Mark Twain aboard a ship, on his way to Hawaii. Young Samuel Clemens apprenticed to be a Mississippi river boat pilot, and held a fascination for water-going vessels his entire life. His pilot years are documented, and analyzed, in Life on the Mississippi.
This photo of Twain remains one of my favorites.
November 30 is the birthday of Mark Twain (1835), and Winston Churchill (1874).
This is the traditional Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub post to remind you. Both Twain and Churchill were lovers of good whiskey, and good cigars. Surely they would have toasted themselves with a drink and a smoke.
Even if we don’t, we can pretend we did.
In 2016, we have the benefit of having had time to digest Twain’s Autobiography, and Volume II; and we have the benefit of scholarship from a great book on Churchill, William Manchester’s and Paul Reid’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965.
We have special need for the wisdom, and wit of each man in a year marked by terrorism and unholy war on educators.
Twain had a comment on the Texas Education Agency and State Board of Education:
In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards.
– Following the Equator; Pudd’nhead Wilson‘s New Calendar
The Nobel literature committees were slow. Twain never got a Nobel in Literature; he died in 1910. Churchill did win a Nobel in Literature, in 1953.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1953 was awarded to Winston Churchill “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”
Both men were aficionados of good whiskey and good cigars. Both men suffered from depression in old age.
Both men made a living writing, early in their careers as newspaper correspondents. One waged wars of a kind the other campaigned against. Both were sustained by their hope for the human race, against overwhelming evidence that such hope was sadly misplaced.
Winston S. Churchill, Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1941, copyright 1941 by Time Magazine. Churchill’s career was built much on his work as First Lord of the Admiralty, a position he took in 1911. While he was the goat of the Battle of the Dardanelles (and had to resign as a result), his earlier work to switch Britain’s Navy to oil power from coal, and to use airplanes in combat, kept the British Navy as an important and modern military organization through World War II.
Both endured fantastic failures that would have killed other people, and both rebounded.
Each possessed a great facility with words, and wit, and frequently said or wrote things that people like to remember and repeat again.
Both Churchill and Twain rank near the top of the list of people to whom almost any quote will be attributed, if the quote is witty and the speaker can’t remember or doesn’t know who actually said it.
Surely they said something like any piece of wisdom, at some point in their lives, right?
Both men are worth study. And wouldn’t you really love to have had them over to dinner?
Twain, on prisons versus education:
“Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.” – Speech, November 23, 1900
Churchill on the evil men and nations do:
“No One Would Do Such Things”
“So now the Admiralty wireless whispers through the ether to the tall masts of ships, and captains pace their decks absorbed in thought. It is nothing. It is less than nothing. It is too foolish, too fantastic to be thought of in the twentieth century. Or is it fire and murder leaping out of the darkness at our throats, torpedoes ripping the bellies of half-awakened ships, a sunrise on a vanished naval supremacy, and an island well-guarded hitherto, at last defenceless? No, it is nothing. No one would do such things. Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, Liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong. Such a mistake could only be made once—once for all.”
—1923, recalling the possibility of war between France and Germany after the Agadir Crisis of 1911, inThe World Crisis,vol. 1, 1911-1914, pp. 48-49. (Obviously, and sadly, Churchill was wrong — twice wrong.)
Yet we continue to make those mistakes, and then to seek out the wisdom of Churchill or Twain to get out of the mess, and to tell us we won’t be in such a mess ever again.
Image of Twain aboard ship, on the Pacific – origin unknown. Image of Winston S. Churchill, Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1941, copyright 1941 by Time Magazine.
More on Mark Twain
More on Winston Churchill
Orson Welles, with Dick Cavett, on Churchill, his wit, humor and grace (tip of the old scrub brush to the Churchill Centre):
More, contemporary reports from 2012:
And in 2013:
Should you fly your flag today? Congress doesn’t list this dual birthday as an event for flying the U.S. flag. But you’re welcome to fly the flag any day. Go ahead, if you want to.
If I get one, it will be the only cigar I’ve had this year. Or this decade.
I will break out the Scotch.
At a very minimum, click on some of the links and read the works of these two great writers. Nothing else today will be so profitable.
Churchill gets attention, even in Texas: