I wonder what Twain is thinking as he stands there atop the granite steppes of the pedestal. Surely he’d chuckle if he could see himself that way, raised up like that, though it’d please his ego, too.
The statue stands next to a well-manicured lawn at the heart of Elmira College in Elmira, NY—the town where Twain’s wife was from and where they are both buried. Atop the pedestal, the statue strikes a thoughtful pose. Standing below it, the statue looks dignified and noble: Twain gazing up into the sky, a packet of papers in his left hand, some great thought occurring to him. His bushy eyebrows give his expression an air of concentration.
But up close, the expression changes subtly. The far-off look is clearer in his eyes. His brow seems less serious, more musing. There’s wonder happening in there.
It would be hard to capture those mercurial thoughts. Here is the man who said, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything,” but also “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please.” Both aphorisms are inscribed in a nearby sidewalk. The juxtaposition of those quotes opens interesting possibilities for discussion–and dilemma–for me as a journalism professor who also teaches creative nonfiction.
Twain is, of course, imminently quotable. My personal favorite—among many, many great Twain quotes—comes from his letter to editor George Bainton: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” It’s among the best advice I pass along to my writing students.
Twain’s wry wit has held up perfectly over time, and it seems well suited for our cynical age. “Always do right,” Twain said. “This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.”
Late in life, Twain cultivated the image that remains so popular today: the white-suited, cigar-smoking curmudgeon with a shock of crazy white hair and the bushy moustache and eyebrows. The lichen-green patina of the statue obscures that, allowing Twain to look more timeless even as it makes him look weathered.
He has weathered well.