Mark Twain Knocks New Year’s Resolutions: They’re a “Harmless Annual Institution, Of No Particular Use to Anybody”


Now that anoth­er New Year’s Day has come around, we must once again ask our­selves: do we believe in New Year’s res­o­lu­tions, or don’t we? As with most insti­tu­tions, Mark Twain, that most quot­ed of all Amer­i­can humorists, both believed and did­n’t believe in them. Or maybe we could say that his lack of belief tran­scend­ed run-of-the-mill cyn­i­cism to become a kind of devout faith in human fol­ly itself.

Here we have a few words on the sub­ject from the man him­self, first pub­lished in the Jan­u­ary 1, 1863 edi­tion of the Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Enter­prise, the Vir­ginia City, Neva­da news­pa­per where the young Twain worked for a time:

Now is the accept­ed time to make your reg­u­lar annu­al good res­o­lu­tions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usu­al. Yes­ter­day, every­body smoked his last cig­ar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. To-day, we are a pious and exem­plary com­mu­ni­ty. Thir­ty days from now, we shall have cast our ref­or­ma­tion to the winds and gone to cut­ting our ancient short com­ings con­sid­er­ably short­er than ever. We shall also reflect pleas­ant­ly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. How­ev­er, go in, com­mu­ni­ty. New Year’s is a harm­less annu­al insti­tu­tion, of no par­tic­u­lar use to any­body save as a scape­goat for promis­cu­ous drunks, and friend­ly calls, and hum­bug res­o­lu­tions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a loose­ness suit­ed to the great­ness of the occa­sion.

Twain made a career of skew­er­ing the count­less pieties of Amer­i­can life, and the cul­ture’s per­haps overzeal­ous spir­it of self-improve­ment pro­vid­ed him a vast and nev­er ful­ly deflat­able tar­get. His assess­ment feels as true today, and makes us laugh just as much today, as it must have 153 years ago. So keep enjoy­ing the friend­li­ness, fes­tiv­i­ty, and human com­e­dy of the New Year’s hol­i­day as Twain would have. If you do make a res­o­lu­tion, keep it to a man­age­able lev­el of moral­i­ty. And don’t for­get to revis­it the oth­er per­spec­tives on New Year’s we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured from such oth­er cul­tur­al lumi­nar­ies as Neil Gaiman, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sci­ence of Willpow­er: 15 Tips for Mak­ing Your New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions Last from Dr. Kel­ly McGo­ni­gal

A New Year’s Wish from Neil Gaiman

The Top 10 New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions Read by Bob Dylan

Woody Guthrie’s Doo­dle-Filled List of 33 New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions From 1943 in Life, Music| Jan­u­ary 1st, 2014

Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s Go-Get­ter List of New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions (1955)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Sandeep Ellawala says:

    I think peo­ple are obliv­i­ous to the hypocrisy they live in pri­mar­i­ly due to the igno­rance pro­mot­ed by the mass con­sumerism. Every sin­gle reli­gious, or non-reli­gious hol­i­day we have is now about buy­ing things we do not need at all if we did not have that hol­i­day to begin with. I think I will spend some time read­ing Mark Twain in the com­ing weeks. That would be a good start for this year.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.