Mark Twain's life and writing are in more than one way symbolically intertwined with the dividing forces tormenting America in the late 19th century.
The Civil War nearly split the country in half, and like so many other families, Mark Twain’s family were divided in their loyalty and allegiance. Also, America was going through a radical transformation; the last three decades of the century saw the birth of modern America, from frontier communities to industrial urbanisation. Mark Twain is the first American writer to be born west of the Mississippi, the great river that runs clear across the continent, from Lake Superior in the north to the Mexican Gulf in the south. This river was Twain’s source of inspiration for his most famous and memorable works.
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Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) grew up in the town of Hannibal located on the western bank of the Mississippi in the state of Missouri. He loved the river and watched the big paddle steamers and other river boats go by, and he dreamed of one day becoming a river pilot. River navigation was intricate as the waters would change due to shifting sandbanks. So there would be a leadsman or a pilot with a long stick up at the prow calling out: “M-a-r-k three! Half twain! Quarter twain! M-a-r-k twain!” - meaning a two-fathom depth and safe water. In that way Mark Twain took a pseudonym that bears evidence of his love of the great river. His boyhood dream of becoming a pilot on the river was fulfilled, but after a couple of years of piloting, the river was closed because of the Civil War.
Like so many famous authors Mark Twain started his writing career as a journalist, doing humorous sketches for various papers in big cities both on the East and the West Coast. He gradually developed his writing talent and he was determined to become a writer on a professional basis. His two most famous works are monumental in American literature and have become world classics. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer appeared in 1867 and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1876. They both commemorate Mark Twain’s happy childhood on the banks of the great Mississippi river.
Both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn have been enjoyed both by grown-ups and children for generations, but it is an interesting fact that according to Mark Twain himself he “wrote them for adults exclusively”. The books were actually banned from the children’s room at certain libraries, whereas other libraries banned them altogether. From a recent perspective it seems quite preposterous, but it teaches us a thing or two about the morality and values at the time. Tom and his friends are portrayed with the diverse personalities typical of real humans, good and bad, kind-hearted and mischievous at the same time. They are not bad rascals, but they steal and they cheat, they play boys’ tricks and have a good time. Consequently, they were not seen as good role models for small children who were supposed to learn the values of a Christian morality. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is based on Mark Twain’s own happy boyhood, but is told in a 3rd person perspective. In an episode-like narrative we follow Tom and his friends on their escapades in the neighbourhood. It is told in Twain’s typically humorous style, but the story takes a more disturbing turn as the boys witness a murder when they visit a churchyard one night. An innocent man is arrested and the boys must testify in court.
The story is dramatic, funny, and brilliantly composed. In addition, it is realistic; because this is what children are like. The ban was of course later lifted both for Tom and Huck – because this kind of realism is what makes good literature, also for children.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was originally planned as a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Tom actually appears in the story about Huck Finn) – but the plan was altered along the way. So The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stands alone and is beyond doubt Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Huck Finn’s voyage down the river on a raft with the runaway slave, Nigger Jim, gives rise to universal issues like human relations and moral reflections.
The composition is a picaresque-like narrative that in a way resembles the famous story about Don Quixote. Next to the two characters on the raft there is a third protagonist – the mighty and mystic Mississippi, the delusive companion carrying them towards freedom. As in Tom Sawyer, Twain uses his own childhood as a resource, however, Huck Finn is told from a 1st person angle; a technique that gives two benefits; one - the narrative becomes more identifiable for the reader, and two – it opens up the mind of the protagonist, so the reader can follow his line of thoughts and ideas.
Huck Finn is in many ways like Tom Sawyer with his boyish reflections and aptness for dealings in the grey zone between right and wrong. But Huck knows the difference and he is by no means a scoundrel; he is constantly struggling with his conscience in connection with what he is doing. For one thing, he is helping Nigger Jim escape, which at the time was considered a serious crime. Secondly, the two runaways (Huck is running away from his dominant father) must steal whatever they need of supplies to get by on their voyage down the river. Huck’s moral doubts about his petty criminal activity are what make him come alive. We simply believe in this little human struggling to survive and to save his friend in a sinister world, brilliantly symbolised by the dark riverbanks drifting by and the dubious characters they encounter along the river. This image - a white child and an old Negro slave on a desperate quest for freedom - is a strong thematic frame that lifts the narrative to more than just an escape story. The novel certainly justifies its rank as a classic in world literature.
“Tell it like it is” was a slogan for artists during the period we refer to as Realism. This seems to be the drive and success formula behind Mark Twain’s fiction because his characters are endowed with all the aspects of human nature. This is especially evident in Huck Finn who tries to come to terms with his moral dilemmas, but also Tom Sawyer possesses human qualities we can recognise. The language and style are also genuine. The following is an example from Huck Finn where Nigger Jim is talking about ghosts: “Oh, it’s de dad-blame’ witches, sah, en dey do mos’ kill me, dey sky’ers me so.” It takes intimate local knowledge and skill to render the language of this illiterate Negro so realistically.
In American literary tradition Mark Twain belongs to the so-called Regional Realists, writers who experienced and wrote about the great changes in regional America. Post-Civil War America was a turbulent time; industrial America was rising, a massive immigration formed the population, urbanisation and new ways of transport marked the pattern of the nation. Mark Twain lived in the midst of all this, and his two major works reflect a social realism and a moral perspective which were typical and in many ways an accurate documentation of the American reality at the time.
- Search the Internet for information about the Mississippi river (geography, size, history, and significance in American culture). Make a presentation for the class.
- Read the related article about Reality and Realism in the Late 19th Century America and make an overview (key words) of changes and development in the USA during this period. Present your findings for the class.
- There are a number of books that have been banned for various reasons for shorter or longer periods of time. Can you come up with examples of literature that has been banned by certain groups? Discuss possible reasons for and consequences of banning books and/or films.
- The word “picaresque” is mentioned in the article. It means a story or a novel composed out of incidents that occur to a protagonist on some sort of travel or journey. Is this a tradition which is alive in film and literature today?
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