BY DAVID PERRYMAN
West of Tuttletown, CA, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Yosemite National Park and the San Joaquin Valley, my wife and I discovered a faded and weathered sign pointing up a dirt trail to “Mark Twain’s Cabin.” We eased off the narrow highway into the ruts that our GPS identified as Jackass Hill Road with the hill itself as our destination.
After a short distance, wondering if the name of our destination was actually a clue for what awaited us, we found a tiny cabin that had served as the winter shelter for one Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his friends, the Gillis brothers, from Dec. 4, 1864, to the end of February 1865.
Located between Virginia City and San Francisco in a region, like Sutter’s Mill, where gold mining had been the name of the game, the site had recently been restored by the Sonora Sunrise Rotary Club.
It has long been said, “There are no new stories, just endless ways to tell them.” Like Shakespeare who used history and mythology as the fabric to be woven into great plays, Sam Clemens spent endless hours in public libraries in those cities across the Midwest where he found work as a newspaper typesetter.
Parlaying his literary knowledge with real world experiences in those communities and later piloting a steamboat up and down the Mississippi River, Clemens honed his unique storytelling skills. His stories were not new, but were uniquely spun.
Even the pen name, Mark Twain, referring to the depth of navigable waters, was borrowed from earlier writers along the river.
Twain was a traveler, and the American literary importance of the tiny cabin was not the Gillis brothers or the gold mines in the area but instead was its close proximity to a community named Angel Camp.
Angel Camp had sprung out of the mountains during the gold rush era and was base camp for the seedy underbelly of a society that was course and reckless. Men who frequented the camp were not virtuous, and the women who resided there were anything but angels.
Nonetheless, a trip into Angel Camp that winter jump-started a faltering writing career and changed the face of American literature forever. For you see, Samuel Clemens, later Mark Twain, and his friend Jim Gillis had dodged into a tavern just to get out of the rain and ended up next to an old wood burning stove. Over the course of the next few hours, they listened to the tale that Twain reignited in his first published work and that gave him national recognition.
The story told to the budding literary giant right there in Calaveras County, CA, involved a jumping frog named Dan’l Webster and a contest that continues annually each May to this day.
Most importantly, Mark Twain’s notoriety did not end with the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Other works followed and Clemens’ wit and wisdom continues to impact the world.
Much like Will Rogers, the timeless sayings of Samuel Clemens give us pause and reflection. Sometimes they sting, and always they are relevant.
By the middle of this month, Oklahoma legislators will have filed bills for the coming 2014 regular session. I have assembled a few Mark Twain quotes that might shed light on what really needs legislative attention in the Sooner state.
With regard to the need for public education, Twain said, “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end, you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.”
The state government seems to be full of elected officials who have little or no experience in anything and what they do have has no relevance to their claimed “expertise.”
Twain made several enlightening comments that sound as if he had spent a week or two at the Oklahoma State Capitol or the State Department of Education.
“It’s not what you don’t know that kills you; it’s what you know for sure that ain’t true.”
“That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.”
“In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners whose opinions are not worth a brass farthing.”
Realistically, those “reformers” who believe that they have the expertise to “foster better government” will not realize that their mentality was the target of Twain’s barbed comments.
Perhaps the best advice to be given to those who create solutions and then go in search of a problem would be to know about the subject they lecture on. Oklahoma’s teachers are not the problem. Mark Twain said it best, “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
As for the rest of us, we must continue to realize that, “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.”
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives