For the Birds Radio Program: Mark Twain's Birthday

Original Air Date: Nov. 30, 1987

Laura celebrates Mark Twain’s birthday with a reading of an excerpt from Baker’s Blue Jay Yarn. (3:43)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite writers–Mark Twain. If he had not died on April 21, 1910, he’d be 152 years old today. He was a careful observer of nature, who used animal imagery to wonderful effect in his humor–in “Curing a Cold” he wrote, “My case grew more and more serious every day. Plain gin was recommended; I took it. Then gin and tonic; I took that also. Then gin and onions; I added the onions and took all three. I detected no particular result, however, except that I had acquired a breath like a buzzard’s…”

My favorite Twain story, “Baker’s Blue Jay Yarn,” is in his collection of stories, Two Tramps Abroad. Several listeners have asked me to repeat that story, so in honor of Twain’s birthday, here goes:

There’s more to a blue-jay than any other creature. He has got more moods and more different kinds of feelings than other creatures; and, mind you, whatever a blue-jay feels, he can put into language. And no mere commmonplace language, either, but rattling, out-and-out book-talk–and bristling with metaphor, too–just bristling!

And as for command of language–why, you never see a blue-jay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him! And another thing: I’ve noticed a good deal, and there’s no bird, or cow, or anything that uses as good grammar as a blue-jay. You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does–but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you’ll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it’s the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it’s the sickening grammar they use. Now I’ve never heard a jay use bad grammar but very seldom; and when they do, they are as ashamed as a human; they shut right down and leave.

You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a measure–because he’s got feathers on him, and don’t belong to no church, perhaps, but otherwise he is just as much a human as you be. And I’ll tell you for why. A jay’s gifts, and instincts, and feelings, and interests cover the whole ground. A jay hasn’t got any more principle than a Congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and, four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. Now, on top of this, there’s another thing: a jay can out-swear any gentleman in the mines. You think a cat can swear. Well, a cat can; but you give a blue-jay a subject that calls for his reserve powers, and where is your cat? Don’t talk to me–I know too much about this thing. And there’s yet another thing: in the one little particular of scolding–just good, clean, out-and-out scolding–a blue-jay can lay over anything, human or divine. Yes, sir, a jay is everything that a man is. A jay can cry, a jay can laugh, a jay can feel shame, a jay can reason and plan and discuss, a jay likes gossip and scandal, a jay has got a sense of humor, a jay knows when he is an ass just as well as you do–maybe better. If a jay ain’t human, he better take in his sign, that’s all.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

That was Mark Twain, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”