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)