Thursday, December 18, 2014

Twain's quippery

I can't quite tell these days how much I love Mark Twain. A lot? I don't obsessively read his books over and over like I do Jasper Fforde's, but I have read most of them, and some several times. If you want to call Huckleberry Finn the greatest American novel ever written I can feel pretty good about that, which is no small feat seeing as the last 50 pages of it are nuts, and mostly not in a good way.

My point is that Mark Twain was one seriously great writer, one of the greatest. But that's just it. Tolstoy is great, Ursula K. LeGuin, Cervantes, Jane Austen, Kafka, Gogol, Pratchett, well, the list is long, and they are all mighty together. But there is one category of human endeavor, and no small one at that, in which Mark Twain astonishingly blows away the competition. He is not on the highest level with others. He is alone at his level of achievement.

He is the master of the quote. The god of the tweet. The be all and end all of the aphorism. He stands alone. One could put together a book of all the pithy, witty sayings of all time by everyone and set it next to a book of just the witty, pithy sayings of Mark Twain and they will be roughly equal in quality. Pull Emerson, Shakespeare, and Groucho out of the first book and Mark Twain even wins, handily!

Yesterday I ran into this quote:

I would rather have my ignorance than another man's knowledge, because I have got so much more of it.

It was just by chance I saw it really. And not only did I marvel at its wild backhanding cleverness (he's a fool, but he'll hang on to it because looking around at his kind, there's nothing to trade up to!), but I was also terrible impressed that I have never seen that quote before. I know many a sage's top ten quotes and run into them with delight, like they are old friends. Indeed I feel that way about hundreds of Mark Twain quotes, but whereas with the other Paragons of wit and wordsmithery the source is exhausted, with Mark Twain the great quotes are all scattered across the world. There are too many to complete without some great course of study. It's like I thought I knew all the Beatles songs and then, no, it turns out there are a thousand more. "How did I miss this?" I ask. "It's as good as Penny Lane!"

In doing my research for this post I quavered when I found one thing, and was re-emboldened when I stumbled upon another. The quavering came when I found that several Mark Twain quotes that I love appear to have been falsely attributed to him. "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." and "I've never killed a man, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure." are two great lines that Mark Twain never said. The first comes from who knows where, the second from Clarence Darrow. But the re-emboldened part came when in investigating these quotes I came upon his solid and fairly attributed quotes, and they just went on, and on, and on, and on.

"We are always anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess."

"Some men worship rank, some worship heroes, some worship power, some worship God, and over these ideals they dispute and cannot unite — but they all worship money."

"Total abstinence is so excellent a thing that it cannot be carried to too great an extent. In my passion for it I even carry it so far as to totally abstain from total abstinence itself."

"The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them."

"Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live."

"Herodotus says, "Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects." 

"To create man was a fine and original idea; but to add the sheep was a tautology."

"Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any."

And these are just a handful I scooped up. I don't think I've run across a single one of them before. And they just go on and on and on from there.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that Mark Twain, with his magnificent wit, piercing and economical expressiveness, brilliant use of language, and slashing, vibrant interest in the world around him needn't have written fiction, or speeches, letters to prominent people, memoirs, or essays.  

Mark Twain was so great that he could have been a blogger!

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