Even when I was a kid in grammar school and we had to read Huck Finn, I had a sense that Mark Twain was a raving bore and that for some reason the rest of the country insisted on making an icon out of a sentimental old goat. Now comes P.J. O’Rourke, one of my favorite writers, to tell me that I was onto something:
Are there any older humor writers like Mark Twain, or others, whom you admire?
It’s funny you should mention Twain. An old friend of mine is up here from Washington, and we were just having a discussion about Mark Twain. Twain was a genius, of course. But we were talking about his annoying, preachy side. Although I do admire Mark Twain’s abilities, if you take the whole body of his work, quite a lot of it sets my teeth on edge. So I’m not a huge Twainophile.
Is that because there was a particular argument he was trying to put forward in his writings that bothers you?
Not really. It was just a sort of sanctimoniousness. He was fond of pointing out hypocrisy, particularly about religion. But a little bit of hypocrisy is not such a hideous evil. After all, people who are hypocrites at least know the difference between bad and good. There’s a kind of person who doesn’t know the difference, or who thinks bad is good. A hypocrite is preferable to someone like a Hitler or a Stalin who always sticks to the party line.
As for dead humorists whom I most admire, I’d have to say Evelyn Waugh and Max Beerbohm. Waugh is just absolutely amazing. And Beerbohm is not read much anymore, but he was an absolutely fantastic essayist.