Mark Twain defined a literary classic as "a book which people praise and don't read."
Alas, by that standard much of Twain's own work has achieved classic status. Certainly, if you listen to the noisy debate over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn it seems obvious that those with the loudest opinions could never have read the book.
Be that as it may, it is likely that most people today know Mark Twain from his sparkling, dead-on, humbug-piercing epigrams rather than his more extended writing.
Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug," and he knew that finding just the "right" word could be a mighty struggle. In a notebook page from the 1890s, we see him laboring to breathe life into a new wisecrack:
"The man that invented the cuckoo clock is no more."Then come several attempts -- all heavily XXX-ed out -- to construct a suitable punch line:
"This is old news but good."Finally, he must have concluded that no amount of polishing was going to make that particular material shine, for at the foot of the page he wrote, resignedly, "It is more trouble to make a maxim than it is to do right."
"As news, this is a little stale, but some news is better old than not at all."
"As news, this is a little old, but better late than never."
"As news, this is a little old, for it happened 64 years ago, but it is not always the newest news that is the best."
"It is old news, but there is nothing else the matter with it."
But he did take the trouble, and most of the time he got it right -- which is why we still quote Twain today, 86 years after his death. In fact, to get a respectful hearing for just about any statement, you need only preface it with the magic words, "As Mark Twain said . . . . "
Here are some of the best things Mark Twain said, some familiar, some perhaps new to you. This page is meant for anyone with a liking for Twain and his work, and your contributions are welcome. If we've left out your favorite, or if you'd like to contribute a Twain quotation of your own, please let us know by clicking on the "quote-capable" form at the foot of this page.
"I am the entire human race compacted together. I have found that there is no ingredient of the race which I do not possess in either a small way or a large way."
* * *"It is agreed, in this country, that if a man can arrange his religion so that it perfectly satisfies his conscience, it is not incumbent on him to care whether the arrangement is satisfactory to anyone else or not."
* * *"All you need is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure."
* * *"Often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat."
* * *"Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution -- these can lift at a colossal humbug -- push it a little -- weaken it a little over the course of a century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."
* * *"The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money."
* * *"Love seems the swiftest, but it is the slowest of all growths. No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century."
* * *"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."
* * *"Every one is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody."
* * *"Man will do many things to get himself loved; he will do all things to get himself envied."
* * *"Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live."
* * *"It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt."
* * *"Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry."
* * *"I thoroughly disapprove of duels. I consider them unwise and I know they are dangerous. Also, sinful. If a man should challenge me now I would go to that man and take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet retired spot and kill him."
* * *"When in doubt, tell the truth."
* * *"By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity. Another man's, I mean."
* * *"We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking."
* * *"I think a compliment ought always to precede a complaint, where one is possible, because it softens resentment and insures for the complaint a courteous and gentle reception."
* * *"Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person."
* * *"Always do right. That will gratify some of the people, and astonish the rest."
* * *"Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with."
* * *"It is not worth while to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man's character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible."
* * *"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear -- not absence of fear."
* * *"It is noble to be good; it is still nobler to teach others to be good -- and less trouble."
* * *"The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet."
* * *"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."
* * *"I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse."
* * *"The New York papers have long known that no large question is ever really settled until I have been consulted."
* * *"Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it."
* * *"In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination."
* * *"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."
* * *"There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy's life that he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure."
* * *"Let your secret sympathies and your compassion be always with the under dog in the fight -- this is magnanimity; but bet on the other one -- this is business."
* * *"Where prejudice exists it always discolors our thoughts."
* * *"If you invent two or three people and turn them loose in your manuscript, something is bound to happen to them -- you can't help it; and then it will take you the rest of the book to get them out of the natural consequences of that occurrence, and so first thing you know, there's your book all finished up and never cost you an idea."
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Other Mark Twain Links:New This Spring! "Better Than It Sounds"
Mark Twain's favorite music, presented
in concert at Cooper Union April 25
Mark Twain's New York (walking tour)
Mark Twain in Cyberspace
The Mark Twain Association of New York Homepage
Mark Twain -- Belle of New York (article by P. Salwen)
Mark Twain and Walt Whitman
Is Huck Finn Racist?
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Visitors since May 20, 1996:If you'd like to add a favorite Mark Twain quote of your own to this page, or just have some thoughts to share, click here to use my preformatted, "quote-capable" e-mail response form.