Happy Birthday, Mark Twain, comedy godfather of Stewart and Colbert

Happy birthday, Mark Twain! You’re 179 years old, but America still loves you—in fact, Smithsonian magazine has just ranked you the country’s number one pop icon ever. Number one—ahead of Elvis Presley, Madonna, Bob Dylan, and Michael Jackson.

Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens) is, of course, America’s most important literary figure. But it’s not just iconic works like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (widely considered to be the first great American novel), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Prince and the Pauper that help assure a special place for Twain in America’s heart. It’s also his indomitable personality, keen wit, and dedication as a satirist and social critic that’s kept his image alive for generations. Twain died in 1919, years before the advent of talking pictures. But the fact that his voice still rings familiar to us, thanks to his “appearances” everywhere from the Broadway stage to the movies to television (he has been a character in shows ranging from Bonanza to Star Trek: The Next Generation), is a testament to how significantly he still looms in America’s collective consciousness.

“He’s a fascinating guy,” said Dr. Cindy Lovell, executive director of The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. “People like him; people want to be connected to him. He comes across as a guy you really would want to hang out with.

Mark Twain House
Mark Twain House

“He’s truthful, and he pokes a sharp stick at everybody, including himself,” Lovell said. “That’s what’s so great about him. He owns his own faults. People like that.”

In addition to the Hartford home, where Twain lived from 1871 to 1894 and where he wrote some of his most important works, Lovell also has worked at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, where the author was born on November 30, 1835. In these capacities, Lovell has gained a special insight on the public’s love for Twain.

“He’s the Great American Story,” she said. “He was a poor kid. His dad died when he was young and he had to support himself from age 12. And yet, you never heard him saying, ‘oh, poor me.’ When you read Tom Sawyer, it sounds like childhood was nothing but a lark.”

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Samuel Clemens age 15

Armed with a singular wit and an unmatched ability as a wordsmith, Twain would grow up to become the author who enjoyed universal acclaim from the common man and the powerful alike. William Faulkner called Twain “the father of American Literature.”

“He’s a writer who has never been equaled,” Lovell said. “This guy knew his way around a page. Writers today are very respectful of him. They love his humor, as well as his storytelling ability. He was the first to write with a uniquely American voice and the first to make America the center of the universe. He didn’t just pave the way (for American literature), he broke it wide open.”

Twain was a fierce opponent of slavery, a supporter of civil rights and the labor movement, and would become an ardent opponent of American imperialism at the turn of the 20th century. His razor-sharp pen often targeted those who ran afoul of his views. “He judged everybody, along with himself,” Lovell said. “He didn’t pull punches. He took on politicians, it didn’t matter what party. If he thought they were doing something immoral, he said it.”

When asked about who might be Twain’s modern literary descendants, Lovell pointed to comedians Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, hosts of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. “These guys are truth-tellers, and they don’t care who they’re beating up,” she said. “They will beat up anyone when it comes to telling the truth—even if it’s President Obama. They love him and support him, but they’ll call him out, just like Mark Twain would have called him out. They’re out there doing their jobs and carrying on that tradition.

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Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart

“Mark Twain is relevant today, and he will be 100 years from now,” Lovell said. “You can write it down and say it, and you’ll be right. He will always be relevant and timeless because of what he wrote about, which is human nature. Human nature hasn’t changed. His characters live today, and their traits are among us today.”

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