Article

Mark Twain

Laura Skandera Trombley and Ann M. Ryan

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0093
Mark Twain

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The pseudonym “Mark Twain” does less to conceal the identity of Samuel Langhorne Clemens than to manifest—and market—its many contradictions. Born to slave-owning parents in the border state of Missouri on 30 November 1835, Mark Twain would eventually publish the memoirs of Ulysses Grant and befriend Frederick Douglass. Through works such as Roughing It (1872), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Mark Twain—a former riverboat pilot and bohemian humorist—became an icon of American simplicity. Nonetheless, his appetite for material gain led him to bankruptcy in 1893, like the Hawkins family in his coauthored novel The Gilded Age (1873). Despite his small-town roots, Twain spent years traveling abroad, which he documents in several memoirs, beginning with The Innocents Abroad (1869), his satire of European superiority and American pretensions, and continuing with A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). When he returns to the Mississippi River valley in Puddn’head Wilson (1894), America seems a parochial counterpoint to European sophistication. Twain develops the travel motif—across time as well as space—in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889); eventually, he explores metaphysical regions in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909) and The Mysterious Stranger manuscripts (1890–1910). Mark Twain’s cultural legacy is often associated with his religious and political satires, where he exposes the myths of colonialism and the atrocities of war. However, Twain also indulged in sentimentality in works such as The Prince and the Pauper (1882) and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896). Member of a bohemian class of western writers, Twain discovered fame as the author of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1867). Yet when he died on 21 April 1910, Twain was firmly a part of the eastern cultural elite. Mark Twain’s affect upon American culture can hardly be overstated, though it has frequently been romanticized. W. D. Howells described Mark Twain as “the Lincoln of our literature,” and Hemingway claimed that “all modern American literature” came from Huckleberry Finn. Twain wrote plays, novels, short fiction, and a sprawling, experimental autobiography; he was an essayist, journalist, performer, public intellectual, and raconteur. As a writer, Samuel Clemens became what he claimed James Fenimore Cooper was not, “a word musician,” discovering poetry in the American vernacular, and, in the persona of “Mark Twain,” authoring his most singular and lasting creation.

Article.  15680 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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