Of all the quotations and quips attributed (and misattributed) to American writer Mark Twain, the one that may describe his legacy best is one he never actually said. "I am not an American, I am the American,"3 he wrote in one of his notebooks. But he was referring to a friend, not to himself—Twain refused to take himself too seriously. Whether he would have agreed or not, in a literary sense Mark Twain is the American. More than any other writer, Twain understood the differences that divided America and the traits that drew it together. He knew the nation's particular sense of humor, and—perhaps most importantly—he knew how to tell us all a really good story.
Raised on the banks of the Mississippi River, that great divide between East and West, Twain represented both the brash, pioneer spirit of the West and the more genteel traditions of the East. He dined with outlaws and presidents. His wit and witticisms defined the country's sense of humor. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been called the "Great American Novel" by no less than Ernest Hemingway, himself no slouch in the great novelist department. When Twain died in 1910 he was one of the most famous men in the country, and there's nothing more American than fame.
Twain was a writer, sure, but his favorite medium was B.S. He loved a good tall tale, a brazen exaggeration, perhaps even an outright lie. But for all of their inventiveness, his parables cut right to the truth about human nature. Twain didn't subscribe to simplistic views of humans as angels or demons. He knew that we were flawed, selfish, lazy and self-deluding, but he also believed that "God puts something good and loveable in every man His hands create."4 And no one embodied the contradictions of human nature more than Twain himself, who once claimed he hadn't "a particle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming petty vices."5 He openly admitted to his fondness for drinking, smoking, cursing, and fibbing. Yet friends described him as deeply committed to his family (especially his wife, who disdained drinking, smoking, cursing and fibbing) and dedicated to fulfilling his obligations, including the many financial debts he incurred in his life.
Twain's books used humor to distill deeper truths about human nature. In his own life, humor helped balance tragedy. Mark Twain experienced more than his fair share of sorrow. Three of his four children died before he did, as did his beloved younger brother and his wife. These experiences explain the sometimes dark and bitter tone that runs through his work. As his biographer wrote of him, "The wonder is not that Mark Twain so often preached the doctrine of despair during his later life, but that he did not exemplify it—that he did not become a misanthrope in fact."6
Twain's life story resembled nothing so much as, well, a Mark Twain story. It's a story that begins with a comet blazing across the heavens—an absolutely true fact that we're sure Twain would have otherwise been delighted to invent himself.