Recalling the real Mark Twain

On his birthday, the famous author should be remembered not just as a gifted novelist but also an advocate for the world’s downtrodden masses – and a frequent visitor to Ohio.
Mark Twain
Mark TwainWikimedia Commons

In Mark Twain’s 1894 book, Pudd'nhead Wilson, there is a joke about birthdays. “Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral?” Twain writes. “It is because we are not the person involved.” 

As some celebrate Mark Twain’s birthday today (Thursday, Nov. 30), one fact about his legacy is clear: He is not the person involved. The famous humorist and novelist has had no say in how he’s remembered in literary history, and I have a feeling he’d object to how everything’s unraveled. 

Like many in the Western canon, Twain’s political writings have been largely forgotten, his anti-imperialism purged from accounts of his work.

Additionally, the time the author and lecturer spent in Ohio has been, maybe less importantly, ignored. Twain went from a Confederate soldier to a good friend of Ohio’s Ulysses S Grant, and his humor drifted into weaponized satire he wielded against monarchies and expansionist foreign policy.

On this day, let’s rejoice in the life of Twain and attempt to get closer to the core of the person involved.

Twain's Time in Ohio

Twain’s first time in Ohio likely occurred in 1856, when he spent six months in Cincinnati as an itinerant printer. Twain, then 18-years-old and known as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, lived at a boarding house at 76 Walnut Street, working a few doors down the road, at 167 Walnut Street. He later wrote two letters to the Iowa newspaper Keokuk Post under the pen name Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass in which he recalled the freezing Ohio winter, claiming, “You couldn’t a told Cincinnati from the Rocky Mountains in January.”

Twain also loved Cleveland and considered Euclid Avenue to be “one of the finest streets in America.” Indeed, he might have moved to the city had he not been short of some change.

After Twain gave a lecture before an ecstatic audience of 1,200 at Case Hall on Nov. 17, 1868, he wrote to his love, Olivia (Livy) Langdon, claiming that he wanted to relocate there. Twain proposed to her eight days later. When the author returned to Cleveland during his 1868-69 tour, he bought Livy’s wedding ring in the city.

Twain also tried to purchase a stake in the Cleveland Herald as an editor and partner, writing to Livy, “You shall be MANAGING EDITOR - that is to say, you’ll manage the editor. … I think we’ll live in Cleveland, Livy.” But the Herald asked for too much in the sale, and Twain instead went for the paper he could afford, the Buffalo Express. He returned to Cleveland and 15 other places throughout Ohio multiple times in his life, mostly on lecture tours. These visits are documented in the book, Mark Twain in Ohio.

The Anti-Imperialist Humorist

While he’s now best known as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain first gained his fame as a humorist. His story “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” garnered him international acclaim, and his frequent, humor-filled lectures rallied Americans around his words. But when Twain is remembered today, it is primarily as a novelist. Only as an aside is he applauded for his anti-imperialist words, which have been minimized and almost forgotten.

“Mark Twain took seriously the writer’s duty to be the conscience of his time,” Stefan Heym wrote in his introduction to Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy. “[H]e sided with the Filipinos who were butchered by the U. S. Army; with the Chinese massacred by the troops of Russia’s Czar and Germany’s Kaiser, Britain’s King and America’s President; with the Negroes lynched by church-going, God-fearing white Southern hypocrites; and with the workers bled and exploited everywhere.”

In King Leopold’s Soliloquy, a 1905 pamphlet, Twain used satire to condemn King Leopold’s vicious rule over the Congo Free State. This wasn’t his only political jab, either. Published in 1902, Twain’s satirical piece, "A Defence of General Funston," deplored the expansionism advocated by Frederick Funston in the Philippines. In 1905, Twain also published “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” which castigated Czar Nicholas II’s “Bloody Sunday” in Moscow. 

But these writings are largely forgotten and excluded in collections of Twain’s work. “[T]hough every quip coming from Mark Twain made headlines in the American press, on this issue [Congo] the newspapers remained silent,” Heym observed.  

“I am a revolutionist by birth, reading and principle,” Twain wrote in a 1906 article defending the revolutionary Russian writer, Maxim Gorky. “I am always on the side of the revolutionists because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute.” 

And yet, the famous writer, whose name is known by generations of Americans, has seen his reputation smoothed and flattened to fit more snugly within the traditional literary canon. The man who once told the press plainly, “I am an anti-imperialist,” and served as the vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League from 1901 until his death in 1910, has been confined to a de-politicized realm of history. 

Twain should be remembered by Ohioans as a lover of the state, a novelist, a humorist and an advocate for the world’s downtrodden and toiling masses. He is all of these things. As Twain once wrote, “Genuine humor is replete with wisdom.”

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