Giving Thanks for Mark Twain

This year, 2010, marks the centennial year of the death of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a., Mark Twain). It is also his 175th birthday and the 125th anniversary of the American publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a big year for Twain, and I’m sure he’s bummed that he’s not here. But there’s no need to worry. There are stand-ins in abundance. At the recent Mark Twain Motherlode Festival in Angel’s Camp, California, there were a number of actors who gave such believable performances that Mark Twain himself would have been grinning from sideburn to sideburn. Actors like McAvoy Lane, an internationally known Mark Twain impersonator, brought the dead man to life and delighted us with Twain’s signature wit and charm.

Twain would have been thrilled at the event. This festival brought together scholars and fans alike to celebrate the legacy of one of America’s most renowned writers, humorists and speakers.

Many of these scholars are the people behind the recently completed Autobiography of Mark Twain, which contains previously unpublished material, musings and stories written by the great author. This first volume, the first of three to be published, is 743 pages.

The festival was like a who’s who from the world of Mark Twain. Scholars from the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley, sat on panels and chatted with us during breaks. Biographer Ron Powers regaled us with stories from his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. A video address by the main editor Bob Hirst gave us insight into the scope and depth of the project, and a performance by humorist Will Durst made us realize that if Mark Twain were alive today he would have more Twitter followers than Ashton Kutcher. They each spoke of Twain with the kind of reverence reserved for a beloved Uncle or grandfather. It was inspiring.

And what about the brouhaha surrounding his autobiography and the fact that it’s already on the New York Times bestseller list? How would Twain feel about that?

I think he’s rolling over in his grave and laughing. And I have a feeling he planned it this way. How many famous authors would have the prescience to dictate and save thousands of pages of work for an encore performance 100 years after his swan song? Twain once joked that the best business advice he ever got was from PT Barnum, who gave us the famous line, “A sucker is born every minute.” It just makes me wonder what Twain has in store for us for his bicentennial.

The speaking industry is particularly indebted to the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain. How many of us have ridden on the shoulders of this giant and have used his epigrams and maxims to support a point, add humor to our presentations or shine light on an unspoken truth? How many of us have tweeted his short quips—all surprisingly under 140 characters! Mark Twain quotes are essential ingredients for every speaker’s toolkit. You can’t live without them.

So here is my thanksgiving gift for you. A few Mark Twain “tweets” to spice up your holiday festivities.

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

"There are only two types of speakers in the world. The nervous and the liars."

“There is nothing so annoying as to have two people talking when you're busy interrupting.”

"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

"A man's character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation."

“If you have nothing to say, say nothing.”

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”

What better time than Thanksgiving to celebrate the legacy of Mark Twain. Let’s give thanks…and look forward to 3010! I plan on being here. How about you?