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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) (1835-1910)

[3777] Anonymous, Mark Twain, Captain (1895), courtesy of the Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT.

Samuel L. Clemens, better known by his pen name “Mark Twain,” continues to enjoy a reputation, already attained by the end of his lifetime, as an icon of American literature. As such, he and his most enduringly popular novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have been subjects of high praise and, at times, subjects of probing questions about the cultural assumptions that shape definitions of “literature” and of “American-ness” at different historical moments. Indeed, Twain’s fame stems in large part from his ability to raise questions about American identity and values in humorous ways through his writings, though they are often tinged with bitterness and despair.

Twain’s life provided subjects and sources for many of his works. Born in Missouri, he grew up in the Mississippi river town of Hannibal, which, thinly disguised as St. Petersburg, became the boyhood home of his most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Clemens himself did not enjoy a long childhood. Following the death of his father, he left school at age twelve and worked for the next several years as a printer’s apprentice to help support his mother and four siblings. During this time, he also began to try his hand at writing. In 1853 he embarked on a three-year period of travel as a journeyman printer, which took him through the Midwest and as far east as New York. This adventure was succeeded by an apprenticeship and subsequent job as a riverboat pilot, an exciting and lucrative experience that he would later recount in his 1883 memoir Life on the Mississippi. When the beginning of the Civil War ended Mississippi riverboat commerce in 1861, Twain enlisted for a brief period in the Confederate militia and then spent the next several years wandering through the West. He entered into a number of failed get-rich-quick schemes with his brother in the Nevada Territory (the subject of his 1872 memoir Roughing It) and published satirical sketches for western newspapers, first as an occasional contributor and then as a popular regular reporter and correspondent. In these pieces, he developed his skilled ear for dialect, establishing what would become his trademark humorous style of capturing the particularities of time, place, and personality by merely seeming to report what characters say in their own words, however unpopular or crude the sentiments. Following the convention of the age, these pieces appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym, for which Clemens chose “Mark Twain,” the river pilot’s term for a safe depth for passage.

Though Twain satirized genteel convention and corruption in print, he aspired to higher social status, vast riches, and greater fame for himself. He established his reputation in 1869 with the publication of The Innocents Abroad, a popular book about his experiences on the first large-scale American tourist excursion to Europe after the Civil War. Soon thereafter, in 1870, he married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy coal merchant, and moved first to Buffalo and then into a fashionable mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, where his life began to assume the trappings of gentility. During the 1870s and 1880s, Twain began producing the novels for which he is best remembered today, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a simultaneously anti-sentimental and nostalgic tale of Missouri boyhood; The Prince and the Pauper (1882), a popular historical romance; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), a social and political burlesque in the form of a parody of the historical novel; and, most notably, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Huckleberry Finn, his greatest work, is remarkable above all for conjuring up a vivid sense of a time and place, for using humor and pathos to pose crucial questions about race relations and the legacy of slavery, and for experimenting with narration and dialect. Through the naive perspective of Huck, a first-person boy narrator who speaks in slang and dialect, Twain exposes social inhibitions and injustices, the gaps between what the American people are supposed to be and what they are.

Twain’s literary output dropped off in the remaining two decades of his life, during which time he lived abroad with his family for substantial periods. Those works that he did produce, such as Following the Equator (1897), a memoir of a trip around the world, reflect a new concern with global affairs, as well as an increasingly caustic and pessimistic tone. Nonetheless, during the final years of his life, he found himself celebrated everywhere, attaining fame at home and abroad as a kind of living literary institution and firmly securing a place for himself in the history of American letters.

Teaching Tips

  • Twain wrote the first sixteen chapters of Huckleberry Finn in the Centennial year 1876. He then found himself frustrated and uncertain about how to finish the story, abandoning it until 1883. Ask students to think about the relevance of the fact that this novel was begun on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. How does the book comment on the Declaration’s ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Ask your class to think about the breaking point at Chapter 16, given the information that Twain left his draft at that point for eight years. Why might he have found himself frustrated and uncertain about the trajectory of the story at that point? How did he resolve his problem? How does Huck and Jim’s relationship change during the Grangerford and Shepherdson sequence?
  • Twain’s repeated use of the word “nigger” throughout Huckleberry Finn has caused controversy since its publication and can make it a troubling book to teach. Parents and administrators angry about what they perceive as the book’s racism have called for its removal from middle school and high school curricula. Ask your students to think about why Twain used this pejorative term–and it was considered pejorative both in his own time and in the historical period in which the novel is set–in a novel that many readers have understood to be an indictment of racism. What effect might Twain have been aiming for? Should we understand his use of the word as itself an example of racism? Is there a distinction to be made between Twain’s stand on slavery and his stand on racism? What is the impact of the presence of this word on our understanding of the novel today?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension:Why are Huck and Jim on the raft in Huckleberry Finn? What life experiences do these two characters have in common? How are they different from one another?
  2. Context: According to Twain, what are James Fenimore Cooper’s “literary offenses”? How does Twain’s assessment reflect his own commitment to “realism” as an artistic ideal? Is his analysis a fair indictment of Cooper?
  3. Context: How would you describe the narrative structure of Huckleberry Finn? Are some episodes in Huck and Jim’s journey more important than other episodes? Does the novel have a climax? If so, what do you consider to be the climactic moment?
  4. Context: Unlike Joel Chandler Harris, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Sarah Orne Jewett, Twain narrates the entire action of his novel through Huck’s vernacular speech. Why do you think he does not employ an educated, urbane frame narrator like so many other authors who experimented with representing regional dialects? What roles do the frame narrators play in the stories by Harris, Chesnutt, and Jewett?
  5. Exploration: In the past century and a half, many schools and libraries have banned Huckleberry Finn or have contemplated banning it. What makes this book so controversial? How might the reasons for Americans’ discomfort with the novel have changed over time? How does Huckleberry Finn compare to other books that have been banned for one reason or another over the years (The Catcher in the RyeLolitaUlysses, even Harry Potter)? For what reasons, if any, should a book be removed from a school’s reading list or library?
  6. Exploration: Critics disagree about Twain’s portrait of Jim in Huckleberry Finn. How does the characterization of Jim participate in common nineteenth-century stereotypes of African Americans? How does Jim compare to some of the African American characters and writers discussed in Unit 7? Are there ways that Jim challenges racist stereotypes?

Selected Archive Items

[3631] Edward Windsor Kemble, Huckleberry Finn (1884),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-98767].
Shown with a shotgun and a rabbit, Huck Finn epitomizes the all-American traits of self-sufficiency and independence in this frontispiece illustration for the 1885 edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade).

[3777] Anonymous, Mark Twain, Captain (1895),
courtesy of the Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT.
A riverboat pilot in his youth, Samuel L. Clemens chose the pseudonym “Mark Twain,” a term meaning safe depth for passage. He used realism and regional dialect in his writing to challenge readers to come to new conclusions about the roles of race and class in America.

[4049] Anonymous, Samuel L. Clemens about the time he wrote Huckleberry Finn (c. 1885),
courtesy of the Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT.
During the 1870s and 1880s Twain began producing his best-known novels, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1882), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

[4053] Anonymous, Mark Twain in front of boyhood home, Hannibal, Missouri (1902),
courtesy of the Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT.
Born in Missouri, Samuel L. Clemens grew up in the Mississippi river town of Hannibal, which, thinly disguised as St. Petersburg, became the boyhood home of Twain’s most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

[5831] Anonymous, Young Sam Clemens [Mark Twain] (n.d.),
courtesy of the Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT.
This early photograph of Samuel L. Clemens reflects many of the ideals of realism, including the desire to document uncompromising, literal representations of the material world and the human condition.

[7838] Jocelyn Chadwick, Interview: “Controversy in the Reception of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media and American Passages.
Jocelyn Chadwick, assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, speaks on the controversial aspects of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

[7854] Bruce Michelson, Interview: “Stages of Controversy in Huckleberry Finn” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media and American Passages.
Bruce Michelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, speaks about the evolution of the controversy surrounding Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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