Sam Clemens would be pretty miffed to discover I’m writing about him on his birthday weekend. The great American writer — who was better known by his pen name of Mark Twain — didn’t like to celebrate birthdays (“One day closer to death,” he’d say).
It figures Samuel Langhorne Clemens would have a strong opinion about birthdays. After all, he had opinions about everything.
He was born Nov. 30, 1835. That would make him 184 years old, probably explaining why he isn’t around to mark the occasion with us.
As a young man he tried gold mining out West, piloted riverboats on the Mississippi and was a typesetter for his brother’s newspaper. But he found his calling as a writer.
The author’s early writings gave us such delightful tales as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” However, Twain became a jaded man in the final two decades of his life. He died in 1910.
During that time, Twain spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in development of a typesetting machine that didn’t work. There were other get-rich-quick schemes that failed, forcing him to file for bankruptcy.
He had to go on an extended world tour to pay off his debts. He lost several family members to illness, including his wife, Olivia, who died in June 1904.
Twain’s health began to decline.
As might be expected, his writing reflected his increasingly negative view of the world in general and the human race in particular. Twain’s works went from gentle humor to bitter satire.
“The sweet source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow,” he said in 1907. “There is no humor in heaven.”
One of Twain’s weaknesses, some friends pointed out, was that he too often wrote exactly what he thought. Twain said it was because “I am different from (George) Washington; I have a higher, grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won’t.”
Smoke and heaven
Another vice was his smoking habit, which was a source of constant irritation (figuratively and literally) to his family. There was his oft-mentioned comment “To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I’ve done it a thousand times.”
Once he told a friend, “I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time.”
Religion was also a major topic of Twain’s writings in those final years, and he took great delight in shocking his contemporaries with his irreverence.
“Heaven goes by favor,” he wrote. “If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
Another time he pointed out that “Satan hasn’t a single salaried helper; the opposition employs a million.”
As for life after death, Twain explained, “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell — you see, I have friends in both places.”
He possibly summed up his feelings on the subject best when he wrote, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand.”
To the very end he enjoyed reading, sometimes lying in bed all day with several volumes (and his cigars). It was a pastime he passionately promoted.
“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them,” he said. “Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: This is the ideal life.”
So this weekend we say happy birthday (like it or not, Sam) to the greatest humorist in American literature.
But rather than the bitter satirist of those latter years, I hope we remember the gentle storyteller who gave us Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.