An Unapologetic and Uncorrected Ramble About Mark Twain


“I am not alive. I am dead. I speak from the grave.” — Mark Twain

In his 70th year, Mark Twain would perform a show in his brownstone on Fifth Avenue in New York. He would tell stories, crack jokes, and cut the high and mighty of his time down to size.

“To-morrow I mean to dictate a chapter which will get my heirs [and] assigns burnt alive if they venture to print it this side of 2006 A.D.,” he wrote a friend, before calling the Bibles portrayal of the “Lord of Creation…the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere.”

Twain planned to share the dictated record of his musings and rants, but he knew that the publication would have to wait “at least a century after his death, give or take a few years.”

His audience consisted of two people, stenographer Josephine Hobby and newly appointed biographer Albert Bigelow Paine.

“We constituted about the most select audience in the world,” Paine recalled, “enjoying what was, likely enough, its most remarkable entertainment…It was absorbingly interesting; his quaint, unhurried fashion of speech, the unconscious movements of his hands, the play of his features as his fancies and phrases passed in mental review and were accepted or waved aside.”

He also seemed ahead of his time explaining how people take their opinions from others, then herd themselves into self-protective groups.

“We are discreet sheep,” he says. “We wait to see how the drove is going, and then go with the drove.”

On the subject of political behavior: “Look at the candidates whom we loathe, one year, and are afraid to vote against, the next; whom we cover with unimaginable filth, one year, and fall down on the public platform and worship, the next, and keep on doing it until the habitual shutting of our eyes to last years evidence brings us presently to a sincere and stupid belief in this years.”

He roasted John D. Rockefeller for preaching a Sunday-school lesson full of “twaddling sentimental sillinesses,” and Theodore Roosevelt for giving a patriotic gloss to atrocities committed by American troops in the Philippines. About Roosevelt, he proclaimed, he was “the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War,” the vast majority of the American people loved, and even idolized, him.

Twain declared Andrew Carnegie a bore, who took “juvenile delight in trivialities that feed his vanity,” adding that Carnegie keeps his place “on top of the wave of advantage while other men as intelligent as he, but more addicted to principle and less to policy, get stranded on the reefs and bars,” and by endowing libraries, “has bought fame and paid cash for it.”

He candid about his unscrupulous publisher, Charles L. Webster, and critical of the publishing world, he opens himself and his total output to razor-sharp sarcasm. He refers to his complete works as “a pile of paralyzed old books,” and describes his 1895 lecture and book tour around the globe as a “money-grubbing raid.”

Twain detailed what led him to fire his secretary Isabel Lyons calling her a “liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded & salacious slut pining for seduction & always getting disappointed.”

Twain lost $250,000 on the Paine Typesetting Machine. Of the inventor, he stated, [“James W.] Paige and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms, and yet he knows perfectly well that if I had his nuts in a steel-trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died.”

Speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in Liverpool, England, in 1907, Twain compared himself to “the little skipper” of the Mary Ann. Exchanging greetings with the captain of “a majestic Indiaman,” her decks swarming with sailors and a capacious cargo of Canton spices, the skipper identified his vessel as “Only the Mary Ann, fourteen hours out from Boston — with nothing to speak of.”

For one hour in every 24, Twain indicated, he was as meek as the Mary Ann, 14 hours out, carrying vegetables and tinware. But in the other 23, he acknowledged, “my vain self-complacency rides high…and I am the Begum of Bengal, 123 days out — and homeward bound!”

By his admission, vain and lazy, Twain was a complicated man. For example, Twain explains that he wears white clothes in both the winter and summer because he wants to be “clean in a dirty world; absolutely the only cleanly-clothed human being in all Christendom north of the Tropics.”

He expands on the importance of “the pause” in public lectures. Audiences need time to absorb the absurdity of a situation. But if the pause is off, “by the five-millionth of an inch,” Twain maintains, the audience has time “to wake up from its deep concentration in the grisly tale,” foresee the climax, and the joke falls flat.

Twain added, “there isn’t any way to libel the intelligence of the human race.”

Awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University, Twain sought to rid himself “of thirty-five years accumulation of bile and injured pride” by noting that although American institutions conferred degrees to hundreds of individuals who were certain “to drift into obscurity…I have seen our universities…overlook me every time…This neglect would have killed a less robust person than I am, but it has not killed me.”

Twain at first advised American Rhodes Scholars upset over the selection of Alain Locke, a black scholar, who subsequently received a Ph.D. from Harvard, edited the literary anthology The New Negro, and became a cultural critic, that their opposition was neither wise nor just. When he learned Locke received low scores in “popularity,” a character trait valued by Cecil Rhodes, Twain decided not to refer to the matter in his talk to the students, even though he conceded that Locke’s unpopularity was due to his color.

His dictations ended in December 1909, following the death from an epileptic seizure of Jean Clemens, his youngest daughter. Already inclined to melancholy and still mourning the death of his wife and eldest daughter, Twain was inconsolable, yet hopeful, with Clara Clemens living in Europe, he had thought he and Jean “would be close comrades — just we two.”

Twain died on Apr. 21, 1910.

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