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Twain’s Disdain for Congress Not Reciprocated

In the early part of his career, he had a firsthand look at some of the nation’s most pressing political issues. Shortly after returning in 1867 from a trip to Europe (which he later recounted in “The Innocents Abroad”), Twain worked as a personal secretary for Nevada Sen. William M. Stewart, a Republican who drafted the final version of the 15th Amendment. He also worked as a Washington correspondent for the New York Tribune during the national debates over Reconstruction and racial segregation.

Not that working in public affairs was a long-term goal for Twain — nor was it a perfect fit for his personality. He quickly resigned his secretarial position after being described by the Senator as “disreputable” and “seedy” and after being accused by his landlady of “lurching drunkenly in the halls and smoking in bed.” About his year in the Congressional press galleries, Twain said it gave him the chance to “know personally” some of the “smallest minds and selfishest souls and cowardliest hearts that God makes.”

Despite Twain’s misgivings about Washington, the experience gave him a firsthand look at political motives and what he later called a “gold mine” of literary material.

Many of Twain’s writings about Congress — his short jokes and longer-form pieces — criticized the influence of money on political decisions. His 1873 novel with Charles Dudley Warner, “The Gilded Age,” for instance, was modeled on the political career of Kansas Sen. Samuel Pomeroy, a Republican who was charged with bribing state officials for his seat. And in a speech given in the same year, Twain said, “I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.”

Twain might not have paid Congress many compliments, but by ignoring the author’s political jabs, Members also ignore part of his popular appeal. According to Larson, “Twain was frank, blunt and direct. ... He was able to speak of things using colorful metaphors and in a down-home way that Americans were often thinking but in a way they may not have been able to express.”

Even though Twain wrote in a style that was direct and plainspoken, he cultivated a legacy that is enigmatic and difficult to define. He wrote short stories, novels, newspaper articles, plays, travel books, letters and essays. He lived all across the country, including in Missouri, Nevada, California, Iowa and Connecticut. He wrote humorously and seriously about commonplace and controversial topics, ranging from redheads (he was one) to race relations.

Perhaps that experience made his writing well-suited for Washington politics. Members can pick and choose from his prolific body of work. They can ignore his pointed insults and benefit nonetheless from his timeless popularity.

So policymakers quote his familiar sayings and critically acclaimed novels. Frustrated voters use his political wisecracks. And, by invoking the beloved literary icon, each uses Twain to communicate an image of themselves -— a well-read politician, a well-informed constituent, an “ideal American self,” whatever it might be.

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