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Mark Twain

The last day November of November, 1835, marks the birthday of one of the greatest cynics--as well as authors--in American history.  Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens to a Virginia Family living in Florida, Missouri, Mark Twain was raised in nearby Hannibal.  He was cynical and irreverent, but he had a tender spot for cats.  There were always kittens in the house, and he gave them names such as "Sin" and "Sour Mash."  Twain's daughter, Suzy, once said, "Mamma has morals and Papa has cats." 

Colorful and flamboyant, Twain swore constantly with little sense of remorse.  His streams of profanity sometimes alarmed even his wife.  One day he cut himself shaving, and she heard a string of oaths from the bathroom.  She resolved to move him to repentance, and she repeated back to him all the bad words he had just said.  He smiled at her and shook his head. "You have the words, Livy," he said, "but you'll never learn the tune."

On June 8, 1867, Twain boarded the side-wheel steamer, The Quaker City, and set off on a five-month trip to Europe and the Mediterranean--a feat that had never been done before, a transatlantic pleasure cruise on a steamship, and when Twain heard about the idea,  he asked the San Francisco newspaper the Alta-California if they wanted to send him as their correspondent.

They did, for twelve hundred dollars passage money and twenty dollars for each letter he sent home.  The letters were an immediate hit with the public, and in 1868, Twain published them in a entitled Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims' Progress.  It quickly grew to become the most popular travel book of his time.  In Innocents Abroad, he wrote:

"We wish to learn all the curious, outlandish ways of all the different countries, so that we can 'show off' and astonish people when we get home.  We wish to excite the envy of our untraveled friends with our strange foreign fashions which we can't shake off.  All our passengers are paying strict attention to this thing, with the end in view which I have mentioned.  The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad."

He traveled to Paris and described the dancing of the can-can, and he went to Rome where he became bored looking at the works of Michelangelo.  But he truly loved travel as well as the pleasure of discovering new places and things.  He wrote, "To be the first--that is the idea."

After Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he suddenly found himself with a great deal of cash on his hands, so he invested in a typesetting machine that was very complicated and demanded more and more investment.  In the end, it didn't work.  He had to declare bankruptcy, and he decided to go on a worldwide lecture tour, the proceeds of which he would use to pay back his creditors.  His visits to Africa and Asia convinced him that a God who allowed Christians to believe that they were better than savages was a God he wanted no part of.

During his long writing career, Twain produced a wealth of essays.  They appeared in various newspapers and magazines such as Galaxy, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and North American Review.  In his later life, he received a plethora of academic honors.  By 1888, he had received from Yale College the degree of Master of Arts, and the same college made him a Doctor of Literature in 1901.  A year later the university of his own State at Columbia conferred the same degree.  Six years later saw the crowning glory when venerable Oxford University tendered him the doctor's robe, which he wore with pride.

"I don't know why they should give me a degree like that," he said.  "I never doctored any literature.  I wouldn't know how."

Mark Twain is renowned for such witticisms, among which include "It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt."  He also said, "Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life" and "I believe our Heavenly Father invented man because He was disappointed in the monkey."

Mark Twain passed quietly on April 21, 1910, leaving behind a legacy of writing, wit, and insight into the specter we call life.

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