Students have regular exposure to forms of mockery, ridicule, derision, scorn, or caricature on social media, on TV, on film, or Youtube, yet many still do not understand satire. Despite living in an atmosphere saturated 24/7 with “humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule that exposes and criticizes people’s stupidity or vices,” when students read satire, they say they just don’t “get it.”
Perhaps teachers help improve student understanding with lessons on satire that have students read the speech “Advice to Youth” by Mark Twain (1905). This speech was given by Twain (Samuel Clemens) on the occasion of his 7oth birthday, and is an example of a great short literary informational text for the English Language Arts secondary classroom. Students may be familiar with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and this speech could be an excellent way students could build background knowledge.
Twain opens the speech with a humorous image in recalling his 1st birthday as contrasted with his 70th:
“I hadn’t any hair, I hadn’t any teeth, I hadn’t any clothes. I had to go to my first banquet just like that.”
Students can easily understand the humor in the advice Twain is giving in each section of the essay through his use of irony, understatement, and exaggeration.
He gives advice on the necessary amount of sleep:
“I have made it a rule to go to bed when there wasn’t anybody left to sit up with. And I have made it a rule to get up only when I had to.”
He gives advice on smoking cigars:
“I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time.”
He gives advice on exercise:
“I’ve never taken any exercise except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any. Exercise is loathsome. And it cannot be any benefit when you are tired — I was always tired.”
And he satirizes lying:
“Now as to the matter of lying. You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught. Once caught, you can never again be in the eyes to the good and the pure, what you were before. Many a young person has injured himself permanently through a single clumsy and ill finished lie, the result of carelessness born of incomplete training.”
The speech is 2,467 words long with a Readability score grade score of 8.1 and a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of 74.8. An audio/video recording (6:22 minutes) of the highlights of this speech has been recreated by actor Val Kilmer and is available on the American Rhetoric website.
Additionally , a lesson on how to teach Twain’s use of satire is available on the Mark Twain House website, and this speech can be used with this lesson.
Reading this Twain’s speech provides students an opportunity to analyze how his purpose or message is fitted to meet the standards of the speech genre. . Additionally, giving students a speech to read or listen to also helps to increase their background knowledge on an author as important as Twain.
Finally, using a speech in the secondary classroom also meets the Common Core Literacy Standards for English Language Arts that require students to determine word meanings, appreciate the nuances of words, and steadily expand their range of words and phrases.
A PBS website offers a number of links on Twain’s life and literature. On the 70th Birthday page , there is a story that before this speech was given at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, Twain’s friend William Dean Howells introduction was a joke:
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, and Colonel Harvey, I will try not to be greedy on your behalf in wishing the health of our honored and, in view of his great age, our revered guest. I will not say, ‘Oh King, live forever!’ but ‘Oh King, live as long as you like!’”
Let Twain, the American King of satire, live as long as we like in this speech!