Mark Twain: Contribution as American Writer

Also Read

     Mark Twain was the pen-name of Samuel L. Clemens (1835-1910), who, like his fellow-humorist Bret Harte, had an early career not devoid of - picturesque incident. Born in Florida, Missouri, he was in turn a pilot on the Mississippi, a silver-miner in Nevada, a journalist, and an editor. A pleasure-trip to Europe provided him with material for The Innocents Abroad (1869), which established his reputation as an American humorist of the first rank. He wrote much after this, and with much applause, but his run of prosperity was interrupted by the bankruptcy of a firm with which he was connected. This was the cause of his undertaking a lecturing tour round the world. In 1907, after the conclusion of his tour, he visited England, where he was warmly, received, Oxford conferring upon him the degree of D.Litt.

Mark Twain's work falls into three main classes, travel books, novels of the Mississippi, and romances. In the first group we have, in addition to The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It (1872), an account of his own experiences in the West, A Tramp Abroad (1880), which tells of further travels in Europe, and Following the Equator (1897), in which he writes of the world-wide lecture tour made toward the end of his life.
Mark Twain

      Mark Twain's work falls into three main classes, travel books, novels of the Mississippi, and romances. In the first group we have, in addition to The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It (1872), an account of his own experiences in the West, A Tramp Abroad (1880), which tells of further travels in Europe, and Following the Equator (1897), in which he writes of the world-wide lecture tour made toward the end of his life. In the best of them, The Innocents Abroad, we see a typical American turning on the Old World the sceptical eye of the New. And the result is a series of philistine, but vivid and amusing, pictures of Europe. His fascination about India is shown in his writings, the best compliment India have ever received "anything that can ever be done either by man or God has been done in this land"

      His best work is to be found in the novels of the Mississippi. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) break away from the cultured gentility of New England literature to give vivid, realistic, and racy pictures of life in the southern states. Of the two, Huckleberry Finn is generally adjudged the greater, in that it plumbs deeper levels of human experience than the more romantic Tom Sawyer. Life on the Mississippi (1883), though a travel book, belongs to this group, for its first half also deals with the great waterway, as Twain remembered it from his youth.

      The romances, which include The Prince and the Pauper (1881), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), and Joan of Arc (1896), are of a poorer quality. In these Twain lacked the stimulus of personal experience.

      Like Whitman, Twain is important in American literature in that he broke away from the strong influence of European models, and helped to lay the foundations of a distinctively American tradition. Anumorist, aiming to please the masses, his strokes are bold and Droad, and the humour ranges from farce to bitter satire. Always he writes with his eye on the object, and his best works are firmly grounded in reality. His plots are rather episodic, but the episodes are well handled; his characters are drawn with a warm humanity, and his style has the spontaneous ease which gives his writings an enduring charm.

      LIFE IN THE MISSISSIPPI VALLEY.—The author who is known in every village of the United States by the pen name of Mark Twain, which is the river phrase for two fathoms of water, was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835. He says of his birthplace: "The village contained a hundred people, and I increased the population by one per cent. It is more than the best man in history ever did for any other town." When he was two and a half years old, the family moved to Hannibal on the Mississippi, thirty miles away.

      The most impressionable years of his boyhood were spent in Hannibal, which he calls "a loafing, down-at-the-heels, slave-holding Mississippi town." He attended only a common school, a picture of which is given in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Even this schooling ceased at the age of twelve, when his father died. Like Benjamin Franklin and W. D. Howells, the boy then became a printer, and followed this trade in various places for nearly eight years, traveling east as far as the City of New York. He next became a "cub," or under pilot, on the Mississippi River. After an eighteen months' apprenticeship, he was an excellent pilot, and he received two hundred and fifty dollars a month for his services. He says of these days: "Time drifted smoothly and prosperously on, and I supposed—and hoped—that I was going to follow the river the rest of my days, and die at the wheel when my mission was ended. But by and by the war came, commerce was suspended, my occupation was gone." For an inimitable account of these days, the first twenty-one chapters of his Life on the Mississippi (1883) should be read.

 "… in that brief, sharp schooling, I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history. The fact is daily borne in upon me, that the average shore employment requires as much as forty years to equip a man with this sort of education…. When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river." [Footnote: Life on the Mississippi, Chapter XVIII.]

      No other work in American literature or history can take the place of this book and of his three great stories (pp. 359-361), which bring us face to face with life in the great Mississippi Valley in the middle of the nineteenth century.

      LIFE IN THE FAR WEST.—In 1861 he went to Nevada as private secretary to his brother, who had been appointed secretary of that territory. Mark Twain intended to stay there but a short time. He says, "I little thought that I would not see the end of that three-month pleasure excursion for six or seven uncommonly long years."

      The account of his experiences in our far West is given in the volume called Roughing It (1871). This book should be read as a chapter in the early history of that section. The trip from St. Joseph to Nevada by stage, the outlaws, murders, sagebrush, jackass rabbits, coyotes, mining camps,—all the varied life of the time—is thrown distinctly on the screen in the pages of Roughing It. While in the West, he caught the mining fever, but he soon became a newspaper reporter and editor, and in this capacity he discovered the gold mine of his genius as a writer. The experience of these years was only second in importance to his remarkable life in the Mississippi Valley. No other American writer has received such a variety of training in the university of human nature.

      LATER LIFE.—In 1867, he supplemented his purely American training with a trip to Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land. The story of his journey is given in The Innocents Abroad (1869), the work which first made him known in every part of the United States. A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897), are records of other foreign travels. While they are largely autobiographical, and show in an unusually entertaining way how he became one of the most cosmopolitan of our authors, these works are less important than those which throb with the heart beats of that American life of which he was a part in his younger days.

      In 1884 he became a partner in the publishing house of Charles L. Webster and Co. This firm incurred risks against his advice, and failed. The failure not only swallowed up every cent that he had saved, but left him, past sixty, staggering under a load of debt that would have been a despair to most young men. Like Sir Walter Scott in a similar misfortune, Mark Twain made it a point of honor to assume the whole debt. He lectured, he wrote, he traveled, till finally, unlike Scott, he was able to pay off the last penny of the firm's indebtedness. His life thus set a standard of honor to Americans, which is to them a legacy the peer of any left by any author to his nation. After his early pioneer days, his American homes were chiefly in New England. For many years he lived in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1908 he went to a new home at Redding, Connecticut. His last years were saddened by the death of his daughter and his wife. His death in 1910 made plain the fact that few American authors had won a more secure place in the affections of all classes.

      It does not seem possible that the life of any other American author can ever closely resemble his. He had Elizabethan fullness of experience. Even Sir Walter Raleigh's life was no more varied; for Mark Twain was a printer, pilot, soldier, miner, newspaper reporter, editor, special correspondent, traveler around the world, lecturer, biographer, writer of romances, historian, publisher, and philosopher.

      STORIES OF THE MISSISSIPPI VALLEY.—The works by which Mark Twain will probably be longest known are those dealing with the scenes of his youth. He is the historian of an epoch that will never return. His works that reveal the bygone life of the Mississippi Valley are not unlikely to increase in fame as the years pass. He resembles Hawthorne in presenting the early history of a section of our country. New England was old when Hawthorne was a boy, and he imaginatively reconstructed the life of its former days. When Mark Twain was young, the West was new; hence his task in literature was to preserve contemporary life. He has accomplished this mission better than any other writer of the middle West.

      The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) is a story of life in a Missouri town on the Mississippi River. Tom Sawyer, the hero, is "a combination," says the author, "of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew." Probably Mark Twain himself is the largest part of this combination. The book is the record of a wide-awake boy's impression of the life of that day. The wretched common school, the pranks of the boys, the Sunday school, the preacher and his sermon, the task of whitewashing the fence, the belief in witches and charms, the half-breed Indian, the drunkard, the murder scene, and the camp life of the boys on an island in the Mississippi,—are all described with a vividness and interest due to actual experience. The author distinctly says, "Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine." [Illustration: HUCKLEBERRY FINN (From "Huckleberry Finn," by Samuel L. Clemens)]

      Huckleberry Finn (1885) has been called the Odyssey of the Mississippi. This is a story of life on and along the great river, just before the middle of the nineteenth century. Huckleberry Finn, the son of a drunkard, and the friend of Tom Sawyer, is the hero of the book. The reader becomes deeply interested in the fortunes of Jim, a runaway slave, who accompanies Huck on a raft down the river, and who is almost hourly in danger of being caught and returned or again enslaved by some chance white man.

      One of the strongest scenes in the story is where Huck debates with himself whether he shall write the owner where to capture Jim, or whether he shall aid the poor creature to secure his freedom. Since Huck was a child of the South, there was no doubt in his mind that punishment in the great hereafter awaited one who deprived another of his property, and Jim was worth eight hundred dollars. Huck did not wish to lose his soul, and so he wrote a letter to the owner. Before sending it, however, he, like Hamlet, argued the case with himself. Should he send the letter or forfeit human respect and his soul? The conclusion that Huck reached is thoroughly characteristic of Mark Twain's attitude toward the weak. The thirty-first chapter of Huckleberry Finn, in which this incident occurs, could not have been written by one who did not thoroughly appreciate the way in which the South regarded those who aided in the escape of a slave. Another unique episode of the story is the remarkable dramatic description of the deadly feud between the families of the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords.

      This story is Mark Twain's masterpiece, and it is not improbable that it will continue to be read as long as the Mississippi flows toward the Gulf. Of Mark Twain's achievement in these two tales, Professor William Lyon Phelps of Yale says: "He has done something which many popular novelists have signally failed to accomplish—he has created real characters. His two wonderful boys, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, are wonderful in quite different ways. The creator of Tom exhibited remarkable observation; the creator of Huck showed the divine touch of imagination…. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are prose epics of American life."

      Mark Twain says that he was reared to believe slavery a divine institution. This fact makes his third story of western life, Pudd'nhead Wilson. interesting for its pictures of the negro and slavery, from a different point of view from that taken by Mrs. Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

      GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—During his lifetime, Mark Twain's humor was the chief cause of his well-nigh universal popularity. The public had never before read a book exactly like his Innocents Abroad. Speaking of an Italian town, he says, "It is well the alleys are not wider, because they hold as much smell now as a person can stand, and, of course, if they were wider they would hold more, and then the people would die." Incongruity, or the association of dissimilar ideas, is the most frequent cause of laughter to his readers. His famous cablegram from England that the report of his death was much exaggerated is of this order, as is also the following sentence from Roughing It:—

 "Then he rode over and began to rebuke the stranger with a six-shooter, and the stranger began to explain with another."

      Such sentences convey something more than a humorous impression. They surpass the usual historical records in revealing in an incisive way the social characteristics of those pioneer days. His humor is often only a means of more forcibly impressing on readers some phase of the philosophy of history. Even careless readers frequently recognize that this statement is true of much of the humor in A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, which is one of his most successful exhibitions of humor based on incongruity.

      While his humor is sometimes mechanical, coarse, and forced, we must not forget that it also often reveals the thoughtful philosopher. To confirm this statement, one has only to glance at the humorous philosophy that constitutes Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar.

      Mark Twain's future place in literature will probably be due less to humor than to his ability as a philosopher and a historian. Humor will undoubtedly act on his writings as a preservative salt, but salt is valuable only to preserve substantial things. If matter of vital worth is not present in any written work, mere humor will not keep it alive.

      One of his most humorous scenes may be found in the chapter where Tom Sawyer succeeds in getting other boys to relieve him of the drudgery of whitewashing a fence. That episode was introduced to enable the author to make more impressive his philosophy of a certain phase of human action:—

 "He had discovered a great law of human action without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do."

      His statement about illusions shows that his philosophy does not always have a humorous setting:—

 "The illusions are the only things that are valuable, and God help the man who reaches the time when he meets only the realities."

      Hatred of hypocrisy is one of his emphatic characteristics. If Tom Sawyer enjoyed himself more in watching a dog play with a pinch-bug in church than in listening to a doctrinal sermon, if he had a better time playing hookey than in attending the execrably dull school, Mark Twain is eager to expose the hypocrisy of those who would misrepresent Tom's real attitude toward church and school. While Mark Twain is determined to present life faithfully as he sees it, he dislikes as much as any Puritan to see evil triumph. In his stories, wrongdoing usually digs its own grave.

      His strong sense of justice led him to write Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), to defend the Maid of Orleans. Because he loved to protect the weak, he wrote A Dogs Tale (1904). For the same reason he paid all the expenses of a negro through an eastern college.

      Although he was self-taught, he gradually came to use the English language with artistic effect and finish. His style is direct and energetic, and it shows his determination to say a thing as simply and as effectively as possible. One of the rules in Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar is, "As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out." He followed this rule. Some have complained that the great humorist's mind, like Emerson's, often worked in a disconnected fashion, but this trait has been exaggerated in the case of both. Mark Twain has certainly made a stronger impression than many authors whose "sixthly" follows more inevitably. It is true that his romances do not gather up every loose end, that they do not close with a grand climax which settles everything; but they reflect the spirit of the western life, which also had many loose ends and left much unsettled.

      His mingled humor and philosophy, his vivid, interesting, contemporary history, which gives a broad and sympathetic delineation of important phases of western life and development, fill a place that American literature could ill afford to leave vacant.

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions