My love affair with a long-dead liar

UNBEKNOWNST TO MOST casual readers, this past week marked the 175th anniversary of the birth of a very special man, that sarcastic scamp Samuel Langhorne Clemens—known to you non-English majors as Mark Twain.

The famed funnyman, author behind such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has been dead for just over 101 years now—but that doesn’t mean he’s given up his bag of tricks.

Born at the same time Halley’s Comet passed closest to earth, Twain famously said the year before his death, “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.’”

Not one to be proven wrong, Twain died the day after the comet passed near Earth again, leaving behind him a legacy of literature and trickery.

Prior to his death, Twain worked extensively on an autobiography, though it was incomplete at the time of his passing. Placing a 100-year publication ban on much of the material, the first volume of Twain’s full autobiography was not made available until November of last year.

Appended to the introduction was the simple explanation that only after 100 years had passed could Twain be assured the people he intended to talk about and insult would be dead. Thus, 100 years later, the autobiography was finally released.

While a quick wit, mischievous nature, and talent for satire are what Twain is best known for, there is depth to this man too many readers don’t care about.

Just the other day, as I was recounting some of my favourite Twain anecdotes, a colleague of mine exclaimed: “How can you like him? He had a character in his books called Nigger Jim!” After wresting out the admission he had never, in fact, read any Twain, I set this fellow straight with a quick correction: “His name was just Jim, actually.”

What appalled me so much about this episode was the fact that a man who—yes, used racist terminology in his works—is being judged without being read. Not only was Twain a comedic genius, but also a master of dialect and colloquial tongues, and here is a person willing to dismiss him without even bothering to experience his writing first.

Mark Twain was an amazing author, a legendary prankster, and a social commentator who has yet to be matched in his biting satiric talent. Before you dismiss his work as outdated or not worth your time, take a moment to read his works. There’s a lot more to classic authors than the reality TV-watching generation thinks.

—Jaclyn Lytle