Innovations in American Literature – From Mark Twain to Contemporary Voices

 

The aftermath of World War II supposed a re-evaluation of human dogma and demanded new forms of representation. Artists responded with innovations in writing that reacted to the twin trends of Modernism and Realism.

From the river-raft philosophizing of a Mississippi Valley boy to the “words walking without masters” filling the journey of a woman descended from slaves, these innovative novels create a distinctly American voice.

Mark Twain’s Humor

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by the pen name Mark Twain, was an American humorist who made his name by writing humorous stories about America’s small towns and big cities. His work continues to both delight and enchant readers to this day. His humor, much like that of other great comedians, was based on the way people actually spoke and behaved. Twain drew on the language of his home region to create his works and his humor resonated with American readers.

While Twain’s later works are cynical and often bitter, the carefree humor of earlier efforts such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn endures to this day. The emergence of a distinctly American voice is captured in these books and it remains as powerful now as it was over a century ago.

Twain’s humor and satire also resonated with readers around the world, including the English-speaking populations of other countries, and his works are among the best sellers in literary history. His satire and barbs, which he often unleashed against public figures, were a major part of his popularity and they served as an alternative to the moralistic and sometimes preachy nature of the dominant media of his time.

Some of Twain’s most memorable works were written during his years living abroad in Europe, and in particular while he was residing in the city of San Francisco, California. It was during this period that Twain’s cynicism and disillusionment with humanity reached their peak.

It was in this time that he also began writing his autobiography, the Life of Henry V. Although it was never finished, the autobiography reveals much about Twain’s personal life and his views on humanity. It also contains a number of funny stories and anecdotes, such as the time that Twain offended a journalist in Virginia City by claiming that Winston Churchill was a thief. To avoid a duel, Twain fled to California and subsequently became famous as an opportunistic and unpretentious journalist.

Twain was a man of many talents and his work reflects this. He was an expert on American culture and its various idiosyncracies, and also an accomplished inventor. His friendship with the mercurial Nikola Tesla is also well documented in the autobiography, and Twain even describes his attempts to record his voice using a device called a phonograph, a precursor to Edison’s audio technology.

Mark Twain’s Autobiography

In his autobiography Twain used the stream of consciousness technique that he had developed as a writer—not just of humor but also of social criticism, travel writing and the like. Using it, Twain made writing more informal than it had been in the past, liberating a form of language that had been held back by formal rules and structures. His rambling style brought out the best of American vernacular, allowing him to create a literature of ordinary life and to give fresh expression to American idioms.

Twain drew on his own experiences when he wrote his memoirs, but he never let those dictate his subject matter. He aimed to combine the forms of autobiography and diary, aiming to build something that would be “admired a good many centuries,” he once said.

The result was the three-volume Autobiography of Mark Twain, published posthumously. Its contents were not censored as they had been when Twain had dictated it to stenographer Josephine Hobby and biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, although he did stipulate that the book should not be published until after his death.

In the recollections Twain tells of his family in the backwaters of Hannibal, Missouri, of his life as a typesetter and steamboat pilot, and of his fleeting career as a Confederate soldier before he deserted (Twain’s account is sympathetic but does not reveal his reasons). He talks about the many random acts of violence he witnessed, including an attack on a woman by two brothers who had brained one of them with a rock for no particular reason.

Twain also gives his views on political matters, notably skewering crooked politicians and gaudy plutocrats. He also talks about the failure of his ill-fated investments, and of his travels around the world, especially in Europe. Twain felt he had reinvented modern autobiography with his method, which he once described, not in grandiose terms, but with great modesty: “I think I’m the only man who ever found out the right way to build an autobiography.” This new edition brings together those dictated pages and more from Twain’s recollections.

Mark Twain’s Fiction

A gifted storyteller, Twain was able to tap into the American spirit and transcend his humble origins. His wit and humor gained him the respect of presidents, artists, industrialists and European royalty alike. He also was a master at writing both fiction and non-fiction, producing a wide range of works that are still highly popular today.

While the majority of Twain’s oeuvre consists of humorous or autobiographical works, he did produce a few novels and short stories in his later years as well. He even took a few chances on the burgeoning genre of science fiction with a 1898 short story about a ship sailing across a drop of water on a microscope slide and his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court which was one of the first to explore time travel.

In addition to the humor and satire Twain excelled in, he was also a keen observer of his time. His experiences along the Mississippi River provided a rich source of material for his trilogy of classics, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

Twain also mined historical events and figures for his fiction, as evidenced by the satirical The Prince and the Pauper (1902), which reimagined Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective hero Sherlock Holmes in the Antebellum South, and A Tramp Abroad (1880).

As his literary career progressed, Twain’s world view became increasingly pessimistic, which is reflected in the tone of his late works such as The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), a novel hinting at slavery, and his highly personal, and ultimately bitter, collection of sketches from his final period, What Is Man? (1896).

Twain possessed a deep desire to see the world, and did so both on land and at sea. He traveled extensively, logging more miles than any other American author of his time. He used these voyages to further refine his craft, and to inspire his work. In fact, Twain regarded his rafting and exploration adventures as some of his most valuable educational experiences.

Mark Twain’s Poetry

Twain authored an impressive list of works, but his most popular are probably the novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He also penned a number of short stories, travelogues and satires, as well as essays and literary criticism. Scholars credit him with liberating American literature from stilted grammatical perfection and moving it toward the more natural language of daily speech. He was also a skilled inventor, holding four patents, and a popular performer who staged events all over the world.

Twain’s poetry ranges from the playful to the poignant, but all of it is infused with his characteristic humor. He mockes people and institutions, but does so with a sense of exuberance and joy. Twain was also a champion of human rights and social justice, and he criticized the racist and imperialistic tendencies of his day.

Students can analyze Twain’s use of poetic forms in the poem “Genius.” Twain uses rhyme and meter to create a stanza structure which burlesques traditional poetic conventions. Such techniques anticipate modernist poets like Frost and are an important part of Twain’s experimentation in form.

A good way to introduce the poem is by having students read a first draft of it along with the final version. Then ask them to notice the changes Twain made and why he made those choices. This will help them understand the process of revision and how Twain was continually working to improve his work.

Twain’s autobiographical and critical writings show him to be a man who was fascinated with the human condition and devoted to the idea of advancing civilization. He was an innovative writer who was able to combine multiple genres and audiences, and his influence on American culture is still felt today. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and The Innocents Abroad are timeless classics. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in particular are widely seen as one of the first anti-racist works in American literature. In addition, Twain’s critique of gilded age monopolists and robber barons is startlingly prescient for his time. Likewise, his support for reparations to Black Americans reflects an understanding of the need to address long-standing injustices.

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