And Now You Know More: The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain: Part II


By Thomas Best

Last week, I shared some of the clever and thoughtful commentaries belonging to the man—I believe—was once our nation’s greatest humorist and critic—Mark Twain.  As I previously said, one cannot travel to Hannibal, Missouri and not taste Twain’s wit and wisdom as I did.  Much of what I have learned came into a wonderfully instructive book, edited by Alex Aryres.

Ayres, organized his book such that, from A-Z, we are rewarded with knee-slapping jokes to thoughtful commentaries which are wise to know and appreciate.  Last week, I chose some of Twain’s brief statements.  This week, I want to offer a few of his more-lengthy examples.

First, I recently told this story in my Lenten Breakfast message at Strom Center.  In the category of “After-Dinner Speeches,” Ayres recounts this encounter.  “Mark Twain and Chauncey Depew were two of the best-known after-dinner speakers of their time.  Both were accustomed to star billing, but on one occasion they were both invited to the same banquet.  Mark Twain’s came first.  He spoke for twenty minutes and made a great hit with the crowd, telling several hilarious stories.  It was a hard act to follow, but Chauncey Depew stood up, ‘Mr. Toastmaster, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ the famous contour began. ‘I have a confession to make. Before this dinner, Mark Twain and I agreed to swap speeches.  He has just delivered my speech, and I thank you for the fine reception you have accorded it.  But I regret to say that I have lost his speech, and cannot remember a thing he had to say.’ With that, Chauncey Depew sat down to much applause.”  No doubt, Twain was laughing right along with the audience. 

On another occasion of a speech, Twain was asked at a dinner party—of which he loved—to discuss the issue of heaven and hell.  It was noted that during the heated discussion the hostess finally turned to Twain for his perspective.  “Mr. Clemens,” she announced.  “Surely you have an opinion on this subject.”  To this Twain, who had so far been unusually quite remarked: “Madam, you must excuse me.  I am silent because of necessity.  I have friends in both places.”

Finally, I truly enjoy Twain’s opportunities to offer some praise of himself, while also joking with self-deprecating humor.  One night in 1899 before a speech in London, Twain was afforded a wonderfully flattering introduction.  To this Twain remarked: “I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors, because they have the sad habit of dying off.” To that he added: “Chaucer is dead, Spencer is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I am not feeling well myself.”  Oh, Twain knew just what to say at the right moment for a wise thought and a laugh.

Next week, I will finish my look at Mark Twain with some other commentary about a new book on his talented career as a writer and speaker. 

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