Mark Twain was a writer synonymous with the United States, one capable of capturing the mood of a specific time in the country’s history while also creating timeless characters.
Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, in Missouri, in 1835, (Mark Twain was his pen name) Twain lived through one of the most volatile periods in US history, witnessing the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, an economic boom and recession, and the beginnings of America’s move away from isolationism to become a key power in world affairs. Hugely prolific, Twain published a plethora of novels, as well as articles, essays and short stories. His work is celebrated for its realism and ability to capture a culture and time. The use of vernacular language gives his characters a clear, realistic American identity distinct for novels of this period, while the stories themselves both reflect and confront the world they record.
Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1935, “All American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Such generalisation of course does a disservice to a host of other American writers, but it highlights the level of influence held by Twain, and in particular his two most well known novels ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘The Adventures of ‘Huckleberry Finn’.
Both books remain required reading for students in many American schools. Both books revolve around the same two characters- Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Both books are set along the Mississippi River, successfully reflecting the people who lived there. Yet in tone and message, the two books are very different. ‘Tom Sawyer’ is an idyllic depiction of a boy growing up along the Mississippi. Probably influenced by Twain’s only childhood in Missouri, it is a celebration of Southern life, told through the naive eyes of a child.
Huckleberry Finn took on a much darker tone. The main characters were still children, but the book dealt with very mature issues: the nature of the South, slavery, and the continued hostilities and tensions between black and white communities. It’s a book which depicts children facing the worst of human nature: Huck’s abusive, alcoholic father; slavery, in the form of Jim, an escaped slave; or the ‘duke and dauphin’ – two con artists who repeatedly deceive local communities as well as the children.
A number of factors influenced this shift in tone, and the transition to serious darker social commentary had been apparent in Twain’s work prior to the publication of Huckleberry Finn. What is crucial, is that Twain’s works were undoubtedly connected to a shifting attitude in the United States as a whole. A continued theme throughout Twain’s writing is an ability to capture and comment on the sentiment of the time.
The United States was gradually falling away from the optimism and prosperity that had characterised the post Civil War years. The 1870s had seen an economic boom in the United States and the growth of big business, something Twain had somewhat satirically referred to as the ‘Gilded Age’. Into the 1880s, this prosperity came to a halt. What’s more, the Era of Reconstruction in the South had come to a shocking end. The slaves had been freed after the Civil War, but from the 1880s onward racial tensions started to return, embodied by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
Twain had started work on ‘Huckleberry Finn’ in the 1870s, but only completed and published it in 1885. The decision to do so must surely have been influenced by the dwindling optimism of the period, with the darker tone of the book seemingly reflected in reality.
In the final years of his life, Twain’s works became increasingly confrontational, engaging with a host of issues: from European imperialism (Following the Equator) to the USA’s war with Spain at the end of the nineteenth century. With ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ however, Twain had been able to reveal a slice of American culture: both the good and the bad.