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.
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.
It’s probably unlikely that you’ll ever hear one of Twain’s jokes about Congress in a floor speech or see one inserted into the Congressional Record. But surely it’s at least fitting that the institution’s favorite author can be described as beautiful, brassy, poignant and, of course, opinionated.