Key Info of Mark Twain: A Research Project
By Dr. Joy
To truly understand and appreciate an author's literary works, readers will find it beneficial to know the author's life. As will become apparent in this study, knowledge of Mark Twain's personal and professional life experiences can enable readers to discern and decipher the relevance, poignancy and overall significance of particular characters and details created in Mark Twain's literary works.
Mark Twain had a remarkable birth and death. On November 30, 1835, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) was born prematurely in Florida, Missouri, the fifth child in the family. Remarkably, when he was born, Halley's Comet appeared in the sky; even more remarkably, when Twain died on April 21, 1910, Halley's Comet again appeared, a curious occurrence that Mark Twain was aware of before he died (Budd, Mark 949). Twain, indeed, lived a full life that impacted, has impacted, and continues to impact the human universe in significant ways.
S. L. Clemens was a youth in control of his destiny. The young Clemens had two life aspirations: to be a preacher or a riverboat pilot (Kaplan 14). Having lost interest in religion, Clemens soon gave up his first aspiration. For his second aspiration, he pursued and succeeded. When he was 22, on his fortune voyage to South America, he apprenticed himself, paying a fee of $500, to become a cub riverboat pilot, and got his pilot's license two years later in 1859 (Budd, Mark 954). With this license, Mark Twain was "steadily employed and well paid" for his piloting work, traveling frequently through the Mississippi River, a career yet to be cut short by the Civil War (Budd, Mark 955).
However, it was in the profession of writing that S. L. Clements found his fame and fortune as Mark Twain. Today, Twain remains popular and influential as "a fine literary artist," "a great humorist," "a shrewd observer of life and human nature and a provocative commentator" on what Mark Twain preferred to call 'the damned human race'" (Brashear and Rodney xviii). From the Mark Twain Association in New York--which offers Mark Twain scholarships--to academic electronic archives (e.g., University of Virginia and University of California), and from foreign editions of Mark Twain's works--in more than 70 languages and in 50 plus countries (Railton)--to the ambitious Mark Twain Project currently being undertaken at the University of California at Berkley, and from university-based research sites to labor-of-love individual sites on the Internet, we have reason to predict that Mark Twain's universal appeal will last and last forever.
To truly understand and appreciate Mark Twain and his humorously insightful works, a general understanding of the main ordeals in his life, the heights of his writing career, the reasons behind his popularity, and the stages of his humor writing may prove both necessary and beneficial.
2. Ordeals in Mark Twain's Life
While the glorious and glamorous side of his life is almost public knowledge, the dark and depressing side is hardly known. In fact, in his long and celebrated life, Mark Twain had his full share of misfortunes and tragedies. These ordeals can, no doubt, help shed light into the emotional world of Mark Twain and his writings.
Based on the comprehensive "Chronology" compiled by Louis J. Budd in his book Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890 (949-997), there were quite a few ordeals in Mark Twain' life. When he was a baby, Mark Twain was so fragile that he was not expected to live at times. A toddler, he started walking in his sleep and had frequent nightmares for years. At 9, he naughtily made himself catch measles from his best friend and almost died. In the same year, he was horrified to find a corpse of an emigrant--who had been stabbed to death—in his father's office. When 12, he witnessed a friend being drowned while swimming in the Mississippi. The following year, while skating, Mark Twain and a friend fell into the icy water, the accident of which left his friend permanently deaf.
Mark Twain had to start working when he was 12 because his father died of pneumonia. As Budd further informs us, his father’s death ended a comfortable lifestyle for the family (Budd, Mark 948). To make ends meet, Twain’s mother started to cook and receive paying guests for meals in the house, and his sister began to give music lessons for money. Young Mark Twain started working at various odd jobs such as grocery store, pharmacy, bookstore, while attending school. At 13, he was already an apprentice doing chores for the Missouri Courier (Budd, Mark 950).
Another death-related ordeal came when Mark Twain’s beloved younger brother Henry died, a death that was very much on Mark Twain' conscience (Budd, Mark 954). While being employed on the ship Pennsylvania in 1858, already licensed Mark Twain arranged a 'mud clerk' position on the ship for Henry. One day, the master pilot of the ship hit Henry, and Mark Twain angrily hit the master pilot back, and then was ordered to leave the ship (Budd, Mark 954). Soon afterwards, a boiler on the ship exploded and Henry got severely burned, who later died before Mark Twain's very eyes. Mark Twain was "crazed with grief and guilt" (Budd, Mark 955).
Another cruel blow came when Mark Twain’s two-year-old son Langdon died in 1872. According to Justin Kaplan, an authority biographer of Mark Twain, the whole thing was a tragic accident. The boy, also born prematurely like his father, had suffered a similarly weak physique. Langdon was barely two years old when Susie was born in March 1872, and one weekend Mark Twain with wife Livy went to visit a friend in Cleveland, leaving the children to the nurses. When they returned, they found their son sick with "a heavy cough" due to being "overfed" during the day and "overdosed" during the night (Kaplan 149). However, Langdon was getting stronger, when one morning Mark Twain took him out for a car ride to get some fresh air. While driving in an open carriage, Mark Twain lost himself in "a reverie" and did not notice that wind had blown the fur blankets off his son. The "almost frozen" boy got sick again and died a few days later (Kaplan 149). Though the diagnosis confirmed that his son died of diphtheria, Mark Twain was deeply tormented by guilt and, feeling responsible for his son's death, Mark Twain never could bring himself to talk about his son except on a couple of occasions: Once to a close friend with these words: "Yes, I killed him"; at another, he admitted, "I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning's work and have not allowed myself to think of it when I could help it" (Twain qtd. in Kaplan 149).
An even bigger ordeal for Mark Twain was the death of his daughter Susie in 1896. Susie, their second child and first daughter, died of meningitis at the age of 24. Her death was "a blow" that "they [Twain and his wife] never recovered from" because in their Susie, they had showered excessive love from quilt at their son's death (Kaplan 150). Unlike his grief over his brother Henry's death and later his son's death which Twain tried not to think about and seldom talked about, he had "no desire to put Susie out of his thoughts—he wanted to think about her death all the time" (Kaplan 337). Twain had this deep sense of guilt for Susie’s death, blaming himself for not having found a better husband for her, among other things, and claiming that his "crimes made her a pauper and an exile" and their loss of Susie "would bankrupt the vocabularies of all the languages to put it into words" (Twain qtd. in Kaplan 337). His uncontrollable grief and anger against himself blackened his worldview: "It is an odious world, a horrible world"; "It is Hell; the true one" (Twain qtd. in Kaplan 337). This grief never left Mark Twain in the remaining years of his life, as he openly admitted in some of his lectures (Neider 42-43).
The final ordeal came when his wife, Olivia Langdon, died eight years after Susie's death in 1904. From his first falling-in-love glimpse of her "in the form of an ivory miniature" in the summer of 1867 when she was 22 (Mark Twain qtd. in Kaplan 52) to her death at the age of 59, Twain was a devoted and doting husband. Born a rich and powerful man's daughter, Livy was beautiful with "angelic tenderness" and was adored by her parents and siblings (Kaplan 76). Helplessly in love, Twain soon proposed to Livy and received a resolute "No!": Livy at the time desired nothing more than a platonic brother-sister relationship with Mark Twain (Kaplan 80-82). After nearly two hundred love letters and Twain’s daily verbal pleas for Livy to "scold and correct him" so as to "make over his character and habits to suit her standards" plus "a character investigation" by Livy's parents, Twain eventually won Livy's heart and her parents’ approval —the couple first got secretly engaged and then married in the summer of 1870 (Kaplan 82). Besides giving birth to four children, Livy brought to Mark Twain wealth (e.g., a three-story furnished mansion of over $43,000 in value then as a wedding gift from Livy's father), social status, and an amazing capacity for love (Kaplan 82).
The enriching effect of Livy on Mark Twain’s moral and literary maturity has received good academic attention. For example, in the book The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain, Susan K. Harris shows with fascinating details how sweet, soft-spoken Livy, with her Victorians morals and values, shaped Mark Twain into a high-class gentleman and a more mature author. A similar appreciative emphasis is found in another scholarly book titled Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him by Resa Willis. (Also see Skandera-Trombley). Indeed, throughout his married life, Twain "enjoyed and exploited playing the role of a man under his wife's thumb," a husband who held his wife as his "guiding principle, a symbolic figure" and "an idealized superego" (Kaplan 81, 115). To Mark Twain, his wife was always "the larger part, the better part" of him (qtd. in Kaplan 370). On all accounts, they were soul-mates and life partners. Oftentimes, Livy served as the first reader, editor, and critic to Twain’s written works. When Livy got sick and became weak later in life, Twain felt "helpless" without her, complaining of having "no editor--no censor" (Twain qtd. in Kaplan 370). When Livy died, Mark Twain was "full of remorse for things done and said in the 34 years of married life that hurt Livy's heart" and felt "penniless and fifty million dollars in debt" (Twain qtd. in Kaplan 370).
Moreover, Livy's death brought their daughters on a tragic route. After suffering from frequent epileptic seizures, Jean, their 2nd daughter, died five years later, and their fourth child Clara had a nervous breakdown and was confined in a place that Twain was not allowed to visit for a year (Kaplan 370).
Who could have ever sensed such disturbing events while reading Mark Twain's humorous writings? All along, Mark Twain kept writing and writing, to him, functioned as a sanity-saving, if not life-saving, remedy.
3. The Heights in Mark Twain's Writing Career
Mark Twain’s love affair with writing and publishing began in his early teens. In 1850, 15-year-old Twain got his first writing-related job working as a typesetter and editorial assistant, when his elder brother Orion began to publish a local newspaper called Western Union (Budd, Mark 953). At the tender age of 15, Mark Twain published his first known short sketch "A Gallant Fireman" in the paper in 1851 (ibid.). Afterwards, he regularly contributed short humorous pieces to magazines and newspapers.
However, not until he was 30 did Mark Twain seriously set his mind on a writing career. The trigger for this decision was the quick fame and fortune he received for his story "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," published in the Saturday Press in 1865. The story was an immediate success and became a "masterpiece in the field of folk humor"; it was so well received that it was reprinted in many British newspapers and later translated into many languages (Brashear and Rodney 196, 203). "The Jumping Frog," praised in the discerning words of critic James Russel Lowell as "the finest piece of humorous writing yet produced in America" (qtd. in Brashear and Rodney 197), virtually brought Mark Twain wide recognition and established him as a humorous writer (Neider 5; Benson 126; Ferguson 104). Encouraged by the new fame (and the money), Mark Twain felt sure that he had found his life’s "'call' to literature, of a low order--i.e., humorous" so as "to excite the laughter of God's creatures" (Twain qtd. in Kaplan 14).
The pseudonym "Mark Twain" appears to have a close connection to Twain’s riverboat piloting days. The name first appeared on the three letters that Mark Twain sent to the Enterprise in 1863 (Budd, Mark 157; Neider 15). How and why did Twain choose 'Mark Twain' as his pen-name? The best clues may be found in his semi-autobiographical writings of his young piloting days. The most direct reference and explanation perhaps can be found in a chapter titled "The Lesson" from his book Life on the Mississippi (1883). The story, told from the first-person narrator, is about how a cocky, inexperienced young pilot gets scared out of his wits by his mentor pilot (Kaplan 370). It is a humiliatingly unforgettable "Lesson" which has brought the conceited ‘I’ narrator and pilot to his humble senses. See how Mark Twain describes this experience:
- "D-e-e-p four!"
- Deep four in a bottomless crossing! The terror of it took my breath away.
- "M-a-r-k three! M-a-r-k three! Quarter-less-three! Half twain!"
- This was frightful! I seized the bell-ropes and stopped the engines.
- "Quarter twain! Quarter twain! Mark twain!"
- I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking from head to foot, and I could have hung my hat on my eyes--they stuck out so far. (Twain qtd. in Kaplan 371)
In his long, prolific writing career (that began when he was 15 and ended when he died at 75), Mark Twain had produced many popular works, yet the most celebrated are these three: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Of the three, the most critically acclaimed book is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which revealed to the world the profound creative genius of Mark Twain as a novelist. This is the book that contributed to making Mark Twain a national icon in the 1940s and 1950s, when American presidents would deliver copies of Huckleberry Finn to important visiting state officials, as the Mark Twain Association points out in its web-site.
Many professional writers have also expressed their literary kudos to the book. To Lionel Trilling, Huckleberry Finn is "one of the world's great books and one of the central documents of American culture"; to Bernard De Voto, "There is no greater book in American literature"; to T. S. Eliot, "There is no more solitary figure in fiction ....We come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction" (qtd. in Bradshear and Rodney 6-7). With a similar high tone of appreciation, Ernest Hemingway marks the literary weight of this masterpiece in these definitive words: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.... It's the best book we've ever had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since" (Hemingway qtd. in Bradshear and Rodney xxiii).
The recognition from the academic ivory tower came later in Mark Twain's life. For his life-long contribution to literature and writing, he was granted a honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Yale University in 1901, and another honorary Doctor of Literature degree from the University of Oxford in 1907 (Budd, Mark 990, 995). Humorously, Mark Twain delivered this unique response to the doctorate degree from Oxford: "I like the degree well enough, but I'm crazy about the clothes" (Twain qtd. in Bradshear and Rodney 281).
4. Three Appeals behind Mark Twain's Popularity
The popularity of Mark Twain may be explained by his ability to appeal to the general public in three main areas: his moral character, his linguistic genius, and his meaningful humor.
4.1 The Moral Appeal of Mark Twain
One reason behind Mark Twain's popularity is that he has a strong moral appeal. When reading his works, readers can discern an author who is kindhearted, fair-minded, and noble.
The voice of conscience was important to Mark Twain. To him, conscience is "a mere machine; the creature of training; it is whatever one's mother, and Bible, and comrades, and laws, and the system of government, and habitat and heredity have made it" (Twain qtd. in Brashear and Rodney 229). Being sensitive and compassionate, Mark Twain often suffered from a self-accusing and tormenting conscience, particularly when something tragic happened in the family. Kaplan describes Mark Twain as "a lifelong guilt seeker," an opinion convincingly supported by Mrs. James T. Fields, an acquaintance of Mark Twain's family, who remarked, "His whole life was one long apology" (Fields qtd. in Kaplan 149).
A conscientious man, Mark Twain naturally valued kindness. Through the voice of Eve in Eve's Diary, Mark Twain stresses that "A loving good heart is riches, and riches enough, and ...without it intellect is poverty." Helen Keller was one of the beneficiaries of Mark Twain's kind heart; Mark Twain made sure that the 14-year-old could receive her education claiming, "It won't do for America to allow this marvelous child to retire from her studies because of poverty" (Twain qtd. in Salwen, "Mark").
Fairness and justice were another two ideals that Mark Twain deeply valued. Franklin R. Rogers reports one case that "bothered" Mark Twain for a long time (14). This case involved an African slave who was smuggled from Virginia to Missouri because he faced the danger of being lynched for having raped white women. Once in Missouri, the man committed the same crime on a 13-year-old white girl whom the man killed. Before the man was caught, the children's black nurse was lynched as the murderer. Soon afterwards, the real murderer was caught and confessed. Mark Twain could not get over the fact that the black nurse was wronged in this case. In one journal entry, he revealed how "troubled" he was by the whole thing, and expressed the wish "—or Tom and Huck shall save her" (Twain qtd. in Rogers 14).
Racial equality was another ideal important to Mark Twain, which puts him way ahead of his time. With a strong conscience and sense of fairness, Mark Twain acted not as a citizen of any particular country but as a moral citizen of the world. To him, racial superiority does not exist and nothing unjust should be justified in a racial line of reasoning, as revealed in these sarcastic words of his: "There are many humorous things in the world; among them is the white man's notion that he is less savage than all the other savages" (Twain qtd. in Salwen, "Is"). As Brashear and Rodney point out, Mark Twain wrote frank and cutting reports against the mistreatment of the Asian immigrants in San Francisco at the time and against the discrimination of the African slaves, criticizing Missouri for having "joined the lynchers" (388). For his outspoken reports against racial cruelties, he was thrown into jail (Kaplan 15). His anti-imperialist writings were so candid and sharp that the New York Evening Post in 1901 presented Mark Twain this way: "a typical and whole-hearted American... now fearlessly sides with the Filipinos against their American oppressors" so much so that the "ordinary epithets cannot be flung at him" (qtd. in Zwick). Knowing how much sympathy her husband had for black slaves, Mrs. Mark Twain once gave this "motto" to her husband: "Treat every man as if he were colored until he is proved white" (Livy qtd. in Brashear and Rodney 388). The best evidence may still come from Mark Twain's protagonists. Tom and Huck, for example, are white boys who are fair and square, enjoying the company of their black "slaves" and helping them in their quests for freedom.
It is, no doubt, based on such moral ideals that Mark Twain appealed, appeals and will continue to appeal to readers. And it is for these human ideals that many modern scholars find Mark Twain morally significant and instrumental, a writer that America "needs so much as it seems to drift farther and farther away from his ideals" (Wagenknecht x).
4.2 The Literary Appeal of Mark Twain
Mark Twain's strong command of dialect, dialogue and description has made him one of the best story tellers in the human history.
Mark Twain was a linguistic genius. He was a master of speech, dialect, and dialogue. Lionel Trilling, another expert on Mark Twain, claims that Mark Twain "established for written prose the virtues of American colloquial speech.... Out of his knowledge of the actual speech of America he forged a classic prose" (Qtd. in Brashear and Rodney 206-207). To Trilling, what has enabled Mark Twain to delight so many is the "style that escapes the fixity of the printed page, that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of the heard voice, and the very voice of unpretentious youth" (117). Also marveling at Mark Twain's "extraordinary" and "remarkable" "ability to imitate styles of speech," Neider suspects that Mark Twain had "a phonographic memory" (4). Indeed, after reading Mark Twain, few could forget the vivid accent of the local dialects echoing through the pages. Even fewer could fail to feel impressed with his all-rounded linguistic knowledge of a wide spectrum of speech patterns and characteristics by people from all walks of life.
Mark Twain's literary appeal also comes from the content of his writings. He wrote about the things that he had experienced and observed first-hand, which he enriched with imagination and spiced with humor. Most of his writings were based on his travels. A traveler by choice sometimes and by need at others, Mark Twain had been to five continents, voyaged across the Atlantic 29 times, and crossed the Pacific and Indian oceans in a complete tour around the world ("Foreword"). Often planning for a book project when embarking on a trip, Mark Twain was mostly observant and attentive to what he saw and heard (ibid.). In the words of two scholars on Mark Twain,
- Keen as were his powers of observation, Mark Twain never took a mere bystander's view of life and the world: he felt such a strong affinity with all of humanity that he was receptive of all experience, and absorbed into his mind a multitude of impressions that later found emotional release through his writing. Those early experiences and impressions formed attitudes and his general outlook on life, and they provided the matrix for all of Mark Twain's literary work. (Brashear and Rodney 6)
The autobiographical "matrix," recognized by other Mark Twain scholars such as Lowry, naturally has produced realistic, believable details, which carry an emotional appeal to many who can relate to and identify with them. Thus born out of Mark Twain's travel-based, realistic writing is an amicable public persona. So, it is always Our Mark Twain, as Budd aptly titles his book.
Furthermore, Mark Twain's writings appeal to readers with a light, pleasant mood that calms and relaxes them. Writing what he knew first-hand clearly contributed to this appealing mood in Mark Twain's works. As Neider points out, "He's relaxed, and his mood is infectious. He rarely tries to overreach himself, to strain after an effect of greatness" and he had the "right balance" (Neider 4). Naturally, most people find Mark Twain's persona genuine, unpretentious, pleasant, and believable.
Mark Twain's control of mood and persona, no doubt, contributed to his appealing power. As a master, Mark Twain practiced literally the literary creed: Write what you know the best. Just like other prominent literary geniuses before and after him (e.g., Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad), Mark Twain's popularity and success have confirmed once again that creative juice springs from the deep Fountain of LIFE--the most essential, indestructible and non-exhaustible source for literary creation.
4.3 The Humorous Appeal of Mark Twain
Furthermore, the perpetual charm of Mark Twain comes from his humor. It is his morally meaningful use of humor, among other factors, that has given him an immortal fame. Mark Twain has an insightful understanding of humor. Praising William Dean Howells's humor in an essay in 1908, Mark Twain hinted at what humor should be like and do: "His is a humor that flows round about and over and through the mesh of the page, pervading, refreshing, health-giving and makes no more show and no more noise than does the circulation of the blood" (Twain qtd. in Brashear and Rodney 192). Implicitly, Mark Twain seems to stress three ideal characteristics of humor: first, humor should be an integral and prevalent part of writing; second, humor should appear natural and effortless; third, humor should nurture the body and enliven the soul. Apparently, this ideal understanding of humor is the foundation of Mark Twain's writings. Charles Neider must have this in mind when he writes that "He [Mark Twain] is a healing force, a literary medicine, an international health treasure of incalculable worth" (2).
The appeal of Mark Twain's humor has much to do with his ideals. Archibald Henderson, regarding Mark Twain as "America's greatest cosmopolitan," finds the "secret" of Mark Twain's popular status: "If one would lay his finger on the secret of Mark Twain's world-wide popularity as a humorist, he must find that secret primarily in the universality and the humanity of his humor" (qtd. in Brashear and Rodney xxii). Hard to miss and dismiss, indeed, are the moral messages behind Mark Twain's humorous works .
Humor often works as the means to a serious moral end in Twain’s literary works. As Neider puts it, "He thought of himself as an entertainer but as a serious one. And ... his humor was only incidental to his purpose: if it came, good, if not, it could be dispensed with, for he was concerned primarily with discussing a moral" (22). Mark Twain's instrumental use of humor thus "performs the subtlest of functions. It humanizes, leavens, anoints, lulls dissension. Through the sound of our common laughter it hints to us of our origin and destiny, our brotherhood, our vale of tears" (Neider 26). With his unusual capacity in producing thought-provoking laughter, Mark Twain differs from and stands above other humorists. For this essential difference, Mark Twain has remained strong and important, while many other humorists of his time have long faded in the human memory.
The personal side of Mark Twain's humor comes from his graciousness in making his readers laugh at his own expense. In the words of Brashear and Rodney, "Perhaps because of the autobiographical element in so much that he has written, his readers carry away a sense not only of the joy of his humor, but also of the charm and gaiety of his personality. A sense of proprietorship also may contribute to our attachment" (Brashear and Rodney 206). Surely, this self-baring and self-deprecating graciousness brings with it a sense of trust in the readers, who in turn are likely to feel captivated by Twain’s yielding and trusting personal voice in his humorous writings.
5. Mark Twain's Growth as a Humorist Writer
To know how Mark Twain's humor evolved can be a nurturing experience. Thanks to Brashear and Rodney, readers can access to and benefit from this experience. In their book The Art, Humor, and Humanity of Mark Twain, the two scholars on Mark Twain have traced the master humorist's development and discerned "five, or possibly six stages" (186).
The first three stages of Mark Twain's humor show a change from peer verbal fun-making to that with a purpose. According to Brashear and Rodney, the first stage is characterized with "exaggeration, burlesque, and understatement" displaying the influence of frontier tall-tales (187-188). The second stage of Mark Twain's humor begins with the publication of The Gilded Age in 1871 which marks "a new development of his humor with a more serious purpose"—to mock the "business chicanery and Congressional obliquity" of the time (188). The third stage exhibits Mark Twain's "dramatic irony" directed either at the protagonist as in Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884) or at Mark Twain himself as in his 1876's "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" (ibid.).
The fourth stage of Mark Twain's humor development shows even more sarcasm than before, some self-directed. As Brashear and Rodney see it, this stage begins with "The Campaign that Failed" (1885), a satirical piece about his own short experience in Civil War and transits into serious condemnation of anything despotic, cruel, or unjust as seen in A Connecticut Yankee (1889) in which "the comedy and serious purpose are fairly well balanced" (189). Most quoted at this stage is Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1892) which contains such truthful and amusing gems as these: "Cauliflower is cabbage with a college education"; "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man"; "April 1. This is the day on which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four days" (qtd. in Brashear and Rodney 190). Sarcastic gems like them capture Mark Twain's profound understanding of human life.
The fifth stage of Mark Twain as a humorist displays "less buffoonery" and "finer feeling" exemplified in the first chapter of Joan of Arc (1895), a tenderness similar to what Mark Twain had "bestowed upon his own small daughters" at that time (Brashear and Rodney 190). "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899) that Mark Twain wrote at age 65 "shows growth in human sympathy and in literary feeling" (191).
The final stage of Mark Twain is "not easy" to understand, admitted Brashear and Rodney. Though with the "same alertness and impulse to amuse," the "beautiful old man" lapsed into "bitterness at the thought of all that was wrong with the world" (191). Humor at this final stage can be characterized in two varieties that reveal "two facets of his nature: the mordant satire ... and the gracious irony” (192). The "mordant" humor is loud in "What is Man?" and The Mysterious Stranger both of which were published in 1898. Mark Twain's bitter sarcasm is evident in the words of Satan, a revealing choice for a character in his The Mysterious Stranger:
- For your race, in its poverty, has one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little century by century; but only laughter can blow it to atoms at a blast. ... Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. (Twain qtd. in Brashear and Rodney 191-192)
However, Mark Twain did not lose his gracious humor during the last years of his life. His "The Last Lotus Club Speech" (1908) captures his "finest humor"—"irony at his own expense" (Brashear and Rodney 192).
6. Closing Words
At the end of this preliminary study of Mark Twain, I hope you have gained a better understanding of Samuel Clemens as a person and of Mark Twain as a writer. Now, you know some of the lows of his personal life, the heights of his professional life, the main reasons behind his popularity and the developmental stages of his humorous writing. Based on his strong moral character, his linguistic and literary genius, and his meaningful use of humor, it is no small wonder that Mark Twain is regarded as "the Lincoln of our literature"--to borrow Howells' words-- and "the Shakespeare of our humor"--to borrow Neider's words (qtd. in Neider 2). Let's drink deep from the ‘health-giving’ fountain of Mark Twain.
On Mark Twain's life and works, there is more to be studied and understood. Naturally, not all scholars perceive Twain in a positive light. From his "homosexuality" (Hoffman) to his "deception" (Robinson) or "imposture" (Gillman) regarding his cultural identity (Bush, "Acting"; Knoper; Fishkin), to name just a few, Mark Twain remains a a key literary figure that keeps to fascinate readers, provoke thoughts, and to summon academic attention. As the case with other famous authors, there will be a continuous collective effort to define and redefine Mark Twain (Bush, "Review" 192).
Admittedly, this study has only scratched the surface of the fertile field of Mark Twain scholarship. However, if this research project has produced more Mark Twain admirers, readers, and researchers, it has served its purpose.
- Brashear, Minnie M., and Robert M. Rodney, eds. The Art, Humor and Humanity of Mark Twain. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1960. Print.
- Budd, Louis J. (ed. and intro.). Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852- 1890. New York: Library of America, 1992. Print.
- ---. Our Mark Twain: The Making of his Public Personality. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1983. Print.
- Bush, Harold K., Jr. "Acting Like Mark Twain: Performance in Nineteenth-Century American Culture." American Quarterly 49.2 (June 1997): 429-37. Print.
- ---. "Review: 'Our Great Confused West': Redefining Mark Twain." Rev. of Lighting Out for the Territory: Mark Twain and American Culture, by Shelley Fisher Fishkin; The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain, by Susan K. Harris; "Littery Man": Mark Twain and Modern Authorship, by Richard S. Lowry. College English 60.2 (February 1998): 192-201. Print.
- "Foreword." "Mark Twain at Large." U of California, Berkeley. Web. 11 Sep. 2009.
- Gillman, Susan. Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain's America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print.
- Hoffman, Andrew. "Mark Twain and Homosexuality." American Literature 67.1 (March 1995): 23-50. Print.
- Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Mark Twain and Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966. Print.
- Knoper, Randall. Acting Naturally: Mark Twain in the Culture of Performance. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995. Print.
- Lowry, Richard S. "Littery Man": Mark Twain and Modern Authorship. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
- Neider, Charles (ed. and intro.). Mark Twain at His Best: A Comprehensive Sampler. New York: Doubleday, 1986. Print.
- Railton, Stephen. "Mark Twain in His Times." Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia. Web. 8 Apr. 2009.
- Robinson, Forrest G. In Bad Faith: The Dynamics of Deception in Mark Twain's America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. Print.
- Rogers, Franklin R. (ed. and intro.) Mark Twain's Satires & Burlesques. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967. Print.
- Salwen, Peter. "Is Huck Finn a Racist Book?" Web. 11 Sept 2009.
- "Mark Twain, 'Belle of New York'." Web. 9 Sept 2009.
- Skandera-Trombley, Laura. Mark Twain in the Company of Women. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1994. Print.
- Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. New York: Viking, 1950. Print.
- Wagenknecht, Edward. "Introduction." The Art, Humor and Humanity of Mark Twain. Eds. M. M. Brashear and R. M. Rodney. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1960. Vii-x. Print.
- Willis, Resa. Mark Twain and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him. New York: Atheneum, 1992. Print.
- Zwick, Jim. "The Contested Public Memory of an American Icon: Mark Twain's Anti-Imperialist Writings." Paper presented at the American Studies Association/Canadian Association for American Studies conference, Washington, D.C., 1 Nov 1997. In Jim Zwick, ed., Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935. Web. 15 Sep. 2015.