I’m going to admit it openly: I admire Mark Twain. His cynical humor, his talent of describing something completely plain in a hilarious way make him one of my favorite classic authors.
‘Mark Twain’ is only a pen name and actually is a nautical expression relating to a specific water depth. The author was born as Samuel Longhorne Clemens, and he came to life in the little village of Florida, Missouri, in 1835. According to his own words, he increased Florida’s number of inhabitant by one percent with his birth. Five years after his birth, the Clemens family moved to the nearby town of Hannibal. The fictional St. Petersburg, where Twains most famous character Tom Sawyer experiences his numerous adventures, is largely based on Hannibal, and in the same manner, Tom’s adventures are mostly based on experiences in Twains youth.
Twain’s first short story, which would be followed by many more, was published in a weekly newspaper in 1864. In 1873, he wrote his first book, called “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today”. Three years later, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, was published, which was, in a way, the precursor of his masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, which was published 1884. In ‘Tom Sawyer’, Huck Finn plays an important supporting role; but in his own novel, he is the protagonist and embodies the young American boy. In the novel, Twain describes the American way of life, and is not afraid of adding a critical note here and there. In the book, and in several of his other works, he criticizes the differences between social classes as well as greediness and imperialism.
Twain was an opponent of slavery, although keeping slaves was common in almost every household in his time. Even his own family employed a slave, and it was only because of financial problems that they had to give up on him. In ‘Huckleberry Finn’, Twain’s attitude towards holding slaves is not expressed very clearly, and some even say the novel is racist. Twain indeed portrays Jim, the slave who flees together with Huckleberry, with very prototypical characteristics, which can be interpreted as both humorous and racist. On the other hand, it is remarkable that a slave was one of the main characters in a book which was written in that time. Apart from his typical African-English and his superstitions, Jim is portrayed as a rather intelligent man, and above all he is very kind – which was contradictory to the general opinion of the blacks in that time. Huckleberry Finn is a child of his age, and that’s why he feels torn between morality and his own feelings. He has learned that slaves are in the possession of the family they work for and they may not run away – to help a slave escaping would be no less than theft – but on the other hand, he has sincere feelings of friendship for Jim, and therefore, he wants to help him anyway. With this subject, Twain appeals to the conscience of his readership and makes them think about the rights of slaves.
A second point of critic lies in the use of the word ‘nigger’. Some people want to eliminate this word from literature, but to my opinion one should always reflect a work of art keeping the time in which it came into being in mind. In was not until 1900 that the word ‘nigger’ got its pejorative meaning, before that time – and thus when Twain wrote his books – it was the common name for a black man.
Excerpt of his works:
- The Innocents Abroad (1869), travel
- Roughing It (1872), travel
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
- The Prince and the Pauper (1881)
- A Tramp Abroad (1880), travel
- Life on the Mississippi (1883), travel
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)
- The Mysterious Stranger (1916, posthumous)
The death of a beautiful woman was the most poetic thing he could imagine. He indeed wrote a couple of narratives on this subject. The horror stories for which he is most known today represent only a relatively small part of his work. Most of his works are satiric grotesques, in which he ridicules people (and he didn't hold back to mock his colleagues or competitors) or society in general.
Edgar Allan Poe is not exactly the friendliest author in the history of literature. He had a high opinion of himself and his work, and could hardly cope with critics. He himself, however, was merciless against other authors and their publications, and very early in his career he had grown to an infamous literary critic who was known for not mincing matters.
He seemed not to identify himself with the country in which he was born: he scorned democracy, which he criticizes and even ridicules in several of his narratives, and his religious thoughts didn't fit within the general image of God that Americans had. The Gold-Bug is one of the few stories that take place in the USA, but most stories are set in Europe, if a geographical location is named at all. He carried the rumour into the world that he had travelled through Europe, and did not hesititate to call his brother's experiences - who had been in Europe for real - his own. Repeatedly he has enhanced his biography with such lies, probably to make his life seem more interesting as it actually was. He woud be delighted to know that the circumstances of his death remain unclear, and that uncountable myths on the subject are still making the rounds.
But who was he really? Edgar Poe was born in Boston, MA, on January 19, 1809. By the age of three he became an orphan and was raised in a foster family. Although his foster mother showed him motherly affection, Mr. Allan, his foster father, never acknowledged Edgar as his rightful adopted son. Later in his life, Edgar would complain about and suffer from the lack of a familiarly environment. Mr. Allan encouraged and supported Edgar's education generously in his youth, but that changed dramatically when Edgar wanted to study at the university. With way too little pocket money and no income, Edgar could hardly do else but loan money and create debts. His precarious financial situation and his loneliness made him fall into alcoholism - which in turn offended his foster father even more, whom he had to beg for money over and over. Although Allan had become one of the richest men in Virginia after he had inherited an enormous amount of money, he was overly frugal in his contributions to Edgar, probably because he frequently just used the money for gambling and alcohol consumption. In addition, Allan could not accept Edgar's plan to earn his daily bread by writing poems instead of practicing a 'real' profession. Finally, Mr. Allan's patience came to an end. From then on, Edgar would have to make it on his own, without any support from his foster father.
Poe primarily had to suffer from his own character. He found himself superior to everyone around him, but could not deny that he was dependent of financial support of his friends and family, for he never had more than a penny in his pocket. Poe knew his literary invention, the 'imp of the perverse', which repeatedly occurs in his stories (this inner 'imp' seduces protagonists to do things that lead to their destruction), himself all too well. Again and again in his life he would surrender to the temptations of this goblin and end up in an abyss. He was sucked into the all-destroying 'Maelstrom', a dangerous whirlpool that also appears in many of his stories. Several times he has risked his job, more than once he actually lost it, either because of personal feuds with his employer, or because he could not resist the alcohol. One wonders why someone with such little financial security as Poe could be so careless with his job. But he was confident, arrogant, and convinced that his stories and poems would eventually enjoy the fame they deserved. In retrospect, he was right, but unfortunately he has never really witnessed the real impact that his stories have made in the world.
Ironically, the poet that had glorified the death of a beautiful woman lost his own wife at very young age. He had married his cousin Virginia Clemm when she was 13 years old (Poe was 27 at that time). With her big, dark eyes and her fair complexion, she embodied Poe's ideal of beauty. It was, however, her youthly innocence that Poe loved the most. An accusation of pedophilia lies at hand, but there is evidence that Poe and Virginia actually never consummated their marriage, which indeed remained childless. But their happiness was not destined to last: Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1847 at the age of 24.
After her death, Poe published his prose poem 'Eureka' in which he combined philosophy and aesthetics in a kind of big bang theory. He also went on promotional tour for his long-time project 'The Stylus'; his own literary magazine. The future smiled at him: thanks to a couple of lectures he had held, he finally had some money in his pocket and the love of his youth, Elmira Royster, had accepted his marriage proposal. But it should not come all this way. In October 1849, he was only forty years old, he was found lying in a gutter in Baltimore, more dead than alive. He was taken to the hospital, where he fell into a delirium and died a little later. It was clear that he had collapsed under the influence of alcohol. The imp of the perverse had destroyed its creator with a last and final blow.
Excerpt of his works:
- A decided loss (1832; one of his numerous grotesques)
- Ligeia (1838; about the death of a beautiful woman)
- The Fall of the House of Usher (1839; a gothic novella)
- The Raven (1845; his most famous poem)
- The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841; the first story with detective Auguste Dupin)
- The Pit and the Pendulum (1842; probably his most terrifying horror story)
- The Gold-Bug (1843)
- The Black Cat (1843; one of the stories, in which the protagonist is tempted by the 'the imp of the perverse')
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1843; idem)
- Hopp-Frog (1849; a satire, in which he makes fun of his competitor authors)