Study of Mark Twain's Legendary Style in Humor

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      Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place". This quotation by the novelist himself is enough to summarize how Mark Twain felt about humor and the objective behind it.

      The novelist's scrutiny of human nature, his observations of the world around him, his humor, and the use of the American vernacular dialect have made him one of the most celebrated humorous novelists of American Literature.


      John Clemens, Samuel Longhorns Clemens' father, died when the latter was barely twelve years of age. Samuel was, therefore, forced by circumstances to abandon his formal education and start working in order to support his family. As part of his early professional life, at the age of 16 years, he embarked on a job as an apprentice printer and began writing humorous pieces for various newspapers. Eventually, he picked up a job with his brother, Orion, who had set himself up like a newspaper Publisher in Hannibal.

      Working with newspapers, Twain mainly wrote humorous sketches. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is considered his most notable piece of humorous writing. Written in the epistolary form, it appeared in 1865 and was hailed as "the finest piece of humorous literature yet produced in America". It is the reminiscence of a local man about another acquaintance who trains a frog to win in a frog race. Critics have evaluated the story as one that emphasizes the "cultural differences between the western and eastern regions of the United States". Here, there is a perfect blend of an effervescent and effusive convention of storytelling. It has been rooted in the tradition of gossip and the literary institution of satire, irony, and wit.

      During the Civil War that broke out in the year 1861, there was not much mirth in the country. Blood-soaked and tear-filled eyes of the people of the times did not let America forget the turbulence of the times. Twain walked this earth during one of the most tumultuous times, not only in the history of America but also that of the entire world. From the period of "Reconstruction", following the Civil War, he witnessed America emerge from its status as a country torn by internal conflicts to one of rapid Industrialization.

      Besides the political disorder, there was also the turmoil in the life of America's most "celebrated" novelist of the times - Mark Twain. From being penniless, as a result of unwise investments and other unsuccessful stints, to being a witness to the untimely death of his kith and kin, he had enough reason to be dispirited. A steamboat accident had injured and, eventually, killed his brother. During his lifetime, he had lost three of his four children, either during infancy or early childhood. Twain felt responsible for the death of his son, who was exposed to extremely cold weather. His father, John Clemens, had died relatively young. Reportedly, Twain had also given a few matches to a drunkard who had accidentally burned himself in the jail where he had died in the flames. This was enough to haunt Twain. Nevertheless, he kept up his fortitude and managed to fathom humor in the people and the world that he saw around himself.

      Twain had been tempted to embark on a miner's life in the West. The prospects of gold and silver mining and striking it rich as a miner had appealed to him. But, eventually, his attempts to discover gold or silver in the mining industry of the Comstock Lode in Nevada were unsuccessful. Life in the West did not appeal to Twain, who complained about the hard work and barren landscape. This led Samuel Clemens to secure employment with a newspaper called the "Daily Territorial Enterprise". This hard life drove him to write humor - one that was a means of giving vent to pent-up emotions and dissatisfaction of living in a difficult world.


      Twain's primary purpose was to churn out serious work. Yet, being a sensitive man, he hungered after popularity and success. He was sensitive to what the public expected from a humorous writer and, therefore, continued to produce what was in demand. This craving for approval, made him drift away from his original inclination towards serious art. The humorous writing that he attempted in Nevada had found an enthusiastic audience. Urged by this approbation, he happened to, much against his innermost cravings, resorted to this type of writing for a considerable length of time.

      Mark Twain was insightful of and acknowledged the fact that this kind of writing arrested his "moral and aesthetic development". He wrote to his brother before the publication of The Jumping Frog, "I have had a call to literature, of a low order- i.e. humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit. This statement reveals how much Twain detested the career or was simply a tunny man. He could not relate to it and found it extremely shallow. He felt his purpose was to be a moralist and, therefore, his humor had to be more reformatory than merely slapstick comedy.


      Twain maintained that humor "must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever. By forever I mean 30 years." Little did he realize that this would make him one of the greatest exponents of American humor. He sustained the argument that mere humor cannot endure on its own steam.

      Twain, the "enormous noticer" of his times once wrote, "Whatever you have lived, you can write and by hard work and a genuine apprenticeship, you can learn to write well; but what you have not lived you cannot write, you can only pretend to write it...".

      Growing up in the small Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri, Twain observed men and manners and wrote a great deal about them. These observations found their way into his novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These novels are a departure from the sheer comical and animated stuff to a more serious type of writing. It is more than mere buffoonery.

      As a result of his extensive travels, within America and also in the rest of the world, Mark Twain broadened his perspectives and outlook on what he saw around him. Being a journalist as well as a keen observer, his perceptions made him a bitter satirist and critic of the accepted social values. Through his novels and characters, he portrays his dissatisfaction with these so-called acceptable social conventions.

      In Tom Sawyer, when Tom entices his friends to whitewash the fence (an act that he was supposed to do as punishment from Aunt Polly) Twain makes sure that it appeals to boys as well as adults. It is humorous in the sense that boys find it funny and adults find it clever and intelligent.

      Twain himself called this book a "hymn to boyhood". As the novelist states, the prime motive of the novel is to amuse "boys and girls" and "pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves". While the kids will love the adventure, the adults like the book for its more profound message on social satire. Through this book and its sequel, Huckleberry Finn, Twain looks at society through the perspective of young boys, who are, supposedly, more innocent than adults. The novelist exposes the weaknesses inherent in social conventions and accepted standards. Through them, the novelist also reveals the weaknesses of adults.

      In Huckleberry Finn, there is humor in the inception of Tom's robber gang. The way the boys sign the gory oath and vow their allegiance to the mission of the gang is, indeed, funny. We know that, as a result of the impracticality of the gang, all plans would come to naught and, therefore, find it all the more hilarious. The young boy's dream of holding prisoners "in ransom" without even being clear about what the word means.

      There is humor also in the incident of the "mixed-up counting" in chapter 37. In their attempt to free the nigger, Jim, the two boys steal whatever they can lay their hands on, in Aunt Sally's house. When Aunt Sally is counting her spoons, Tom secretly takes away, and puts in, spoons, alternately. This leads to tremendous confusion because when Aunt Sally counts the spoons, she has a different number every time. Alter a Series of attempts at counting, the old lady gets flustered enough to give up. The boys can, then, take away one spoon for Jim. The same exercise of "mixed-up counting" is repeated with the sheet before it is pinched. A maid comes and tells her that a sheet is missing. To make matters worse, Uncle Silas' missing shirt is found mysteriously. There is humor in these episodes. Nevertheless, the book is not just about plain humor. There is also a satire on religion and Christianity. Aunt Sally, though a true Christian, is not upset because nobody is hurt in the steamboat explosion. Only a "nigger" is killed - a fact that doesn't deserve much concern. For her, as a member of the pre Civil War Mississippi Valley, "niggers" are not worthy of interest as "people

 Huck says, ".We blew out a cylinder-head"
 "Good gracious! anybody hurt"?
 "No'm. Killed a nigger".
 "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt...." (chapter 32)

      Even earlier in the novel, Widow Douglas and Miss Watson preach to Huck the tenets of Christianity and concepts of goodness, etc. These exponents of religion do not practice what they preach. Widow Douglas instructs Huck not to smoke but uses "snuff", a form of tobacco, herself. "...she took snuff too; of course, that was all right, because she done it herself.." (chapter 1). This is a humorous statement made by Huck and has a significant purpose behind it. It exposes the fact that the Widow to is a hypocrite. Miss Watson teaches Huck all about the "Moses and the Bullrushers". She urges him to do good so that he can go to "Heaven". But she herself goes against the teachings of the Bible and propagates the concept of slavery.

      Even the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons are hypocrites. They go to Church on Sundays and listen to sermons on "brotherly love" and all the "pretty ornery preaching". Yet, they "....took their guns along... The Shepherdsons done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching all about. brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordestination, and I don't know what all...

      Huck's moral growth is also part of Twain's humor. Huck's pure heart leads him to do the right thing, even when everything that he has seen and been taught tells him it is wrong. In this conflict between the "deformed conscience" and a "sound heart", the latter prevails.

      The "white lies" that he resorts to almost throughout the novel are instances that lend a touch of humor to his writings. While these innocent lies provide excitement for the young reader, the mature audience gets an opportunity to see through Huck's agility of mind and intelligence.


     The personal circumstances and misfortunes in his life had made Twain a pessimist. His pessimism gave birth to humor. He once wrote in Pudd'nhead Wilson, "The secret source of Humour itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no laughter in heaven."

      Twain's biographer, Albert Paine's words help us deduce what drove Twain to his concept of humor. The former wrote that western humor "grew out of a distinct condition - the battle with the frontier. The fight was so desperate, to take it seriously was to surrender. Women laughed that they might not weep; men, when they could no longer swear. Western humor' was the result. It is the freshest, wildest humor in the world, but there is tragedy behind it".

      One will find much more than just humor in Twain's writings. There is a seriousness that needs to be discerned. Twain's earlier works were relatively mild in their satire. His open-mindedness and humor added a touch of tolerance to human imperfections. As a result of his later misfortunes, his writings assumed a more serious tone. Finally, his writings became more and more satirical and bitter.

      Twain's humor is not just plain "laughing", leading to a chortle, arising out of others' nonsensicality and idiosyncrasies. It carries a latent purpose - that of exposing the reality of human nature and the malice hidden within human hearts. All this leads to self-introspection, which, in turn, leads to a feeling of misery. Col. Sherburn, in his speech in chapter 22, chastises the mob that has reached his house to lynch him.

"Your newspapers call you a brave people so much that you think you are braver than any other people- whereas you're just as brave and no braver. Why don't your juries hang murderers? Because they're afraid the man's friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark and it's just what they would do... you're afraid to back down - afraid you'll be found out to be what you are cowards...chapter 22)

      Twain's satire, under the garb of humor, and the strong words that he uses are enough to make us wriggle with discomfort at this revelation of human nature.

      The Bogg's episode is outwardly funny but actually, it reveals an intrinsic satire on human nature. People, driven by their malice, can go to any length to derive fun even at the cost of others' miseries and sorrows..... Well, pretty soon the whole town was there, squirming and scrouging and pushing and shoving to get at the window and have a look, but people that had the places wouldn't give them up, and folks behind them... was saying all the time, 'Say, now, you've looked enough, you fellows; tain't right and tain't fair for you to stay that all the time, and never give anybody a chance; other folks have their rights as well as you.,...

      The men go as far as imitating the pathetic scene and deriving shameful pleasure out of it. "One long, lanky man, with long hair and a big white fur stovepipe hat on the back of his head, and a crooked-handled cane, marked out the places on the ground where Boggs stood and where Sherburn stood, and the people following him around from one place to tother and watching everything he has done, and bobbing their heads to show they understood, and stooping a little and resting their hands on their thighs to watch him mark the places on the ground with his cane..... The people that had seen the thing said he had done it perfectly; said it was just exactly the way it all happened. Then as much as a dozen people got out their bottles and treated him".

There is not an iota of pity and humanity visible here.

     Twain's humor serves the purpose of revealing how human nature hasn't changed over the decades and centuries. People are still as malicious as they have always been.

      Twain talks of the mob outside Col. Sherburn's house, ready to lynch him; he talks of the gullible public that gets taken in by the King and Duke's Nonesuch performances and that which gets duped by the King's claim to be a reformed pirate from the Indian Ocean. Ostensibly, the purpose is to make us laugh. A deeper analysis would reveal that our laughter is not mirthful; it is one that makes us laugh at human nature, not with human beings. It is a wry laughter, not a gleeful one.

      Twain's later works, such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court make use of this dark kind of humor and express the novelist's indignation at imperialism and the oppressive forces of conventional religion and dictatorship. It portrays the Catholic Church as an oppressive force working hand-in-hand with tyrants to keep the masses in a state of ignorance. This and many other of Twain's works speak volumes about the aesthetic and skeptical streak in the novelist's persona. He considered religion as a force that pulls one back from personal growth.

      While living in Hartford, after his marriage to Livy Clemens, a lady of genteel manners, Clemens was surrounded by an equally wealthy and genteel society. It has been argued that this presence was a hindrance in Twain's vociferous expression of satire. This is how the boisterous writer of newspaper days curbed his instincts of wit, criticism, and social satire.


      Laughter need not be the end product of humor. Humour does not arise from the pure comical. Twain's humor is flavored with a tinge of seriousness. He is not merely a "funny man". His daughter, Suzie Clemens, once wrote, "Mark Twain. How I hate that name! I should like never to hear it again. My father should not be satisfied by it, should not be known by it. He should show himself the great writer that he is, not merely a funny man. Funny, that's all people see in him, a maker of funny speeches".

      He is more than the "endearing twinkly-eyed humorist", the grandfatherly figure, to young readers who read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He is more than the kindly old gentleman in his proverbial bushy moustache and perennially white suit. He is a scathing commentator of life and manners; he serves to show the mirror to those living in society. This attribute of his writings makes him timeless today.

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