Mark Twain: An American Storyteller

Kurt Buss
13 min readJan 3, 2021


Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was an American storyteller like no other, and an original Superstar.

“Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 — April 21, 1910), better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer. Among his novels are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the latter often called “The Great American Novel”. (Wikipedia)

I enjoy a good quote as much as anything, and much more than most things. I believe that in order for something to become quoted by strangers for generations on end, it must have an element of truth to it. And it has to be said in such a way that it’s easy to remember. It needs to be witty. Mark Twain was a master at making observations on the world around him, and putting it in a language that we can all understand. He’s known for writing books and telling stories to audiences who filled auditoriums across America. He’s been dubbed the first American rock star for doing so, at an inexhaustible pace. So much of what he has said and written with such great wit and wisdom has filled books with just quotes. I know, because I have one. I consult it often. It’s one of my favorite reads.

Twain wrote many books about many things, some quite short, and others very long. He was also one of the original writers of the modern short story, with The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865) being his first great success as a writer. It made him famous in one quick stroke, and launched him on his journey into infamy. But throughout that long, strange trip to perpetual notoriety he never took himself too seriously. He was highly sought and easily recognizable with his long, shocked hair — red in youth and white in his later years — but he maintained a sense of humility in the face of his fame that is almost extinct today. He said:

“It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.” And:

“Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.” Also:

“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

Regarding his books and other writings, he said:

“My books are water; those of the great geniuses is wine. Everybody drinks water.” And:

“’Classic’ — a book which people praise but don’t read.” Also:

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”

Young Samuel grew up on the Mississippi River, in the town of Hannibal, Missouri, and witnessed many things that no longer exist — some things that were amazing, and some things abhorrent. He was amazed most by the big paddlewheel steamboats that plied their way through the murky, muscular currents and eddies of the river called the Big Muddy and Ol’ Man River.

He and his friends fished and swam in the river, built rafts and camped on its banks. Some of the town kids drowned with tragic regularity, sucked beneath the surface in undercurrents and whirlpools, their bodies washed on down toward New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Twain claims to have nearly drowned nine times before learning how to swim adequately. But whenever a steamboat approached, belching black smoke and silver steam, rhythmically slapping the water with its paddle wheel, young Sam would stop and stare, dreaming of someday piloting one up and down the Mississippi.

He made his dream come true by apprenticing as a cub pilot and continuing to become a full riverboat pilot in the St. Louis to New Orleans trade. “I loved the profession far better than any other I’ve followed.” He would go on to write Life on the Mississippi based on this experience.

What young Sam also saw as a youth in Missouri before the Civil War was slave trading. The dark faces of men and women bound in chains at auctions and awaiting shipment to southern plantations haunted him, “The saddest faces I’ve ever seen.” The men who profited as slave traders simply revolted him. He regarded them as “a sort of human devil who bought and conveyed poor, helpless souls to hell.” Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) were two primary American authors who gave life to slaves in their books, and treated them as equals.

As a youth, Twain’s limitless energy also drew him to newspapers, following his older brother Orion who had gone into the business before him. Again, he rose through apprenticeship, this time as a printer and typesetter, before becoming a contributor of articles to the Hannibal Journal, owned by Orion. It was his first experience with seeing his words in print, though he used a pseudonym to hide the nepotism, and Samuel Clemens started to become Mark Twain.

But first, there was an issue that had exploded and was impossible to ignore. The Civil War broke out and the riverboats stopped running. Twain and some of his friends volunteered for the Confederacy, though the state was divided between both sides, and was made a Second Lieutenant, but left after two weeks, “incapacitated by fatigue through persistent retreat.” The experience affected him to later say, “There has never been a just war or an honorable one. I can see a million years ahead, and this rule will never change.” Twain described this experience in a sketch called The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.

After the war Twain headed west to join Orion who had just become the Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Silver had been discovered in Virginia City and he vowed to stake a claim and “dig for his treasure” on the Comstock Lode. But mining didn’t suit Twain, so he went back to writing, becoming a colorful contributor to the Territorial Enterprise and using the pen name Mark Twain (a term used to measure water depth on steamboats) for the first time. He would later describe these events in his book Roughing It.

The young Twain relished his time in the West, and was introduced to whiskey, gunslingers, prostitutes and all the other trappings of the time. His notoriety as a humorous reporter drew him farther west to bigger markets and he found work with the Sacramento Union, which sent him to the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii) and furthered his infamy while sparking his wanderlust. This is when he gained fame and some fortune for writing about the jumping frog. As with all things he witnessed, Twain had an opinion, often cynical. Of newspapers, he said:

“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” And:

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, your mis-informed.”

Twain’s next adventure, for another newspaper, took him by ship (a side-wheel steamer called the Quaker City) to the Mediterranean, where he visited Rome and other European destinations, eventually culminating the trip in The Holy Land of the Middle East. His dispatches back to the paper were Twain at his sardonic best, in which he humorously ridiculed the attitudes and mannerisms of his wealthier fellow American travelers. Later, in Tom Sawyer Abroad, Twain wrote, “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”

His wit and candor were sharpened even further by the disparities of wealth he saw in the Vatican between the opulent Roman Catholic aristocracy and the Italian peasantry. His own Protestant upbringing was tweaked by teachings in the Old Testament that contrasted sharply with his observations in terms of what he had been told and what he observed, the myth versus the reality. He would later say, “The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” The assembly of his writings on this journey constituted his book The Innocents Abroad (aka The New Pilgrims’ Progress), which was the best-selling work during his lifetime, as well as one of the best-selling travel books of all time.

But Twain’s greatest “discovery” on this journey occurred when a fellow passenger showed Twain a picture of his sister, whose name was Olivia Langdon. For Twain, as he later recounted, it was love at first sight. He would court and eventually marry her, and was forever smitten by his darling Livy: a loyal wife, loving mother who also served as an encouraging and stern reader of his books and lectures. He expressed these faculties by describing her as a “faithful, judicious, and painstaking editor.”

The pieces were falling into place for this unfettered son of Dixie who was acquiring a world view beyond his country’s borders. He worked the lecture circuit to sold-out audiences in venues wherever he appeared and acquired a fortune that had evaded him in his previous endeavors. He and Livy lived and vacationed in upstate New York, where her wealthy, liberal family had its roots. They started their own family, and Twain focused on his great novels after building his dream home in Hartford, Connecticut, which remains today as a museum and testament to his myriad journeys and discoveries.

He continued traveling at the behest of paying publications, and his reputation reached the fancy of monarchs in Europe, as well as presidents and wealthy industrialists in his nation of origin during its vaunted Gilded Age, many of whom were satirized in his writings — fat-cat fodder for his piercing pen. He never could forget his humble roots, set in the banks of that big river that never stops, draining springs and creeks from northern Minnesota and dropping silt in the delta of the Big Easy, taking on the effluent of everything along its path.

He indulged an inclination for entrepreneurs, however, and invested heavily in the many inventions that were incumbent upon those times. These were the days of the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Nikola Tesla, and Twain was acquainted with many of them. He admired their impresario daring, and they enjoyed his colorful company. He squandered money on good ideas with bad backing and turned down opportunities he shouldn’t have. A young man presented Twain a ground-floor piece of a new invention he carried, offering whatever share the author/investor wanted. Twain declined, explaining that he had been burned too many times by similar propositions. Before the young man gave his leave, Twain inquired his name. “Bell,” he answered. “Alexander Graham Bell.”

Twain found the straw that could break the camel’s back by investing heavily in a mechanical typesetter, again holding to his origins. He was forced to file for bankruptcy, but was bailed out by one of the class of wealthy financiers he often lampooned in general, although his benefactor had no obligation to do so, other than a liking for Twain, and the financial ability to be philanthropic. Twain took it all in stride, and advised, “To succeed in business, avoid my advice.”

Samuel Clemens was born into a big family, that withered on the vine. He was preceded by a brother who died at three weeks of age, he lost a sister when he was three and another brother when he was six. Only three of his siblings survived childhood: Orion, a younger brother Henry and an older sister Pamela.

Henry had followed Sam into the riverboat profession, as Sam had followed his older brother Orion into publishing. Sam had helped secure Henry with the entry-level (unpaid) position of being a “mud clerk” on a side wheeler called the Pennsylvania, where Sam was a cub pilot. After an altercation with the pilot, Sam jumped ship in New Orleans, but his brother continued on the journey back toward St. Louis. A boiler explosion occurred near Memphis and Henry was in the wrong place at the wrong time, while the ship’s engineer had left his post in the engine room and was reported by eyewitnesses as “being in the company of some women.” 250 of the 450 passengers and crew on the manifest lost their lives. Henry was severely wounded, his skin and lungs terribly scalded by boiling water and his mind addled by the concussion of the blast. Sam rushed to Memphis after hearing the news and spent the next week at his brother’s side, and was there when his younger brother succumbed to his wounds. Sam was haunted for the rest of his life by the incident, blaming himself for Henry’s death, which he claims to have foreseen in a dream a month prior, prompting his interest in parapsychology.

Unfortunately, Samuel Clemens’ familial misfortunes followed Mark Twain, and visited upon Livy and him sufferings hard to imagine. Their son Langdon died of diphtheria at 19 months of age, but they went on to have three daughters: Susy, Clara and Jean. These were the years of Mark Twain’s greatest happiness, and he basked in the glow of his girls’ radiance — all four of them — and they became his universe. He read his works to them, including passages for the delight of his daughters, knowing Livy would edit it accordingly. Life was grand for the Clemens family at their Hartford mansion, surrounded by the laughter of the sisters and the rich and ubiquitous memorabilia of their world travels. This is when Mark Twain wrote his master works. Then the sky fell crashing down.

Their oldest daughter, Susy, died of meningitis in 1896, at 24 years old, sending Twain, at 61, into a deep depression. His darling Livy, who had health issues throughout her life, died of heart failure in 1904, at 58 years of age. Twain spiraled further down. He hit rock bottom on Christmas Eve, 1909, when his youngest daughter, Jean, drowned in a bathtub, apparently from an epileptic seizure. She was 19 years old.

Mark Twain’s life would never be the same. His muses had passed on and depression tapped its roots. The humorist had lost all reason to be humorous and make an audience laugh. He had moved out of the home that provided so much joy, and into Manhattan for his remaining years. Here, he regained some of his original grit and responded to an erroneous obituary with his pronouncement that “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Halley’s Comet passes near Earth with celestial consistency, and is the only comet of its kind that is visible to the naked eye. Samuel Clemens was born two weeks after it appeared, and in 1909 he said: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, 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.’” His parapsychology must have been working when he said that. Mark Twain died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, one day after the comet’s closest approach to Earth.

I relate to Samuel Clemens as a boy who grew up on a Midwestern river and frolicked, fished, built rafts and swam in its dirty waters, camped on its banks, surviving near-drownings and gaining respect for the unforgiving turbulence of currents and eddies. But I admire Mark Twain for his literary industry and boundless energy, his sense of adventure and observation, his acute ability to capture the language of the common man with colloquial dialog and descriptions of his environment. He was many things to many people, worldwide. To me, he is simply America’s greatest storyteller.

Here are some of my favorite Mark Twain quotes. I hope you find a few that you enjoy. Thanks for reading!

On Dogs:

“The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”

“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.”

“Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

On Education:

“Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”

“Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned.”

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

On Truth:

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”

“A lie can travel around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

On Government and Politics:

“Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”

“The government is merely a servant―merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them.”

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.”

On Everything Else:

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

“What would men be without women? Scarce, sir…mighty scarce.”

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.”

“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.”

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

“A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.”

“Of all the things I have lost, I miss my mind the most.”

“When angry, count four. When very angry, swear.”

“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

“Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”



Kurt Buss

I’ve been writing for publication since it was done on typewriters, oh so long ago. I try to bridge the gap between the then and now of being a Baby Boomer.