Year of Twain

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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

He Made Humor Matter: The Philosopher behind the Mask

Written by Ben Click, Chair and Professor of the English Department and Director of The Twain Lecture Series

Image from American Examiner 1910

We call a person who seeks wisdom or enlightenment a philosopher. We call a person who makes us laugh a humorist. Not many philosophers make us chuckle, although when Aristotle wrote that “death is bad for the dying, but good for the undertaker” I had to smile. And not many humorists make us wiser. But Mark Twain did: He made humor matter.

It is his unrivaled ability to combine both laughter and enlightenment that makes him continually relevant. In 1906 when reflecting on why his fame as a humorist lasted while that of his contemporaries “perished,” Twain observed that their brand of humor was “only a fragrance, a decoration.” He suggested that for humor to last it “must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it were to live forever. By forever, I mean thirty years. . . . I have always preached.”

Of course, he was wrong about the 30 years. It’s been 100 years since the man, Samuel L. Clemens, lived. But the writer, Mark Twain, is very much alive. The year 2010 is the “Year of Twain.” It marks the 100th anniversary of his death; the 125th anniversary of his greatest work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the 175th of his birth. Libraries, museums, bookstores, colleges and universities, small towns and large cities are all having centennial celebrations, which include everything from elaborate frog jumping competitions to Mark Twain séances.

The writer Twain is also back on bestseller lists with volume one of his much anticipated autobiography. (Twain decided the book had to wait that long so that he could speak “the whole frank truth.”) Pre-orders for the book placed it in the top five at and, outpacing new works by Ken Follett, John Grisham, and Jon Stewart. The publisher, University of California Press, increased the first printing from 50,000 copies to 75,000.

What would Twain think of all this flapdoodle over these anniversaries? On the one hand, the great self-promoter Twain would have found it fitting to honor the man he called “the most conspicuous person living.” On the other hand, the caustic Twain would say of the man who invented anniversaries: “Mere killing would be too light.”

Whatever he Ben Clickmay be thinking, his humor and philosophies are relevant in more lasting ways than just anniversary celebrations and a much anticipated book release:

On Elections - Having just survived another contentious mid-term election, American citizens would do well to turn to Twain’s humor. “All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it. None but the Republicans. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.”

On War  - “Statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.” We need only to recollect phrases such as “weapons of mass destruction” or ultimatums such as, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” to see what Twain meant.

Could he have foreseen the quagmire in Afghanistan and Iraq in which our country entangled itself? Probably. On the Philippine-American War: “Eagle should keep its talons in its own country.” And his aphorism, “It’s easier to stay out then get out,” rings heartbreakingly true today.

On Big Government - Having given the Gilded Age its name, a time of rapid industrial progress accompanied by great greed, Twain recognized that progress often isn’t much progress at all. “Isn’t it odd that we should take a spasm, every now and then, and go spinning back into the dark ages once more, after having put in a world of time and money and work toiling up into the highlights of modern progress?” Certainly projects done in the name of progress (or pork barrel spending) have sent modern citizens spinning: Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere,” Boston’s “Big Dig,” Texas’s “Superconducting Super Collider.”

On the Economy - And Twain definitely knew about greed and human nature. He wouldn’t have been a bit surprised by recent corporate corruption, the tanking of the market, and the home loan debacle of the last five years. He understood that some people worship rank, some fame, some power, and some God, “but they all worship money.”

Some even worship the kind of money that is not real. The kind called credit, or what he called “Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society.” Twain almost puts words in the mouth of those unfortunate borrowers: “I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.”

On Mother Nature - “Nature has no indecencies, man invents them.” His life on the Mississippi River taught him early on the folly of humans trying to control the natural world. “Ten thousand River Commissions” cannot “bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.” In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Maybe better levees would have prevented some of this devastation, at least until a more powerful natural force “danced over” that beautiful region. Certainly, “architects cannot teach nature anything,” as he claimed.

On Women’s Rights - “I know that since the women started out on their crusade they have scored in every project they undertook against unjust laws. I would like to see them help make the laws and those who are to enforce them. I would like to see the whiplash in women’s hands.” I’m sure Twain would have reveled in the success of someone like Andrea Merkle, Germany’s first female chancellor, chair of G8, and the leader of arguably the world’s most successful economy. He’d also have liked Title 9, the current U.S. Speaker of the House, and the current U.S. Secretary of State who was almost the Democratic nominee for president. Could he have predicted that Sweden’s cabinet would have 52.4% women ministers? He once queried, “Where would men be without women, mighty scarce, sir, mighty scarce.” He fought for women’s right to vote. “We brag of our universal, unrestricted suffrage; but we are shams after all, for we restrict when we come to the women.”

We can learn so much from someone who died 100 years ago. Playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote that Mark Twain taught him that “telling the truth was the funniest joke in the world.”

Who is the Twain of today? Probably no one person. “Performer Lewis Black has inherited Twain’s politics (and his fatalism),” says Twain expert Alex Effgen. “Actor Zach Galifianakis has inherited eccentricity in observation and delivery. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy has inherited a popular appreciation for the American vernacular and regional anecdote. And none of these men are writers!”

It’s been said most people between the ages of 18-35 get their news from “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. And it's true Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s humorous response to commentator Glen Beck’s call to the Mall drew many people to Washington, D.C.

Twain would have found the whole thing intriguing, and funny. Were these marches an effective weapon, or did they strive only for laughter? Twain might have wondered if their humor mattered or if it too was “only a fragrance, a decoration.”