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In this lesson, we will learn about Mark Twain's life, his most acclaimed writings and his place as a realist and regionalist writer in this country's literary history.
Mark Twain, a writer who is often considered the first truly American voice in this country's literary history, was a man of many adventures. In his lifetime, which spanned from 1835-1910, Twain could have, at various times, considered himself an author, an essayist, a humorist, a journalist, a master riverboat pilot, an entrepreneur, an inventor, a public speaker and controversial personality, a son, a brother, a father and a husband. Most celebrated now for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain's use of authenticity in voice and writing style created for him and the world a new kind of writing - writing that revealed to the reader the gritty, and sometimes uncomfortable, reality of 19th-century life in a changing America.
Here's an interesting fact about Mark Twain: 'Mark Twain' was not the author's given name at birth. This little boy was actually born Samuel Clemens. The year was 1835, and young Samuel joined a mother and father and five siblings in a small village in Missouri. When he was only four, the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a very busy town of about a thousand people. While the move may seem like an unimportant detail, Hannibal became incredibly special to this little boy. The town, situated on the Mississippi River, was bustling with steamboat business, minstrel shows, tradesmen and visiting performance troupes.
Pretty much anything a curious little boy could want, little Samuel had. At some point along the way, though, Samuel saw a different side of this little playground. He witnessed a significant amount of violence in disputes among townspeople and also in the locals' treatment of slaves - by the age of ten he had already witnessed two deaths. Think about it: Missouri would be one of the 15 slave states when the Civil War broke out in 1861, so at the time, slave ownership and trade was an active facet of the economy. On the one hand, little Samuel had this bright little childhood filled with the kind of adventure and wonder that you read about in books. On the other hand, he knew firsthand about the darkness that lay beneath.
Sadly, little Samuel lost his father, a lawyer and a judge, to pneumonia when the boy was only twelve years old. His mother and four surviving siblings grew desperate and became nearly destitute. So, his great American childhood abruptly over, he quit school to begin a lifetime of work. His first job was an apprentice printer at a newspaper at which he worked in exchange for a small amount of food. His second job, at the age of 15, was working for his brother Orion at the Hannibal Western Union as a printer, writer and editor. So began his writing life.
At the age of 17, little Samuel took off. He left his job at his brother's paper and spent three years traveling and working as a printer hired day-by-day. In 1856, he boarded a steamboat in Cincinnati intending to go to New Orleans. Along the route, he informally studied with the steamboat's pilot, whose intelligence and acuity on the water impressed Samuel. Ultimately, he stayed on as an apprentice pilot, eventually fulfilling a childhood dream and earning his own pilot's license. While this may not mean much to you or me, back then, riverboat pilots were powerful, respected and rich. For Samuel, who spent his entire childhood watching from the shore, this turn of events was exciting.
A funny little thing happened to Samuel. Obviously, he had to learn to navigate the muddy and sometimes cloudy waters of the Mississippi. One of the most important lessons of piloting was the necessity of testing the depth of the waters. When one reached a specific measure of depth in the water, the signal cry to others aboard was 'mark twain,' which meant, basically, that the waters were safe. Imagine that. A writer finds his name, and himself, on the riverboat. He made the decision to officially adopt the pen name as his own.
Unfortunately, the Civil War brought a halt to his time on the river because travel became quite limited. Twain decided to take off again, spending time traveling in the U.S. and abroad, and writing various newspapers pieces that were insightful and humorous. It was during this time that he met and married his wife Olivia (with whom he would eventually have four children). It was also during this time that he published his first short story that gained acclaim: 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County.'
Twain was one of those guys whose life seems to follow an uncharted path. While writing for various newspapers, he fancied himself an inventor - he actually patented three inventions. While traveling the country on the lecture circuit as a humorist speaker (and what some would now consider a kind of comedian), he schmoozed with the political and literary elite. In some places he made quite a bit of money, but he also lost money. The one constant in his life seemed to be Missouri and those memories of home. So, he decided to write about it.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, is a novel about a boy growing up on the Mississippi River. Sound at all familiar? Tom Sawyer and his buddies get into all sorts of shenanigans. In this novel, which is said to be set in a town based on Hannibal, Missouri, we meet his sidekick, Huckleberry Finn.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885, is the sequel to his first novel, and is also the work that has garnered the most acclaim. Believed by many (including Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner) to be one of the greatest of all American novels, it chronicles Huck's escape from his unpleasant family situation and his subsequent travels into the South.
What makes Huckleberry Finn so unique? Its use of regional dialect and the fact that the narrator's adventures take place in Missouri and the South. Let's tackle these qualities one by one: in his first-person narration, Twain is able to capture the authentic voice of the narrator through realistic descriptions and vernacular (or the native dialect of a region).
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This is particularly notable because no author had ever given their reader such a gritty portrayal of an authentic character with less-than-romantic life problems, nor had the voice of a child been so successfully captured. This narrator, Huck Finn, reaches out to the reader directly on the very first page of the novel: 'YOU don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.' Think about this -Twain was one of the first to capture language as it was really spoken with accents, mispronunciation and - gasp! - bad grammar. And - double gasp! - readers liked it.
He became one of the first in a new school of writing called Realism. Twain purposefully broke away from the formality of Romanticism and created a kind of story that reflected the real lives of the middle class, and in this case, the real adventures of a mischievous and thoughtful boy. Using this as a vehicle, many not-so-fun topics were weaved into the story like class, money and racism. Again, it was more gritty and in-your-face than most readers had seen - and it was a hit. It also made him an incredibly controversial figure: some of the language in Huck Finn has frequently landed it on the banned book lists in our nation's public schools.
Twain's choice of setting becomes very important as well. In recalling his experiences in Hannibal as a child, he drew on all of those aspects of the region that he remembered, both good and bad. Therefore, we see the all the possibilities that river life brought along with the darker, more scary aspects of opportunism and violent racism. What all of this does is come together to form a real picture of this geographic location - the good, the bad and the ugly. Twain was also considered one of the first Regionalists (or writers who focused their works on an accurate representation of a specific region).
Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) was who many consider to be the first authentically American voice in writing. Through his stories, the reader felt a kinship to characters who were, for the first time, typical folk (and in the case of his most famous novels, they were rumble-tumble boys who lacked a certain kind of civilization).
Twain was the first writer who really focused his work on a specific area of the United States; his characters remained in the playground of his boyhood along the Mississippi River. As a result, Twain emerged as a one-of-a-kind writer with a body of work that garnered him the position of 'leader of the pack' in both the Regionalism and Realism movements in literature.
Considered by many to be one of the country's greatest writers, Twain himself led a life of adventure. Sadly, after losing three of his four children fairly early in their lives, and his wife later on, Twain was unable to write with any real results and instead passed the time in his old age reading and playing cards and billiards (and being bitter, some say). But Twain, who was once called the 'Lincoln of our literature' by his friend and fellow writer William Dean Howells, had already engraved his name in our country's literary history.
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