COLUMN: Interviews with the Famously Departed: Mark Twain Speaks
WRR: We’re pleased to have with us someone more averse to interviews than J.D. Salinger. Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known as Mark Twain, was born in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835. He wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered to be the greatest American novel. He moved to Hannibal, Missouri; traveled the Mississippi, the United States and the World. He died on April 21, 1910, in Redding, Connecticut, having come in and departed in the year of Haley’s Comet.
WRR: So how are your compatriots in the afterlife?
This nation is like all the others that have been spewed upon the earth-ready to shout for any cause that will tickle its vanity or fill its pocket. What a hell of a heaven it will be when they get all these hypocrites assembled there!
WRR: And what did they think of America?
It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.
WRR: Let’s try a few people you must have come across in your travels abroad the afterworld. Benjamin Franklin?
If it had not been for him, with his incendiary "Early to bed and early to rise," and all that sort of foolishness, I wouldn't have been so harried and worried and raked out of bed at such unseemly hours when I was young. The late Franklin was well enough in his way; but it would have looked more dignified in him to have gone on making candles and letting other people get up when they wanted to.
WRR: Rudyard Kipling?
He is a stranger to me, but he is a most remarkable man-and I am the other one. Between us, we cover all knowledge; he knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.
WRR: How about one of your specialties – Places. Let’s start with Boston?
In Boston they ask, “How much does he know?” In New York, “How much is he worth?” In Philadelphia, “Who were his parents?”
WRR: Any more thoughts on New York?
In this absence of nine years I find a great improvement in the city of New York… Some say it has improved because I have been away. Others, and I agree with them, say it has improved because I have come back.
...anywhere is better than Paris. Paris the cold, Paris the drizzly, Paris the rainy, Paris the damnable. More than a hundred years ago somebody asked Quinn, "Did you ever see such a winter in all your life before?" "Yes," said he, "Last summer."
I judge he spent his summer in Paris. Let us change the proverb; Let us say all bad Americans go to Paris when they die. No, let us not say it for this adds a new horror to Immortality.
WRR: Any other thoughts on Paris? Please don’t hold back.
In Paris, they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.
Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.
WRR: Let’s try a few professions. The contracts of professional athletes?
The low level which commercial morality has reached in America is deplorable. We have humble God fearing Christian men among us who will stoop to do things for a million dollars that they ought not to be willing to do for less than 2 million.
Do not tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don’t tell them where they know the fish.
There is nothing you can say in answer to a compliment. I have been complimented myself a great many times, and they always embarrass me-I always feel that they have not said enough.
WRR: You’re being immodest?
One should not pay a person a compliment and straightway follow it with a criticism. It is better to kiss him now and kick him next week.
We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it–and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again–and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.
WRR: And of course, your area of expertise, Writing?
WRR: Any thoughts on Interviews?
Whenever you give an interviewer a fact give him another fact that will contradict it. Then he'll go away with a jumble that he can't use at all
I have, in my time, succeeded in writing some very poor stuff, which I have put in pigeonholes until I realized how bad it was, and then destroyed it. But I think the poorest article I ever wrote and destroyed was better worth reading than any interview with me that ever was published.
WRR: Our other Interviews - Edgar Allan Poe (forthcoming) and Jane Austen (already done)?
To me his prose is unreadable–like Jane Austin's [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane's. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.
WRR: Ouch! How about Newspapers?
...One of the worst things about civilization is, that anybody that gits a letter with trouble in it comes and tells you all about it and makes you feel bad, and the newspapers fetches you the troubles of everybody all over the world, and keeps you downhearted and dismal most all the time, and it's such a heavy load for a person.
WRR: And next to last but not least – Publishers?
All publishers are Columbuses. The successful author is their America. The reflection that they–like Columbus–didn't discover what they expected to discover, and didn't discover what they started out to discover, doesn't trouble them. All they remember is that they discovered America; they forget that they started out to discover some patch or corner of India.
WRR: The Wild River Review?
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book–a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.
WRR: And finally, death?
Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.
WRR: Well thanks, Mr. Twain. Enjoy your travels among the innocent and the not so innocent. Be kind to Jane if you see her. I think if you give her readings a chance you’ll see she had something to say about social hypocrisy. If I remember your fist answer you seemed to like people who disliked hypocrites. You might even mention that you’ve been known to wear a hat.