Mark Twain, who began his writing career as a frontier humorist and ended it as a bitter satirist, drew on his experiences growing up with little formal schooling in a small Missouri town and on his life as printer’s apprentice, journalist, roving correspondent, silver prospector, world traveler, Mississippi steamboat pilot, and lecturer. He was influenced by Artemus Ward, Bret Harte, and Joel Chandler Harris. Beginning with the publication of his short story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (1865; later published as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”) and proceeding through novels and travel books—The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and The American Claimant (1892)—Twain developed a characteristic style that, while uneven in its productions, made him the most important and representative nineteenth century American writer. His service as delightful entertainer to generations of American youngsters is equaled by his influence on such twentieth century admirers as Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway.
Twain’s generally careful and conscientious style was both a development of the tradition of humor of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and Joel Chandler Harris and a departure from the conventions of nineteenth century literary gentility. It is characterized by the adroit use of exaggeration, stalwart irreverence, deadpan seriousness, droll cynicism, and pungent commentary on the human situation. All of this is masked in an uncomplicated, straightforward narrative distinguished for its introduction of the colloquial and vernacular into American fiction that was to have a profound impact on the development of American writing and shape the world’s view of America. Twain, according to Frank Baldanza, had a talent for “paring away the inessential and presenting the bare core of experience with devastating authenticity.” The combination of childish rascality and innocence in his earlier writing gave way, in his later and posthumous works, to an ever-darkening vision of man that left Twain bitter and disillusioned. This darker vision is only hinted at in the three...
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