| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain)
Samuel L. Clemens, best known as Mark Twain, is at the same time revered as a classic American writer and one of the most popular—in his own lifetime and at present, in the United States and abroad. Born in Missouri, he was brought up in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, which, as St. Petersburg, was to provide the setting for Tom Sawyer and the early chapters of Huckleberry Finn. When his father died in young Sam's eleventh year, he left school and went to work for a printing shop. Soon he was attracted to the possibility of writing, and as early as his sixteenth year he published a piece in a Boston magazine. After four years of travel as a journeyman printer, he determined to become a riverboat pilot. How he learned the piloting skills and what they meant to him as a writer he later recounted, memorably, in "Old Times on the Mississippi," which was incorporated into Life on the Mississippi. He continued to write as an avocation.
When the Civil War put an end to piloting, Clemens served briefly in an unorganized Confederate unit, then headed west with his brother, who had been appointed secretary for the Nevada Territory. There Clemens tried to strike it rich as a miner. In time, his lack of success drove him back to writing, and he became a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. There he began the use of the river leadsman's cry "Mark Twain" (two fathoms of water, just deep enough for a steamboat to pass) as a pen name for his humorous writings. In 1864 he moved to California, where he continued writing both as a journalist and as the creator of humorous sketches. He became a satirist who saw as his target pretentious gentility. In 1865 his first famous piece, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," appeared in a New York periodical. He also began a secondary career as a lecturer. In time he was to become a truly public personality.
After an assignment in Hawaii he went to New York, writing regularly for a San Francisco newspaper. A turning point in his life came when he traveled in 1867 on an excursion to the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. Afterwards he made a book by putting together in revised form the letters he sent back for newspaper publication: the result was The Innocents Abroad, which was a popular success. In it Mark Twain presents himself as an iconoclastic critic of all forms of conventionality, from American reverence for things European to its opposite, our national sense of superiority to the decayed civilization of Europe. The book was sold, as were many of the author's subsequent books, by subscription agents who worked mostly in small towns. His next book was Roughing It, which recounted in somewhat fictionalized form his western adventures. Mark Twain, the good-natured humorist, was now a highly popular author, even among those he had satirized in The Innocents Abroad, the American bourgeoisie.
In 1870 Clemens married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy coal merchant from Elmira, New York. Clemens had become socially ambitious, and he and his wife settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where their "Gilded Age" lifestyle (to use the term that the writer himself coined in the title of his 1873 novel co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner) led to their building the mansion that is today a major tourist attraction. The Clemenses had three daughters, and the family became notably genteel. Nonetheless, "Mark Twain" identified himself as an irreverent skeptic, the enemy of both genteel hypocrisy and the public and private corruption that he attacked in The Gilded Age (1873).
The situation that Mark Twain was in often made him feel uncomfortable. Did his marriage and his Hartford lifestyle mean that he had "sold out"? Something inside him felt a strong sense of rebellion, most fully illustrated by Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which he speaks through an outsider, the son of the town drunk. In "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," written before Huck Finn, he found a way to protest that was socially acceptable because it was funny. Here, as in Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain focuses on the power of conscience. After writing this highly amusing account of his personal situation, he had the satisfaction of reading it to the Monday Evening Club of Hartford, whose distinguished members were lawyers, clergymen, and political leaders. "The Carnival of Crime" belongs to the now established psychological genre of the dopplegänger, in which a ghostly double haunts its fleshly counterpart.
In 1874 Mark Twain recorded the story of a former slave's adventures in his moving report of Auntie Cord's "True Story." He was deeply attracted to African American culture, folk beliefs, and music. This interest led to his recalling his memories of his own childhood in the pre-Civil War South. At first he used a genteel narrator, as in Tom Sawyer. A charming account of village life on the banks of the Mississippi River, the novel should also be seen as a highly critical view of the violence and self-deception underlying the idyllic St. Petersburg, where both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn live. In addition, it prepares the reader for Mark Twain's later return to Huck in his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn.
As both a critic of sentimental, genteel values—the elevation of children and women, for example, as cultural ideals—and also a candidate for gentility, the author was pulled two ways throughout most of the rest of his career. He was both a proper family man and a humorist and satirist out of the West. Often he did not know what to write about. In the early 1880s he was at the same time composing two entirely different books: the historical novel The Prince and the Pauper, which he dedicated to his "well mannered and amiable" daughters and by means of which he had hoped to prove himself to be an author that the genteel could approve of, and Huckleberry Finn, whose central figure is an outcast. Huck Finn, his masterpiece, is idyll, epic, picaresque, and satire. It is especially admired for its comedy, though Huck, the superb narrator, quite lacks a sense of humor.
Huck's great problem is to reconcile his adherence to social norms, particularly those associated with slavery's definition of the black as chattel, with what his heart tells him. The conflict centers on his experiences with Jim, whose humanity he has to learn to respect, for it is denied by what Huck has been taught. Huckleberry Finn is an attack on racism and on the exaltation of property values over human values. It is also a celebration of freedom. Despite the weakness of the last chapters, the book ends powerfully, as it demonstrates, in Roy Pearce's words, "the absolute incompatibility of the sort of self" Huck is and "the sort of world in which he tries so hard to live."
Why is Huckleberry Finn by far Mark Twain's most popular book? One answer is that his deepest feelings found an outlet in it. Through his mouthpiece Huck he could free himself for a time from the inhibitions of the culture that one whole side of him had chosen to embrace. Through Huck the novelist who had chosen to be civilized escapes more completely and out of greater need than young Sam Clemens ever had. The exhilaration that the author felt is the energy behind the book.
Huck's voice helped define what truly American literature was to be. The appealing vernacular speech prepared the way for the acceptance of African American voices, as Ralph Ellison has observed. Indeed, both black and white writers have come to recognize that the use of the vernacular liberates American literature from genteel strictures. Ernest Hemingway proclaimed, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."
In the late 1880s Clemens turned away to a large extent from writing and gave much of his energy to business. For a time he was successful enough that he thought he could become very rich, but the typesetting machine in which he invested heavily and the publishing company that he created both eventually failed. He was able to produce during these years the powerful A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which mixes romance and social and political satire. The objects of the satire are, in the author's words, "unjust laws, the power of the rich and dependence and oppression of the poor."
In the 1890s the Clemens family lived abroad—chiefly in England and Austria. One of the notable works of these years is Pudd'nhead Wilson, a compelling exploration of racism that is linked to the writer's longstanding interest in twins. Mark Twain's 1895 trip around the world, described in his Following the Equator, opened his eyes to American imperialism and increased his sensitivity to world affairs. As a result he wrote many short works, especially in the early years of the century, that reflect his new enlightenment, for example, "The War Prayer" (1905), an ironic attack on chauvinism. During the last years of his life, Mark Twain was much celebrated; his honors included an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. He saw himself more and more as a philosopher, and his later works, many left incomplete at the time of his death, show him to be a pessimist and a determinist. The best of these are "The Chronicle of Young Satan" (1898-1900) and "Letters from the Earth" (1909). Both were published long after Clemens's death. Despite the fact that he told the story of his life only very incompletely and in fragments, his great lifelong work is his autobiography. It includes a masterful account of his youth.
Mark Twain's most serious philosophical statement is his extended dialogue between an old man and a young man entitled What Is Man? There he argues that every creature "is moved, directed, COMMANDED, by exterior influences—solely" and "will always do the thing which will bring him the most mental comfort." The author had some copies of the work printed but did not reveal his authorship because he assumed that his name would be identified only with humorous writing.
Closely associated with Mark Twain's "philosophical" writings are his pessimistic ones, written about the same time. Many of these are not intended to be amusing. Why Twain felt as he did is explained by his clergyman friend Joseph Twichell, who described Mark Twain's outlook in these words: "He was ever profoundly affected with the feeling of the pathos of life. Contemplating its heritage of inevitable pain and tears, he would question if to anyone it was a good gift."
For many years after Mark Twain's death, his literary executor and biographer, Albert B. Paine, sought to keep before the public an image of Mark Twain as an avuncular, accessible humorist, almost a Santa Claus with a cigar and a collection of one-liners. From our vantage point today, however, he appears to be a highly complex, even contradictory personality, quite different from what both Paine and the author himself wished the world to suppose. There is much that is unattractive about the man and his career: he failed to practice what he preached, and he was too much concerned with what would sell, too ready to frame his creative impulses in terms that would either please or shock his audience. He had little ability to judge his own work: he had little confidence in the work that became Huckleberry Finn, for instance, and he might have left it incomplete, like some of his posthumous works that have recently been published. Perhaps because of these contradictions, he was a compelling literary personality, a great humorist, an effective satirist, and a writer who tells much about America, warts and all.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In the Heath Anthology
Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again
Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog
The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg
A True Story
Seventieth Birthday Speech
The War Prayer
The Innocents Abroad
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
A Tramp Abroad
The Prince and the Pauper
Life on the Mississippi
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
Following the Equator
The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts
What Is Man? And Other Philosophical Writings
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Mark Twain at Large: His Travels Here and Abroad
An online exhibition of Twain’s travels, including images of his letters and journals.
Mark Twain Biography
An extensive biography of Mark Twain including information on his person, career, writings, and more.
Mark Twain in Hartford
Biographical information about Twain, his family, writings, the politics of his time, and reflections on his effect on literature and culture today.
Mark Twain in His Times
From UVA's Electronic Text Center, links to contemporary reviews, interactive sites, and full length primary and secondary texts.
Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn: Text, Illustrations, and Early Reviews
The site offers a complete early edition of Huckleberry Finn, illustrations from the first edition, and early reviews from newspapers and magazines across the country.
Mark Twain's Speeches
Digital reproductions of numerous Twain speeches.
Robert Attelmeyer and J.D. Crowley, eds., One Hundred Years of "Huckleberry Finn," 1985
Walter Blair, Mark Twain & "Huck Finn," 1960
Sherwood Cummings, Mark Twain and Science: Adventures of a Mind, 1988
James M. Cox, Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, 1966
Everett Emerson, Mark Twain: A Literary Life, 2000
Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, 1966
James S. Leonard et al., eds., Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on "Huckleberry Finn," 1991
Arthur G. Pettit, Mark Twain and the South, 1973
Forrest G. Robinson, In Bad Faith: the Dynamics of Deception in Mark Twain's America, 1986
Henry Nash Smith, Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer, 1962
Thomas A. Tenney, Mark Twain: A Reference Guide, 1977