Get To Know Mark Twain In 5 ‘Phunny’ Anecdotes

Everybody knows the name just as much as the stories but how much do you know about Mark Twain? Find out in five funny little anecdotes about his life & career.

Book Culture Bookish Trends Classics On This Day Opinions

His stories are timeless, his humor was trailblazing, and his name was permanently etched into literature as one of the most influential writers and lecturers in American history. Mark Twain was a rockstar in his time and still leaves a massive impact on young readers and writers today. Everyone at some point in their schooling has been blessed with the ‘phunny’ musings of Mark Twain or his lesser-known birth name Samuel Clemens. But how many people know about the many styles and real-life stories that made this pioneering writer go from a southern boy dreaming to be a boat captain to the definitive original American Humorist? Well, it’s more accurate to call them anecdotes but that really just feeds into what made Twain what he is.

Twain built his repertoire of short and long-form writing from the heart of the downtrodden people of the country in his time. Twain took the cardinal rule of info absorption to its maxim for years before breaking out the proverbial pen and pad to jot down the many perspectives of his contemporaries and of course himself. He’s gathered stories/anecdotes from workers, slaves, bartenders, miners, preachers, privileged travelers, and of course other writers. He wanted to give his readers a sharp glimpse of reality and never shied away from punching up, down, and at a level to deliver that dose of reality. Whether his goal was to give readers more empathy toward the country’s mistreated members or poke fun at the stuffy entitled rich folk of the south Twain brought the humanity on full display to the audience’s bewilderment and/or chagrin.

It can be difficult to surmise the personality of an author based purely on the fiction they create but the opposite is true for nonfiction. The real-life takes of Twain clue the audience in on the person many would spend hard-earned money just to hear speak. Here are five different anecdotes from Twain’s life that not only greatly impacted his signature style but allow for the window into his life to become far clearer than the waters of Missouri.

  1. He posthumously critiqued religion in a (techniquely) unreleased book
Image Via eBay

It feels a bit odd starting from the very end of Twain’s life to get to know him but sometimes the best way to understand a person is to hear what they honestly think and no honesty can top that of a fatal mindset. A solid year before his passing in 1910 Twain wrote the excellent Letters From the Earth in which he heavily and hilariously critiques the Christian faith and its believers. Well, rather he mostly criticizes the bastardization of the religion in his time. He laments that the belief system was used time and time again to justify chronic, sustained cruelty to the masses instead of liberating the unfortunate and that’s barely scratching the surface of the collection. The theme of the mistreatment of religion is consistent in his most famous stories. Huck Finn continually references the “Good Christian” folks as the main proponents in antagonizing Huck and Jim (the downtrodden) throughout the book and makes the audience question what ‘good’ people should do with the perceived undesirables of any given time.

It might seem from that that Twain was a closeted atheist but Twain was actually a devout Christian but had dwelled on his doubts for faith especially when it came to human interaction. He would conduct in friendly banter with local preachers on the faith and his willingness to believe yet he continued to with a more skeptical mind. Obviously, his 1909 humorous thoughts wouldn’t help him in the PR department for the time so it was never greenlit for publication. The book sat in his private collection for over five decades until Twain scholar Henry Nash Smith helped Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens give permission to release the book in 1962 under the lovely pretense “Twain belonged to the world”.

2. During his time in Salt Lake City, Utah he thoroughly enjoyed poking fun at Mormonism

Image Via Simon & Schuster

In 1872’s Roughing It Twain recalls a two-day stint in Salt Lake City where he used his iconic wit to belittle (with plenty of diligence) the newly founded religion. While out of his home for the first time to visit his brother Orion Clemens, Mark Twain was hoping to see the vast mountainsides, the wild animals outside of his region, and maybe just maybe might be scalped by “Injuns” along the way. He was ecstatic to experience it all. When he finally arrived it seemed the only thing that impressed him was the beautiful scenery but what was between the spectacular setpieces i.e. the people didn’t tickle his fancy. He jokingly recounts seeing polygamy for the first time to his bewilderment and would crack jokes on the local children by asking them how many mothers they had and what roles does each fill.

These might seem a little mean-spirited but keep in mind Twain had no animosity when critiquing his own beliefs so it’s clear there’s no ill will here. He only seeks to entertain his audience and himself at any cost. If that means he rustles the feathers of the Latter-day Saints it’d just make his joke that much more funny to him. Even in his own recounting, he admitted that he needed the help of Orion to remember the exact dates and what they consisted of to write Roughing It, to begin with.

3. He pioneered nihilistic American comedy a century before it became popular

Image Via Center for Mark Twain Studies

In his best-selling travel book, The Innocents Abroad Twain treks on a “Holy Land Expedition” with a few stops in some noteworthy places along the way. His boat ride cut into France, Rome, The Black Sea, and finally the titular Holy Lands. What narrative hilarity ensued during the five-month voyage is what’s particularly revolutionary in its impact. He pokes fun at his contemporaries for doing exactly what college students conduct when they travel abroad for a semester. We’ve all met at least one of these types of people. You take a naive and very uninteresting person and put them into a very interesting part of the world in hopes that the interesting aspects of the region rub off on the uninteresting person. The person then drones on and on about the supposedly exciting things they saw and did on their time away which just makes the person listening to them wish that they were gone, permanently.

Twain shared our pain and lambasted them every time their eyes sparkled up at the architecture surrounding them. One instance found a couple on the trip almost brought to tears over a ceremonial shovel used in the early B.C.E. era which to Twain just gave him the same amount of catharsis as a regular shovel from back home. Twain’s witty standoffishness to his co-travelers views was almost misanthropic if it weren’t so funny. The type of humor in Innocents is almost a prototype to the nihilistic comedy stylings of Larry David’s uber-popular Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm as well as the satirical wit of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Twain embodies the naivete and brash attitude only a teenager would sustain for so long which only served to reflect the same attitude his home country exuded in its infancy toward the rest of the world. The same principle has been used time and time again in the aforementioned shows to convey the well-meaning yet ultimately amoral beings of a country yet to find a true righteous identity to the world. Thankfully on all fronts, it’s just for a nice laugh or two.

4. His first big break came from a bar story

Image Via

The Twain short story The Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County has been one of the most lauded of his works but was also the story that definitively put Twain on the literary radar back in 1865. Despite this being his claim to fame it didn’t happen upon him from a particular event that took place in his travels and many jobs. Rather the story actually came about in a California bar a few years prior.

Twain was always looking for a way to claim and sustain a large amount of money and that’s exactly what he tried to do by capitalizing on the famous or rather infamous Gold Rush in the western state. Needless to say, he didn’t find his gold by panning as much as he did by mining a bartender for an entertaining tale in a local pub. While trying to wind down after a long hot day of sifting through countless piles of dirt for riches Twain happened upon a bartender to spin a yarn to cheer him up and the man delivered. The famous frog story was originally called Jim Simley and His Jumping Frog when spoken but was changed to the eponymous title we all know, or should, know today. Not too long after scribing the story in his own words did Twain find a throughline in his career from an aspiring boat captain to a legendary American Humorist.

5. He gave birth to standup comedy

Image Via Sierra College

One of Mark Twain’s biggest influences was his unmatched skill at being an unlikely orator. He sold tickets to venues down south where he made a decent living spinning countless funny stories both real and fabricated. For a time he did these shows at his own leisure but soon would tragically, depending on your own interpretation, become a monetary necessity later on. A vastly creative mind burdened by the copious debt he sadly garnered over his adult life Twain found himself needing to perform to regain some semblance of financial stability.

From then on he’d travel across the globe doing his comedy act and making a killing whilst doing so paving the way for other performers to convey funny concepts in a similar fashion. Many successful standup comedians laud Twain’s impact on the art form bringing it from its proto-state to a more recognizable and palatable form of performance art. His legacy in the medium even came to a maxim when the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor became a reality in the late 1990s when the much loved Richard Pryor won the debut prize. Other winners include George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, and most recently Dave Chappelle. All of the many winners can and have attributed their gratitude to Twain’s impact for giving them a voice of utmost scrupulous meanness to spread laughter to the masses while also using the genre to comment on the state of affairs in any area they see fit regardless of how taboo the subject may be.

With another birthday behind him, Twain has undoubtedly earned his namesake in the world of art he so thankfully blessed with his brilliance. His spirit of using humor to tear down these preconceived notions of what’s ‘good’ and what impact said good people’s actions truly have on the world. He reminds the audience that what’s held sacred should be what is most questioned since that’s ultimately what will change the world and more importantly the innocents that inhibit it. Mark Twain didn’t live an easy life but the world he left behind in sorrow has and will evidently be brighter than how he left it. After all, he belonged to the world.

Featured Image Via ThoughtCo