by David Glenn Cox
“Shakespeare is dead, Chaucer is dead, and I’m not feeling too good myself!” ~ Mark Twain
such statements Mark Twain was proclaiming that his ego knew no bounds.
Yet to know this greatest man of American letters is to know that he
was at the same time forever self-deprecating. “I remember when I was
young man studying for the gallows.”
Twain spent his career
lampooning sacred American cows and defending the weak and powerless.
His scathing attacks on organized religion, contrasted with his ardent
defense of Satan, made Twain, in his day, a controversial figure.
have no special regard for Satan, but I can at least claim that I have
no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way,
on account of his not having a fair show. All religions issue bibles
against him, and say the most injurious things about him, but we never
hear his side. We have none but evidence for the prosecution and yet we
have rendered the verdict. To my mind, this is irregular. It is
un-English. It is un-American; it is French.”
Twain was never
shy. Despite his protestations of dislike for interviews and
photographers, he missed very few of either. “Yes, you are right — I
am a moralist in disguise; it gets me into heaps of trouble when I go
thrashing around in political questions.”
If Twain had been a
part of an investment group to buy an NFL franchise, would the NFL have
decided in his favor? Most definitely not! Twain was the Rush Limbaugh
of his day; he was an entertainer, a sawdust philosopher and pundit.
But Twain never backed down from the words which he spoke. He never
mealy mouthed or claimed that he was a persecuted victim, even when
indeed he was. That was part of Twain’s moral greatness; he made his
outrageous statements to make us look at ourselves. Framed and couched
in innocence, they were ambushes with the intent of a murderous attack
upon our beliefs.
“In religion and politics people’s beliefs and
convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without
examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the
questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other
non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass
The primary difference between Limbaugh and Twain is
that Twain always included himself when he criticized America’s
failures. Limbaugh holds himself above the fray like a ghost or cherub
watching the events from up on high. He sees himself as value’s judge
and jury. “I shall not often meddle with politics, because we have a
political Editor who is already excellent and only needs to serve a
term or two in the penitentiary to be perfect.”
Both men used
their pulpits to amass fortunes, but Rush is only an actor. You get the
impression that he doesn’t really believe half of what he says but says
these things for attention and shock value. If you read enough Twain
you see a man who through his writings is pursuing a psychoanalytic
evaluation of his own personality, and that of his country. He loved
humankind but lost patience with our failings. He loved America and
described its rich multi-faceted society. In his masterpiece “The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Twain paints the ceiling of the
Sistine Chapel in American prose.
Every word is intentional and
placed where the master directs it will do the most good. It is a book
about freedom and the failure of American reconstruction. The only free
men in the entire book are the runaway slave Jim and the poor white
trash boy Huck. The book was not received well; librarians pulled it
from their shelves for “rough grammar.” Even today the argument goes on
about Twain’s use and over use of the “N” word. The character of Jim is
the first African American ever written about as a full human being.
Jim is the hero; he cares for Huck like he was his own child.
battles his conscience, fighting the societal-imposed stereotypes and
Huck casts them all down and declares, “All right then, I’ll go to
hell!” Huck chooses his friend over society and Twain is saying that it
is America that can go to hell! Huck says, “I got to thinking that he
was most free and who was to blame for it.” In nineteenth-century
America that makes Limbaugh’s comments about Halfrican American and
Donovan McNabb seem mere piffle. Twain disguised his contempt for
America’s failures in the body of a little boy, for if a grown man said
such things he might have been pulled limb from limb.
repeated use of the “N” word was purposeful and intentional; it was a
term used by the ignorant characters in the book. It was Twain using a
literary device to say, “Now you look here America, you look at
yourself and look hard. Look who is calling the innocent and oppressed
such vile names, slave holders, religious bigots, bankers, judges,
policemen and the ignorant among the general public.” Twain was trying
to make us look at ourselves and some don’t see themselves yet, over a
hundred years later.
“I have always preached…If the humor came
of its own accord and uninvited, I have allowed it a place in my
sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of humor. I
should have written the sermon just the same whether any humor applied
for admission or not.”
There are many similarities between
Limbaugh and Twain, but there are also a great many differences that
disqualify Limbaugh from even being compared in the same light to
Twain. Twain rebuked us and lampooned us, poked fun at our follies and
called us fools when we were fools because he was seeking to bring out
our better nature. To laugh at us and we all laugh together and maybe
learn to be better.
Limbaugh just wants us to agree with him.
Twain would be disallowed an NFL franchise because of what he said
about America and Americans. Limbaugh was disallowed for what he says
about America, as well, but for the opposite reason.
truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an
unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get
hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t
“To arrive at a just estimate of a renowned man’s character, one must judge it by the standards of his time, not ours.”
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.