Words of Wit and Wisdom by Mark Twain!

Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak searches old newspapers to find quotes from one of America’s favorite writers: Mark Twain. Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.

If you are interested in quoting someone, all you have to do is a Google search. Numerous websites have accumulated sayings on a wide variety of subjects, all for the taking with just a simple cut and paste. But is that all there is to it?

Of course not. In virtually 100% of the cases, you’re missing the how, the where and the important why those words of wisdom (or witticism) were said. So, why don’t you follow the spirit of one of my research mottoes (“A Quote Is Just a Quote When Taken Out of Context”) and go find the background of those quotes in old newspapers.

Chances are, if the quote is famous enough, it’ll be in the newspapers – and chances are, you’ll find a few misquotes by modern so-called historians. Take for example these quotable quotes by that great American humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), who published under the “nom de plume” (French for “pen name”) Mark Twain.

Photo: Mark Twain, by Mathew Brady, 7 February 1871
Photo: Mark Twain, by Mathew Brady, 7 February 1871. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

On American Humor (1885)

Twain has been quoted as mentioning that humor wakens people to a new life, but where did this quote come from? It came from a query during an 1885 interview about American taste for humor.

When asked if the American taste for humor was still growing, Twain said:

“It is born in every American, and he can’t help liking it.”

The follow-up question was if the American style was popular in England:

“Yes; the liking for American humor over there has become immense. It wakens the people to a new life, and is supplanting the dry wit which formerly passed for humor.”

An article about Mark Twain, Saginaw News newspaper article 2 February 1885
Saginaw News (Saginaw, Michigan), 2 February 1885, page 4

On the Matter of Getting Older (1905)

I think I’m going to save these Twainisms for the next time I celebrate someone’s birthday. They’re absolutely hilarious.

While celebrating his 70th birthday at New York’s Delmonico restaurant, Clemons noted that he had reached this milestone:

“We have no permanent habits until we are 40. Then they begin to harden, presently they petrify, and then business begins. Since forty I have been regular about going to bed and getting up – and that is one of the main things. I have made it a rule to go to bed when there was not anybody left to sit up with; and I have made it a rule to get up when I had to.”

An article about Mark Twain, Daily Illinois State Journal newspaper article 6 December 1905
Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 6 December 1905, page 1

On Morals (1905)

In this same article about his 70th birthday, you’ll find this jewel:

“I have lived a severely moral life. But it would be a mistake for other people to try it, or for me to recommend it… Morals are an acquirement – like music, like a foreign language, like piety, poker, paralysis – no man is born with them. I wasn’t myself. I started poor.”

On Smoking (1905)

Also included was Twain’s comment on smoking:

“I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time. I have no other restrictions as regards smoking… As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake.”

On Drinking (1905)

One final quote from the above newspaper article:

“As for drinking, I have no rule about that. When others drink I like to help; otherwise I remain dry, by habit and preference.”

On Spelling in Newspapers (1906)

While speaking to the Associated Press, Twain made an impassioned plea to simplify spelling in newspapers. You can almost hear the audience roar at these witticisms:

“There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe – only two – the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.”

“I shall soon be where they won’t care how I spell as long as I keep the Sabbath.”

An article about Mark Twain, Evening Tribune newspaper article 20 September 1906
Evening Tribune (San Diego, California), 20 September 1906, page 2

On Viewing the Kilauea Volcano (1866)

Not everything Twain said was humorous, although it usually felt literary. In 1866, after visiting Hawaii, he described his visit to the Kilauea Volcano (spelled Kileana in the article):

“Sitting on the edge of the crater you might better appreciate the orthodox perdition than from the most glowing description of the eminent divines.”

An article about Mark Twain, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 11 December 1866
San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 11 December 1866, page 3

Why Did Clemens Choose the Pen Name “Mark Twain”?

If you Google “Mark Twain,” various commonly posed questions arise, including the one of why the nickname was chosen.

I wasn’t able to find an article describing his pen name in his own words, but all the online articles agree on his love of riverboats. Clemens was once a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.

The most commonly cited reason for his pen name is related to riverboats: when they were in fear of going aground, riverboats used a sounding line marked at intervals of a fathom (six feet) to measure the depth. “Twain” is an old term for “two,” so when the people measuring cried out “mark twain,” they were indicating there were two fathoms, or 12 feet, of water under the boat – a safe enough depth for the boat to continue.

Before Clemens adopted this riverboat phrase for literary purposes, you can find references that put this term into context.

An article about measuring mud using the phrase "mark twain," Memphis Daily Eagle and Enquirer newspaper article 26 January 1854
Memphis Daily Eagle and Enquirer (Memphis, Tennessee), 26 January 1854, page 3

I was unable to find a direct quote on why Clemens chose this phrase for his pen name, but my theory is that he found humor in a term that kept boats from hitting rock bottom – perhaps a sly, self-deprecating reference to his own writing.

Research Challenge

To enrich your summer experience, here’s a research challenge: search old newspapers to find more quotes by Mark Twain. The ones I’ve chosen for this blog article are just the tip of the iceberg compared to what is still out there!

Research Tip: To find more Mark Twain quotes, try searches using these keywords or something similar:

  • “Clemens said”
  • “Mark Twain joked”
  • “Twain remembered”
  • “Twain spoke”

You might also find it fun to look for book announcements and the first mention of famous characters such as Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer.

An article about Mark Twain, World newspaper article 29 March 1876
World (New York, New York), 29 March 1876, page 5

Please leave me a comment if you find any previously unknown Samuel Clemens quotes!

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