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Twain’s Disdain for Congress Not Reciprocated

Make no mistake about it: Mark Twain was not fond of Congress. But Congress is certainly fond of him.

Policymakers aren’t in the business of choosing literary favorites, but statistics tell a story of their own. So far during this session, Members have quoted Twain more often than any other American author. They’ve used his one-liners to make jokes. They’ve cited his travel writing as policy evidence. And they’ve drawn on his characteristically bold assertions to make both poignant and political points.

The Twain quotes used so far this session appeal to avid and reluctant readers alike. 

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) used the familiar quip, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”  

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) cited a longer and lesser-known passage from “The Innocents Abroad,” in which Twain describes the Holy Land as “desolate” and “given over wholly to weeds.”

The quotes offer momentary breathers in speeches filled with policy details and political jabs. But, given the number of quotable authors in the literary canon, even the most casual critic has to wonder: Just what is it about Twain?

“I think Mark Twain is genuinely a product of his American upbringing and speaks of the American experience unfiltered and undaunted,” Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) said. “He’s a product of the frontier who came of age and flourished in the great city of Hartford during the gilded age.”

Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, whose Missouri district includes the author’s childhood home, cites a similar connection between Twain’s popularity and the setting for his stories. Americans are drawn to Twain’s writing because they are “enamored with the American West,” the Republican said.

While readers like Twain’s descriptions of the rugged American landscape, politicians prefer the author’s populist image, according to Stephen Railton, a University of Virginia English professor who researches Twain. 

“As a writer, he seems more like an ‘ideal American self’ rather than an unapproachably brilliant artist,” Railton said, describing Twain as a man “of the people himself, not one of the intellectual elite.”

And, of course, quoting an author who is both popular and familiar resonates with an audience and makes a politician look smart. Linda Coleman, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Maryland, notes that policymakers may choose literary quotes “because the audience feels good about recognizing a particular image” and because the speaker “gets the additional benefit of showing what he knows.”

But not all Twain quotes are likely to be seen in a positive political light. Members have repeatedly ignored some of Twain’s most famous lines — those about Congress itself. And given the author’s comical, critical and, at times, caustic assessments of D.C. politics, that’s likely a deliberate choice.

Consider this famous maxim from Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson”: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” Or this one, which he penned in an essay on the postage rates placed on manuscripts: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

With these simple, pithy insults, Twain offered his readers a quick laugh and perhaps even a guide to some of the goings-on in Washington.

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