Mark Twain: His Life and His Humor

The American writer Mark Twain (1835-1910) being celebrated by the Pilgrims Club at the Savoy Hotel in London, England, photograph by Ernesto Prater
De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens Nov. 30, 1835 in the small town of Florida, MO, and raised in Hannibal, became one of the greatest American authors of all time. Known for his sharp wit and pithy commentary on society, politics, and the human condition, his many essays and novels, including the American classic,The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are a testament to his intelligence and insight.

Using humor and satire to soften the edges of his keen observations and critiques, he revealed in his writing some of the injustices and absurdities of society and human existence, his own included. He was a humorist, writer, publisher, entrepreneur, lecturer, iconic celebrity (who always wore white at his lectures), political satirist, and social progressive.

He died on April 21, 1910 when Halley’s Comet was again visible in the night sky, as lore would have it, just as it had been when he was born 75 years earlier. Wryly and presciently, Twain had said, “I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), 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.”  Twain died of a heart attack one day after the Comet appeared its brightest in 1910.

A complex, idiosyncratic person, he never liked to be introduced by someone else when lecturing, preferring instead to introduce himself as he did when beginning the following lecture, “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands” in 1866:

“Ladies and gentlemen: The next lecture in this course will be delivered this evening, by Samuel L. Clemens, a gentleman whose high character and unimpeachable integrity are only equalled by his comeliness of person and grace of manner. And I am the man! I was obliged to excuse the chairman from introducing me, because he never compliments anybody and I knew I could do it just as well.”

Twain was  a complicated mixture of southern boy and western ruffian striving to fit into elite Yankee culture. He wrote in his speech, Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims,1881:

“I am a border-ruffian from the State of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption. In me, you have Missouri morals, Connecticut culture; this, gentlemen, is the combination which makes the perfect man.”

Growing up in Hannibal, Missouri had a lasting influence on Twain, and working as a steamboat captain for several years before the Civil War was one of his greatest pleasures. While riding the steamboat he would observe the many passengers, learning much about their character and affect. His time working as a miner and a journalist in Nevada and California during the 1860s introduced him to the rough and tumble ways of the west, which is where, Feb. 3, 1863, he first used the pen name, Mark Twain, when writing one of his humorous essays for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in Nevada.

Mark Twain was a riverboat term that means two furlongs, the point at which it is safe for the boat to navigate the waters. It seems that when Samuel Clemens adopted this pen name he also adopted another persona - a persona that represented the outspoken commoner, poking fun at the aristocrats in power, while Samuel Clemens, himself, strove to be one of them.

Twain got his first big break as a writer in 1865 with an article about life in a mining camp, called Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog, also called The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was very favorably received and printed in newspapers and magazines all over the country. From there he received other jobs, sent to Hawaii, and then to Europe and the Holy Land as a travel writer. Out of these travels he wrote the book, The Innocents Abroad, in 1869, which became a bestseller. His books and essays were generally so well-regarded that he started lecturing and promoting them, becoming popular both as a writer and a speaker.

When he married Olivia Langdon in 1870, he married into a wealthy family from Elmira, New York and moved east to Buffalo, NY and then to Hartford, CT where he collaborated with the Hartford Courant Publisher to co-write The Gilded Age, a satirical novel about greed and corruption among the wealthy after the Civil War.

Ironically, this was also the society to which he aspired and gained entry. But Twain had his share of losses, too - loss of fortune investing in failed inventions (and failing to invest in successful ones such as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone), and the deaths of people he loved, such as his younger brother in a riverboat accident, for which he felt responsible, and several of his children and his beloved wife.

Although Twain survived, thrived, and made a living out of humor, his humor was borne out of sorrow, a complicated view of life, an understanding of life’s contradictions, cruelties, and absurdities.  As he once said, “There is no laughter in heaven.” 

HUMOR

Mark Twain’s style of humor was wry, pointed, memorable, and delivered in a slow drawl. Twain’s humor carried on the tradition of humor of the Southwest, consisting of tall tales, myths, and frontier sketches, informed by his experiences growing up in Hannibal, MO, as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, and as a gold miner and journalist in Nevada and California.

In 1863 Mark Twain attended in Nevada the lecture of Artemus Ward (pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne,1834-1867), one of America’s best-known humorists of the 19th century. They became friends, and Twain learned much from him about how to make people laugh. Twain believed that how a story was told was what made it funny  - repetition, pauses, and an air of naivety.

In his essay How to Tell a Story Twain says, “There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one.” He describes what makes a story funny, and what distinguishes the American story from that of the English or French; namely that the American story is humorous, the English is comic, and the French is witty.

He explains how they differ:

“The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter. The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst. The humorous story is strictly a work of art, — high and delicate art, — and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story —- understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print — was created in America, and has remained at home.”

Other important characteristics of a good humorous story, according to Twain, include the following:

  • A humorous story is told gravely, as though there is nothing funny about it.
  • The story is told wanderingly and the point is “slurred.”
  • A “studied remark” is made as if without even knowing it, “as if one were thinking aloud.”
  • The pause: “The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length--no more and no less—or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended—and then you can't surprise them, of course.”

Twain believed in telling a story in an understated way, almost as if he was letting his audience in on a secret. He cites a story, The Wounded Soldier, as an example and to explain the difference in the different manners of storytelling, explaining that:

 “The American would conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it…. the American tells it in a ‘rambling and disjointed’ fashion and pretends that he does not know that it is funny at all,” whereas “The European ‘tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through.” ….”All of which,” Mark Twain sadly comments, “is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.”

Twain’s folksy, irreverent, understated style of humor, use of vernacular language, and seemingly forgetful rambling prose and strategic pauses drew his audience in, making them seem smarter than he. His intelligent satirical wit, impeccable timing, and ability to subtly poke fun at both himself and the elite made him accessible to a wide audience, and made him one of the most successful comedians of his time and one that has had a lasting influence on future comics and humorists.

Humor was absolutely essential to Mark Twain, helping him navigate life just as he learned to navigate the Mississippi when a young man, reading the depths and nuances of the human condition like he learned to see the subtleties and complexities of the river beneath its surface. He learned to create humor out of confusion and absurdity, bringing laughter into the lives of others as well. He once said, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

MARK TWAIN PRIZE

Twain was much admired during his lifetime and recognized as an American icon. A  prize created in his honor, The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the nation’s top comedy honor, has been given annually since 1998 to “people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain.” Previous recipients of the prize have included some of the most notable humorists of our time. The 2017 prizewinner is David Letterman, who according to Dave Itzkoff, New York Times writer, “Like Mark Twain …distinguished himself as a cockeyed, deadpan observer of American behavior and, later in life, for his prodigious and distinctive facial hair. Now the two satirists share a further connection.”

One can only wonder what remarks Mark Twain would make today about our government, ourselves, and the absurdities of our world. But undoubtedly they would be insightful and humorous to help us “stand against the assault” and perhaps even give us pause.

RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING

For Teachers: