The past week's "cover boy" of Time magazine was Mark Twain, in honor of their yearly Making of America issue.
I spent this afternoon reading all the articles, then finding a couple of his articles online and reading those.
What a unique and visionary talent. Ernest Hemingway said that all of American literature can be traced back to Mark Twain, and one of the Time articles attributes the success of sarcastic newsmen/comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to the groundbreaking, caustic wit of Twain.
While I've always been more partial to the even more caustic Ambrose Bierce, Twain used a little more humor and a little less acid, although his words could still cut to the core.
While like most American kids, I've read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, along with numerous short stories, I haven't read much of his outright satire (although satire runs through most of his works, sometimes just more subtly). It still surprises me to realize that Huckleberry Finn is one of the most banned books in the country. This previously was due to its alleged "coarseness," (as if there weren't people in the country who spoke that way) and more recently due to its alleged racism and use of the word "nigger." This ignores the fact that the novel was a product of its time (and yes, people really did talk that way in 1885), and that Huck considers the escaped slave Jim to be his friend.
If you need further convincing, read his essay The United States of Lyncherdom. I wish I could have found his unedited version, which wasn't published in its entirety until 2000, but the edited version is scathing enough. An indictment of all those who would follow the mob mentality and stand idly by while a human being is murdered in front of them, he wishes for a mere handful of brave men to stand up and declare what is right, in hopes that the human sheep will feel shamed into following. I wonder what he would have thought if he had lived to see Nazi Germany?
Twain may have served briefly in the Civil War as a Confederate (after two weeks, he resigned his commission because he explained that he was "incapacitated by fatigue through persistent retreating"), but to charge him with racism is ridiculous. Not convinced? Read "A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It."
Mark Twain was an equal opportunity master of sarcasm, satirizing the issues of the day. Whether the issue was overly-zealous religion, racism at home, colonial expansion, or torture, he skewered the practitioners of each with a finely-honed sword. Andrew Carnegie once brought up to him the idea that America is a Christian nation. Twain replied, "Why, Carnegie, so is Hell."