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.

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  • 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.

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