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Throughout his career, Mark Twain wrote short fiction, from short comic sketches to longer short stories. His first big national success came in 1865 with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which he revised several times over the next decade. His short fiction is most often humorous, often satiric, and often burlesques of established genres. But he also tackled serious topics like racism. He published his short fiction in magazines like The Atlantic, then collected most of them in books. In his later years, his short fiction took on a more bitter tone, such as “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” Twain was writing in a period when the short story became fully developed in American writing, and he was part of that trend.
Mark Twain (1835–1910) first made an impact on the American literary scene with “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” published in 1865, the year the Civil War ended. The dates are not just coincidental, for sectional animosity among its readers could be put aside in this comic story of the American frontier, written by an adopted westerner in a distinctively “American” style. As soon as Simon Wheeler starts to speak, any idea of a standardized national “literary” language crafted according to a model of eastern cultural propriety effectively falls away. Wheeler’s opening statement, “There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of ’49 – or may be it was the spring of ’50 – I don’t recollect exactly, somehow” (JF, 9), is the first step in a literary journey that leads straight to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) – “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,” (HF, 17) – and from there to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone (1995).
Hemingway’s pronouncement that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn” may be both overquoted and exaggerated, but the novel stands nonetheless as a crucial intervention in the nation’s literary history. The radical impact of Twain’s use of the vernacular as he gives Huck, his ill-educated and disreputable first-person narrator, control of his novel cannot be underestimated. The American vernacular had of course seen literary use before the “Jumping Frog” story.
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was born on 30 November 1835. The siege of the Alamo began some three months later, on 23 February 1836, with the subsequent declaration of Texan independence from Mexico by American settlers on 2 March. On 25 February 1836, New England inventor Samuel Colt patented the first revolver. At the end of the century, Twain would become a spokesman against American imperialism and a critic of the violence that accompanied it. And in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court he would create a protagonist, Hank Morgan, who ‘learned [his] real trade’ at Samuel Colt's ‘great arms factory’ in Hartford, Connecticut: ‘learned to make everything; guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery’ (20). Irony would always be a primary tool in Twain's own comic artillery (for humour, as he would explicitly comment, carries its own weaponry) and it sounds strongly in that last phrase.
On the one hand, there seems no connection between Twain's birth and these historical events. On the other, this is one in a number of quirky coincidences and near-coincidences that feature in Twain's life, (unknowingly) predictive of significant concerns and paradoxes in his subsequent career. Twain was, and remains, an iconic figure in the American popular imagination. Yet he conducted an ongoing – if often disguised – quarrel with his country and its dominant value-system.
Twain's phenomenal success as a writer came first and foremost because he was very funny. His particular background (and especially his time in the West) and the antidote he provided to the more genteel forms of comedy of the time, go some way towards explaining his impact. So too does his avoidance of the phonetic techniques of many of the fellow humorists with whom he had most in common. For example, Artemus Ward begins his ‘The Press’ with the sentence: ‘I want the editers to cum to my Show free as the flours of May, but I don't want um to ride a free hoss to deth.’ And Twain's quick-witted responses to day-to-day events and his apparent ability to produce a comic quip at will were legendary. His May 1897 reply to a London newspaper correspondent following rumours of his demise, ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration’ – or, as it has been refined in folk memory, ‘the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’ – is now part of our cultural repertoire of best-known quotations. While some of his ironic aphorisms from ‘Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar’ (in Pudd'nhead Wilson) are also well-known:
October 12, the Discovery. It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it.
Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.
Mark Twain is a central figure in nineteenth-century American literature, and his novels are among the best-known and most often studied texts in the field. This clear and incisive Introduction provides a biography of the author and situates his works in the historical and cultural context of his times. Peter Messent gives accessible but penetrating readings of the best-known writings including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He pays particular attention to the way Twain's humour works and how it underpins his prose style. The final chapter provides up-to-date analysis of the recent critical reception of Twain's writing, and summarises the contentious and important debates about his literary and cultural position. The guide to further reading will help those who wish to extend their research and critical work on the author. This book will be of outstanding value to anyone coming to Twain for the first time.
Huckleberry Finn has long been recognised as Twain's most important work and the lion in the path of anyone who would assess his career. In 1913, H. L. Mencken delivered his credo (statement of belief) in the novel's importance:
I believe that Huckleberry Finn is one of the great masterpieces of the world, that it is the full equal of Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe … I believe that it will be read by human beings of all ages … long after every book written in American between the years 1800 and 1860, with perhaps three exceptions, has disappeared entirely save as a classroom fossil. I believe that Mark Twain had a clearer vision of life, that he came nearer to its elementals and was less deceived by its false appearances, than any other American who has ever presumed to manufacture generalizations, not excepting Emerson. I believe that, admitting all his defects, he wrote better English, in the sense of cleaner, straighter, vivider, saner English, than either Irving or Hawthorne … I believe that he was the true father of our national literature, the first genuinely American artist of the blood royal.
These words of praise have been echoed by numerous others – if rarely with the same intensity. They suggest the book's literary status in America, its position (until very recently) as a core canonical text standing alongside such others as Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby.
Mark Twain is the most famous American writer of his period. He is known for his iconic appearance: as an elderly man in a white suit, with a mane of white hair, beetling eyebrows and a straggly moustache, with either cigar or billiard cue in hand. He is also remembered for his genius with the comic quip: ‘We ought never to do wrong when people are looking’, ‘Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.’ But his writings are primarily responsible for his fame. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stands at the foundations of an American vernacular literary tradition and his other best-known novels and travel-writings continue to be popular today.
The field of Twain biography and criticism is crowded, and his work and place in American literature continue to provoke argument and debate. The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain has been written to provide a starting guide to the author, his life, and some of his best works, and to reassess his reputation. Its intention is to present a clear and informative introduction that gives the reader a helpful entry point to the ongoing discussions his writings have provoked – many of them crucial to the field of American culture as a whole. The organisation of the book is straightforward. It starts with a brief outline of Twain's life and an overview of the historical and cultural context in which his writings can be placed.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain as he is better known) spent his early and formative years in Missouri, on what was then the south-western frontier. He lived first in the small village of Florida, then – from 1839, just before his fourth birthday – in the expanding river town of Hannibal. His father, John Marshall Clemens, was a businessman, property speculator, storekeeper and civic leader (justice of the peace and railroad promoter). His business ventures, though, were generally unsuccessful and he was, from his son's account, an emotionally reserved and stern man, whose Virginian ancestry gave him an exaggerated sense of his own dignity. He died, however, when Twain was still young, in 1847, of pneumonia after being caught in a sleet storm while returning from a neighbouring town.
Twain was much closer to his mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, and she was a key influence in his life. There must necessarily be a large hole in any attempt to trace the full pattern of the mother-son relationship. For, on the death in 1904 of Mollie Clemens, brother Orion's wife, Twain evidently asked that his letters to his mother – apparently ‘almost four trunks’ full – be destroyed (see L5, 728). We know, however, that Jane was warm, witty, outspoken, lively and – like her son – a good story-teller.
It was Jane who brought up the family (the four living children) after her husband's death and always under financial pressure.