Student Question

Which work or author from this course had the most significant influence on American literary history? Discuss.

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The assignment guidelines you have provided clearly indicate that your teacher is strongly emphasizing originality, as they state, “Your ideas are to be new and freshly constructed.” This answer will provide you with some possible directions in which to take your study of Mark Twain’s influence. This includes references to some eNotes Study Guides on Twain; there are more than forty such Study Guides on the site, both discussing Twain’s most important works and providing critical analyses and biography. Twain occupies a unique place in American literature, having been extremely popular in his own lifetime and enjoying a solid critical reputation after his death; having one of his novels (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) declared “the greatest American novel"; and then having the same novel decried as outdated and racist.

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) contributed to his own mythology by writing his own seventy-nine-chapter life story, The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Although he claims he is being entirely honest, that claim seems to be tongue-in-cheek, as he has clearly exaggerated some stories and fabricated others, thus establishing that, in this work as much as in any other, he enjoys kidding the reader. Twain's devotion to humor, even finding it in the most serious subjects, is one characteristic that has endeared him to generations of readers.

Another useful resource on eNotes is a Study Guide for Mark Twain A to Z by Jack Rasmussen. This one-volume guide breaks down Twain’s works by title and by topic, facilitating comparison of the major themes that run through many of his works.

The critical consensus is that Twain was a quintessential voice of the American spirit in the expansionist era of the mid- to late nineteenth century. Huckleberry Finn established the pattern for almost all subsequent road-themed books, and the irrepressible Tom Sawyer also became a paradigm for the mischievous, inventive all-American-boy. Huck Finn, however, is also a serious young man, even a philosopher, and his musings on inequality in America and his friendship with Jim cut across the grain of the expected portrayals of interpersonal relations in Twain’s day. You will find eNotes Study Guides for both novels (https://www.enotes.com/topics/adventures-of-huckleberry-finn, https://www.enotes.com/topics/tom-sawyer). Here is an excerpt from the Huck Finn guide:

Through the adventures of an escaped slave and a runaway boy, both representatives of the ignorant and lowly of the earth, Twain affirms that true humanity is found in humans rather than institutions.

While Twain is well known for his fiction, he also wrote non-fiction, chronicling his involvement in many fascinating chapters of American history. In one outstanding work, Life on the Mississippi, Twain covers his years on the riverboats, an epoch of his life that, among other effects, gave him the idea for his pseudonym.

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