Although many writers have graced the landscape of American literature, very few have left the legacy of Mark Twain. In addition to his seminal works (The Adventures of Huck Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), he was a prolific enough writer to have had his ideas copped by modern writers (and film makers, and TV show producers, ect). Stories such as The Prince and the Pauper, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (a story of time travel, which would make it Sci-fi!), The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg (my personal favorite Twain story – for a free and legal copy of this work, available for download at the Gutenberg Project, CLICK HERE) are all still vital and living works.
While one can look at the style of the prose itself as a sign of great talent, even more important is what the man actually said with the written word. In my humble opinion, Twain was one of the most insightful writers concerning the study of the human condition. All of humanity’s foibles, faults, heights, and potential fell under that gaze of his pen, and his commentary (both through his fiction work as well as his non-fiction commentaries and columns) is as studied, biting, and truthy as any of the great philosophers of history.
Unfortunately, Twain’s works have had their share of controversy. Most notable, both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn have been attacked (and, in some cases, taken off of school library shelves) as being inherently racist due to the liberal usage of the term “nigger”. And while I understand and sympathize with the sensibilities of those who might be offended by this term, one must take into account that at the time in which Twain wrote the term was not the pejorative that it is now considered. Nigger was, during those times, used in the same fashion that colored, negro, black, and now African-American were used in their respective times – as a descriptive of race. In the interest of perspective, one can argue that the self-same people who wanted to erase Twain’s work from public or school bookshelves would be the last folks to line up to ban the Bible…even though many pages of that book are dedicated to how to properly care for one’s slave. In short, the mistake is in trying to squeeze modern sensibilities’ into a work created in the past; it only makes for a confusion of history and forces an erasure of the past in lieu of potentially learning from it.
As a point of fact, Twain’s viewpoints were actually quite liberal for his times. He was an anti-imperialist, an opponent of ‘Big Business’, a strong abolitionist (and even paid out of pocket for a few black men to go to college long before such patronages were fashionable or even acceptable), and a defender of women’s rights. His most venomous comments were generally reserved for the powers that be in his times – robber barons, bankers and politicians. He did make a habit of picking on the French, but it seemed to be as a jest and less of an attack.
If you have read Twain’s work before, perhaps now would be a good time to revisit his tales; if you’ve never read any of his work, now’s the time to start (The Gutenberg Project has his entire collection available for free and legal download, although I prefer a book in my hands as opposed to a glowing computer screen). Listed below are some of my favorite quotes from the mouth, mind and pen of Mark Twain to get you started; so, by all means, read on!
(Personal aside: many thanks go out to Professor Ned Johnson, wherever he may be, an amazing educator and the man who reintroduced me to Twain’s works a few years back…and did a ‘dem fine impression of the man himself.)