Mark Twain Mark Twain American Literature Analysis

Mark Twain book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Mark Twain Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Mark Twain American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 Indeed, some materials left unpublished during his lifetime, such as “The Mysterious Stranger” stories, published posthumously, bear very little resemblance to the sunny idealization of The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 entire section is 7,579 words.)