Discussion Topics

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How does Mark Twain’s development of the theme of American innocents abroad differ from that of Henry James?

In what respects is Life on the Mississippi a preparation for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

What makes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn much more than a “spin-off” of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?

How legitimate are the concerns that have led certain school systems and libraries to ban or exclude Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

What lessons has Huck learned by the end of his adventures?

How do you account for the growing pessimism in Twain’s later books?

Consider Twain as a practitioner of “the art that conceals art.”

Other Literary Forms

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As a professional writer who felt the need for a large income, Mark Twain published more than thirty books and left many uncollected pieces and manuscripts. He tried every genre, including drama, and even wrote some poetry that is seldom read. His royalties came mostly from books sold door to door, especially five travel volumes. For more than forty years, he occasionally sold material, usually humorous sketches, to magazines and newspapers. He also composed philosophical dialogues, moral fables, and maxims, as well as essays on a range of subjects which were weighted more toward the social and cultural than the belletristic but which were nevertheless often controversial. Posterity prefers his two famous novels about boyhood along the banks of the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), although Twain also tried historical fiction, the detective story, and quasi-scientific fantasy.


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Certainly one of the United States’ most beloved and most frequently quoted writers, Mark Twain earned that honor by creating an original and nearly inimitable style that is thoroughly American. Although Twain tried nearly every genre from historical fiction to poetry to quasi-scientific fantasy, his novels about boyhood on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are the works that permanently wove Twain’s celebrity status into the fabric of American culture. During his own lifetime, Twain received numerous honors including an M.A., soon followed by an LL.D., from Yale University. The University of Missouri granted him another doctorate in 1902. His proudest moment, however, was in 1907, when the University of Oxford awarded him an honorary LL.D. He was so proud of his scarlet doctor’s gown that he wore it to his daughter’s wedding.

Other literary forms

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In addition to his novels, Mark Twain wrote a great deal of short fiction, which can be divided, although often only arbitrarily, into short stories, tales, and humorous sketches. One of the best examples of his short stories is “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” and one of the best examples of his humorous sketches is the jumping frog story. Somewhere between the story and the sketch are tales such as “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.”

Twain also wrote speeches and essays, both humorous and critical. Representative of his best satiric essays, which range from the very funny to the very sober, are “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” and “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” The first of these is a hilarious broadside against Cooper’s style and invention in which Twain is obviously enjoying himself while at the same time continuing his ongoing war against the romanticizing of the past. “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” considered by some to be his finest piece of invective, is his attack on what he saw as the exploitation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War by, in his words, “The Blessings-of-Civilization Trust.”

Early in his career, Twain wrote the travel sketches and impressions The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), and

(This entire section contains 238 words.)

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(1872), andA Tramp Abroad (1880), and later, Following the Equator (1897). Two of his most important books are autobiographical, Life on the Mississippi (1883) and Mark Twain’s Autobiography, published in various editions in 1924.


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The coincidental appearance of Halley’s comet in the years of Mark Twain’s birth and death, 1835 and 1910, has been much remarked. A historical event, however, in contrast to the cosmic one, occurring very near the midpoint of his life, provides a better symbol for his career and his achievement than does the mysterious, fiery comet. In 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, a golden spike was driven to complete the first North American transcontinental railroad. The subsequent settling of the great midwestern center of the continent and the resulting transformation of a frontier society into a civilized one, a process people thought would take hundreds of years, was to be effected in several decades. Twain’s life spanned the two Americas, the frontier America that produced so much of the national mythology and the emerging urban, industrial giant of the twentieth century. At the heart of Twain’s achievement is his creation of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, who embody that mythic America, midway between the wilderness and the modern super-state.

Tom and Huck, two of the nation’s most enduring characters, give particular focus to Twain’s turbulent, sprawling, complex career as journalist, humorist, entrepreneur, and novelist. The focus is dramatic because the two characters have made their way into the popular imagination with the abiding vitality of legend or folklore. They have been kept before generations of Americans in motion pictures, television, cartoons, and other popular art forms as well as in their original form in the novels. The focus is also symbolic because of the fundamental dualism that the two characters can be seen to represent on the personal, the literary, and the cultural planes.

On the personal plane, Tom and Huck represent aspirations so fundamental to Twain’s life as to make them seem rather the two halves of his psyche. Like good and bad angels, they have been taken to represent the contending desires in his life: a strong desire for the security and status of material success on one hand set against the deeply ingrained desire for freedom from conventional social and moral restraints on the other. It has been conjectured that steamboat piloting was perhaps the most satisfying of Twain’s occupations because it offered him high degrees of both respectability and freedom. Although the character of Tom, the symbol of perennial boyhood, can be easily overburdened by this perspective, there is in him the clear outline of the successful, settled, influential man-of-affairs-to-be. If Tom had grown up, he—like Twain himself—might well have made and lost a fortune in the publishing business and through investments in the Paige typesetter. He almost certainly would have been a successful professional or businessman. He would most likely have traveled abroad and would have been eager to associate with nobility at every opportunity. It is relatively easy to imagine Tom growing up. It is instructive to realize that it is almost impossible to imagine Huck’s doing so.

On the literary plane, the two may also be seen as representing contending forces, those of the two principal literary schools of the period, the Romantic and the realistic. Surely, Twain’s pervasive attacks on Romantic literature are somewhat compulsive, reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preoccupation with the Puritans. Both protest too much. Twain is one of America’s foremost Romantics, even if he did see himself as a realist and even if he did engage much of his time in puncturing the sentimental balloons of the disciples of Sir Walter Scott, Cooper, and the graveyard poets. He was both Romantic and realist, and Tom and Huck emerge almost allegorically as symbols of the two major literary schools of the late nineteenth century.

Tom as the embodiment of socially conforming respectability and as a disciple of Romantic literature contrasts illustratively with Huck as the embodiment of the naturally free spirit, who is “realistic” in part because of his adolescent honesty about such things as art, royalty, and the efficacy of prayer. It is the symbolic dualism on the historical plane, however, that brings into sharpest focus the nature of Twain’s central and most enduring achievement. On the historical plane, his two central characters reflect most clearly Twain’s principal legacy to posterity: the embodiment in fiction of that moment in time, a moment both real and imaginary, given some historical particularity by the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point in 1869, when America was poised between the wilderness and the modern, technological state. In this context, Tom represents the settlements that were to become the towns and cities of the new century, and Huck represents the human spirit, freer, at least in the imagination, in the wilderness out of which the settlements were springing. At the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain sends Huck on that impossible mission that has been central to the American experience for centuries, when he has him decide to “light out for the territory” before Aunt Sally can “adopt” and “civilize” him.

Twain the humorist and satirist, the silver-mining and typesetting entrepreneur, the journalist, the family man, the anguished, skeptical seeker after religious faith—all must be taken into consideration in accounts of the nature of his achievements. Without Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, he would have made his mark as a man of his time, a man of various and rich talents. Most likely, his reputation would rest today largely on his talents as a humorist and satirist, and that reputation still figures largely in assessments of his overall achievement. With Tom and Huck, however, his achievement is given the depth and dramatic focus of a central contribution to the national mythology. Huck’s “voice” is frequently compared to the voice of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855). Such comparisons rest in part on rhetorical similarities between the two voices, similarities in what has been called the “vernacular mode.” More significantly, they derive from the similarities of the achievements of the poet and the novelist in the establishing of historically and culturally distinctive American “voices” in poetry and fiction. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn loom large on the nineteenth century literary horizon. They stand, along with James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, and Whitman’s persona in “Song of Myself,” as the principal characters of the emerging national literature. Twain’s contribution to that body of literature is at the deepest center of his achievement as a major American writer.


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Mark Twain is best known as the author of the quintessentially American novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the work from which, in Ernest Hemingway’s judgment, all modern American writing derives and in which neither mystery nor detection plays any significant role. Of the novel’s two murders, one, Pap Finn’s, is quickly disposed of in the final page and the other, Huck’s feigning his own death, is, for all the brilliance of the plan and the psychological resonance of the symbolic act of self-destruction, little more than the means by which Twain keeps his plot moving.

Because Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is in many ways not only Twain’s finest work but also his most representative, it may appear that he holds little claim to a place in the history of mystery and detective fiction. Twain, however, demonstrated a deep interest in these particular literary forms over the course of his entire career. From the inquest in “Petrified Man” to his purest and most complete venture into the field, Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), he adapted the conventions of these literary subgenres to his own purposes, aesthetic, and financial needs. His forays into mystery and detective fiction may therefore best be classified according to form and function: satirizing the forms themselves and certain social conditions, capitalizing on already popular (and therefore potentially profitable) literary formulas, and finding an appropriate vehicle for those melodramatic climaxes of which he was perhaps overfond. Not surprisingly for a writer who generally wrote without any plan in mind and whose episodic works often appear innocent of both plot and structure, the formal constraints of detective and mystery writing often proved too confining for Twain. However, for a writer obsessed with the question of mistaken identity, mystery and detective fiction held a certain attraction. Indeed, mistaken identity plays a central role in his posthumously published short story A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage (2001), which might be best seen as a parody of detective fiction.


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Briden, Earl F. “Twainian Pedagogy and the No-Account Lessons of ‘Hadleyburg.’” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Spring, 1991): 125-234. Argues that within the context of Twain’s skepticism about man’s capacity for moral education “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” is not a story about a town’s redemptive lessons of sin but rather an exposé about humanity’s inability to learn morality from either theory or practice, abstract principle or moral pedagogy.

Camfield, Gregg. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Collection of essays, including several by other scholars, on diverse aspects of Twain’s life and writing, with encyclopedia reference features. Includes a three-page entry on detective stories. Indexed.

Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Complete revision of Emerson’s The Authentic Mark Twain (1984), this masterful study traces the development of Twain’s writing against the events in his life and provides illuminating discussions of many individual works, including the mystery and detective stories discussed here. Indexed.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A broad survey of Mark Twain’s influence on modern culture, including the many writers who have acknowledged their indebtedness to him; discusses Twain’s use of Hannibal, Missouri, in his writings; charts his transformation from a southern racist to a committed antiracist.

Fulton, Joe B. Mark Twain in the Margins: The Quarry Farm Marginalia and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Alabama, 2000. An examination of the marginalia that Fulton finds revealing of the development of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee.

Horn, Jason Gary. Mark Twain: A Descriptive Guide to Biographical Sources. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999. Richly annotated bibliography of nearly three hundred books and other sources on Mark Twain, including many works of criticism.

Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966. Pulitzer Prize-winning biography is a superior general work on Twain’s life after 1861.

Lauber, John. The Inventions of Mark Twain. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990. Very well-written and often humorous, this biography reveals Twain as an extremely complex, self-contradictory individual. Includes an annotated bibliography.

Lauber, John. The Making of Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: American Heritage Press, 1985.

LeMaster, J. R., and James D. Wilson, eds. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993. Comprehensive reference work broadly similar in organization to Rasmussen’s Critical Companion to Mark Twain, differing in devoting most of its space to literary analysis. Includes a long entry by Don L. F. Nilsen on detective fiction.

Leonard, James. S., ed. Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. Collection of essays by leading Twain scholars designed for students and teachers. Special attention is given to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Joan of Arc, Innocents Abroad, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Messent, Peter B. Mark Twain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A standard introduction to Twain’s life and works. Provides bibliographical references and an index.

Messent, Peter B. The Short Works of Mark Twain: A Critical Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Detailed exploration of Twain’s shorter works that takes the innovative approach of examining how Twain planned the individual collections in which they were first published in book form.

Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain: A Biography. 3 vols. 1912. Reprint. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1997. Often reprinted, this immense study by Twain’s authorized biographer and editor remains the fullest study of Twain’s life and benefits from Paine’s close personal acquaintance with Twain and his access to sources that no longer exist.

Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2005. A massive, engrossing biography which examines not only Twain’s life and work, but also his context. Includes bibliography and index.

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Bloom’s How to Write About Mark Twain. New York: Chelsea House, 2008. Practical guide to writing student essays on Mark Twain, with numerous general and specific suggestions on his major novels. Contains a general introduction to writing on Mark Twain and chapters on ten individual works, including Pudd’n head Wilson. Each chapter has a lengthy bibliography.

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Critical Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Facts On File, 2007. Revised and much expanded edition of Mark Twain A to Z (1995), which covered virtually every character, theme, place, and biographical fact relating to Mark Twain and contained the most complete chronology ever compiled. Among new features in this retitled edition are lengthy critical essays on Twain’s major works, including all the mystery and detective stories discussed here; an extensive, annotated bibliography; and a glossary of unusual words in Mark Twain’s writings. Indexed.

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A-Z. New York: Facts on File, 1995. The most impressive reference tool available. Virtually every character, theme, place, and biographical fact can be researched in this compendious volume. Contains the most complete chronology ever compiled.

Sanborn, Margaret. Mark Twain: The Bachelor Years. New York: Doubleday, 1990. This biography covers the adventure-filled years from the author’s boyhood to marriage in 1870 at age thirty-four. Based on extensive research into letters written to Twain’s mother, sister, brothers, and close friends. Includes many letters not referenced by Twain’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. Also includes valuable insights gained from 184 letters written between 1868 and 1870, while courting Olivia Langdon, whom Twain eventually married.

Sloane, David E. E. Student Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Greenwood Press, 2001. Essays on aspects of Twain’s life, with special chapters on individual books.

Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. A collection of essays with an introduction by Smith. Among the contributors is W. H. Auden. A chronology of important dates in the author’s life is also included.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. University of California, 2001. The complete original manuscript, including more than six hundred excised pages.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews. Edited by Gary Scharnhorst. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006. This volume is comprised of interviews with Mark Twain dating from 1871 to 1910, presented in chronological order. The interviews paint a vivid picture of Twain, bringing to life his speech patterns and idiosyncracies, his likes and dislikes, and his philosophies on life and writing. Editor Gary Scharnhorst makes the book easily accessible to those unfamiliar with Twain by providing annotations to clarify the historical and biographical references.

Twain, Mark. The Stolen White Elephant, and Other Detective Stories, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Omnibus volume containing facsimile reprints of the first American editions of The Stolen White Elephant, and Other Stories (1882), Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), and A Double-Barrelled Detective Story (1902). Part of the twenty-nine-volume Oxford Mark Twain edition, this volume also includes a new introduction by mystery writer Walter Mosley and an analytical afterword by scholar Lillian S. Robinson.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Mark Twain: The Man and His Work. 3d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967. A thorough revision of the 1935 work in which Wagenknecht considers the vast historical and critical study conducted between 1935 and 1960. He has modified many of his original ideas, most notably, that Mark Twain was “The Divine Amateur.” The original chapter with that title has been rewritten and renamed “The Man of Letters.”

Ward, Geoffrey C., and Dayton Duncan. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. A heavily illustrated companion to the PBS television documentary. More than a picture book, however, this volume provides ample biographical information that is well researched and thoughtfully presented.

Wieck, Carl F. Refiguring “Huckleberry Finn.”Georgia, 2000. A novel approach to the meaning and influence of Twain’s best-known work; Wieck concentrates on certain key words to decipher the text.

Wilson, James D. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Mark Twain. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Detailed summaries and analyses of sixty-five stories, including several that appear within Twain’s travel books.

Wonham, Henry B. Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Discusses how Twain used the tall-tale conventions of interpretive play, dramatic encounters, and the folk community. Focuses on the relationship between storyteller and audience in Twain’s fiction.


Critical Essays