Mark Twain American Literature Analysis
Twain’s general reputation as one of the most admired, and possibly the most beloved, writer in America is based, in the main, upon the work he published before 1890. After that time, his work takes on a much darker hue. The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, published in 1894, though still a book of some comic mishap, marks the obvious pessimism that was to pervade his work until his death. Indeed, some materials left unpublished during his lifetime, such as “The Mysterious Stranger” stories, published posthumously, bear very little resemblance to the sunny idealization of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Twain was, however, always more than simply a comic entertainer, and it should be remembered that as early as The Innocents Abroad, he responds to human error, on occasion, with quick satiric thrusts that remind one of eighteenth century English satirist Jonathan Swift. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is reasonably free from such tonal darkening, but Adventures of Huckleberry Finn certainly is not. In order to appreciate fully the greatness of the latter novel, it is necessary to go beyond a sense of triumph in Huck’s conversion to an outright defender of Jim to an understanding of the kind of world that threatens both the slave and the boy.
The confidence men of the novel, completely insensitive to the pain they cause, may be an obvious example of Twain’s sense of evil in the world, but that does not circumscribe the way in which Twain suggests that human cruelty is gratuitously omnipresent—not simply among the rogues but in the center of society. Jim’s greatest individual enemy is a spinster woman of scrupulous moral and religious credentials, simply because he is black.
In The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—which start out reading like amiable fairy tales—cruel acts of physical violence are dwelt upon in detail and go far beyond the ignorant “horseplay” of the rural citizens who simply do not know any better in Twain’s earlier works. It is, therefore, unwise to simplify the tonal range of his oeuvre. If he is most often seen as a humorist, and often as a romantic, especially about boys and life on the Mississippi, he is often more than that. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his best work, tonal and intellectual range is very wide indeed, leaning strongly toward serious concern about human conduct. There are ideas in that novel that Twain wants to disturb his readers quite as much as they bother Huck. Perhaps an ambition to become a writer of ideas was his from the start.
In Twain’s early work he seemed to touch the core of late nineteenth century popular humor, giving Americans what they felt was the best part of their character in stories of good-natured, slightly skeptical, occasionally vulgar trickery. Twain had an eye for hypocrisy, self-interest, and pomposity, however, and his main characters, if sometimes less clever than he himself was, could not be fooled for long, even if they could be misled initially out of innocence. He certainly could have played it safe and been satisfied with a minor, lucrative career as a funnyman, but The Innocents Abroad showed that he could sustain a larger literary shape and, more important, that he had some things to say about human nature which could not be satisfied in the short comic story.
The other, perhaps greater, gift, was to show up in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where Twain emerges fully formed as a writer of children’s fiction. The success of that work might have satisfied a lesser man and led him into a long career of repetition of the same kind of sweet-natured appreciations of childhood. The Prince and the Pauper looks by its title to be in that pattern, but it is loaded with comments about human stupidity and cruelty.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, finally out in 1884, shows a further refinement and has been recognized not simply as one of the finest juvenile novels, not simply as a book of social comment, but as one of the greatest books of American fiction. Twain was never to write a better book, but he did not rest with it. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was to show that he had not abandoned his ambition to write the novel of ideas, opposing old English inequities against the ideals and practices of a nineteenth century American and giving himself the opportunity to create political theory.
What has to be recognized in Twain’s work, beyond the singular success of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is his range—not only in his richness of fictional embellishment but also in his way of using material to make moral points with very little preaching. He can be, on too many occasions, heavy-handed (surprisingly enough, when he is being funny), and twenty-first century sensibility may find him a bit ponderous, even “corny.” He can, however, be very sly and very smart. Sometimes the ideas get out in front of the fiction; this is often the case when he lets himself be personally moved by the subject. Yet he possesses a lively, quicksilver way of moving in and out of moral problems without much preaching, and he usually keeps the tale in the forefront of the work written before the dark days of the 1890’s.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
First published: 1865 (collected in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, 1867)
Type of work: Short story
Jim Smiley, an obsessive gambler, meets his match when he bets that his trained frog, Dan’l Webster, can outjump any other frog in a Northern California mining area, Calaveras County.
Mark Twain, who had made his living as a Mississippi steamboat pilot before the Civil War and had gone on to be a printer, a journalist, and a sometime prospector, could hardly have imagined that his comic tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which appeared originally under the more modest title “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” was to change his life forever and establish him in a career which was to lead to him becoming one of America’s greatest writers.
Certainly the tale is moderately amusing, but it seemed to catch the imagination of the American reader, and Twain was to follow it up with equally artful stories and lecture tours which were to make him well known some time before the artistic success of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Part of the reason for the success of the story lies in its moderation, its seeming lack of artfulness. Good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler tells the story to the unsuspecting Mark Twain, who is, in fact, trying to find out about an entirely different man, the Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley. What he gets is a rambling, disjointed, ungrammatical tale of Jim Smiley, who sometime back in 1849 or 1850 had provided the locals with entertainment with his antics as a gambler.
Style is a strong element in the power of the tale. Twain sets himself up as the straight man for the dead-panned raconteur, who, once he gets started, is impossible to stop. Twain (the character) provides part of the amusement in his indignation. His letter to A. Ward (which is the exterior framing device for the story) is a complaint to the effect that Ward (probably Artemus Ward, who was himself a popular humorist) had deliberately misled Twain, knowing that the surname “Smiley” would trigger the long reminiscence in Wheeler. The style of the first paragraph of the letter has a kind of prim formality about it and the sophisticated facility of an educated writer barely able to suppress his grudging suspicion that he has been made the fool.
This style of fastidious restraint continues, but when Wheeler begins to speak, the prose relaxes into a homey, genial vulgarity and sly wit which immediately establishes the old man as a master teller of tall tales. Whether the story is true hardly matters; its real power lies in the telling. The way in which the “fifteen-minute nag” fumbles her way to the finish line and the look that Andrew Jackson, the bull-pup, gives to Smiley after the defeat by a dog without hind legs are examples of how skilled Twain was in writing cleverly without seeming to be writing at all.
Twain shows equal skill in the dialogue between Smiley and his supposed victim. The repetitions, the grammatical errors, the misspellings to indicate accent, and the wary rejoinders have a seamlessness about them which gives them an air of authenticity, of improvisational vivacity, which is part of Twain’s charm as a comic writer. The story’s success lies in Twain’s ability to make it sound like the real thing: the loose-tongued babble of an old man who has caught another innocent fellow by the ear. Twain, the victim, twice-bitten (once by Ward and once by Smiley’s narrator, Simon Wheeler), can only get away, if good-naturedly, by running for cover. The story’s secret is not the trick it describes but the structure and use of style.
Beyond its technical cleverness, however, the popularity of the story lay in large part in the fact that Twain refrains from patronizing his unlettered inhabitants of Calaveras County. Smiley may have been fooled this time, but he is usually the victor and is likely to rebound. His proposed victim is to be congratulated on his quickness of mind; Simon Wheeler may be a bit long-winded, but he tells a good story. If anyone is made to look the fool, it is Twain, the aggrieved letter writer, whose proper way with grammar has not made him any less susceptible to a harmless practical joke. The story’s tone, in fact, is one of generosity and good nature. The joke is ultimately on Twain, and he takes it well.
It was this kind of happy tomfoolery in the early stories, with the acceptance of rural America as a place not without its own kind of bucolic silliness and occasional quick wit, which readers and audiences liked about the young writer and performer. The tougher, sharper Twain was yet to come.
The Innocents Abroad
First published: 1869
Type of work: Travel literature
Twain accompanies a group of affluent Americans on a tour of Europe and the Holy Land and reports on the sights and sounds and the comic and satiric confrontations between the Old and the New Worlds.
It must have seemed a clever idea to send a popular young comic journalist on a tour with a boatload of prominent citizens in order to record, as The Innocents Abroad did, the day-to-day experience of Americans having a good time in the exotic old countries. When the book came out, however, the reaction was not entirely favorable. Twain had confirmed what every American already knew—that Europe was terribly run-down and was greedy for the dollars of rich Americans. He also suggested that the Americans often made fools of themselves and quite as often were downright vulgar—thereby confirming what Europeans already knew about America.
Obviously someone had misjudged Mark Twain when he was sent on the trip. His career as a literary figure was in its infancy, and he had yet to write a novel, but there was surely sufficient evidence in his newspaper work and in his short stories that he had a gift for satire that was barely controlled and that he was not quite as refined in his literary conduct as might have been expected from an East Coast journalist. He was, in short, not always as fastidious in his work as might have been expected, and this book, certainly one of the funniest (and sometimes satirically savage) works in the travel genre was to offend at the same time that it added to his reputation as a writer of promise.
The book can also be seen as an interesting anticipation of a theme that Twain is to use over and over again: the confrontation between liberal, nineteenth century ideas of politics and society with the old, sometimes savage conservatism of the Old World. The latter problem is to be used in The Prince and the Pauper, in which the concern for humanity and for fair treatment of citizens is manifested in the conduct of both the prince and the pauper. It becomes even more central in the later work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where a nineteenth century American finds himself in a position of power and attempts to put his ideas about society, politics, and commerce into action—with sometimes comic but often dangerously disastrous results.
Most obvious, and perhaps most enjoyable from an American point of view, are Twain’s astringently funny comments upon the limitations of European civilization. He sees how quick the Europeans and the Near Eastern citizens are to take advantage of the Americans, who are open and generous in their curiosity. He has an amusing running joke about guides who may change throughout the tour but have a kind of obvious sameness in their determination to make a meal out of the Americans. They give very little in return, usually because they hardly have any idea what they are talking about.
Twain is weakest, as he freely admits, in dealing with the art and architecture of the old countries, and he is often surprisingly insensitive, revealing himself as vulnerable to the charge that he is occasionally as stupidly stubborn as his fellow travelers. Yet that revelation gives the book a credibility which helps to keep it from becoming a tedious listing of constant complaint. It often breaks out into first-class description, particularly if Twain is moved by a scene, but its main line is that of slippery comic comment upon the discomfort of travel.
The Holy Land, in particular, fires the greatest enthusiasm in Twain and some of the most pungent complaint, caused in part by the difficulties of travel in the barren landscape. The Christian history of that area is most interesting to Twain and his fellow travelers, but Twain, who usually maintains a pose of amused indifference, is enraged by the commercialization of the biblical sites. From early in the tour there is a line of anticlerical comment which can become sharply splenetic, particularly if the Roman Catholic Church is involved.
Twain’s reaction to the tawdry, profit-making manipulation of the Christian mystery was enjoyed by his American readers, but he was not afraid to suggest that Americans on the road could also be less than admirable. He could be sharply disdainful of how his fellows flashed their money, their fractured French, and, particularly, their hammers, chipping away at any monument, however sacred, that might come under their hands. Much of this is funny, and that was expected of Twain, but it can involve a strong satiric bite; Twain can be irascible. He refuses to stay within the confines of the genial, romantic idea of what a travel book “should” be.
He is often very good at showing what the foreign landscape looks like, but what really interests him is how human beings live and what the political, social, and physical implications are of the long histories of great civilizations, now less powerful and somewhat tattered and torn. Most to the point, he is fascinated by how people respond to tourists, how the experience seems to bring out the worst in both parties. He plays fair here, revealing that if the natives are often on the cheat, the Americans, acting thoughtlessly and sometimes stupidly, just as often deserved to be fleeced.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
First published: 1876
Type of work: Novel
Tom Sawyer, the town’s bad boy, experiences disapproval, love and hate, and imaginary and real adventure and he ends up the town hero and a boy of property.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is Twain’s finest study of a boy’s character and his best novel, but it is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that is the more popular boy’s tale with the public. Its simplicity, lack of psychological density, and single-minded celebration of the joys of childhood are the reasons for its attraction and the affection with which it is remembered by adults who have not read it for years and never intend to read it again. It is the American dream of ideal childhood written with unmitigated joy.
Much of its success lies with Tom, a child of lively curiosity with a mildly anarchic personality and an imagination fueled by reading (and often misreading) everything from fairy tales to the classics. He is also a boy capable of disarming affection. His relationship with Aunt Polly, swinging as it does between angry frustration and tears of loving joy, is one of the memorable child-adult confrontations in literature. For all of his strutting imitations of maleness, he has no inhibitions in his courting of Becky Thatcher. Twain has a rather crude way with feelings, but in Tom he found a character who acts out his emotions with a comic bravado that often saves the book from falling into sentimental excess.
The Tom Sawyer confidence tricks are part of the folklore of American life. The famous fence-painting game has developed a life of its own that goes beyond the novel. Tom’s systematic accumulation of those yellow tickets awarded for memorizing Bible passages leads to one of those lovely moments of exposure that fall regularly into Tom’s life of precarious mischief.
Beyond the individual incidents of comic chicanery, however, the novel has a strength which is often not noticed because it is carried on with such ease: It has a complicated plot that comes seemingly out of nowhere and increases in dramatic energy from its inception until the very end. The chance encounter of Tom and Huck that leads to the visit to the graveyard for the purpose of trying out a new method for curing warts leads them right into witnessing Injun Joe’s murder of Doctor Robinson. Terrified by possessing a secret which they do not want, they vow to keep quiet, even after Muff Potter, a stupid, drunken companion of Injun Joe, is accused of the murder.
Tom’s failure at love when Becky finds out that he had another girlfriend, his depression over the murder, and his feeling that he can do nothing right lead him to run off with Huck, but only to a nearby island, and the boys are thought to have drowned. The tale becomes complicated further as Tom and his friends return to their own funeral and Tom manages...
(The entire section is 7579 words.)
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