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Who was Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the birth name of the man we know as Mark Twain, was born on 30th November 1835 in the village of Florida, Missouri, USA. He is held in high esteem by many as one of the greatest authors, social critics and humourists that America has ever produced. William Faulkner[1] called him “the father of American literature“. Twain’s novels include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)[2], the latter of which has often been called the “Great American Novel”.

Picture Credit: “Mark Twain 1835 – 1910” by oneredsf1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Twain is alleged to have said: “I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, Spencer is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I’m not feeling so well myself.”

Twain, the sixth of seven children, was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, which later provided the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He was born two months prematurely and had relatively poor health for the first ten years of his life. Approaching his teens, he served an apprenticeship with a printer and then worked as a typesetter, contributing articles to the newspaper of his older brother Orion Clemens.

Later, Twain became a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River before heading west to join Orion in Nevada. He referred humourously to his lack of success at mining, turning to journalism for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise.[3]

His humorous story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County[4], was published in 1865, based on a story he heard at a Hotel in California, where he had spent some time as a miner. The short story brought international attention and was even translated into French. In prose and speech, his wit and satire earned praise from critics and peers. So famous and popular was Twain that he was a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty.

Twain’s pen name was contrived from his time as a riverboat pilot. The leadsman’s[5] cry for a measured river depth of two fathoms (12 feet), which was considered safe water for a steamboat, provided the idea of “Mark it Two (Twain)”.

Twain’s first success as a writer came when his humorous tall tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published on 18th November 1865 in the New York weekly The Saturday Press. It brought him to national attention. A year later, he travelled to the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii) as a reporter for the Sacramento Union. His letters to the Union were popular and became the basis for his first lectures.

Fascination with science and scientific inquiry led Twain to develop a close and lasting friendship with Nikola Tesla, and the two spent much time together in Tesla’s laboratory. Twain was an early proponent of fingerprinting as a forensic technique, featuring it in Life on the Mississippi (1883) and as a central plot element in the novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).[6]

Twain’s Wit
Mark Twain’s sharp mind, spirit, wit and humour still resonate amongst millions of people across the world. Nowhere is it more evident than in his many quotations:

  • I haven’t a particle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming petty vices whatsoever.
  • [Of George Washington] He was ignorant of the commonest accomplishments of youth. He could not even lie.
  • Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
  • I have seen Chinamen abused and maltreated in all the mean, cowardly ways possible to the invention of a degraded nature, but I never saw a policeman interfere in the matter, and I never saw a Chinaman righted in a court of justice for wrongs thus done him.
  • Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.
  • Formerly, if you killed a man, it was possible that you were insane—but now, if you, having friends and money, kill a man, it is evidence that you are a lunatic.
  • Is not this insanity plea becoming rather common? Is it not so common that the reader confidently expects to see it offered in every criminal case that comes before the courts? […] Really, what we want now, is not laws against crime, but a law against insanity.
  • We haven’t all had the good fortune to be ladies; we haven’t all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies, we stand on common ground.
  • Among the three or four million cradles now rocking in the land are some which this nation would preserve for ages as sacred things, if we could know which ones they are.
  • Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
  • It does look as if Massachusetts were in a fair way to embarrass me with kindnesses this year. In the first place, a Massachusetts judge has just decided in open court that a Boston publisher may sell, not only his own property in a free and unfettered way but also may as freely sell property which does not belong to him but to me; property which he has not bought and which I have not sold. Under this ruling I am now advertising that judge’s homestead for sale, and, if I make as good a sum out of it as I expect, I shall go on and sell out the rest of his property.
  • As I slowly grow wise, I briskly grow cautious.
  • Always obey your parents when they are present… Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humouring that superstition.
  • A circle is a round straight line with a hole in the middle.
  • All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.
  • I am opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position.
  • If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
  • Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.[7]
  • It is more trouble to make a maxim than it is to do right.
  • James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness; the report of my death was an exaggeration. Misquote: The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.[8]
  • A round man cannot be expected to fit in a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape.
  • [Citing a familiar “American joke”] In Boston, they ask, How much does he know? In New York, How much is he worth? In Philadelphia, Who were his parents?
  • Humour is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments flit away and a sunny spirit takes their place.
  • I believe I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. To know that the results are profitable to the race would not remove my hostility to it. The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further. It is so distinctly a matter of feeling with me, and is so strong and so deeply-rooted in my make and constitution, that I am sure I could not even see a vivisector vivisected with anything more than a sort of qualified satisfaction.
  • He had only one vanity; he thought he could give advice better than any other person.
  • There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus and upset the convictions and debauch the emotions of an audience not practised in the tricks and delusions of oratory.
  • Definition of a classic — something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.
  • Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.
  • Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it.
  • Now what I contend is that my body is my own, at least I have always so regarded it. If I do harm through my experimenting with it, it is I who suffer, not the state.
  • Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.
  • To create man was a fine and original idea; but to add the sheep was a tautology.
  • To put it in rude, plain, unpalatable words — true patriotism, real patriotism: loyalty not to a Family and a Fiction, but a loyalty to the Nation itself!
  • He is a stranger to me, but he is a most remarkable man — and I am the other one. Between us, we cover all knowledge; he knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.
  • The only reason why God created man is because he was disappointed with the monkey.
  • Laws are sand, customs are rock. Laws can be evaded and punishment escaped, but an openly transgressed custom brings sure punishment.
  • I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough.
  • Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.
  • The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.
  • Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
  • Always acknowledge a fault frankly. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you the opportunity to commit more.
  • The best of us would rather be popular than right.
  • It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.
  • It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.
  • A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself as a liar.
  • Principles have no real force except when one is well-fed.
  • An injurious lie is an uncommendable thing; and so, also, and in the same degree, is an injurious truth—a fact that is recognized by the law of libel.
  • The glory which is built upon a lie soon becomes a most unpleasant incumbrance… How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!
  • I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
  • Virtue never has been as respectable as money.
  • 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 must have a prodigious quantity of mind; it takes me as much as a week sometimes to make it up.
  • Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
  • It is a mystery that is hidden from me by reason that the emergency requiring the fathoming of it hath not in my life-days occurred, and so, not having no need to know this thing, I abide barren of the knowledge.
  • The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.
  • Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy, you must have somebody to divide it with.
  • Whose property is my body? Probably mine. I so regard it. If I experiment with it, who must be answerable? I, not the State. If I choose injudiciously, does the State die? Oh no.
  • What is the difference between a taxidermist & a tax-collector? The taxidermist only takes your skin.
  • Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired.
  • The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.
  • The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.
  • Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that makes you smile.
  • Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.
Sources and Further Reading

Picture Credit: “Mark Twain visits Parliament 1907” by UK Parliament is licensed under CC BY 2.0

  1. Faulkner is one of the most celebrated writers of American literature, and is widely considered one of the best writers of Southern literature. Source:
  2. Source: World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book, Inc. 1999.
  3. Source: Thomson, David, In Nevada: The Land, The People, God, and Chance, New York: Vintage Books, 2000. ISBN 0-679-77758-X p. 35
  4. See:
  5. The leadsman was the sailor assigned to swing the sounding line, or ‘lead’, into the water, to test the depth.
  6. Source:
  7. Commonly paraphrased as: “First get your facts, then you can distort them at your leisure.”
  8. Note: This paraphrase or misquote may be more popular than the original.

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