Gems From the Gilded Age: The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

By Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.
October 21, 2021 Updated: October 22, 2021

Future historians called it “The Gilded Age.”

From the 1870s to around 1900, technology and manufacturing exploded in the United States, and the face of America changed forever. Men like John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie were building industrial empires, railroads crossed the country, and men and women left small towns and farms in droves to work in cities alongside the immigrants pouring into the country.

Hand in hand with these changes came widespread political corruption, both in the federal government and in political machines in the larger cities. Greed and a lust for power drove this double-dealing.

It was a time, too, of social reforms. Often founded and directed by a variety of religious denominations, charities sought to help the poor and the infirm. They built hospitals, lobbied for better sanitary conditions in the burgeoning cities, and improved safety in the workplace. Some journalists joined in these attempts, investigating everything from corrupt officials like Boss Tweed to the conditions in mental asylums.

Among them were Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, who in 1873 co-wrote “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today,” a satire of that time when the gold gilt of progress and promised prosperity concealed the suffering and poverty of so many. It was the title of this book that would later give its name to this era.

A Great American Aphorist

Even if we’ve never read him, all of us know of Mark Twain—Samuel Langhorne Clemens—as the author of books like “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” and “Life on the Mississippi.” (An aside: Though known for his irreverence and satire, Twain thought his best work was “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” a fictional account of the life of that warrior-saint. Of her, he wrote, “She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”)

Those who have studied Twain’s books, journalism, speeches, and correspondence have dug up a gold mind of his epigrams and aphorisms. Paul M. Zall and Alex Ayres are just two of these literary archaeologists. The former put together almost 600 of Twain’s observations and witticisms in “Mark Twain Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes by and about Samuel L. Clemens” (The University of Tennessee Press, 1985, 200 pages), while the latter did the same in “Greatly Exaggerated: The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain” (Barrie & Jenkins, 1988, 260 pages), though now out of print. It is from these two sources that I have gleaned the quotations used here.

Today’s Headlines

Though Twain died well over a century ago, his observations remain pertinent—and funny—today, unspoiled by the passage of time. Even regarding our current political battles and debacles, some of his comments hit home.

For example, if you’ve followed the current school board battles, Twain delivers a knockout blow with this punch: “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

Of Congress, the writer had this to say in his 1897 book “Following the Equator”: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

In a speech he gave in 1901, he even supplies an observation appropriate for the COVID-19 virus and our government’s insistence on mandated vaccinations: “Whose property is my body? Probably mine. I so regard it. If I experiment with it, who must be answerable? I, not the State. If I choose injudiciously, does the State die? Oh, no.”

Free Speech

We are all aware of the truncheons that some wield on social media to beat down people whose stances and opinions they despise. Rather than engage in argument or discussion, they prefer to bully those they find disagreeable, thereby kicking the First Amendment to the curb.

Twain must have encountered some version of this bullying in his own day, as witnessed by this comment in 1907: “In all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.”

Whether we stand with the left or right in our politics, which of us has not at times looked at our opponents and believed they are missing a few of the bulbs in the chandeliers that light their brains?

In “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” Twain writes, “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horseraces.”

The Patriot

Though Twain frequently critiqued the government, politicians, and foreign policy, he remained all his life a believer in American ideals. He loved his country, and again and again he defended America against the criticism of Europeans, arguing, for example, of liberty that “it was the American Revolution in particular that planted it.”

In an 1890 speech, Twain remarks: “We are called the nation of inventors. And we are. We could still claim that title and wear its loftiest honors if we had stopped with the first thing we ever invented, which was human liberty.”

And in a 1905 essay, “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” he reminds us of what so many people forget today: “The modern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism is loyalty to the nation all the time, loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”

The Other Side of the Man

Though Twain could be sharp and quick with criticism and didn’t suffer fools gladly, he had a sweet and sentimental side. He dearly loved his wife, Olivia, and fell into a depression at her death. Two of his three daughters died when in their 20s, and Twain felt himself crushed by those losses as well.

He was often kind to friends. One famous example of his generosity is the assistance he gave to his friend, former President Grant, in getting his memoirs published. Grant was dying of cancer and was racing against time to finish his book so as to provide some income for his wife, Julia, and their family after his death. Twain struck a deal with him to publish his book, which became a bestseller at the time, more than provided for Julia’s needs, and remains in print today.

President Grant
Mark Twain helped President Ulysses S. Grant write his memoirs. White House Collection. (Public Domain)

This goodness also comes across in Twain’s public and private writing.

In “My Early Life,” for instance, Winston Churchill describes meeting Twain and asking him to sign “his works for my benefit.” Twain obliged him, Churchill wrote, “and in the first volume he inscribed the following maxim intended, I dare say, to convey a gentle admonition: ‘To do good is noble; to teach others to do good is nobler, and no trouble.’”

Though no angel himself, particularly in his younger years, Twain matured as he aged. We detect a growing tenderness in him. In “Tom Sawyer Abroad,” published in 1894, he wrote, “The more you join in with people in their joys and sorrows, the more nearer and dearer they come to be to you. … But it is sorrow and trouble that bring you the nearest.”

And in 1901, in a “Note to the Young People’s Society,” he famously wrote: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.”

Advice for Parents

In “Greatly Exaggerated,” Ayers recounts the story of an 1879 speech that Twain delivered at a banquet honoring President Grant. He was the last at the podium that evening, and it was three o’clock in the morning, by which time we may assume the audience was ready to hit the sheets. Nevertheless, according to Ayers, Twain gave one of the finest speeches of his life, “The Babies.”

“Babies are national treasures,” he told the audience. “Among the three or four million cradles now rocking in the land are some which this nation would preserve for ages as sacred things, if we could but know which ones they are.”

Twain then said of a baby:

“He is enterprising, irrepressible, and brimful of lawless activities. Do what you please, you can’t make him stay on the reservation. … As long as you are in your right mind don’t you ever pray for twins. Twins amount to a permanent riot. And there ain’t no real difference between triplets and an insurrection.”

Water and Wine

In Twain’s “Notebooks,” we find this 1885 entry: “My works are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water.”

“A classic,” Twain said in another speech, “is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

Twain’s remark is both humorous and right on the money, like so many of his epigrams, yet ironically his own works now qualify as classics. Time has changed his water into wine. His books and words are the still-beating heart of American literature and a part of the canon of Western literature.

As for his well-known comment about the classics, perhaps his observation should give us pause. When we stop listening to the voices from the past, when we plug our ears against their advice and their injunctions, we make ourselves children, lost boys and girls without a map or compass.

When we read the great writers of the past, including Mark Twain, we have the opportunity to make these navigational tools our own.

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.