It is indisputable that, during his many years of writing, Mark Twain established himself as a literary genius. It is also indisputable that the primary reason for his success as an author was his quick wit and sense of humor. During this nation’s time of political and social division, Twain wrote about many of the simpler things in life while always showing his humorist side. His brilliant comedic mind was especially unusual for any popular writer around during this rough time period in the nation’s history.
Mark Twain’s humorist views and writings truly solidify him as the forefather of American humor.
Unlike many writers of his time, Samuel Clemens, better known as his pen name, Mark Twain never secluded himself or slaved over a piece of work. He enjoyed playing billiards or sitting on his porch, smoking a pipe. He lived with his wife and three daughters, and did most of writing in his billiards room or on his bed.
He lived a simple, casual life, which proved to encourage his laidback, humorist attitude. (Whipple, Sally) William Dean Howells once compared Twain’s lifestyle to the other famous writers of his time. “Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes… they were like one another and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable.” (Twainweb) This being
perhaps the best explanation for Twain’s unique humorist views, it is no doubt this lifestyle provided for his creative storytelling and successful career as an author.
Mark Twain, a native of Missouri who lived most his childhood in poverty, began his career, surprisingly, as a steamboat pilot. This career path was soon to be interrupted by the Civil War, in which he served for the Confederate Army for two weeks before withdrawing. Already at this point in his life, Twain was showing his humorist side when he commented on this incident saying, “…it was my retirement from it that brought the crash. It left the Confederate side too weak.” (Ayers, 42)
After the Civil War, Twain began his career as a journalist. He bounced from one city to another, including a stay at Virginia City, Nevada and San Francisco. While in San Francisco, Twain wrote The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, his first nationally acclaimed work. This tale of young boys and frog races combined the themes of youth and humor, a combination he would revisit frequently. (Budd, 32)
Finally, in 1869, Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad, was published and released. This story provided many humorous quotes which Twain would become famous for. For example, Twain commented on Italy saying, “The Creator made Italy with designs by Michelangelo.” (Ayers, 126) Twain would create his most famous, and humorous, quotes later on while living in Hartford.
In the early 1870’s, Twain and his newlywed wife, Olivia Langdon, moved into a three-story house in Hartford, Connecticut, where he would spend his most successful years. The first book Twain wrote while in Hartford was Roughing It, which was
released in 1872. Despite many humorous moments during the book, its popularity and comedic were very slight compared to his next book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Considered by many as one of Twain’s greatest stories, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer revisits the theme of youth combined with humor which he often almost thrives off of at times. Tom Sawyer, which came out four years after Roughing It, was released to mixed crowds. The book was banned in several areas and sales were slow to begin with. Eventually, people were able to look past many of the controversial issues in the book and see the humorist side of the book, which would eventually make the book a classic. (Mark Twain in His Times) This book, more so than others, indirectly poked fun at adults for forgetting their childhood. In the preface of Tom Sawyer, Twain explains his reason for writing it. “Part of my plan has been to pleasantly remind adults of what they were themselves, and how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.” (Ayers, 37) This statement does a good job of not only pointing something relatively obvious, but also makes fun of life at its simplest. This is a humorist style that has made him not only one of America’s most famous writers, but also a legendary role model for many other authors and comedians who have become famous themselves.
One such man who has idolized Mark Twain was the famous twentieth century actor and comedian, Hal Holbrook. In 1959, Holbrook, a mere seventeen year old actor portrayed an older Twain in the show, Mark Twain Tonight! Though, it was technically
not a play, Mark Twain Tonight! found more success on Broadway than most plays would. This play, which was simply a one-man show which included Holbrook dressed up as Twain, poking fun at the habits and lifestyle of Twain, had to be extended three times due to popular demand. Not only did this performance catapult the career of the young actor, but it also helped to revived the popularity of Mark Twain. (Budd, 159-164)
One man who also helped to boost the popularity of Mark Twain was the famous author, Ernest Hemingway. After reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which came out seven years after Tom Sawyer, Hemingway made a bold and flattering comment, saying, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” (Budd, 126) At the point this statement was made, Hemingway was already enjoying his own success, due mainly to his humorist style of writing. As an obvious inspiration of Hemingway’s, it is clear that Twain’s comedic style helped Hemingway with his writing, and eventually, his success.
Hemingway’s comments on Huckleberry Finn truly helped boost Twain’s popularity during the twentieth century, yet during the nineteenth century, this work caused enough controversy on its own. Like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn came under immediate criticism, except in this case, it was much more severe. The book was banned in many school systems and several libraries due to its coarse, and at times, racist language, yet Twain was not a racist. To this day, the book still causes controversy in many school systems across the nation who refuse to allow the book into their schools.
Despite these harsh actions against the book, Huckleberry Finn sold more copies during his time then any of his other books. In fact, it is presently his most successful and most critically acclaimed book. (Mark Twain: Huck Finn) Again, most consumers were able to look past the controversy of the book and enjoy the book for what it was meant to be, a humorist look at the life of a young boy and his adventures on the Mississippi River.
After The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain released two of his most famous comedies, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Pudd’nhead Wilson. The first of the two books, Connecticut Yankee, was one of the first books made which dealt with time travel, an idea which was obscure and laughable at the time. The unique quality of this book is how it is complex and detailed, unlike most of his books which were about the simpler things in life.
The second book, Pudd’nhead Wilson, was released in 1894 and was perhaps his most obscure work. The story began as a farce about two Siamese twins and wound up being about two babies who were switched in their cradles. This book, unfortunately, did not receive the critical acclaim most of his books received, yet it was still popular amongst fans. The subject of discussion for this book is usually what message Twain was intending to send. This book, despite its confusing message, tells a humorous story with a humorous ending where the identities of the babies are restored. (Mark Twain in His Times)
Unfortunately, this was Twain’s last popular, humorous story. He would leave Hartford due to debts he owed and live a hard life for the rest of his years. Before he died, Twain would see two of three daughters and his wife pass away before him. He spent the rest of his days trying to repay his dept and mourning over his lost family members, whom he was very close too. He died on April 21, 1910 in Redding, Conn.
During his lifetime, Mark Twain went from a child of poverty to one of the most famous and unique writers of his time to a legendary American hero. Due to classics such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he has established himself as not only a famous writer but also a famous comedian. There was no comedy before Mark Twain, most men were obsessed with politics and the military. After Twain, comedy exploded. Charlie Chaplin is one man who is not only a famous comedic pioneer, but also a supporter of Twain. His career shows the influence of Mark Twain in many areas, often including his characters. Mark Twain’s stories truly solidify him as a legendary author, yet his humor was the unique quality which put him above the rest.
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