There is not a great deal that we can say about Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) that he did not say about himself. The first volume of his autobiography is 743 pages. There are two more to follow. Per his wishes, and in classic Twain style, he ordered that his complete work on himself not be published until a century after his death. So I hope you have some idea by what I mean when I say it is utterly impossible to cover even an iota of Twain’s life, accomplishments and philosophy here in 20 minutes.
It is funny that we find ourselves sitting here today to discuss classics by the likes of Mark Twain. As he put it: ‘’Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read’. But we do still read him, at every level, and continue to enjoy him, because what Twain wrote, his observations of man, religion, politics and society, even over a century later still rings true with us.
But, to start at the beginning, to ensure you leave here with enough information to possibly win a themed pub quiz, Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 under the glow of Halley’s Comet, in the state of Missouri along the Mississippi river, which would play such a pivotal role in his life, even after he settled in New York. He was the sixth of seven children, only four of whom survived into adulthood, and when his father died of pneumonia when he was only 11, young Sam became a printer’s apprentice. In 1851 he went to work for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal, as a typesetter and contributor of articles and humorous sketches. At the age of 18, Sam left Missouri, travelling around the eastern United States and working in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York City and Saint Louis. In the evenings he would sit in public libraries, educating himself. ‘Don’t let schooling interfere with your education’ is one of his oft remembered parables.
While travelling to New Orleans on a steamboat, Sam became enthralled with the idea of being a steamboat pilot. He spent more than two years learning two thousand miles of the Mississippi river, its currents and banks and inlets, before earning his license in 1859. This is where we finally get to start calling Sam by the name he is best known by: Mark Twain, ‘mark twain’ being old steamboat slang for a river depth of two fathoms, or 12 feet. This is also the time when Twain confronts one of his first great tragedies, the death of his little brother Henry, whom he had convinced to join him on the river, in 1858 on the steamboat Pennsylvania when it exploded. Twain claims to have foreseen his brother’s death a month earlier in a dream, and this spurred a lifelong interest in parapsychology. Though guilt-ridden, Twain carried on as a steamboat pilot until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1862, when travel along the Mississippi river was greatly hampered.
Though rumoured to have spent two weeks as a Confederate soldier (although Twain would later claim to be a staunch abolitionist) he had little interest in dying for anyone and Twain took off for the unsettled Western frontier, joining his brother Orion in the Nevada territory. Failing as miner of silver, Twain took up work at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he started to write humorous accounts of his travels to the West, and signing them with the nom de plume by which we know him so well.
He moved on to San Francisco, California in 1864 and a year later wrote his first nationally successful story, ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’. In 1866 he was sent o Hawaii as a travel report, and in 1867 to the Mediterranean. Initially, Mark Twain’s fame came not from his fiction, but from his comedic accounts of his travels, which were consumed by the American public. When he returned to the United States, the Scroll and Key Society of Yale University made him an honorary member. Twain was not yet 33, but already a nationally renowned writer.
By February of 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon (from a wealthy, liberal family) and settled down in Buffalo, New York, then Hartford, Connecticut, after the couple’s only son, Langdon, died of diphtheria at 19 months. Twain would go on to outlive two of his three daughters, and his wife Olivia, which probably what prompted him to one say: ‘The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.’ And for all of his humour, Mark Twain was indeed a sad man, who knew a lifetime of sorrows, and is said to have been depressed for much of his later years. He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, right when he said that he would: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” He died within 24 hours of the comet’s closest approach to Earth. The nation mourned his passing, and his surviving daughter placed a twelve foot long (id est: ‘mark twain’) marker at his grave. In his lifetime he championed abolition, suffrage for women, civil rights (going so far as to putting at least two African Americans through university), was an ardent anti-imperialist and anti-vivisectionist, and always with humour did he remind his readers of the many failings of man, god, and the government.
‘Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.’
Mark Twain’s humour is what he is most remembered for. Among his many quotable quotes (and Twain is perhaps one of the most quoted of any American in history, with several web pages dedicated just to his clever quips) Twain once said ‘Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.’ Comedy has the power to topple the powerful. Humour is a hallmark of American politics, and no one did it better than Mark Twain: ‘The political…morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.’ He had little regard for U.S. politicians, paying them the backhanded compliment that ‘we have the best government money can buy’, and marked that ‘it could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.’ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts annually awards the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to such comedic luminaries as Tina Fey and George Carlin who frequently target the vagaries and hypocrisies of politics: ‘Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ Nothing better embodied this mordant view of American politics than his short story “Cannibalism on the Cars”, in which men stranded on a snow-bound democratically select who it to be eaten.
CANNIBALISM IN THE CARS
I visited St. Louis lately, and on my way West, after changing cars at Terre Haute, Indiana, a mild, benevolent-looking gentleman of about forty-five, or maybe fifty, came in at one of the way-stations and sat down beside me. We talked together pleasantly on various subjects for an hour, perhaps, and I found him exceedingly intelligent and entertaining. When he learned that I was from Washington, he immediately began to ask questions about various public men, and about Congressional affairs; and I saw very shortly that I was conversing with a man who was perfectly familiar with the ins and outs of political life at the Capital, even to the ways and manners, and customs of procedure of Senators and Representatives in the Chambers of the national Legislature. Presently two men halted near us for a single moment, and one said to the other:
“Harris, if you’ll do that for me, I’ll never forget you, my boy.”
My new comrade’s eye lighted pleasantly. The words had touched upon a happy memory, I thought. Then his face settled into thoughtfulness– almost into gloom. He turned to me and said,
“Let me tell you a story; let me give you a secret chapter of my life– a chapter that has never been referred to by me since its events transpired. Listen patiently, and promise that you will not interrupt me.”
I said I would not, and he related the following strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.
THE STRANGER’S NARRATIVE
“On the 19th of December, 1853, I started from St. Louis on the evening train bound for Chicago. There were only twenty-four passengers, all told. There were no ladies and no children. We were in excellent spirits, and pleasant acquaintanceships were soon formed. The journey bade fair to be a happy one; and no individual in the party, I think, had even the vaguest presentiment of the horrors we were soon to undergo.
“At 11 P.m. it began to snow hard. Shortly after leaving the small village of Welden, we entered upon that tremendous prairie solitude that stretches its leagues on leagues of houseless dreariness far away toward the jubilee Settlements. The winds, unobstructed by trees or hills, or even vagrant rocks, whistled fiercely across the level desert, driving the falling snow before it like spray from the crested waves of a stormy sea. The snow was deepening fast; and we knew, by the diminished speed of the train, that the engine was plowing through it with steadily increasing difficulty. Indeed, it almost came to a dead halt sometimes, in the midst of great drifts that piled themselves like colossal graves across the track. Conversation began to flag. Cheerfulness gave place to grave concern. The possibility of being imprisoned in the snow, on the bleak prairie, fifty miles from any house, presented itself to every mind, and extended its depressing influence over every spirit.
“At two o’clock in the morning I was aroused out of an uneasy slumber by the ceasing of all motion about me. The appalling truth flashed upon me instantly–we were captives in a snow-drift! ‘All hands to the rescue!’ Every man sprang to obey. Out into the wild night, the pitchy darkness, the billowy snow, the driving storm, every soul leaped, with the consciousness that a moment lost now might bring destruction to us all. Shovels, hands, boards–anything, everything that could displace snow, was brought into instant requisition. It was a weird picture, that small company of frantic men fighting the banking snows, half in the blackest shadow and half in the angry light of the locomotive’s reflector.
“One short hour sufficed to prove the utter uselessness of our efforts. The storm barricaded the track with a dozen drifts while we dug one away. And worse than this, it was discovered that the last grand charge the engine had made upon the enemy had broken the fore-and-aft shaft of the driving-wheel! With a free track before us we should still have been helpless. We entered the car wearied with labor, and very sorrowful. We gathered about the stoves, and gravely canvassed our situation. We had no provisions whatever–in this lay our chief distress. We could not freeze, for there was a good supply of wood in the tender. This was our only comfort. The discussion ended at last in accepting the disheartening decision of the conductor, viz., that it would be death for any man to attempt to travel fifty miles on foot through snow like that. We could not send for help, and even if we could it would not come. We must submit, and await, as patiently as we might, succor or starvation! I think the stoutest heart there felt a momentary chill when those words were uttered.
“Within the hour conversation subsided to a low murmur here and there about the car, caught fitfully between the rising and falling of the blast; the lamps grew dim; and the majority of the castaways settled themselves among the flickering shadows to think–to forget the present, if they could–to sleep, if they might.
“The eternal night – it surely seemed eternal to us – wore its lagging hours away at last, and the cold gray dawn broke in the east. As the light grew stronger the passengers began to stir and give signs of life, one after another, and each in turn pushed his slouched hat up from his forehead, stretched his stiffened limbs, and glanced out of the windows upon the cheerless prospect. It was cheer less, indeed!-not a living thing visible anywhere, not a human habitation; nothing but a vast white desert; uplifted sheets of snow drifting hither and thither before the wind–a world of eddying flakes shutting out the firmament above.
“All day we moped about the cars, saying little, thinking much. Another lingering dreary night–and hunger.
“Another dawning–another day of silence, sadness, wasting hunger, hopeless watching for succor that could not come. A night of restless slumber, filled with dreams of feasting–wakings distressed with the gnawings of hunger.
“The fourth day came and went–and the fifth! Five days of dreadful imprisonment! A savage hunger looked out at every eye. There was in it a sign of awful import–the foreshadowing of a something that was vaguely shaping itself in every heart–a something which no tongue dared yet to frame into words.
“The sixth day passed–the seventh dawned upon as gaunt and haggard and hopeless a company of men as ever stood in the shadow of death. It must out now! That thing which had been growing up in every heart was ready to leap from every lip at last! Nature had been taxed to the utmost–she must yield. RICHARD H. GASTON of Minnesota, tall, cadaverous, and pale, rose up. All knew what was coming. All prepared–every emotion, every semblance of excitement–was smothered–only a calm, thoughtful seriousness appeared in the eyes that were lately so wild.
“‘Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!’
“MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: ‘Gentlemen–I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.’
“MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: ‘I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.’
“MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: ‘I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis.’
“MR. SLOTE: ‘Gentlemen–I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey.’
“MR. GASTON: ‘If there be no objection, the gentleman’s desire will be acceded to.’
“MR. VAN NOSTRAND objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.
“MR. A. L. BASCOM of Ohio: ‘I move that the nominations now close, and that the House proceed to an election by ballot.’
“MR. SAWYER: ‘Gentlemen–I protest earnestly against these proceedings. They are, in every way, irregular and unbecoming. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly.’
“MR. BELL of Iowa: ‘Gentlemen–I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made–every gentleman present is, I believe–and I, for one, do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution–‘
“MR. GASTON: ‘It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid. The gentleman from New Jersey–‘
“MR. VAN NOSTRAND: ‘Gentlemen–I am a stranger among you; I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy–‘
“MR. MORGAN Of Alabama (interrupting): ‘I move the previous question.’
“The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course. The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs. Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.
“A recess of half an hour was then taken, and some little caucusing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman of Louisiana, and W. Messick of Colorado as candidates. The report was accepted.
“MR. ROGERS of Missouri: ‘Mr. President The report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana far from it. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here present possibly can; but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us–none of us can be blind to the fact that the committee has been derelict in its duty, either through negligence or a graver fault, in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him–‘
“THE CHAIR: ‘The gentleman from Missouri will take his seat. The Chair cannot allow the integrity of the committee to be questioned save by the regular course, under the rules. What action will the House take upon the gentleman’s motion?’
“MR. HALLIDAY of Virginia: ‘I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious concerning trifles? Is this a time to dispute about matters of paltry significance? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire–substance, weight, bulk–these are the supreme requisites now–not talent, not genius, not education. I insist upon my motion.’
“MR. MORGAN (excitedly): ‘Mr. Chairman–I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone–not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? if he would delude us with shadows? if he would mock our suffering with an Oregonian specter? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him, if he can gaze into our sad eyes, if he can listen to the beating of our expectant hearts, and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? I ask him if he can think of our desolate state, of our past sorrows, of our dark future, and still unpityingly foist upon us this wreck, this ruin, this tottering swindle, this gnarled and blighted and sapless vagabond from Oregon’s hospitable shores? Never!’ [Applause.]
“The amendment was put to vote, after a fiery debate, and lost. Mr. Harris was substituted on the first amendment. The balloting then began. Five ballots were held without a choice. On the sixth, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself. It was then moved that his election should be ratified by acclamation, which was lost, in consequence of his again voting against himself.
“MR. RADWAY moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried.
“On the first ballot–there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. The President gave the casting vote for the latter, Mr. Messick. This decision created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Ferguson, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but in the midst of it a motion to adjourn was carried, and the meeting broke up at once.
“The preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Ferguson faction from the discussion of their grievance for a long time, and then, when they would have taken it up again, the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready drove all thought of it to the winds.
“We improvised tables by propping up the backs of car-seats, and sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days. How changed we were from what we had been a few short hours before! Hopeless, sad-eyed misery, hunger, feverish anxiety, desperation, then; thankfulness, serenity, joy too deep for utterance now. That I know was the cheeriest hour of my eventful life. The winds howled, and blew the snow wildly about our prison house, but they were powerless to distress us any more. I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction. Messick was very well, though rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fiber, give me Harris. Messick had his good points–I will not attempt to deny it, nor do I wish to do it but he was no more fitted for breakfast than a mummy would be, sir–not a bit. Lean?–why, bless me!–and tough? Ah, he was very tough! You could not imagine it–you could never imagine anything like it.”
“Do you mean to tell me that–”
“Do not interrupt me, please. After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterward. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently a perfect gentleman he was a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud, there is no question about it–old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality. I finally said, gentlemen, you can do as you like, but I will wait for another election. And Grimes of Illinois said, ‘Gentlemen, I will wait also. When you elect a man that has something to recommend him, I shall be glad to join you again.’ It soon became evident that there was general dissatisfaction with Davis of Oregon, and so, to preserve the good will that had prevailed so pleasantly since we had had Harris, an election was called, and the result of it was that Baker of Georgia was chosen. He was splendid! Well, well–after that we had Doolittle, and Hawkins, and McElroy (there was some complaint about McElroy, because he was uncommonly short and thin), and Penrod, and two Smiths, and Bailey (Bailey had a wooden leg, which was clear loss, but he was otherwise good), and an Indian boy, and an organ-grinder, and a gentleman by the name of Buckminster–a poor stick of a vagabond that wasn’t any good for company and no account for breakfast. We were glad we got him elected before relief came.”
“And so the blessed relief did come at last?”
“Yes, it came one bright, sunny morning, just after election. John Murphy was the choice, and there never was a better, I am willing to testify; but John Murphy came home with us, in the train that came to succor us, and lived to marry the widow Harris–”
“Relict of our first choice. He married her, and is happy and respected and prosperous yet. Ah, it was like a novel, sir–it was like a romance. This is my stopping-place, sir; I must bid you goodby. Any time that you can make it convenient to tarry a day or two with me, I shall be glad to have you. I like you, sir; I have conceived an affection for you. I could like you as well as I liked Harris himself, sir. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey.”
He was gone. I never felt so stunned, so distressed, so bewildered in my life. But in my soul I was glad he was gone. With all his gentleness of manner and his soft voice, I shuddered whenever he turned his hungry eye upon me; and when I heard that I had achieved his perilous affection, and that I stood almost with the late Harris in his esteem, my heart fairly stood still!
I was bewildered beyond description. I did not doubt his word; I could not question a single item in a statement so stamped with the earnestness of truth as his; but its dreadful details overpowered me, and threw my thoughts into hopeless confusion. I saw the conductor looking at me. I said, “Who is that man?”
“He was a member of Congress once, and a good one. But he got caught in a snow-drift in the cars, and like to have been starved to death. He got so frost-bitten and frozen up generally, and used up for want of something to eat, that he was sick and out of his head two or three months afterward. He is all right now, only he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject he never stops till he has eat up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd by this time, only he had to get out here. He has got their names as pat as A B C. When he gets them all eat up but himself, he always says: ‘Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived; and there being no opposition, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objections offered, I resigned. Thus I am here.'”
I felt inexpressibly relieved to know that I had only been listening to the harmless vagaries of a madman instead of the genuine experiences of a bloodthirsty cannibal.