Wondering with Mark Twain

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.


2 replies »

  1. Mark Twain wrote one of the best anti-imperialist parodies ever with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic Brought Down To Date.” In it he mocks the imperial ambitions of the United States in the Phillipines. I have always like Twain, but never more so than when I first read this. Twain was a very complex and brilliant man, the likes of which we find once in a century, if we are lucky.

    The Battle Hymn of the Republic Brought Down To Date…

    Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
    He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
    He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
    His lust is marching on.

    I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
    They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
    I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps—
    His night is marching on.

    I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
    “As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
    Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
    Lo, Greed is marching on!”

    We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;*
    Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
    O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
    Our god is marching on!

    In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
    With a longing in his bosom—and for others’ goods an itch.
    As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich—
    Our god is marching on.

    *The US had legalized prostitution in the Phillipines