Mark Twain died one hundred years ago today in Redding, Connecticut. Had he lived, he would be very old. In celebration of the centennial of Twain’s death (and in recognition of my two years at the Mark Twain House and Museum), I have chosen to write about Twain in this edition of My Favorite Authors.
Like my previous entrant, Leo Tolstoy, Twain did not win the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he should have. He did, however, receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. He was so proud of the award that he wore his cap and gown from this occasion to other events, including his daughter’s wedding.
Mark Twain is, in many ways, America’s Oscar Wilde, but instead of poking fun at the social classes and the sexes, Twain poked fun at all aspects of society, often saving his most vicious barbs for the injustices that made America — and still make America — an unequal society. And while he is known today mainly for two books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to read and love Twain is to realize how many different genres, both fiction and nonfiction, the man wrote in, and on how many different subjects.
One can argue over whether or not Twain is the greatest of all American writers, but he is certainly the most important. He broke away from the European traditions that many earlier American authors had copied, and not only wrote in the American vernacular, but also seemed to understand what lay at the core of every American, and separated them from, say, the British. Having been a product of Western Expansion, Twain was alive at a time when America was asserting its own identity, an identity separate but forged from that which the Founding Fathers had envisioned. In addition, he revolutionized three things in American letters: the tall tale, the children’s story (Tom Sawyer acts like a real kid, unlike the pious children who had preceded him in literature), and humor. It is this third quality, used so effectively in his short stories and in novels such as Tom Sawyer, that is his greatest gift to the world of literature.
And yet, the view of Twain as a humorist can cloud one’s judgment of him as a “serious” writer. The job of a humorist is to show people how preposterous they are. There are different levels to showing people this aspect of their personalities. There’s light-ribbing, feigned disbelief, disappointment, and despair. In the last two categories, the humorist often becomes serious, and when Twain became serious, he could write some wonderful prose. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “The United States of Lyncherdom,” and “The War Prayer” attest to this.
Unlike Wilde, he was not successful at writing poetry or plays (“Is He Dead?” being the only example of a play that Twain wrote), but his journalistic career and his extensive traveling gave him an eye and an ear for local color, and for a uniquely American sense of humor. Greatest American writer arguments aside, I would assert that he remains America’s most relevant writer, and one of the best storytellers this land has ever produced.
Recommended Reading (Note: These novels, and several of the short stories, originally came with illustrations. Those are the versions you should seek out):
The Gilded Age (with Charles Dudley Warner)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (more enjoyable if read while still a child)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (his masterpiece)
The Prince and the Pauper (one of Twain’s best plots)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (good in parts, but uneven)
Short Stories (a sampling): The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Niagara, A True Story, Cannibalism in the Cars, The Story of the Bad Little Boy, The Story of the Good Little Boy, The Private History of a Campaign That Failed, The Diary of Adam and Eve, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, The Mysterious Stranger
Essays (a sampling): How to Tell a Story, Taming the Bicycle, The United States of Lyncherdom, Seventieth Birthday, The War Prayer, The Death of Jean