Mark Twain: Great American Moustaches

To honour the great month that is Mo’vember, we’re highlighting — wait for it — the all-time greatest American moustaches. (Our choices may be found rather more historical than contemporary, due to copyright restrictions on images.) So until the month is out we’ll be introducing you to bewhiskered Americans worth knowing.

The First Mo’vember Man

The great Mark Twain, in all his crumb-collecting glory.

We’re starting off with Mark Twain, a man who would appreciate enterprises such as this one. Mark Twain (30 November[!] 1835 – 21 April 21) is sometimes considered the greatest American humourist. ‘Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any,’ he said. He hasn’t got any. His books are classics, a status he defined as ‘something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.’ Hemingway (another good ‘stache) said of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “all modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn … There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

The best way to meet Twain is to read him. (Am I, the librarian, at all biased?) Here’s our moustachioed hero on a variety of subjects:

evolution: ‘The only reason why God created man is because he was disappointed with the monkey.’ Autobiographical Dictation (1906).

natural phenomena: ‘Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.’ Letter to an Unidentified Person (1908).

respect: ‘Virtue never has been as respectable as money.’

government: ‘Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ quoted by Albert Bigelow Paine in Mark Twain: A Biography (1912)

pedal revolution: ‘Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.’ Taming the Bicycle (1917)

So once you stitch your sides back together, read more of the original American comic genius. Here are a few gems from the Memorial Library’s collection:

Autobiography of Mark Twain, volume 1 (University of California Press, 2010), edited by Harriet Elinor Smith

Twain’s life-force was uncontainable. Or so he thought: “What a little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words!” A man’s real life, he believed, was “in his head.” But Twain’s internal monologue would fill, he supposed, a book each day, 365 books a year. His solution to this problem, I quote here a Guardian review, “was to have a secretary follow him around and take down his every passing thought.”

In this much-anticipated and well-received volume, the autobiographical text consumes 467 pages, followed by almost 200 pages of explanatory notes. Also available in audiobook.

Mark Twain: the adventures of Samuel L. Clemens (University of California Press, 2010), by Jerome Loving

Fifty-two short chapters “that seem perfectly designed for bedtime reading.” The author is a professor of English at Texas A&M University.

The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography (Doubleday, 2003), by Fred Kaplan

Reviews point out the biographer’s dilemma: there is so much on Twain by Twain that is well-written that who needs the secondhand account? By no means is this an easy book but Christopher Hitchens appreciates Kaplan’s angle on Twain the businessman. “Contemptuous as he may have been of the Gilded Age and the acquisitive society,” says Hitchens, “Twain was ever ravenous for money, and his acumen was almost inversely proportionate to his ambition.”

Mark Twain: Lives and Legacies Series (Oxford UP, 2004), by Larzer Ziff

A good short biography from an academic press. Ziff, to quote one review, “is an excellent choice for the Twain biography because he brings a deep knowledge of American literature, broadly, and the period of Twain’s life and career, especially, to bear on the insights his book contains.”

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