Liberal Arts Blog — Mark Twain — “Never Let the Truth Get In the Way of a Good Story”

John Muresianu
5 min readMay 31

--

Liberal Arts Blog — Tuesday is the Joy of Literature, Language, Religion, and Culture Day

Today’s Topic: Mark Twain — “Never Let the Truth Get In the Way of a Good Story”

Top that! I was walking through the Minute National Park recently and asked a Park Ranger from St. Louis what his favorite Mark Twain quote was and he replied, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I had studied Twain in graduate school, but had never committed that one to memory. Perhaps because it is a misattribution. To me misattributions are often the distilled essence of a writer, distilled by generations of admirers, and are often as good or better than what the author actually wrote. Is this one a misattribution or not? Does it matter? The Park Ranger’s second favorite Twain quote was: “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” Also, a misattribution — apparently. But who cares? Today, just for fun, I decided to Google, “Twain misattributions” and see what popped up. Then I decided to dig up some genuine gems that I had forgotten or never stumbled upon before. Below are a random collection of the genuine (as well as a link to some common misattributions). My conclusion: Twain was to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries what Benjamin Franklin was to the 18th — the sharpest mind and the greatest writer. Of course, Franklin was also a great statesman and scientist….but let’s get down to business. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

THE RIGHT WORD. THE TRUTH. MAN VERSUS SHEEP (below, Twain, aged 15)

1. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

2. “The truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.”

3. “To create man was a fine and original but to create sheep was a tautology.”

NB: “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.” “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

THE EIFFEL TOWER ANALOGY, THE FACTS, A PERSUASIVE SPEECH (below, age 31)

1. “Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is, I dunno. If the Eiffel Tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that the skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.”

2. “Get the facts straight, then you can distort them as much as you please.”

3. “There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus and upset the convictions and debauch the emotions of an audience not practiced in the tricks and delusions of oratory.”

NB: “Adam’s temperament was the first command the Deity ever issued to a human being on this planet. And it was the only command Adam would never be able to disobey. It said, “Be weak, be water, be characterless, be cheaply persuadable.” The later command, to let the fruit alone, was certain to be disobeyed. Not by Adam himself, but by his temperament — which he did not create and had no authority over.”

THE WEAKEST THING, A CLASSIC, LAWS VERSUS CUSTOMS (below, age 72)

1. “The weakest of all weak things is a virtue that has not been tested in the fire.”

2. “Definition of a classic — something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

3. “Laws are sand and customs are rock. Laws can be evaded and punishment escaped, but an openly transgressed custom brings sure punishment.”

NB: “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” “Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion.”

FOOTNOTE — Faulkner, Hemingway, Shaw on Twain

1. Faulkner: “a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven ‘sure fire’ literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.”

2. Hemingway: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

3. Shaw: “I am persuaded that the future historian of America will find your works as indispensable to him as a French historian finds the political tracts of Voltaire.”

Mark Twain — Wikiquote

Misattributed Mark Twain Quotes (15 quotes)

Mark Twain — Wikipedia

QUOTE OF THE MONTH

“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

My spin — then periodically review, re-rank, and exchange your list with those you love. I call this the “Orion Exchange” because seven is about as many as any human can digest at a time. Game?

ATTACHMENTS BELOW:

#1 A graphic guide to justice (9 metaphors on one page).

#2 “39 Songs, Prayers, and Poems: the Keys to the Hearts of Seven Billion People” — Adams House Senior Common Room Presentation, (11/17/20)

Last four years of posts organized thematically:

PDF with headlines — Google Drive

YOUR TURN

Please share the coolest thing you learned this week related to words, language, literature, religion, culture. Or, even better, the coolest or most important thing you learned in your life related to Words, Language, Literature (eg. quotes, poetry, vocabulary) that you have not yet shared.

This is your chance to make someone else’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart. Continuity is key to depth of thought.

--

--

John Muresianu

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.