Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
In The Autobiography of Mark Twain, the famous American author Twain presents young readers with biographical information about his life, insight into how an author thinks and writes, and a description of a young and optimistic United States. The book uses anecdotic forms of recollections to document Twain’s life and shows the influence of a developing nation on this author as well as his influence on the nation. Editor Charles Neider’s 1959 revised edition of Twain’s autobiography contains seventy-nine chapters written by Twain during his earlier years and dictated during his later years. Although the first part of the book begins with his birth and the last tells of the end of his life, The Autobiography of Mark Twain presents events as Twain recollects them, rather than in a chronological format.
While Twain primarily focuses on his own life, he also deals with the lives of friends and relatives as he shows how they affected him and his work. In the preface and in several other places, Twain reminds readers that by speaking “from the grave” he is allowed to write freely when describing the private moments of his life. Twain, claiming his work to be free and frank, tells young readers about his friendships with famous American figures such as Ulysses S. Grant, Bret Harte, and William Dean Howells. Likewise, he discusses the members of his family: his mother and father, brother, wife and children, and even a nephew with whom...
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One of the reasons The Autobiography of Mark Twain continues to engage readers is its detailed, first-person account of the historical events of the time. Twain lived during formative years in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when America was experiencing growing pains and defining its national identity.
It is no surprise that Twain and his brother Orion were able to find work in the newspaper industry, which experienced rapid growth in the nineteenth century. This growth was due to a number of developments, including the increased use of advertising to subsidize printing costs, an increase in the number of news correspondents using the telegraph to wire in the latest national news, and the establishment of the Associated Press. The importance of newspapers and other forms of rapid communication increased with the advent of the Civil War, when existing newspapers on both sides of the conflict promoted their cause in print.
The Civil War was the single, bloodiest fight that America has ever experienced. From 1861 to 1865, more than six hundred thousand Americans died in this war which pitted brother against brother— sometimes literally, as some families were divided in their loyalties to North and South. Although the secession of the southern states from the Union started the war, divided views over slavery caused the South to secede. The South viewed the election...
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Although Charles Neider' s version of the The Autobiography of Mark Twain is organized chronologically, the material within each chapter still reflects Twain's original intent to impose no structure on the material other than that which was created by his freeform dictations. This lack of formal organization forces the reader to pay greater attention to details, since the details are not neatly packaged. The lack of formal organization also creates links between subjects that might not be there in a truly chronological autobiography, and thus provides an insight into the author's thought patterns.
For example, in the chapter where Twain first talks about his mother, he describes her extreme compassion, writing, ' 'my mother would not have allowed a rat to be restrained of its liberty.’’ In the next paragraph he abruptly switches gears, and talks about how, when he was a boy in Missouri,' 'everybody was poor but didn't know it.''
What is the purpose of this abrupt switch in narrative? One imagines Twain dictating this passage, with an image of the rat his mother would try to save. It could be at this point that he starts to think about rats in general, and how rats are usually associated with poor conditions. This would provide the link to the paragraph about poverty.
In any case, analyzing the text in this manner, especially at...
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Compare and Contrast
1860s: The United States engages in the Civil War, a ground battle that divides the country and claims the lives of more than six hundred thousand Americans.
Today: Americans unite in their support of the war on international terrorism, instigated by a terrorist act on September 11,2001, that claimed the lives of several thousand Americans. This new kind of war relies heavily on behind-the-scenes intelligence efforts, and the use of military ground forces and air strikes.
1860s: America experiences an increase in leisure travel, due in large part to the expanding railroad network which triggers a decline in domestic travel by slower, steam-powered river boats.
Today: Many Americans travel to all parts of the world for both work and pleasure. The fastest form of commercial air travel, the supersonic Concorde, can travel at more than two thousand miles per hour.
1860s: James Redpath establishes the first official lecture management agency in America, capitalizing on the increase in popularity of lectures by major and minor celebrities.
Today: Many celebrities find a wide audience for their ideas on television talk shows, and most have an agent or manager who books engagements for them.
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Topics for Further Study
In his autobiography, Twain admits that he does not always give the correct facts about his life. Write a short biography about your own life, in which you deliberately embellish some of the details.
Clemens created the pseudonym Mark Twain from a term he learned while working as a riverboat pilot. Create a pseudonym for yourself that is derived from your own life experiences, then write a short essay explaining from where the name comes and how it symbolizes your personality.
Twain does not follow a true chronological format when describing the events of his life. Organize the major journeys of his life in chronological order, then plot them on a world map.
Twain bought a number of patents for inventions, and in one case even invented his own scrapbook. Research the process one takes when securing a patent, then create a sample patent for a new invention, either based on an existing product or one of your own ideas.
Research the reasons why the Civil War began and the main effects the North's victory had on life in the United States. Write a short essay explaining what life might be like today if the Confederate South had won the war.
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What Do I Read Next?
Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is a classic Civil War novel that claims to gives a first-hand, realistic account of the war experience, which is often traumatic and without glory.
The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Writings (1869) is a collection of some of Bret Harte's best-known works. Harte was at the forefront of American literature in his day, and paved the way for many great authors, including Mark Twain.
Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901) is the story of an orphaned Irish boy in India who is recruited by the British Government as a spy to help keep reign over Indian soil. In his autobiography Mark Twain says this is his favorite book.
Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, originally published in 1884, is considered by many to be a seminal work of American fiction. The Annotated Huckleberry Finn (2001), edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, includes the original tale, a lengthy introduction that details the book's history, the author's intentions, the critical reception, and an exhaustive collection of explanatory notes and Twain quotes that run alongside the text.
Mark Twain's The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain (1996), edited by Charles Neider,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Gay, Robert M., ‘‘The Two Mark Twains,’’ in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 166, December 1940, pp. 724-26.
Kaplan, Justin, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography, Simon & Schuster, 1983, pp. 233-34, 272, 292, 378.
Kiskis, Michael, ‘‘Mark Twain and the Collaborative Autobiography,’’ in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 29, Fall 1996, pp. 27–40.
Krauth, Leland, "Mark Twain Fights Sam Clemens' Duel,’’ in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 33, Spring 1980, pp. 144-53.
Long, E. Hudson, Mark Twain Handbook, Hendricks House, 1957, p. 23.
Neider, Charles, "Introduction," in The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Perennial Classics, 1959, pp. ix—xxviii.
Rexroth, Kenneth, ‘‘Humor in a Tough Age,’’ in Nation, Vol. 188, March 7, 1959, pp. 211-13.
Sanoff, Alvin P., ‘‘Autobiography and the Craft of Embellishment," in U.S. News and World Report, Vol. 107, No. 16, October 23, 1989, p. 64.
Willis, Resa, Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who (Almost) Tamed Him, TV Books Inc., 2000, p. 73.
Budd, Louis J., Critical Essays on Mark Twain, 1867—1910, G. K. Hall...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
Burns, Ken, Dayton Duncan, and Geoffrey C. Ward. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Camfield, Gregg. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, ed. A Historical Guide to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Horn, Jason Gary. Mark Twain: A Descriptive Guide to Biographical Sources. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999.
Kaplan, Fred. The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966.
LeMaster, J. R., and James D. Wilson, eds. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993.
Ober, K. Patrick. Mark Twain...
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