"I am a border ruffian from the State of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption," Mark Twain once told an audience, by way of introduction. "In me you have Missouri morals, Connecticut culture; this, gentlemen, is the combination which makes the perfect man."1
This was Mark Twain—a little bit of East, a little bit of West, a little bit of North, a little bit of South, united by a distinctly American sense of humor. In his quotes, quips, memoirs, novels, speeches, and essays, Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens) lives on as the most American of American authors. William Faulkner called him the father of our literature. Ernest Hemingway swore there was no better book than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So how did this Missouri rascal-turned-Connecticut Yankee capture the hearts of so many people?
For one, he had a keen sense of observation and an intuitive understanding of human nature—that's why we still quote him so often, even a century after his death. No matter how serious his subject matter—and his books tackled some pretty heavy stuff—he preferred to approach it through humor and the use of parable, a story form that has been proven successful since the time of the Bible. And he was hilariously funny, both on the page and in person. By the time he died in 1910, he had long been one of the most famous men in America. When Mark Twain talked, people listened.
The persona he created for himself on the page was sometimes deceptively light-hearted. Mark Twain suffered more than his fair share of tragedies, grieving the untimely deaths of not only his beloved younger brother but also his wife and three of his four children. But he always kept going. "It is from experiences such as mine that we get our education of life," Twain wrote. "We string them into jewels or into tinware, as we may choose."2
Lucky for us, Twain chose jewels.