Mark Twain taught us many things.
Once, he taught us to curse. “Whar’n the ---- you goin’ to? Cain’t you see nothin’, you dash-dashed aig-suckin’, sheep-stealin’, one-eyed son of a stuffed monkey!” (From Life on the Mississippi)
Mark Twain taught us how the stranger fixed the frog jumping contest. “. . . He got the frog out and prized his mouth open and took a teaspoon and filled him full of quail shot—filled him pretty near up to his chin . . . He couldn’t budge; he was planted as solid as an anvil, and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out.” (From “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”)
Another time, he taught us how to eat well during travel. “. . . I used to slip ashore, towards ten o’clock, at some little village, and buy ten or fifteen cents’ worth of meal or bacon or other stuff to eat; and sometimes I lifted a chicken that warn’t roosting comfortable, and took him along. Pap always said, take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don’t want him yourself, you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain’t never forgot. I never see pap when he didn’t want the chicken himself, but that is what he used to say.” (From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)
And still, again, he taught us that the American national pastime was also the sport of the ancient British kings. “The experiment was baseball. In order to give the thing vogue from the start, I chose my nines by rank, no capacity. There wasn’t a knight in either team who wasn’t a sceptred sovereign. As for material of this sort, there was a glut of it, always, around Arthur. You couldn’t throw a brick in any direction and not cripple a king. Of course I couldn’t get these people to leave off their armor; they wouldn’t do that when they bathed. They consented to differentiate the armor so that a body could tell one team from the other, but that was the most they would do. So, one of the teams wore chain-mail ulsters, and the other wore plate armor . . . And when a man was running, and threw himself on his stomach to slide to his base, it was like an ironclad coming into port . . . The umpire’s first decision was usually his last; they broke him in two with a bat, and his friends toted him home on a shutter. When it was noticed that no umpire ever survived a game, umpiring got to be unpopular.” (From A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.)
Any list of American humorists must begin with Mark Twain. From Twain, we Americans learned to laugh at and with ourselves, at others, and at a frog weighted down by shotgun pellets.
Happy 175th Birthday, Mr. Twain.
- Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Samuel Clemens / Edwin Larson / Oil on canvas, 1935 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the artist