Sunday, August 19

The Environs Of Wit

Hartford, located midway between New York and Boston, is the capital of the State of Connecticut. The city is a center of government and a wide range of commercial, social, and cultural activities. But it is perhaps best known as the Insurance Capitol of the World. Aetna, Cigna, ITT Hartford, Phoenix Mutual, and Travelers are some of the larger insurance firms that make their corporate headquarters here.

At the turn of the century, Mark Twain also called Hartford home. He once quipped, “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see this is the chief.” Most people probably think he was looking out over the wide twists and slow turns of the muddy Mississippi as he wrote his most popular books. In fact, he wrote a good number of them while looking out over the Park River in here in central Connecticut.

Today, the Twain house is the sort of place a bibliophile can spend an entire day. It is a wonderfully colorful brick Victorian mansion built in the midst of a famed artist’s colony. It bristles with creativity. The place is like a tonic of inspiration—in the same way that a visit to Winston Churchill’s Chartwell, Teddy Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill, Hilaire Belloc’s Kings Land, William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, William Butler Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee, Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst, or Walter Scott’s Abbotsford always are.

You can spend hours just perusing Twain’s massive library or looking out at the spectacular views from the billiard room’s tall turreted windows. And besides the Twain house, there are several other homes in the neighborhood—a little writers colony—very much worth visiting. For instance, the home Harriet Beecher Stowe bought with the enormous royalties from her controversial novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is right next door at Nook Farm.

Interestingly, it was while he was living there in Hartford that Twain first defined a literary classic as “one of those books which people praise or damn yet they don’t actually ever read.” Alas, by that standard much of his own work has achieved classic status. Certainly, if anyone were actually to pay attention to the noisy multicultural debate over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, it would be obvious that those with the loudest opinions could never have actually read the book.

Be that as it may, it is likely that most people today know Mark Twain from his sparkling, dead-on, humbug-piercing epigrams rather than his more extended writing. He once wrote, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.” And he knew that finding just the right word could be a mighty struggle. In a notebook page from the last decade of the nineteenth century, he left evidence of his great labor to breathe life into a new wisecrack:

“The man that invented the cuckoo clock is no more,” he began.

Then come several attempts—all heavily scribbled over—in an effort to construct a suitable punch line:

“This is old news but good.”

“As news, this is a little stale, but some news is better old than not at all.”

“As news, this is a little old, but better late than never.”

“As news, this is a little old, for it happened sixty-four years ago, but it is not always the newest news that is the best.”

“It is old news, but there is nothing else the matter with it.”

Finally, he must have concluded that no amount of polishing was going to make that particular material shine, for at the bottom of the page he wrote, resignedly, “It is more trouble to make a maxim than it is to do right.”

But he did take the trouble, and most of the time he got it right—which is why we still quote Twain today, nearly a century after his death. In fact, to get a respectful hearing for just about any statement, a speaker need only preface it with the magic words, “As Mark Twain said…”

It would be quite easy—and perhaps equally profitable—to fill an entire notebook with some of Twain’s pithiest and wittiest quips—but beware: if you do, you’ll likely wind up quoting the best of them ad nauseum. I know that only too well from my own personal experience.

At any rate, here is Twain at his best:

“It is agreed, in this country, that if a man can arrange his religion so that it perfectly satisfies his conscience, it is not incumbent on him to care whether the arrangement is satisfactory to anyone else or not.”

“All you need is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.”

“It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”

“When in doubt, tell the truth.”

“By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity. Another man's, I mean.”

“We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking.”

“Always do right. That will gratify some of the people, and astonish the rest.”

“Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”

“The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”

“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.”

“If you invent two or three people and turn them loose in your manuscript, something is bound to happen to them—you can't help it; and then it will take you the rest of the book to get them out of the natural consequences of that occurrence, and so first thing you know, there’s your book all finished up and never cost you an idea.”

“It is by the goodness of God that in the West we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”

“A literary classic is one of those books which people praise or damn yet they don’t actually ever read.”

And we could go on and on like that. But, I fear I bore you—after all, the best part of uncovering Twain’s wit is the joy of personal discovery. So, why not start your own Twain quote notebook?


Troy Lizenby said...

Mark Twain had a close encounter with the gospel in New Orleans, LA through his friend and Presbyterian novelist George W. Cable. Cable convinced Twain to go with him to the Sunday morning worship service of his church, First Presbyterian of New Orleans, pastored by Benjamin Morgan Palmer.
Twain later remarked that being in that service was the closest he had ever come to heaven. Cable accompanied Twain on his speaking tours where he would read selections from his novels that centered on the Creole culture in Louisiana. Cable tried incessantly to get Twain to go to church with him on Sunday in whatever city they found themselves on tour. Twain always refused, and became increasingly irritated at Cable's appeals.
I wonder what it was about the worship service at First Presbyterian in New Orleans that affected Mark Twain to such a degree as to be almost persuaded?

Jason Parolini said...

Troy- That is a great story. Benjamin Morgan Palmer was one of my former pastors hero's. Perhaps it was just the power of the word, rightly divided.......One of my favorite Twain quotes is...."God has made man in his own image, and man has returned the favor." Ahhhh Twain.

Paul Buckley said...

I love Twain. If I were teaching a foreign language -- any foreign language, or even English grammar -- I'd have my students read Twain's piece on "The Awful German Language." You can find it here:

And then there's "On the Decay of the Art of Lying":

Occasionally I'll read one of these or another to a friend or relative, and I try to keep my poker face. Impossible. I can barely get the things read because I'm laughing so much.

Michael R. Shipma said...

I must confess, being an ol' River boy myself, that I'm partial to Hannibal. Now living in OK, how I do miss that River.