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May 13, 2014

104 years after his death, Twain still resonates

DUNCAN — Friends, neighbors and literary types, to be placed among the pantheon of American authors is a heady experience. Being mentioned in the same breath with Hemingway, Melville, Faulkner, Whitman, James and Mailer is both ‘umbling and an awesome burden.

At least, I guess it is. Having never been compared to the titans of American literature, I really wouldn’t know.

My Mom thought I’m fairly good at stringing a sentence together, and some of my scribbling draws a chuckle from my wife, although sometimes what she’s reading and laughing about is meant to be a serious piece.

But I didn’t come here today to talk about my standing — or lack thereof — in American literature. What’s really on my mind is acknowledging it’s been 104 years since the passing the greatest writer in American history.

On Nov. 30, 1835, Hailey’s Comet passed through our solar system and made a deposit in the town of Florida, Mo. Hailey’s Comet revisited 74 years later and on April 21, 1910 took back what remained of that original deposit — Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Not sure when I first read Mark Twain, who William Faulkner called “the father of American literature.” In grade school we read The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and I also picked up the Classics Illustrated comic book version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

In the 1960s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Innocents Abroad were on college reading lists that used to be common for high school students, although few schools seem to have college reading lists anymore.

As a young adult, I set out on a mission to read the entire Mark Twain collection, which turned out to be a revelation. In addition to the humorous books he penned, I found Twain wrote some biting essays that focused on social and cultural topics.

Most of these works, some wrapped in satire and some blatantly straight forward, were published after Twain’s death in 1910, at his behest. Considering the times in which he lived, that wasn’t a cop out on Twain’s part.

The essay, The United States of Lyncherdom, was a repudiation of racism in his home state Missouri and the Deep South.

An essay entitled The Insanity of Religion wouldn’t have played well in 19th century America, and Twain’s novella, The War Prayer, is the most scathing indictment written on the humanity’s propensity for war.

 It’s this combination of humor, satire and blatant outrage that make Mark Twain this nation’s greatest author — and I’ll shut up now and let his wisdom fill the rest of this space.

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

“Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it.”

“Be careful reading health book. You may die of a misprint.”

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”

“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

“Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”

“But who prays for Satan? Who, in 18 centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?”

“Always acknowledge a fault frankly. This will throw those in authority off guard and allow you opportunity to commit more.”

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.”

“Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

“Get your facts first and then you can distort them as much as you wish.”

“Of all God’s creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the leash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”

“Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.”

“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”

“Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired.”

jeff.kaley@duncanbanner.com(580) 255-5354 Ext. 128

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