Today would’ve been Mark Twain’s 176th birthday, which means that if he were still alive he’d be really, really old. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, Twain is rightly revered as one of the greatest authors and satirists America has ever produced. Among his best and most famous works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885. The latter is generally regarded as Twain’s masterpiece and, in Ernest Hemmingway’s estimation, the book that “all modern American literature comes from.” Twain’s genius lay in his being a fearless social commentator whose trenchant writings on such topics as race, religion, and politics continue to inform the national conversation to this day.
Although it’s impossible to know for sure how Twain would’ve reacted to this crazy, mixed-up modern world of ours, one strongly suspects that his thoughts about the matter would’ve been both irascible and hilarious. (Just imagine how many “followers” he would’ve had if he had a Twitter account!) Since we don’t have the benefit of a time machine or an Ouija board, the best we can do is look to his past words as a guide. The following is a brief selection of pertinent Twain quotes as they apply to notable contemporary figures and issues.
On the GOP field:
"It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt."
On Barack Obama:
"No matter how healthy a man's morals may be when he enters the White House, he comes out again with a pot-marked soul."
On the mainstream media:
"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either."
On the bank bailout:
"A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain."
On political corruption:
"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress."
"Of all the animals, man is the only that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it."
As the above examples demonstrate, Twain would’ve found much to critique and/or ridicule about the current state of American culture; one can easily imagine him as the sort of caustic, perpetually irritated correspondent that Lewis Black portrays so brilliantly on The Daily Show. Like all great writers and thinkers, Twain’s words are as applicable today as they were in the time that he wrote them, which, depending on how you look at it, can be seen as a great triumph for humanism or a crushing blow to the notion of social progress.
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