It’s been 100 years since Mark Twain’s passing and The Mark Twain Foundation was finally able to publish his autobiography. He insisted on a 100 year delay so that neither friends, their children or grandchildren could take offense. There isn’t a ton of new groundbreaking material here, so I’m not telling you to go out and read the massive book. I think what Mark Twain really wanted to say, he said and wrote during his lifetime. My two cents – these are leftovers. But what I was impressed by were Twain’s zingers – his brilliant, clever insults. I’m giving you five of the best here:
Twain warmed me up by calling someone a “shining ass” and then really had me when he called someone else a “smooth tongued liar and moral coward.” By the time he started describing an infamous entrepreneur he had invested in, I couldn’t help but think about some of the entrepreneurs I’ve heard pitch over the years. These are folks who did not qualify for How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America. See if you think Mark Twain could have written these items today about lawyers, editors, landlords, techies and entrepreneurs and been just as current:
1. On lawyers. Twain’s lawyer advised him when he invested $170,000 in a startup ($4.4 million in current dollars). Keep in mind this is his lawyer, not opposing counsel:
He is a great fat good-natured, kind-hearted, chicken-livered slave; with no more pride than a tramp, no more sand than a rabbit, no more moral sense than a wax figure, and no more sex than a tapeworm. He sincerely thinks that he is honest; he sincerely thinks that he is honorable. It is my daily prayer to God that he be permitted to live and die in those superstitions.
2. On editors. After Twain had been writing for 35 years he was a part of the American fabric. Apparently he didn’t have much experience with anyone attempting to alter his words, so it came as a shock when an impertinent editor decided to fix Twain’s language:
This long-eared animal, this literary kangaroo, this bastard of the muse, this illiterate skull full of axle grease…
3. On landlords. Ever rented a vacation home? Here is Twain’s experience with an American turned Italian countess renting her home to his family:
I should wish the countess to move out of Italy, out of Europe, out of the planet. I should want her bonded to retire to her place in the next world, and inform me which of the two it was so that I could arrange for my own hereafter. She is excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene. A furious blusterer on the outside, and at heart a coward. Her lips are as familiar with lies, deceptions, swindles and treacheries as are her nostrils with breath. She has not a single friend in Florence. She is not received in any house. I think she is the best hated person I have ever known and the most liberally despised. She is an oppressor by nature and a taker of mean advantages. She is hated by every peasant and every person on the estate and in the neighborhood of it, with the single exception of her paramour, the steward.
4. On Techies. I took liberties with a new label. Twain was talking about physicians, but this so much sounded like the ultimate techie:
He had the special characteristic of every limited practiced physician whom I’d ever known. He was tedious, witless, commonplace, loved to hear himself talk, and was a spirit-rotting bore.
5. On entrepreneurs. On my favorite subject, our own tribe of entrepreneurs, Twain reports on his $170k investment in entrepreneur James Paige’s company. Paige was founder of a typesetting company and had invented a typesetting machine that was faster than any other system then available. Unfortunately it just took a little longer, and then a little longer, than necessary. And cost a lot more than anyone could foresee:
James W. Paige, the little bright-eyed, alert, smartly dressed inventor of the machine, is a most extraordinary compound of business thrift and commercial insanity; of cold calculation and jejune sentimentality; of veracity and falsehood; of fidelity and treachery; of nobility and baseness; of pluck and cowardice; of wasteful liberality and pitiful stinginess; of solid sense and weltering moonshine; of towering genius and trivial ambitions; of merciful bowels and a petrified heart; of colossal vanity and – but there the opposites stop. His vanity stands alone, sky-piercing, as sharp of outline as an Egyptian monolith. It is the only unpleasant feature in him that is not modified, softened, compensated by some converse characteristic. There is another point or two worth mentioning: he can persuade anybody; he can convince nobody. He has a crystal-clear mind, as regards to the grasping and concreting of an idea which has been lost and smothered under a chaos of baffling legal language; and yet it can always be depended upon to take the simplest half dozen facts and draw from them a conclusion that will astonish the idiots in the asylum. It is because he is a dreamer, a visionary. His imagination runs utterly away with him. He is a poet; a most great and genuine poet, whose sublime creations are written in steel. He is the Shakespeare of mechanical invention. In all the ages he has no peer. Indeed, there is none that even approaches him. Whoever is qualified to fully comprehend his marvelous machine will grant that its place is upon the loftiest summit of human invention, with no kindred between it and the far foothills below.
So there you have it – elegant insults, far above the common stuff hurled around these days. Now if I promise to safekeep your best material for 100 years, what have you got? Feel free to email me with your best.