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Mark Twain vs. Winston Churchill

Mark Twain vs. Winston Churchill

by William H. Benson

November 30, 2017

Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. His father, Judge John Clemens, died when Samuel was eleven years old, and his mother then raised her children in poverty and desperation in Hannibal, north of St. Louis, alongside the Mississippi River. 

Winston Churchill was born on the same day, November 30, but thirty-nine years later, in 1874. His father, Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill, was an aristocrat, an English politician, and a philanderer. He died when Winston was twenty. Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, was an American socialite from Brooklyn, New York, who married three times. 

When an adult, Clemens changed his name to Mark Twain, a romantic name that put some distance between himself and his poverty-stricken childhood, but Churchill kept his proud aristocratic name.

Both men loved to smoke cigars, drink hard liquor, and write dozens of books. Twain’s first book, Innocents Abroad, was nonfiction, but his most popular works—Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry FinnThe Prince and the Pauper—were fiction. Churchill wrote history, works on the second World War, and A History of the English-Speaking People. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

When boys, both Twain and Churchill sported bright red hair, but late in life Twain’s turned white, and Churchill’s fell out. 

Twain served all of two weeks as a Confederate soldier, and then wrote a tongue-in-cheek account of his miserable experience. He escaped the Civil War by boarding a stage coach that carried him to Virginia City, Nevada. In essence, Twain dodged the draft. He had no use for political causes or war.

Churchill was a political animal. He fought in battles in Cuba, India, Sudan, and South Africa, wrote accounts of his adventures, won a seat to Parliament, and served there with distinction for decades. 

Twain discovered his gift for humorous public speaking in San Francisco, California. He rented a hall, put up posters, and announced, “Doors open at 7:00. Trouble begins at 8:00.” The crowds filled the hall, they howled, and they were astonished at his comic monologue.

Twain never worked another day in his life. Instead, he spoke everywhere, all over the world. People loved his after dinner speeches and his public lectures, and they accelerated his book sales.

Churchill gave the greatest speech by any Briton of the twentieth century on May 13, 1940, during the darkest days of World War II, when Nazi Germany threatened Western Civilization’s survival.

“You ask, what is our policy. I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.”

Twain loved his wife, Olivia, with a passion. She called him, “Youth,” a grown man forever young, forever boyish. When she passed away, he was lost, and never recovered. Churchill loved his wife. He said that the greatest diplomatic coup of his life was when he convinced Clementine to marry him.

Neither of them had happy childhoods, and yet each married well and created stable families.

Churchill avoided religion. Politics consumed him. Twain though scorned religion. He labelled the more committed to their faith, “disciples of the wildcat religion.” Yet, his best friend was a New England Congregationalist minister, Reverend Joseph Twichell. 

Both Twain and Churchill fell in love with the English language at an early age. Twain liked the zinger. He would begin with a solemn thought, but then turn it around in a way a reader would not expect. For example, he said, “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” 

Another zinger, “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand. It’s the parts I do understand.”

Churchill loved an English sentence. He said that when a child, his instructors considered him a dunce, and they denied him the chance to learn Latin and Greek. Instead he was stuck with an English instructor, Mr. Sommervell. Years later Churchill said of his instructor,

“He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practiced English analysis continually. Thus, I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence, which is a noble thing.”

I would contend that Mark Twain is the premier American writer, better than Emerson or Thoreau.

In 2002, more than a million British people were asked in a survey, “who was the greatest Briton ever?” Lady Diana, Darwin, Shakespeare, Newton, John Lennon, and Elizabeth I all placed in the top ten, but Winston Churchill received the most votes by a wide margin. When asked, “Why?” the voters would say, “He saved our country.”