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On Mark Twain’s Birthday

He piloted a Mississippi steamboat,
Then panned for gold and sailed around the world.
He authored tales of rogues and slavery’s stain
But now is damned for all the things he wrote.
Because the charge of “racist” has been hurled,
The woke think we should vilify Mark Twain.

Twain was known for striking contradiction:
Philanthropist and bitter misanthrope,
A man both kind and quick to show disdain.
But when it came to writing classic fiction
No one else could share such mirth and hope.
So how can they condemn a man like Twain?

In Roughing It he captured the Old West.
He wrote about a Yank in Arthur’s Court,
A jumping frog, a territory lawyer,
And mixed-up royals. Stories that could wrest
A hearty laugh or earnestly exhort.
What fools would nix the author of Tom Sawyer?

Ban the steam boats, dam the Mississippi!
Hannibal Missouri must go dim!
Then damn Twain’s novels for the specious sin
Of using language from his century.
Young Huck will never get to rescue Jim
Because they’ve cancelled Huckleberry Finn.

Yet no one’s hurt by Mark Twain’s comic sting!
His books are on a hundred million shelves
And show our past with frank but humane tone.
If in their hate the woke must cancel something
Perhaps they ought to cancel their smug selves
And leave our greatest humorist alone.

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Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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41 Responses

  1. Peter Surtees

    Long after the woke are gone and gratefully forgotten, Mark Twain’s books will continue to grace a million shelves and Kindles. Celebrate this giant of American letters.

    Reply
  2. Benjamin L. Perez

    “Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.” –Mark Twain, Following the Equator

    “It is easy to find fault, if one has that disposition. There was once a man who, not being able to find any other fault with his coal, complained that there were too many prehistoric toads in it.” –Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Benjamin, both of these quotes are gems of Twain brilliance! Thank you for your comment.

      Reply
  3. Cheryl Corey

    Well done, Brian. It feels like we’re living through a Spanish Inquisition or French Revolution when it comes to our culture – metaphorically burning people at the stake or putting their necks under the guillotine.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Cheryl. I couldn’t agree more. Your mention of the French Revolution is very apt. To your list I would add in the Cultural Revolution in China and the Bolshevik Revolution. Sadly, the list goes on and on.

      Reply
  4. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, his books are certainly on my shelves and have been since schooldays. I even call people named Wilson “Pudd’nhead. I read once that he was born and died with Halley’s Comet in the sky. I hope that by its next appearance, all this wokeness will be over and we can once again roll down the Mississippi. I hope this finds a bigger readership.

    Reply
    • Paul Freeman

      I believe Mark Twain passed on in 1910. The final scene of a black-and-white, wonderfully memorable biopic showed Twain on his death bed looking at Halley’s Comet through a window, as I recall.

      The showing of Halley’s Comet in 1986 was disappointingly difficult to see (thank god for Hale-Bopp in the mid-nineties), and will be seen again in 2061.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        You’re right, Paul! a 1940s movie — The Adventures of Mark Twain with Frederic March. I remember enjoying that film immensely.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jeff. Pudd’nhead is a great moniker and I think I’ll have to start borrowing it as well! You’re right about Halley’s Comet. Born in 1835, died in 1910 both life-events occurring when the comet was making its appearance. Wish I’d mentioned that in the poem! And looking forward to wokeness being a distant memory.

      Reply
  5. Margaret Coats

    The poem gives a pleasant little outline of Twain’s life and works while making its point! I recall reading Huckleberry Finn in a Southern high school undergoing integration. The English teacher pointed out that some of the language in the book was not polite, and that students should avoid impolite language both in class discussion and in general conversation. Notice how much was expected of mere high school students! They should recognize, without a teacher’s explanation, some expressions that were not socially acceptable, and they should be responsible enough to maintain school decorum by not using them. And with just that small warning, black and white students who had attended separate schools all their lives could enjoy together one of their country’s literary classics. And that is exactly what happened, including some serious discussion of the issues, and better comprehension of individual attitudes toward the story and the world it pictured.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Margaret! I’m so glad you told this story about your high school in the South. How much things have changed for the worse! It seems that we expected so much more of our young people in those days. We expected them to behave civilly, to be neatly groomed, appropriately attired, and to strive for maturity and self-discipline. We expected them to read and to not take everything personally if they came across literature they didn’t like. What on Earth has happened? Now young people are being trained to see demons everywhere. They demand the cancellation of literally anything they don’t like or that upsets their tender sensibilities or that undermines their vicious ideology. We are now witnessing a dangerous battle between narcissistic identity politics and academic rigor.

      Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      For some reason the site won’t let me reply to your comment directly beneath your comment! Thank you for your additional insights, Mike. As appalled as I am by cancel-culture’s efforts to stamp out Western Civilization, I am equally appalled by Critical Race Theory which strikes me as one of the most racist things I’ve heard of since the 19th Century. It doesn’t level the playing field. It promotes the idea that skin color is destiny which is anathema to me, and it tries to inflict guilt on people who are utterly guiltless. That sounds pretty insidious to me. As for this DEI stuff, it sounds like something an atheist would come up with to mock Christians. If you can conceive of such a thing.

      Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        Actually, the media, the school boards and the present administration have all insisted repeatedly that there is no CRT in the schools’ curricula. They can make this laughable claim because there is no course called “CRT”… instead, they have taken CRT’s teachings on diversity, equity and inclusion and woven them into every course, every activity, lunchtime, recess and homework. They are in the process of demonizing every white person on earth. When people have been demonized like this in the past, it did not end well.
        Our government, like the governments of Austria and Australia, is working the same scam against the “unvaccinated.”
        “Critical Race Theory” will be abandoned soon and replaced with a word or phrase that sounds just beautiful… maybe something like “God’s Truth” or, well maybe you can predict it…

  6. Cynthia Erlandson

    Thoroughly enjoyable, Brian! I would rather spend time with any number of Twain-like misanthropes (even if they weren’t also philanthropists), than with one angry wokist (is that a word now?) Thank you for thinking of Twain on his birthday!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Cynthia. I could not agree with you more. I like your word-coinage. If “wokists” wasn’t a word before, it is now! The idea of spending any time at all with an angry wokist makes me cringe. I’d love to borrow a time machine and spend an evening with Twain. I bet he was wildly entertaining when he wasn’t busy being a misanthrope. And when he was indulging his misanthropy it’s hard not to accuse him of simply being observant. I wonder what he would say if he were brought forward to the year 2021?

      Reply
  7. Paul Freeman

    I must admit, my favourite Mark Twain is ‘The Prince and the Pauper’. Twain had a humorous (no pun intended) eye on English history.

    I enjoyed the poem, but think all this talk of cancelling Mark Twain is the blustering of a small but vocal minority, of those wanting to make a mountain out of a mole hill, and who revel in the reactions they generate.

    As the poem says, Twain’s works must be taken in context in that he is ‘using language from his century’. Add to this the context and tone of a novel like Huckleberry Finn, and the positive character traits of the good people portrayed, and we see that any reasonable person (which is the vast majority of people on this planet) will find nothing to cancel.

    Reply
    • Paul Freeman

      Just to avoid any misunderstanding, by ‘a small but vocal minority’ who want to cancel Mark Twain, I’m referring to the so-called ‘woke brigade’.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Understood. Btw, I hadn’t heard “woke brigade” before. That’s a good one!

      • Paul Freeman

        In the UK we call people who are overly concerned with being Politically Correct, ‘the PC brigade’.

      • Brian Yapko

        Paul, thanks for taking the time to summarize those articles. Very interesting background — especially about the image concerns of the people of Missouri. But Huckleberry Finn is definitely worth a read. At one point it was considered the Great American novel. I read Robinson Crusoe a long time ago. Somehow I expected it to be more fun than it was.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Paul. I sure hope you’re right! Unfortunately, if you google “Huckleberry Finn cancelled” there are 720,000 results and the first three sites you’ll see are: first, a PBS program describing the banning of Huckleberry Finn, second: an article in the Guardian announcing that U.S. schools have stopped teaching Huckleberry Finn and third: a headline that New Jersey lawmakers are trying to ban Huckleberry Finn from school curricula. The list goes on and on. Talk of banning Huckleberry Finn — and actual banning of this fine book — has been mainstream in the U.S. for a while now. I guess the question becomes to what extent is Mark Twain himself to be cancelled and/or which of his other works are safe? To even have to pose this question is very distressing. If I have my way, it’s the banning that will end up in the dust-heap and not the father of American literature. At any rate, I’m grateful for your comment and I agree that reasonable people can and should find nothing to cancel.

      Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        Brian, even the leftists and globalists have realized that cancel-culture, pushed by the ‘woke brigade’ is not working right now. That is where incrementalism raises its ugly head. They will pull back on cancel-culture, while going ahead with Critical Race Theory in schools (while denying they are doing it) and DEI, which is the essence of Critical Race Theory… DEI stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
        It is so insidious because Christians have always embraced Diversity and Inclusion, and also because the word DEI means God. However Christians have historically not embraced equity. The apostle Paul said, “whoever does not work neither let him eat.”
        Incrementalism is how the Marxists have weaseled their way into the churches and all of our institutions. The first books written on this phenomenon were written in the 1920s.
        The Marxists march on because they have fooled so many.

      • Paul Freeman

        I took the time to read the PBS article. It was very balanced, citing that Huckleberry Finn was the first book banned in America, and from libraries in Missouri because the dialect made Missourians (if that’s the right word) sound uncouth and uneducated, rather than for over 200 uses of the ‘N’ word.

        As for the Guardian, I would just say that books go off the reading list for schools and new books (arguably not as good as the older ‘classics’) come on the list. My main argument about new ‘modern classics’ is that they’re often not as well written as the traditional texts and not as well edited.

        I tried reading Huckleberry Finn two years ago but didn’t get into it – obviously I need to try again, just as I’m doing now with Robinson Crusoe.

      • Mike Bryant

        Right, Paul. PBS has not written a balanced article in fifty years.
        IF PBS is so balanced, why don’t they advocate for removing all the porn from our school libraries?
        I know why… I think you do too.

      • Mike Bryant

        As for the use of the N word… perhaps we need to censor comedians and rappers, too.
        Really, Paul, please tell me you are starting to get just a tiny glimpse of the hypocrisy.
        Who really ARE the authoritarians?

  8. Jeff Kemper

    Thanks, Brian! Huck Finn is the only book (outside the Bible) that I’ve read three times (in youth, in my 30s, and in my 60s). It, along with Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, is what generated my enjoyment of fiction in the first place. The wokists (to use Cynthia’s term) are the destroyers of all that is good in Western Culture.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Jeff! Yes, Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful book. You’ve inspired me — I haven’t read it since I was in my 20s (several centuries ago) so I think it’s time to re-read it. How right you are about wokists. There are times when I think that the destruction of Western Culture is in fact their endgame. They can’t be bothered to consider what comes after they achieve the complete destruction they seem to crave.

      Reply
  9. C.B. Anderson

    It’s not all that surprising these days that the woke-folk want to consign national treasures to the crapper but want to elevate turds such as the Biden/Harris duo to national prominence. Mark Twain is eminently quotable. At a party once, I paraphrased one of my favorites to a group of parents who had complaints about the attitudes of their teenaged children:

    When I was sixteen, I thought my father was an ignoramus, but when I turned twenty-one, I couldn’t believe how much the old man had learned in five years.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thanks for reading and commenting, C.B. Yes, Twain is a national treasure who is exceptionally quotable. The quote you mention is both funny and wise. Timeless, too. I remember having that same experience with my parents when I grew out of my teens.

      Reply
  10. David Watt

    Brian, I bet that if Mark Twain was alive he would have found a way to turn this cancellation on its head. Much like his character, Tom Sawyer, who was able to turn a fence whitewashing into a money-spinning lark.
    He is definitely a national treasure, but also an international star.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      David, I think you’re right! He would have tossed some very biting criticism at the woke brigade. And he would have made us laugh while doing it. One of my favorite of his quotes may have bearing these days: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

      Reply
  11. BDW

    There are so many things to say about “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain), that picaresque masterpiece of 19th Century American Realism, one hardly knows where to begin. Embroiled in controversy from its first printing, for various reasons, it has never left being controversial, and remains so here in the NewMillennium; and I suspect it will continue to be controversial well into the future.

    How could it not be, as Twain’s attack on civilization, in “Huckleberry Finn” runs every bit as deep and as profound as Swift’s attack in “Gulliver’s Travels”? Its range is panoramic: from its attack on violence to its mockery of sentimentality; from its exquisite contemplative moments of loneliness and intense internal crises to its antagonism toward vile mob rule; from its admixture of Shakespeare, Dumas, et alia, to its freewheeling criticism; from its remarkable combination of comedy and tragedy to its extraordinary prose, both playful and deadly serious; from societal contracts to individual conscience. It is indeed a great American masterpiece of freedom from one of the greatest of America’s humourists, who likewise understood the horrors and undersides of human existence.

    His novel is filled with messages for our time.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      BDW, thank you for this magnificent comment. Your wonderful words about Huckleberry Finn are both colorful and accurate. I don’t think most readers appreciate the depth of the novel and you brought up a number of observations that I clearly missed when I read it. It’s definitely time to give his great American masterpiece another read.

      Reply
  12. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, what a brave and beautiful tribute to Mark Twain. It shows the very human side of him, flaws and all. But, more importantly, your poem shines a spotlight on his gifts – the gifts that have touched so many people’s hearts with words they have read and reveled in. Those very same words have drawn the perverse attention of the witless woke whingers in the era of cancel-culture… an era that sucks the joy from every aspect of life with a cold and calculated eye on derision and division. It’s poets like you who give people the courage to stand up and say, “Enough!”, and I applaud you for it. I also appreciate your fine poetry and excellent word play – I particularly like the clever use of ‘dam/damn’. Brian, thank you for drawing attention to the evils of the world with the use of a medium that knocks the spots off the skewed opinion pieces filled with propaganda. I like your style!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Susan, for this wonderful comment in which your own witty poetic voice shines through. I stand with you shoulder to shoulder against those “witless woke whingers” because you are 100% right — their miserable goal is to suck the joy out of life so that everyone can end up as miserable and godless as them. Misery loves company after all and there’s no one more loud, angry and profoundly miserable than a statue-toppling, book-banning, meritless lawsuit-filing, religion-mocking leftist. I, for one, do not want what they’re having. I’m glad that you don’t either.

      Reply
  13. Tamara Beryl Latham

    Your poem speaks volumes on this present generation cancelling history, the current culture of today. Mark Twain’s language was from his day, not ours.

    Mark’s dad was a lawyer, as was mine and I can almost hear Mark stating
    ““A good lawyer knows the law; a clever one takes the judge to lunch.”

    Huckleberry Finn is a classic read, penned by a great man, and will never be forgotten.

    You’ve expressed all this in your poem. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Tamara. I happen to practice law myself so I especially appreciate your Twain lawyer quote!

      Reply

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