Simply Mark Twain

I have recently noticed the continuing significance of Mark Twain.

The significance of anything can be measured in a variety of ways, but in history I like to use the rule of lasting imitation. If someone inspires others to imitation over long periods after they leave this earth of whatever comes next, I believe that marks them as having had a significance.

Mark Twain is one such person of significance. His novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is significant, as it is still taught in school, and yet still banned in many places. Twain’s quips and quotations are still very popular in on-line forums, and also widely attributed to others. He was once even described to me by a qualified Mark Twain scholar as the inventor of stand up comedy.


Here is a poem by Mark Twain, entitled Genius

Genius, like gold and precious stones,
is chiefly prized because of its rarity.

Geniuses are people who dash of weird, wild,
incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility,
and get booming drunk and sleep in the gutter.

Genius elevates its possessor to ineffable spheres
far above the vulgar world and fills his soul
with regal contempt for the gross and sordid things of earth.

It is probably on account of this
that people who have genius
do not pay their board, as a general thing.

Geniuses are very singular.

If you see a young man who has frowsy hair
and distraught look, and affects eccentricity in dress,
you may set him down for a genius.

If he sings about the degeneracy of a world
which courts vulgar opulence
and neglects brains,
he is undoubtedly a genius.

If he is too proud to accept assistance,
and spurns it with a lordly air
at the very same time
that he knows he can’t make a living to save his life,
he is most certainly a genius.

If he hangs on and sticks to poetry,
notwithstanding sawing wood comes handier to him,
he is a true genius.

If he throws away every opportunity in life
and crushes the affection and the patience of his friends
and then protests in sickly rhymes of his hard lot,
and finally persists,
in spite of the sound advice of persons who have got sense
but not any genius,
persists in going up some infamous back alley
dying in rags and dirt,
he is beyond all question a genius.

But above all things,
to deftly throw the incoherent ravings of insanity into verse
and then rush off and get booming drunk,
is the surest of all the different signs
of genius.

The descriptions of genius here are funny and astute. Twain shows how diverse the idea of genius can be when exemplified in human form. He also makes sure to impress upon us how unimpressive genius can be. It is not some god-like status to walk elevated among the mortals of the earth. Genius can be commonplace, and ignored. It can be rude and tawdry. Genius can be ridiculous. It can be irreverent and immature.


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Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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