Mark Twain: America’s Great Humorist Essay
Mark Twain: America’s Great Humorist
The 19th century United States was ravage by war, poverty and great expansion. Novels and American Literature flourished during this time leaving many of this period’s great authors to remain infamous. Much of this literature is still considered some of the most influential written works of art the world over. Students all over the country still read and learn much from one of these authors being Mark Twain. The writing, of Mark Twain, one of America’s greatest humorists and novelists, was the result of his travels and life experiences. Mark Twain the father of American Literature was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30th 1835 in Florida, Missouri. He was born the sixth of seven children extremely premature and sickly, to Jane Lampton Clemens and Marshall Clemens, a clerk, attorney general, and storeowner in Tennessee (The Life That Shaped Mark Twain). His father passed when at the young age of twelve while his mother lived until he was fifty-five years old. (Mark Twain House) Samuel’s early life was greatly influenced by the Mississippi river after he moved to Hannibal, Missouri at the age of 4.
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Hannibal became the influence for the fictitious town, St. Petersburg in both novels on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Samuel never had any formal education, but was a quick and keen learner, and visited public libraries quite frequently. Being so fascinated by the river, he became a cub apprentice with the ambition of becoming a riverboat pilot, later earning his license in 1858. His experiences as a successful pilot played a major role in his writing, and even influenced the pen name he used for his entire writing career. The river also took his brother, Henry’s life being the victim of a steamboat explosion while working on the river (Hannibel.net). Clemens’ love for literature was apparent early on. He began working as a typesetter or printing apprentice at the age of eleven and continued to do so, throughout most of his young life. He traveled around most of the country even worked as a typesetter in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco and more. He wrote for several newspapers and worked as an editor temporarily (Mark Twain House).
He even served a short time in the confederate army, seeing no action and later was sent to travel European countries with the assignment of writing travel logs to be printed in the newspapers (The Life That Shaped Mark Twain). Although he enjoyed working in the printing world he returned to the river that he loved so much and became a steamboat pilot, a position that held great rank and esteem. The pilot’s were paid well for the time and were essential for knowing the ever-changing depths of the Mississippi River. As the pilots charted along the river they would frequently stop to check the river depths using the second line on a pole in the river signified two fathoms or twelve feet deep, which meant the water was deep enough for the boats to pass. To signify this depth the boat workers would cry out, “mark twain.” (The Mississippi River) This is where he would receive his iconic pen name. He continued to work as a steamboat pilot even though the Mississippi took the life of his younger brother in a tragic steamboat explosion.
If it weren’t for the outbreak of American Civil War, in 1865 ceasing travel on the Mississippi, he may have spent the rest of his days on that river (Mark Twain House). With no work as a steamboat pilot, he left the river to follow his older brother Orion, to the west. During this time he traveled the western part of the US, through the Rocky Mountains, visited Mormon towns and stopped in Virginia City, Nevada where it was that he first used the pen name, Mark Twain. Upon returning home from his travels he settled down and married Olivia Livy Langdon in 1870 and had 4 children together. Their marriage was plagued with heartache. Of the three daughters that they had together, Susy, Clara and Jean only Clara lived past her twenties. They also had one son together who died of Diphtheria at nineteen months old. Some historians suggest that many of his works were influenced by the social elite he came into contact with as a result of his marriage.
From his marriage to Olivia, who came from a liberal yet educated family, this broad man was exposed to much more. He met slavery supporters, abolitionists, women’s rights activists (including Harriett Beecher Stowe) and Frederick Douglas a utopian writer. His views expanded and in the coming years he wrote most of his successful works at his sister-in-law’s house during summer holidays (Mark Twain House). Oliver and Samuel settled down in a home that he built for the couple in Hartford, Connecticut where he felt the family would be properly sheltered. The great works of Mark Twain included: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and A Tramp Abroad were greatly influenced by his early life, experiences on the Mississippi river and his world travels (Mark Twain House). In writing, A Connecticut Yankee, he opened the world to a new genre of writing, being science fiction.
The novel tells the story of Hank a Connecticut blacksmith whom was knocked out in a fight and wakes up back in time in King Arthur’s Court (A Connecticut Yankee). This increased interest in time travel and more and a recent motion picture film entitled, The Black Knight, starring Martin Lawrence was a loose adaption of this 1889 classic (The Black Knight). The author included his feelings on many controversial topics into his work. He wrote of political issues, issues between the north and south, slavery, and poked fun at political and social norms. He held a great belief in mystic connections and included this symbology in many of his pieces of writing. Many contribute this to his birth coinciding with Halley’s Comet (Mark Twain House). In the Adventures of Tom Sawyer slavery was barely mentioned by Twain, and African Americans were referred as “Negros,” instead of more colorful terms used at that time.
Then in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain portrays Huckleberry Finn as being adamantly against slavery even attempting to prevent Jim, the, “negro,” from being found. Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, during a time that ex-slaves were subjected to economic exploitation, disenfranchisement, and unprovoked lynchings. Huckleberry Finn, is a satire not about slavery but of the racism that overtook American society as Twain wrote the book in the late 1870s and early 1880s, which continues to stain America today (Mark Twain House). The author’s views on slavery in the US, during the 1800’s, was greatly influenced by his early upbringing in the state of Missouri, a slave state. Later he related to those experiences in his novels when expressing his own views on the practice of slavery. Being a southerner he was taught to be pro-slavery, and was encouraged to keep slaves, but he truly shared mixed views on the subject that comprised of southern, western and, “Yankee beliefs.”
The author developed this mixed view thru his experiences as a wanderer, living in hundreds of places around the world. This broad experience allowed him the freedom to choose views on slavery that weren’t innate to southern living. This was a difficult position as anti-slavery beliefs, were against the beliefs of his family. Conversations with abolitionists, his father in law, and former slaves, forced Twain, to re-examine the world and the morals that were ingrained in him as a result of his southern upbringing (Mark Twain House). One of Samuel’s earliest memories of slaves came from an old slave couple who worked on his uncle’s farm. He spent time there in the summer with his siblings and would often be entertained by the story-telling of slave, Dan’l and Aunt Hannah. They were some of the first slaves that he knew and cared for before he, ever knew it was, “wrong.” (The Life That Shaped Mark Twain)
In one of his many autobiographies, he explained that one of his first memories of seeing slaves haunted him. It was a memory of ten or more slaves chained together waiting to be shipped downriver to the slave market. He remarked on how sad their faces were (Hannibal.net). He later would make his first writing appearance in Atlantic Monthly by telling the true and sad account of a slave named, Mary Ann Cord whose husband and seven children were taken from her and sold to other slaveholders. Mark Twain felt this was wrong and decided to share it with the world (The Life That Shaped Mark Twain). In Huckleberry Finn, Samuel writes that after Huck helped slave Jim get to freedom, his conscious started to eat at him, causing him to write a letter to Jim’s owner, explaining where Jim was. He thought to himself about how close, “I came to being lost and going to hell.” (Twain, 214)
After writing the letter he hesitates while thinking to himself on the river’s edge, about how good Jim was and about their great time together and then he said to himself, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” tearing up the letter and changing his mind (Twain, 214). This scene most definitely symbolizes the internal struggle Samuel felt, when dealing with the act of slavery. Samuel met great success with his many works of fiction, but his love for science ate through his pocket. Samuel made more than todays’ 8 million dollars and spent it all on trying to help new inventions take off which turned out to be great failures. All of his savings were dumped into science due to the fact that it intrigued him so much that he wanted to be apart of something new. Many say that Twain passed away from a broken heart, the summer before the death of his last daughter his best friend H.H. Rogers also passed away.
It is said that the sadness from the combination of great losses created his broken heart. He died on April 21, 1910 at the age of 75 along with the reappearance on Haley’s comet. He always joked that came into this world with Haley and would also leave with her. In his later life Samuel attempted having a publishing company and continued on writing. (Mark Twain House) His last writing included an autobiography that was written in a jumble chronological order, always sticking to his humorist roots. Many scholars and historians have attempted to reorganize the work as to make it more understandable without success. With his jumbled autobiography he left American Literature forever changed. The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC even gives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, every year to an artist who displays a great impact on American society similar to the ways that Mark Twain did in the 19th century (Kennedy Center). Samuel left behind a legacy of great humor and satire all of which can be attributed to his life on the Mississippi River his experiences and his world travels.
“2013 Mark Twain Prize Recipient Carol Burnett.” The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
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Twain, Mark, and Harriet Elinor. Smith. Autobiography of Mark Twain (vol. 1): Authoritative Edition from the Mark Twain Project. Readers ed. Vol. 1. Berkeley, CA: U of California, 2010. Print. Mark Twain Papers.