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Never Let Schooling Interfere with your Education: Getting to Know Mark Twain

Mark Twain has been on my radar for most of my life, but up until 5-10 years ago, I really didn’t know too much about him. I just remembered his humor, one of his books, and a few of his amazing quotes. It wasn’t until I read Howard Zinn’s excellent piece titled “Unsung Heroes”, where he suggested replacing Theodore Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore with a real hero like Mark Twain, that I became interested in learning more about Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). Fast forward a few years and as a part-time Anti-War/Human Rights activist, and a full time Plant-Based diet advocate (with all of its implications, including animal rights), I found myself referencing the words of Mark Twain over and over, again and again.

Mark Twain is probably my favorite writer, and humorist of all time. Can you imagine how difficult it is to speak or write about serious subjects in a way that educates and keeps the audience engaged, while also sparking wonder and a frequent belly laugh? It is nearly impossible. It has been such a pleasure (and relief too) to learn more about Mark Twain, the person, and discover that, in addition to his genius, he was also a devoted family man, and an overall good guy.

Incidentally, my schooling didn’t interfere with my education too much, because my education didn’t really begin until I was out of college, and I started to shake the cobwebs of a depressing “schooling” experience. I could suddenly read what I wanted to read, and I soon discovered the tremendous rewards and joy of travel. I was lucky.

Here are a few things that you may not know about Mark Twain:

– Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison placed Twain, along with Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and Henry James, on a list of canonical authors who she had no interest in living without. According to Ms. Morrison, “Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I have ever read.” She repeatedly and forcefully defended Mark Twain as well, when his book “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was being banned in many schools across the US for its use of the N-word (300 instances), calling the book banning a “purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”

– Mark Twain only had a 5th grade education, and yet is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time.
“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” – M. Twain

– Mark Twain was a loving husband and father who dealt with a lot of personal pain. He and his wife Olivia, lost their son Langdon to diphtheria when he was just 19 months old, their daughter Susy to meningitis at 24 years old, and another daughter Jean to epilepsy when she was 29. Their daughter Clara was the only child to outlive both parents (she was a concert pianist, and died at the age of 88 in 1962).

– Olivia Langdon, Mark Twain’s wife, edited all of his work, and came from a family that was religious, reformist, and abolitionist.

– Mark Twain was a passionate abolitionist, anti-racist, and supporter of the emancipation of slaves, and women’s right to vote.

– Mark Twain on race relations at the close of the 19th century: According to Stanford Magazine, “Indeed, he had embarked on his own private affirmative action plan as one small step in addressing the problem, paying for the education of several black students. Recall his 1885 letter to the dean of the Yale Law School explaining his decision to pay for one of the first black law students there. Twain wrote, “We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it.”

– One of Mark Twain’s favorite writers was Charles Dickens.

– Mark Twain was a champion of animal rights: “Of all the creatures, man is the most detestable. Of the entire brood, he’s the one that possesses malice. He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain. The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot…It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions…I believe I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. To know that the results are profitable to the race would not remove my hostility to it.” – M. Twain

– Mark Twain was good friends and neighbors with Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and was lifelong friends with Helen Keller as well. He also knew US President Ulysses S. Grant, and apparently was one of the few people who could make Grant laugh (he may have saved Ulysses Grant from financial ruin by helping him with his memoirs). He also met/knew Frederick Douglass, Charles Dickens, Booker T. Washington, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison (wasn’t a fan), and Mahatma Gandhi, among others.

– According to the wonderful people at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT, Mark Twain was a vegetarian, but only later in life. More to come… 🙂

If you haven’t been to the Mark Twain House and Museum, I would suggest making plans as soon as you can. I spent a lovely (and educational) afternoon there recently, and I plan on returning soon. National Geographic selected the Mark Twain House and Museum as “one of the Ten Best Historic Homes in the World”. Mark Twain simply called it the “the loveliest home that ever was.”

Favorite quotes by Mark Twain, and on Mark Twain:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”

“I can live for two months on a good compliment.”

“And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

“I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell – you see, I have friends in both places.”

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

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

“Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

“We have the best government that money can buy.”

“Golf is a good walk spoiled.”

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

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.”

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn. It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
– Ernest Hemingway

Perhaps Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin said it best, “Just as Huck Finn enters the classroom as a “classic” but then engulfs students in debates about race, racism, religion and hypocrisy, Mark Twain enters the national consciousness as an icon and then upsets our equilibrium and complacency, pushing us to ask questions we hadn’t planned to ask. We need that Twain, now more than ever.”


Click here for the Mark Twain House and Museum.  
Click here to learn more about upcoming programs & events at the Mark Twain House and Museum. 
Click here for the Howard Zinn article. 

Click here for a piece on Toni Morrison from 
Click here for an essay from Toni Morrison on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 
Click here for an article on the pain that Mark Twain experienced when he lost his daughter. 
Click here for an article from Stanford Magazine on why we need Mark Twain now more than ever.

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