Late 19th Century Fiction: Mark Twain
Mark Twain was born in 1835 and died in 1910. Thus, his life spanned the entire Gilded Age. Indeed, he gave that period its name.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, a small town on the bank of the Mississippi River. His father died in 1847. He left school then, at age 11, and was apprenticed to a printer. Later, he worked for his brother, who owned a newspaper. He took up writing as well; his first piece was printed in a Boston magazine when he was 16.
In 1857, he became a Mississippi riverboat pilot, and loved his work and life on the river. But in 1861, when the Civil War began, the Mississippi was blockaded and trade on the river ended. Twain served for a time in a Confederate militia, and then went west with his brother to Nevada, hoping to get rich quick by finding silver. That didn't happen, but he did get work on the staff of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise newspaper, and changed his name to Mark Twain. "Mark twain" means 2 fathoms, or 12 feet, of water, a safe depth. He told an editor, "It was always a pleasant sound for a pilot to hear on a dark night; it meant safe water."
He returned to the East Coast a few years later, by this time known for his witty, humorous articles on all aspects of western life. He was hired by another newspaper to accompany a group of tourists on a 5-month tour of Europe and the Holy Land. His articles about that trip were published in 1869 as Innocents Abroad. In the book, he spares no one: he satirizes Americans and Europeans, and their traditions, alike. This book and his next, Roughing It, a narrative of his original journey west, sold very well and established him as a popular American author and humorist.
In 1870, he married Olivia Landon, the daughter of a wealthy coal merchant. They settled in Hartford, Connecticut; one of his neighbors was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851).
He wrote his first novel a couple of years later, in 1873, in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner. It was titled The Gilded Age, and was a satire about the far-too-cozy relationships between big businessmen and Washington politicians.
A succession of books followed, among them Life on the Mississippi (1883), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), and Pudd'nhead Wilson (1884). One of his most popular books was Tom Sawyer (1876), which was set in the town in which he'd grown up, Hannibal, Missouri. In it, he re-created an idealized version of his boyhood, and it still touches a chord in everyone who remembers childhood with nostalgia, or who would like to.
As Twain grew older, his satire grew less humorously tolerant and more angry and bitter. Possibly this was due to his wider experience of the world; perhaps it was due to his personal tribulations. In 1896, one of his three daughters died of meningitis. His wife died in 1894, and a second daughter died in 1909 of heart failure brought on by an epileptic seizure. His publishing firm failed and due to a series of bad investments, he found himself bankrupt and humiliated. At a time when he'd looked forward to sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, reminiscing about his past, he was obligated to go on long and exhausting lecture tours to make money. He died on April 21, 1910.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
When he started writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wasn't setting out to write a masterpiece. He simply intended to pen a sequel to Tom Sawyer, told from the point of view of Huck Finn, Tom's best friend. But, like the Mississsippi in flood stage, the book quickly became wider and deeper, and took him somewhere he hadn't thought of going. William Dean Howells called Twain "the Lincoln of our literature," mostly due to Huck Finn. Of that novel, Ernest Hemingway said, "All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn...it's the best book we've had...There was nothing before. There has been nothing so good since."
What makes it a masterpiece? No one agrees. Some don't even agree that it's a masterpiece. But it is a fact that most of the themes that are central to American literature appear in this novel. Twain portrays the new country in a way that is as encompassing as that of Whitman, but with a sharper bite. Whitman saw America as full of endless potential, a place in which the best of all possible worlds could be achieved. Twain, writing a few decades later, presents a country in which the glorious expectations clash with the somewhat less-glorious reality that has come to pass.
One of the more obvious themes of the novel is the clash between freedom and "sivilization," as Huck calls it. Jim, the fugitive slave, is risking his life to gain his freedom. Huck runs away to gain his freedom from his abusive father, and then from the constant attempts of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson to train into him socially acceptable ideas and habits.
Twain presents us with both the good and the bad of human nature. Huck is good: he's not a saint, but he instinctively knows what is morally right and wrong. When the townspeople are laughing at Boggs and taunting him, for example, Huck isn't enjoying it. While he is travelling with the Duke and the King, he doesn't mind tricking people in towns along the way at the religious revivals, because those people are venal and gullible. But he risks his life to keep the Duke and the King from stealing Mary Jane's money, because she's good person. When he is presented with the chance to turn Jim in to the slave hunters, he faces a dilemma: according to what he's been taught, Jim, as a slave, is a piece of property. If he doesn't turn him in, it's the same as stealing, and for that he'll go to Hell. But he's been with Jim for a while now, and he's come to love him and know how much he wants his freedom. He sees him as a human being, not a piece of property. So he chooses the right thing, rather than the legal thing, and keeps Jim from being captured, even though he thinks it will doom his immortal soul.
Twain also gives us many instances when the appearance of a thing belies its reality. Huck looks like a runaway ragamuffin, but he is one of the most moral people in the whole novel. Jim, in the eyes of the law, is a criminal, but he risks his life for Huck and treats him as a father would a son. He is a better father than those in either the Shepherdson or Grangerford families. They appear to be fine family men and upstanding citizens, but these good Christians go to church with loaded guns, waiting for a chance to shoot each other for reasons they've all forgotten. Huck may be good, but he doesn't assume that the people he meets will be. And rightly so: he is able to save himself by seeing people honestly, with all their weakness, stupidity, and depravity, and also their strength and goodness (on the few occasions when that appears).
One other theme that runs through the novel is the hypocrisy and silliness of religion, as it is practiced by many who think of themselves as Christians. Miss Watson preaches to Huck about Heaven and Hell, but is a slaveowner--and more than that, plans to sell Jim away from his family despite her promise not to do so. The Shepherdsons and Grangerfords go to church in the morning and shoot each other's children that afternoon. Mary Jane is one of the few in the novel who practices what her religion preaches, and Huck recognizes her goodness and goes out of his way to protect her from the Duke and the King.
T. S. Eliot wrote that, in Huck, Twain is able to examine and question all values: "His existence questions the values of America as much as the values of Europe; he is as much an affront to the 'pioneer spirit' as he is to 'business enterprise'; he is in a state of nature as detached as the state of the saint." In the beginning of the novel, when the boys are playing their robber games, Huck questions Tom's reliance on old (European) stories; he can't see the point of blindly following the rules, especially when they aren't sure they know what the words even mean: "I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school." In the last section of the novel, Tom makes the rescue of Jim a game and insists on following the "rules" according to the old (European) stories he's read. The lengths to which they all go are laughable, but Huck never loses sight all along that the goal is to keep Jim free. He is willing to go along with Tom, until it's dangerous to do so any more, and then he tosses the traditions out the window and follows his common sense. This is a clear comment by Twain on the silliness of blindly following old traditions that no longer apply in the current situation--or of following any rules without seeing their point.
And then there is the most powerful symbol in the novel: the Mississippi River. The river carries them through town after town, allowing Twain to paint a portrait of America that hadn't been seen before. On the river, Jim is not a slave and neither of them is a fugitive. The river represents freedom: "We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft." On the raft, Huck is inspired with a reverence he never felt in church: "It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud,and it warn't often that we laughed--only a little kind of low chuckle."
Lionel Trilling points out that Twain does not make an absolute division between the raft and human society--it's just used to make a distinction between different kinds of human society: "To Huck much of the charm of the river life is human: it is the raft and the wigwam and Jim. He has not run away from Miss Watson and the Widown Douglas and his brutal father to a completely individualistic liberty, for in Jim he finds his true father...The boy and the Negro slave form a family, a primitive community--and it is a community of saints."
Leo Marx writes that "On the raft the escaped slave and the white boy try to practice their code: 'What you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied and feel right and kind toward the others.' This human credo constitutes the paramount affirmation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and it obliquely aims a devastating criticism at the existing social order...The truly profound meanings of the novel are generated by the impingement of the actual world of slavery, feuds, lynching, murder, and a spurious Christian morality upon the ideal of the raft."
Perhaps it was this criticism of society that the Concord Public Library was reacting to when it banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its collection. The Boston Transcript reported on March 17, 1885: "One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The librarian and other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people."
In a letter to these respectable people, Mark Twain responded with his usual irreverence:
...a committee of the public library of your town has condemned & excommunicated my last book, & doubled its sale. This generous action of theirs must necessarily benefit me in one or two additional ways. For instance, it will deter other libraries from buying the book; & you are doubtless aware that one book in a public library prevents the sale of a sure ten & a hundred of its mates. And secondly it will cause the purchasers of the book to read it, out of curiosity, instead of merely intending to do so the usual way of the world and library committes; and then they will discover, to my great advantage and their own indignant disappointment, that there is nothing objectionable in the book, after all.
Huck Finn is still controversial; it's been banned by some school and libraries in recent years for its racial content. And Twain still exerts enough of an influence to be a subject of conversation. He and his work were the subject of Time magazine's cover article on July 14, 2008. Twain would have been proud to know that his work can still make us laugh and question our values and behavior.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature. 11th ed., Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
2. Eds. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008.
3. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. 2. New Jersey: Pearson, 2007.
4. Alfred Kazin. "Afterword." The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Bantam Classics ed. New York: Bantam, 1981.
5. Lionel Trilling. "The Greatness of Huckleberry Finn." Huckleberry Finn: Text, Sources, and Criticism. Ed. Kenneth S. Lynn. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961. 193-197.
6. T. S. Eliot. Introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn: Text, Sources, and Criticism. Ed. Kenneth S. Lynn. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961. 198-201.
7. Leo Marx. "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn." Huckleberry Finn: Text, Sources, and Criticism. Ed. Kenneth S. Lynn. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961. 202-210.
8. Huckleberry Finn and the Concord Public Library (1885). Huckleberry Finn: Text, Sources, and Criticism. Ed. Kenneth S. Lynn. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961. 171-172.