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Source of image: Project Gutenberg
Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain (1835-1910) grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the banks of the Mississippi River. As a child, Clemens talked about growing up to become a river boat pilot. And sure enough he did. Between 1857 and 1861, Clemens sailed up and down the Mississippi, stopping only when the American Civil War made travel on the river impossible. After a brief stint in a Confederate militia formed by some friends, Twain headed West to Nevada to mine silver. It was in Nevada that he changed his name from Samuel Clemens to "Mark Twain," taking his new name from a riverboat term that meant "two fathoms deep" (a fathom equals six feet). By 1869, Twain was ready to publish his first book, a humorous account of his European travels. It was called Innocents Abroad. In 1872, Innocents Abroad was followed by Roughing It, a description of Twain's life as a silver miner. The Gilded Age, a harsh look at the corruption and greed flourishing in the U.S., came out in 1873. But it was in 1876 that Twain really hit his stride when he returned to the river port setting of his childhood with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The book chronicled the adventures of two boys growing up in a town much like the one Twain knew from childhood. In the introduction, Twain made the autobiographical nature of the story clear:
"Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest of those boys were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individualhe is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew..."
More autobiography came with Life on the Mississippi (1883), the story of Twain's adventures as a steamboat pilot. However, it wasn't until 1884 that Twain produced his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the story of a young boy and a runaway slave named Jim, who make a life together sailing a raft down the Mississippi River. During the trip, with its periodic stops ashore, Huck is forced to re-evaluate his beliefs about race relations. Taught to consider Jim an inferior, or lesser being, Huck discovers that JIm is braver, more genersous, and more loyal than most of the white people he knows. By the time the trip ends, Jim has become a spiritual father for Huck, whose real father is an abusive drunk.
With The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a wonderful combination of hilarious satire and cutting social criticism, Twain changed the face of American literature. He proved that ordinary speech and regional dialects could be the tools of profound meaning. Perhaps most importantly, he showed that humor could have a social conscience. About "Huckleberry Finn," the novelist Ernest Hemingway would later write,
"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing so good since."
Hemingway might have exaggerated a bithe was prone to thatbut in his sense that Twain created a new kind of fiction that had never been seen before on our shores, he was spot on. Prior to Twain, serious novelists were inclined to ape the British, writing nice, complete and formally correct sentences.* Twain, however, would have none of that. When he returned to the scenes of his childhood to write about Huck and Tom, he used the language of the people he had known and vividly remembered. And American literature became all the better for that decision.
Many thanks to Bernardino Payan for his paragraph on Twain, which reminded me of how autobiographical Twain's work was and what effect that had on the literature that followed.
*Since I wrote my dissertation on local color literature in the nineteenth century, I do want to say that Twain had some precursors in the regional writers of the time, but, in my opinion, no one who came close to matching his gift for making dialect speak volumes.
Although I think its creator ignores the underlying harshness of Mark Twain's vision—particularly in later life, as he was beset by personal tragedyI adore this video in which two talking busts of the authors discuss what makes a good story. If Twain starts off with a boy going to the woodshed on a sunny day, Mr. Poe is bound to make the boy get trapped in the woodshed, where all he can hear is the sound of his beating heart. And to a degree, the contrast is accurate. Twain's Huck lights out for the territory at the end of "Huckleberry Finn" because he believes he has a future. Poe's best heroes—I'm not counting here the mystery and puzzle solvers, since I think Poe's tales of ratiocination* are clever but uninterestinghave no future. They are tortured and waiting for the end, which will be madness or death, probably both. Truly, this video, by someone named "Mr. Tubaman" is not to be missed.
*Ratiocination: process of exact reasoning. Poe used this term to distinguish his tales that focus on solving a mystery by rational means from his tales of horror.
In addition to being a printer, a writer, a miner, and a steamboat pilot, Twain was also an inventor. In his lifetime he took out three patents, one on a strap to tighten men's shirts and women's corsets, another on a memory-building game, and a third on a scrapbook in which the pictures didn't need paste to stay put. Only the scrapbook was a success. Acknowledging Twain's patented creation, this PBS website offers viewers a scrapbook of Twain's life and times. The site is a gem because it provides excerpts from Twain's work that aren't so often quoted, like this one from his autobiography:
"I was always told that I was a sickly and precarious and tiresome and uncertain child, and lived mainly on allopathic medicines during the first seven years of my life.
I asked my mother about this, in her old age—she was in her 88th year—and said:
'I suppose that during all that time you were uneasy about me?'
'Yes, the whole time.'
'Afraid I wouldnt live?'
After a reflective pause—ostensibly to think out the facts:
'No—afraid you would.'
It sounds like plagiarism, but it probably wasnt."
Last change made to this page: May 22, 2011