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Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Mark Twain: Classics

Twain gave his first public lecture after he got back from Hawaii in 1866. With no television, no radio, no internet, and no telephones, the only real way to get entertainment back in those days was to go see it live. Lectures were, believe it or not, a popular pastime. Twain's comedic delivery was a hit with live audiences, and he kicked off a lecturing career that would span the next few decades. Along with his books, Twain's lecture series made him a celebrity. Twain was famous for his voice—a nasally twang that was jarring at first, but then added to the humor of his speech.15 He spoke famously slowly. "I have seen slower people than I am—and more deliberate...and even quieter, and more listless, and lazier people than I am," Twain once said. "But they were dead."16

In 1869 Twain published his first book. The Innocents Abroad, a nonfiction account of his travels to Europe, introduced readers to Twain's trademark brand of wit and observation. "The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate a-- he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate a--," he wrote. "If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother."17 The book was a bestseller. In 1870 the Clemenses' first son Langdon was born. The Clemens family (remember, Sam Clemens was Mark Twain's real name) moved to Hartford, Connecticut. In 1872 Twain published Roughing It, a memoir of his time in the West that was peppered with exaggerations and tall tales. The couple's second child, a girl named Susy, was born that year. But sadly, in that same year their son Langdon died of diphtheria. It was the first of many such heartaches for Twain and his wife. Of his four children—following Langdon and Susy, younger daughters Clara and Jean were born in 1874 and 1880—only one, Clara, would survive him.

Twain wrote short stories and a few more books. Then in 1876, he published a novel called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The book starred Tom, a mischievous prankster modeled after a young Twain himself and several of his boyhood friends. The novel's humorous portrayal of an idyllic American town where children ran unapologetically amok struck a nerve with readers, and the book proved a success with children and adults alike. Not everyone in the literary establishment was impressed with the frankness of Twain's language, however. "In the books to be placed into children's hands for purposes of recreation, we have a preference for those of a milder type than Tom Sawyer," the New York Times sniffed in a review. "Excitements derived from reading should be administered with a certain degree of circumspection. …. less, then, of Injun Joe and 'revenge,' and 'slitting women's ears.''18

Twain followed that up with Life on the Mississippi, his memoir of the steamboat years, and then founded his own publishing company with a nephew. Then in 1885, he published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a semi-sequel to Tom Sawyer. "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted," Twain wrote in the preface; "persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."19 Narrated by rascal Huck Finn (who was based on Twain's childhood friend Tom Blankenship), the book was one of the first written entirely in regional American dialect. Though set in pre-Civil War South, Huck's adventures also indirectly tackled serious antebellum issues such as racism and bigotry. Without ever coming close to preaching or moralizing, the book argued against racism and for equality—something that Twain believed in passionately.

The book was immediately popular. "The book is Mark Twain at his best," one reviewer declared.20 In the century since it was published, Huckleberry Finn has been referred to by many as the Great American Novel, the single book that best represents American literature. Not everyone was sold at the beginning, however, and not everyone is sold today. The Concord Library banned the book when it was published. Huck Finn is still one of the most banned books in America, thanks to its repeated use of the n-word. (In Twain's defense, the slur is used in the overtly anti-racist novel as it was in real life at the time.) Twain never let criticisms bother him too much. "The truth is, when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn't anger me,"21 he wrote.

Twain's next book, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, did not get as positive a critical reception as Huck. It made its own mark as one of the first novels to explore time travel, and has been called one of the earliest science fiction novels (Twain was a big science fan). Twain's real-life time as a Connecticut Yankee was limited. After several bad business investments, his finances were a mess. The Clemenses sold their house in Connecticut and moved to Europe, where the living was cheaper.

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