-up comedy.  Well before standup comedy was an accepted form of entertainment, Twain was hired as a speaker with the understanding that he would make it satirical and humorous.


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