Mark Twain was born on this day in 1835. He lived until his 70s, which he considered “the time of life when you arrive at a new and awful dignity.” The writer regarded old age with the same acerbic wit that made him the greatest humorist of his time. Tragedy always seemed to be knocking at Twain’s door. He lived through the death of three children and his wife, and financial troubles weighed heavy on him — but for Twain, “humor [was] the great thing, the saving thing after all.” We’ve gathered 25 of Twain’s crankiest quotes that celebrate the father of American literature’s sharp tongue.
“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards.” — Following the Equator
“The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.” — Mark Twain in Eruption
“I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.” — Mark Twain in Eruption
“It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.” — What is Man?
“This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.” — On April Fool’s Day, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar
“Concerning the difference between man and the jackass: some observers hold that there isn’t any. But this wrongs the jackass.” — Notebook (1898)
“Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.” — Remembered Yesterdays
“It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.” — On the Bible, Letters from the Earth
“There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him — early.” — Notebook (1898)
“I have damaged my intellect trying to imagine why a man should want to invent a repeating clock, and how another man could be found to lust after it and buy it. The man who can guess these riddles is far on the way to guess why the human race was invented–which is another riddle which tires me.” — On cuckoo clocks, Letter to Henry H. Rogers (1894)
“I like criticism, but it must be my way.” — Autobiography of Mark Twain
“Whenever a copyright law is to be made or altered, then the idiots assemble.” — Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1902-1903
“Nothing agrees with me. If I drink coffee, it gives me dyspepsia; if I drink wine, it gives me the gout; if I go to church, it gives me dysentery.” — Letter to Henry H. Rogers (1905)
“Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” — Following the Equator
“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” — Notebook (1887)
“I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.” — Speech (1907)
“What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin.” — Notebook (1902)
“I thoroughly disapprove of duels. I consider them unwise and I know they are dangerous. Also, sinful. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet retired spot and kill him.” — Autobiography of Mark Twain
“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.” — The Mysterious Stranger
“The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”
“Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” — What Is Man?
“All human rules are more or less idiotic, I suppose. It is best so, no doubt. The way it is now, the asylums can hold the sane people, but if we tried to shut up the insane we should run out of building materials.” — Following the Equator
“France has neither winter nor summer nor morals — apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.” — Mark Twain’s Notebook
“All good things arrive unto them that wait and don’t die in the meantime.”
A recently widowed and ill Mark Twain wrote this letter to a salesman who tried to sell him a phony medication.
Nov. 20. 1905
J. H. Todd
1212 Webster St.
San Francisco, Cal.
Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.
Adieu, adieu, adieu!
Photo credit: The Mark Twain House & Museum
Twain wrote this letter to his family sometime after Olivia Langdon accepted his marriage proposal in 1869.
My dear Mother & Brother & Sisters & Nephew & Niece, & Margaret:
This is to inform you that on yesterday, the 4th of February, I was duly & solemnly & irrevocably engaged to be married to Miss Olivia L. Langdon, of Elmira, New York. Amen. She is the best girl in all the world, & the most sensible, & I am just as proud of her as I can be.
It may be a good while before we are married, for I am not rich enough to give her a comfortable home right away, & I don’t want anybody’s help. I can get an eighth of the Cleveland Herald for $25,000, & have it so arranged that I can pay for it as I earn the money with my unaided hands. I shall look around a little more, & if I can do no better elsewhere, I shall take it.
I am not worrying about whether you will love my future wife or not —if you know her twenty-four hours & then don’t love her, you will accomplish what nobody else has ever succeeded in doing since she was born. She just naturally drops into everybody’s affections that comes across her. My prophecy was correct. She said she never could or would love me — but she set herself the task of making a Christian of me. I said she would succeed, but that in the meantime she would unwittingly dig a matrimonial pit & end up tumbling into it — & lo! the prophecy is fulfilled. She was in New York a day or two ago, & George Wiley & his wife Clara know her now. Pump them, if you want to. You shall see her before very long.
Love to all. Affect’ly
P.S. Shall be here a week.