Contributed by Jeff Olson
Throughout her history, America has been a unique and exceptional nation in many ways. I believe that one aspect of this can be seen in the role humor has played, not just within personal relationships but also on a broader scale in permeating our culture through literature, art, music, and entertainment. During good times and bad, we have been able to laugh at others and at ourselves, helping to keep us a balanced and stable nation. We’ve been fortunate to have special people filling a special place in our society in leading the humor; not just humor for the sake of laughs but humor which could produce a chuckle, stir our imagination and intellect, and leave us feeling better about ourselves and our country. Such artistry has helped us to persevere and keep it all in perspective. Allow me to briefly highlight two of our very best humorists who were born in November and whose influence has spanned many generations for a century and a half: Mark Twain and Will Rogers.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. In his early years, he traveled all over America and worked at various jobs, including riverboat pilot, journalist, lecturer, entrepreneur and inventor. Twain’s writing talent led him to become a noted author of American fiction whose writing style was among the first to be considered originally and distinctly American. Among his most noted works are two major classics of American literature: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The fictional locales of both were inspired by Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. He is considered the greatest humorist of his age, but his humor was evident not only in his writing but also through the extensive lecturing he did. He was a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty. Among the subjects of his humor, politicians were a popular target as he once quipped, “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.” Mark Twain died of a heart attack in 1910.
Will Rogers was born (William Penn Adair Rogers) on November 4, 1879 near Oologah, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Rogers was a drifter in his early years, living life as a working cowboy and as a trick rider and roper with Wild West shows in America and in various places around the world. He is still considered one of the greatest ropers of all time. It was only several years after Mark Twain’s death that Rogers rose to prominence, first in the Ziegfeld Follies and then as a noted humorist, columnist, radio personality, and actor. To this day he is perhaps remembered most for his famous line, “…I never met a man I didn’t like.” As did Mark Twain, Rogers liked to pick on politicians. He often commented that he didn’t need to write jokes since he could just watch Congress and report the facts. Along with aviator Wiley Post, Will Rogers was killed in an airplane crash in Alaska in 1935. The Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, OK pays tribute to this simple but great man. It was well worth a visit for me. It might be for you as well.
One hundred years separated Twains’ birth and Rogers’ death. Their humor flavored America with wit and wisdom and did so without insult, vitriol, or compromising American values, pride, or patriotism. Both men were similarly gifted, as their humor often poked fun at many aspects of the culture and establishment while inspiring Americans to laugh and think at the same time. The century of their lives saw the enrichment of the literary and artistic culture of our country, and if it is true that laughter is the best medicine then these two men were among America’s greatest physicians. Revisiting their life and work would be enjoyable, enlightening, and perhaps even healing. America needs these today more than ever before!