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Mark Twain is considered the father of modern American literature and is known in particular for his beloved novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Twain developed a lively, homespun narrative style that liberated American prose from the rigid conventions of the mid-nineteenth century. His specialty was satire that exposed human folly and social injustice. During his lifetime, his writing was often denounced as coarse and improper; subsequently, readers and critics have come to regard Twain’s works as the foremost literary expression of the American spirit of pragmatism, egalitarianism, and honesty. Ernest Hemingway wrote: ”All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn….There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Cub Reporter and Steamboat Cub
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835. In 1839, the family moved thirty miles away to Hannibal, Missouri. As a youth, he frequented the banks of the Mississippi River, and he often traveled in makeshift rafts or cavorted in swimming holes. His formal education lasted only until 1847, when his father died. At that point, he quit school and became a printer’s apprentice. By age seventeen, he was also writing stories and sketches for the newspapers he helped print.
Eventually, he began to work for his brother, Orion Clemens, who owned several newspapers. The brothers suffered a series of business failings, whereupon Twain departed for the open road. Throughout the next three years, he wandered from the Midwest to the East Coast, supporting himself by publishing his observations in various newspapers still managed by his brother. He rejoined Orion for two years in Keokuk, Iowa, then left in 1857, intending to sail down the Mississippi to New Orleans and on to South America where he would make his fortune. That spring, he met a veteran steamboat captain named Horace Bixby. Twain was greatly intrigued by the captain and for the next two years served as Bixby’s ”cub,” or apprentice, sailing with him down the Mississippi and enjoying many adventures.
Becoming Mark Twain
Twain obtained his own pilot’s license in 1859 and spent more time up and down the Mississippi. His exploits in this period eventually served as material for some of his most inspired writing. The pseudonym he adopted, Mark Twain, is an expression used by riverboat crews to indicate that the water at a given spot is two fathoms deep and thus easily navigable.
After the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Union troops used the Mississippi as an invasion route, effectively closing business travel along the river. Twain joined an irregular band of Confederate sympathizers and briefly experienced combat, then deserted and traveled west with Orion to the Nevada territory. For a year, he tried to cash in on the speculation fever by panning for gold and silver. As a prospector, Twain failed miserably, but he sent some humorous writing to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise for comic relief and joined the staff of that paper in August 1862.
As a journalist, he assumed the Mark Twain pseudonym, alternating straight reporting with Far West humor and wild hoaxes. When he went too far, and a rival journalist challenged him to a duel, Twain fled to San Francisco and wrote for newspapers there. Mixed with his humor was enough righteous indignation that Twain became known as the ”Moralist of the Pacific Slope.” Again, his writing gave offense, this time to the San Francisco Police Department, and again he departed hurriedly.
Reaching a National Audience
When he got back, Twain learned that the prominent humorist Artemus Ward had asked him to write a piece for a forthcoming anthology. The tale Twain contributed arrived too late for inclusion in Ward’s volume but was pirated by the New York Saturday Press in November 1865, where it won great acclaim. It was eventually copied in newspapers across the country and became the title story of Twain’s first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867).
For the rest of the decade, Twain traveled widely and contributed his observations to various West Coast publications. In 1867, the author boarded the ship Quaker City for a five-month cruise to Europe and the Middle East and was accompanied by some wealthy and solemnly pious New York socialites. Twain mocked his fellow travelers and called the journey ”a funeral excursion without a corpse.” The satirical letters he wrote during this voyage were a sensation and established his fame on both coasts. The book Twain fashioned from these pieces, The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869), became the most commercially successful publication of his career and one of the most popular books of the mid-nineteenth century.
Twain’s talents were well suited to popular travel writing, and throughout his career the genre served him well financially. His wanderlust also reflected the mood of his times. Americans were on the move, with tourism becoming for the first time a common middle-class leisure activity. With broad, satirical humor, Twain’s travelogues debunked the pretensions of Europe, declaring cultural independence from the Old World, and it was a message American readers loved. The success of The Innocents Abroad, along with his prowess as a public lecturer, established Twain as the leading American humorist.
Twain Takes to Novels
While visiting a friend from the Quaker City cruise, Charles Langdon—the son of the coal merchant Jervis Langdon of Elmira, New York— Twain fell in love with Langdon’s sister, Olivia. Jervis Langdon gave permission for the two to marry, which they did in 1870, and his new father-in-law furnished Twain with part ownership of a newspaper in Buffalo. The couple stayed there only briefly, however, settling instead in Hartford, Connecticut. Here, Twain completed work on a memoir of his experiences out west, Roughing It (1872). The book was another major success and remains prominent in the Twain canon.
Twain and his wife lived in Hartford for twenty years, mostly residing in a unique mansion designed by Twain himself. Nearby lived other writers, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, who became a literary adviser to Twain. In 1874, Twain published his first novel, The Gilded Age, cowritten with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner. This was one of the earliest political satires in American fiction; it exposed corruption and greed using thinly disguised portraits of well-known politicians from Congress and the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.
Two years later came The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a novel about an enterprising young boy living near the Mississippi River. The story’s combination of gentle satire, broad comedy, and adventure gained wide acclaim among readers of all ages. Tom Sawyer features some of Twain’s most memorable feats of storytelling, including the trial of Injun Joe, the funeral of the missing boys (which is interrupted by the boys’ reappearance), and Tom and Becky’s dramatic escapades in the cave.
Life on the Mississippi
Twain immediately began work on a follow-up novel about Tom Sawyer’s friend, the young vagrant Huckleberry Finn. This work took seven years to complete, during which time Twain journeyed through Europe again, producing another travelogue that sold well. In 1881 Twain published The Prince and the Pauper, a straightforward novel set in sixteenth-century England, concerning two boys from different stations in life who decide to exchange identities. The book won acclaim as a compelling tale of historical England, but it proved a debacle for its author; Twain had published the book himself and agreed to pay royalties to the publishing company, leaving him with a disturbing financial setback.
In April 1882, Twain decided to go home. The result was Life on the Mississippi (1883), in which Twain combines reminiscences of his younger days (originally published in the Atlantic Monthly as ”Old Times on the Mississippi”) with notes upon revisiting his old haunts. Unlike his other travel books, Life on the Mississippi is filled with respect and love for his subject: it renders the Mississippi River as an ever-mysterious, unfathomable force.
Huck, Jim, and the River
The Mississippi is featured prominently in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Twain finally completed in 1884. Racial animosity was at a fever pitch while Twain was writing Huckleberry Finn, with memories of the Civil War still fresh. The novel, set in the antebellum South, directly confronts the inhumanity of slavery and racial prejudice. Huck’s tale begins where Tom Sawyer left off, Huck having been adopted by Widow Douglas. On a winter day, Huck discovers that his alcoholic father, whom he had not seen for a year, has returned home. Huck’s father then appears, takes Huck into the woods and starves and beats him. Huck manages to escape and stages his own death. He flees to an island, where he discovers a fugitive slave, Jim. Back on the mainland, Huck learns that his own death has been attributed to Jim. Jim determines to head north through the slave states to freedom, and Huck decides to join him, heedless of the danger to himself if he were to be caught aiding a runaway slave.
From that point forward, as they embark by raft, Huck and Jim’s search for freedom becomes increasingly somber and ominous as they head helplessly in the opposite direction from their goal, controlled by the southward flow of the mighty Mississippi. Moving deeper and deeper into slave territory, they are separated and reunited several times and encounter violence and treachery. The characters and situations Huck and Jim encounter allow Twain to unleash the stinging satire against the South that he avoided using in Life on the Mississippi. Nevertheless, the narrative focuses on Huck’s developing moral independence from the teachings of his society. Although many of Twain’s contemporaries objected to the novel’s vernacular dialogue, coarse subject matter, and forthright social criticism, Huckleberry Finn was a great popular success and is now considered one of the great American novels.
A Connecticut Yankee and the Perils of Technology
In his next novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Twain produced a harsh depiction of life in sixth-century England; he likened its repressive, anti-democratic society to that of post-Civil War America. His protagonist is Hank Morgan, a foreman in a firearms factory, who suffers a blow to the head and wakes up in medieval England. With his practical knowledge and inventiveness, he sets out to enlighten the kingdom and its superstitious courtiers. Hank strings telephone lines (which were being established in the United States as Twain was writing), prints a newspaper, uses gunpowder and other modern “miracles,” but these gifts from the future prove destructive. At the end of the book, Hank and fifty-two boys destroy 25,000 knights with dynamite, electrified barbed wire, and a brand-new weapon, the Gatling gun. This grotesque fantasy presciently envisions how mechanization would turn combat into slaughter, most famously in World War I.
With A Connecticut Yankee, Twain’s fiction veered from lighthearted burlesque to venomous satire. The book’s acid humor charmed few readers accustomed to the delights of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; many critics, notably in England, condemned the novel as tasteless. In subsequent decades, though, the novel gained recognition as an example of Twain’s social criticism. On the surface, Hank is Twain’s spokesman for democracy over monarchy, freedom in preference to servitude. Beneath that stance is a bleak depiction of human progress, particularly of technology out of human control.
In real life, technology would also cause Twain trouble. In the 1880s, Twain became almost obsessively concerned with speculation in a typesetting machine, an invention in which he invested hundreds of thousands of dollars. The device malfunctioned frequently and failed commercially, and in the financial panic of 1893 and 1894, Twain was forced to declare bankruptcy. Sixty years old and ailing, Twain made frenzied and futile trips across the ocean to bolster his failing financial situation. He had just one possible source of new revenue: a new manuscript.
Tragedy and Misanthropy
In his novel, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Twain returned to the antebellum Southern setting and to the subject of slavery. The novel tells the tale of two children switched at birth by a mulatto slave, Roxana, who hopes to spare her own child the indignities of slavery. The slave owner’s real son is eventually sold into slavery, and Roxana’s son, though reared with all social advantages, nonetheless grows up a rogue and a criminal, who sells his own mother ”down the river” for cash. The son, Tom, eventually commits murder, for which two Italian immigrant twins are held responsible. In the climactic trial scene, the eccentric lawyer Pudd’nhead Wilson reveals the true killer’s identity by using a prized collection of fingerprints. At the time this book was written, fingerprinting had recently been discovered as a means of identification.
Sales of Pudd’nhead Wilson, published together with The Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins, helped Twain recover from his financial woes. However, his favorite daughter Susy died in 1896, at age twenty-four, while Twain was in London on a world tour. Another daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy that same year, and Olivia Clemens fell into physical and emotional distress that took her life several years later. For the rest of his life, Twain’s natural pessimism deepened into a fatalistic despair, and his work grew increasingly bitter and misanthropic.
In his final years, Twain lived in New York City, where he became a social butterfly and political gadfly, speaking out frequently against a variety of injustices at the height of the Progressive Era. Many of his last published works are polemics, such as the essay What Is Man? (1906), which depicts humanity as inherently foolish and self-destructive. He suffered from poor health for several years, before his death on April 21, 1910. Many of his writings—letters, speeches, sketches, stories, an autobiography, and a novella, The Mysterious Stranger (1916)—were published posthumously, helping to sustain the Mark Twain legend deep into the twentieth century.
Works in Literary Context
Twain was a true original. His sense of humor, use of vernacular language, and moral sensibility each made a deep impression upon American culture. He was certainly influenced by the popular literature available in his time, such as the novels of Charles Dickens. He cited Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote as a work that helped shape his thinking, and scholars have detected its structural influence on Huckleberry Finn. The humorist Artemus Ward helped Twain find his comic voice early on. Other vital influences are less well known: for example, that of his brother Orion, and the newspaper business that was such an important part of his youth, which sharpened his powers of observation and narrative logic.
A gifted storyteller and raconteur, Twain perfected in written form a kind of folk humor that was all around him as an oral art, in stories, tall tales, and jests. For example, his first successful story, ”Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog,” derived from a yarn he heard while camping in the Sierra mountains of California. His early writing features a wild, extravagant, masculine humor typical of the western frontier. Many of his travel sketches feature dialogues between the characters of ”Mark Twain,” a sentimental idealist, and Mr. Brown, a vulgar realist who inevitably undercuts the other man’s rapture with cutting remarks. Out of this comic formula developed the more sophisticated, realistic satire that became Twain’s trademark. While his satire could be merciless in its mockery of pretense and pomposity, it was always intended to reveal the foibles and follies of human nature and the human tendency to mistreat one another. Toward the end of his career, the humor grew several shades darker, but just as funny. Consider the dry wit of this aphorism from the calendar of Pudd’nhead Wilson: ”If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”
Outsiders and Misfits
Twain adapted the Mark Twain/Mr. Brown dichotomy in Roughing It by presenting the narrator as a childish naif who gradually loses his illusions and becomes a wise realist as the book progresses. That education process served Twain in most of his later fiction: the cub pilot of ”Old Times on the Mississippi,” Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, David ”Pudd’nhead” Wilson, and other characters in shorter works all begin as outsiders and attempt, with varying degrees of success, to come to terms with society. Tom Sawyer represents one kind of misfit, a conniving prankster who gradually moves into society rather than out of it. Tom’s rebellions from conformity, however, have none of the subversive quality that Huckleberry Finn would show just a few years later. Beneath the surface conflicts of freedom versus slavery, Huckleberry Finn explores whether any human being can transcend his (or her) upbringing, can violate his indoctrination into society’s flawed moral code. In his later years, Twain decided firmly that this was impossible. In Huckleberry Finn, the issue is more complex. After wrestling with his conscience several times, Huck decides he will ”go to hell” rather than turn Jim in. The reader supports Huck’s ability to loose the shackles of convention and conformity.
Comedy and Tragedy
Scholars recognize in Twain a man divided between a comic and a tragic outlook on life. Throughout his career he looked back nostalgically to his youth on the shores of the Mississippi, finding inspiration in his memories. At the same time, he was skeptical, or cynical, about the wisdom of humanity and the possibility of social progress. His works convey a longing for an idyllic past, as a haven from a hostile present. However, Twain also believed that humanity had been give a chance to remedy its situation in America, where egalitarianism could replace the superstitions and false hierarchies of Europe. In Huckleberry Finn, for example, the frontier (in the form of the Mississippi River) allows Huck to escape the clutches of civilization and gain awareness of the importance of courage, honesty, and common sense. Yet, as his career wore on, Twain lost his faith in humanity and free will. His final position coincided with that of literary naturalists Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, who believed that human behavior was determined by environment, breeding, and other social forces.
One of Twain’s greatest contributions to American literature is his brilliant use of ordinary, colloquial language. The style of his early, journalism-based work emulates the rhythms and speech patterns of folk storytelling, as characters relate tall tales and humorous incidents. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain raises the rendition of native dialect and idiom, among both whites and blacks, to a high art. Twain’s style ranged far from the tidy prose of more conventional realists, such as William Dean Howells, not to mention the erudite expression of a Henry James. But, the language struck audiences as fresh, original, and authentically American.
Father of American Literature
Twain’s influence has been felt in every succeeding generation of American literature. By breaking from inherited European conventions, Twain helped America develop its own unique, democratic culture and transmit that culture to a mass audience. Many of his characters and scenes are indelibly imprinted upon the American imagination, none more so than the image of Huck and Jim rafting down the river. Huckleberry Finn is considered by many to be the greatest work of fiction produced by an American. Twain’s gift for transmitting common speech to the page, his wry and pungent maxims, his irreverence, his outspoken political advocacy, and his astringent view of human nature are all living legacies. No less an authority than William Faulkner referred to Twain as ”the father of American literature.”
Works in Critical Context
Twain reached the heights of literary celebrity early in his career. Readers in the late nineteenth century knew him first and loved him best as a travel writer rather than a novelist. The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It were widely acclaimed and established their author’s rapport with his readers. Twain’s novels, on the other hand, met an uneven reception upon their publication. Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper were critical and commercial successes, but Huckleberry Finn at first repelled many reviewers, who found the characters and situations uncouth and the subject matter not appropriate for young readers. A Connecticut Yankee and Puddd’nhead Wilson each sold relatively well, but initial critical reaction was generally unfavorable. Perhaps these novels were ahead of their time, for as the decades have passed, their stature has steadily grown.
Today, Twain remains one of the most widely read and admired authors in American literature. He is central to the American canon; he captured, with remarkable fidelity, essential aspects of the American experience and national character. While his fiction, especially Huckleberry Finn, is frequently assigned in schools, it is also among the most frequently challenged, according to the American Library Association. Because of the cultural importance and literary virtuosity of Twain’s prose, it remains the subject of voluminous and lively debate. Twain’s detractors have attacked his work for ideologically varied reasons, accusing it of profanity, misanthropy, and, more recently in the case of Huckleberry Finn, racism in its characterization of Jim.
Despite meager and almost entirely negative attention at first, Huckleberry Finn soon became prized for its recreation of the antebellum South, its insights into slavery, its depiction of adolescent life, and its irreverence. Prominent men of letters, such as H. L. Mencken and Ernest Hemingway, have named it among the world’s greatest masterpieces. The book’s final chapters, however, seem anticlimactic to many. Even Hemingway, in The Green Hills of Africa (1935), advised that ”If you read it you must stop where .. .Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.”
The question of race hovers over modern scholarship on Huckleberry Finn. Jim is treated sympathetically, and the book calls into question the social system predicated on racism. On the other hand, the portrayal of Jim does fall back on some stereotypical notions. For these reasons, some Twain critics cannot go along with the liberal interpretation of Huckleberry Finn as an indictment of slavery and racism. Stephen Railton, in ”Jim and Mark Twain: What Do Dey Stan’ For?,” argues that Twain ultimately fails to challenge his readers’ stereotypical frame of reference.
Much scholarly attention has recently gone to Pudd’nhead Wilson, a work not previously ranked among Twain’s greatest. Its melodrama of the changelings brings into relief the moral ambiguities surrounding race in America. It makes a worthy companion piece to Huckleberry Finn, published a decade earlier. In Huckleberry Finn, the river acts as a state of nature in which the authority of society’s ethical codes can be loosened; while in Pudd’nhead, the stifling small-town atmosphere of Dawson’s Landing magnifies the contradictions of racism. In Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer, Henry Nash Smith notes, ”The society of Dawson’s Landing imposes upon slaves and masters alike the fictions which sustain the institution of slavery. The training corrupts both: the slave by destroying his human dignity, by educating him to consider himself inferior… the master by encouraging cruelty toward the human beings he is taught to regard as animals.” Thus, while Pudd’nheadds plot and characterizations leave something to be desired, it effectively conveys the essence of Mark Twain’s moral concern.
- Branch, Edgar M. The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1950.
- Carrington, George C. The Dramatic Unity of Huckleberry Finn. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976.
- Devoto, Bernard. Mark Twain’s America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1932.
- Ferguson, DeLancey. Mark Twain: Man and Legend. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.
- Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Hill, Hamlin. Mark Twain: God’s Fool. New York: Harper &Row, 1973.
- Howells, William Dean. My Mark Twain. New York: Harper, 1910.
- Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966.
- Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain, A Biography. 3 vols. New York: Harper, 1912.
- Petit, Arthur G. Mark Twain and the South. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
- Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Random House, 2005.
- Sloane, David E. E. Mark Twain as a Literary Comedian. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
- Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1962.
- Wecter, Dixon. Sam Clemens of Hannibal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952.
- Railton, Stephen. ”Jim and Mark Twain: What Do Dey Stan’ For?” Virginia Quarterly Review: 63 (1987).
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