This year marks the 175th anniversary of the birth and the 100th anniversary of the death of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known throughout the world as Mark Twain.
We’ll be reading his books in print and whatever comes after the iPad as long as people can read. If we’re lucky, we’ll be reading them as children, young adults, and mature thinkers. He’s one of those rare writers who delights blossoming readers with his humor, college intellectuals with his satire, and wise ones with his insights.
I first met Mark Twain in the first grade. Every day after lunch the teacher, Miss Hayes, read a chapter of Tom Sawyer to the pupils of New Hope School. Tom’s crazy doings made us laugh, and we wondered what was coming next. It was by far the best part of the school day. Later Miss Hayes read Huckleberry Finn to us. I didn’t enjoy it as much. I laughed at lots of it, but the parts where the escaped slave was in danger scared me. I couldn’t understand slavery and why some people were so mean.
A few years later I read the books for myself. I still preferred Tom Sawyer. In college, one of my American literature classes studied Huckleberry Finn. Strange how much it had improved over the years. A decade or two later I read it again and realized it’s one of the greatest books in American literature.
Since then I’ve read almost everything Twain wrote. Some of his writing is dated, of course, and occasionally his later satire turns sour. He was a writer of his time, but also a writer for all time. Many of his comments on Congress would work quite well on John Stewart’s The Daily Show.
Twain showed the same insight into human nature that William Shakespeare did. Their writing and their lives differ tremendously, but they both earned immortality with their words.