According to Ernest Hemingway, all modern American literature sprung from Mark Twain’s iconic work, called the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although Mark Twain died over 100 years ago, he remains one of the centerpieces of American literature (Long and LeMaster 8). His novels – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1876, are now part of every school’s curriculum in the US and even in some countries abroad (Long and LeMaster 14).
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However, it was not always the case. Throughout their existence, the stories of Mark Twain were both lauded by the public and banned from official libraries, as they challenged the contemporary notions of what was right and wrong, and painted a picture of the world from the eyes of people other than the privileged white half of the population of America (Harrington and Jenn 31). The purpose of this paper is to examine the influence of Mark Twain on American literature, his place in it, and the different critical viewpoints on his message, both modern and contemporary.
What Were Mark Twain’s Works About?
Mark Twain’s writing is most commonly described as moralist and idealist at the same time. All of his works, starting from The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today and ending with Tom Sawyer and the various spinoffs of that tale, all had the purpose of showcasing and teaching the reader an idea (Hermann 29). Some of the most common themes in his writing included regionalism and symbolism of the river and landscape, connecting with him being raised on Missouri – the largest river in the US (Hermann 30). The innocence of youth and a sense of comradeship were also some of the major motives of his writing.
The pictures he painted and then challenged depicted the American Dream – a cornerstone part of the national identity (Harrington and Jenn 46). The perfect idyllic images were then used to challenge and contrast with the existing status quo, showcasing the ugliness and hypocrisy of the world around them. One of the biggest lampshades was that the country that preached liberty and freedom (Twain 35), having fought for it and won it, still practiced slavery in some of its most abhorrent forms.
Twain sought to challenge these fundamental flaws in his writing. Some of the most frequent appearances that marred the perfect pictures he tended to paint at the start were racism, evolving landscapes, sprawling cities, class and gender barriers, as well as access to education (Hermann 80). These trends are best showcased in some of his most famous works, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and later in his memoir, Life on the Mississippi (Hermann 53).
These texts exposed the things that everyone knew about the society clearly and concisely so that none who read the stories could then claim they were not aware or did not know. It is exposure to the ugly truths that the society was (and in many ways, still is) built upon, that made Twain both revered and hated by his contemporaries and critics (Long and LeMaster 78). The strong sense of authenticity cropped into the story through autobiographical elements allowed to build up credibility and project the stories told onto the reality of 19th-20th century America.
Influence of Mark Twain’s Writing on American Literature
Twain’s landmark work was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was the one that earned Mark Twain the most clout in the literary world and propelled him to greatness. Many contemporary authors and modern reviewers view him as no less than being the Father of American Literature. Ernest Hemingway stated that Huckleberry Finn defined American literature, since there has been nothing before, and nothing as good came out since (Long and LeMaster 8).
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Mark Twain had a formatting effect on the literary canon of the nation by inspiring and highlighting the qualities and trends in heroes and storytelling still greatly enjoyed by millions of Americans even today. Being a moralist and an idealist, Twain sculpted the perfect image that appealed to the individual’s inner goodness and beliefs, by highlighting and differentiating right from wrong, teaching the importance of country and friendship (Harrington and Jenn 34). At the same time, he demonstrated the value of a critical mindset by constantly interrogating and highlighting the inconsistencies of the American South in the 19th Century.
Mark Twain’s writing was decisively anti-slavery and promoted inclusion and treatment of black people as people, portraying them as complex individuals, not shying away from their problems, and underlining the great controversy that split the society apart from within, one that many refused to acknowledge. If we compare Mark Twain’s stories to some of his contemporaries, such as Walt Whitman with his famous “I Hear America Singing,” this is made clear, in contrast (Hermann 121).
Whitman’s poetry describes an America where black individuals are simply invisible from the narrative, and portrays a perfect idyllic picture of the American society, praising all that is praiseworthy while being blissfully unaware of the underlying problems (Whitman). Mark Twain was one of the first who dared to add blackness into the story told by a white man and show the readers that which they do not wish to see. This paved the way for many contemporary and future writers that sought to do the same, focusing on different aspects of the American society deemed unjust, to stand up for truth and differentiate right from wrong.
Criticisms of Mark Twain
The writing of Mark Twain, especially his centerpiece – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has always been a subject of criticism despite its widespread popularity, for both subjective and objective reasons. Between 1885 and 1930, the book was frequently banned from libraries and stores for various reasons, ranging from a “deplorable writing style” to the “excessive use of jargon and slurs, not fit for the audience” (Hermann 28). Some of these criticisms are brought up even today, as certain schools and libraries in the US have removed the stories from the curriculum due to the heavy use of racial slurs, or subjected the story to a softer kind of censoring, replacing the troubling words (heavy use of the word ‘nigger’), with something less emotionally and historically-loaded (Twain 35; Harrington and Jenn 91).
Modern criticism of Twain’s writing also comes from the perspective of racial justice. Although many of his novels were written from the perspective of a man of his time, with the purposes of satire and humor, some minorities and native tribes found their descriptions of themselves insulting. One such example is Twain calling the members of the Washoe tribe, native to Nevada, a “digger tribe,” to represent how they dug the ground to get to roots for food – something seen as demeaning by modern-day natives (Harrington and Jenn 92).
In regards to his writing style, Twain’s greatest strength and weakness at the same time is the heavy use of dualism as a story-construction method. As exemplified in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, as well as his other literary works, the story always features pairs of characters and viewpoints that radically oppose each other, generating conflict. While this often helped create an engaging storyline, it often neglected the various shades of gray that exist in societies, and Twain’s naturally moralistic and idealistic viewpoints tended to split the heroes of the story into either one camp or the other, creating division and intolerance (Twain 210).
Finally, some of Twain’s writing choices have been put into question by even the fans of his work. Namely, the ending of Huckleberry Finn was considered placid and timid by those who liked the book, with the popular opinion being that the story should have ended when the black man Jim was stolen from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, as it provided a natural closing point without shying away from the horrible implications and truth behind the event (Twain 350).
Evaluation and Analysis
Based on contemporary and modern accounts, Twain’s influence on American literature could not be underestimated. He did indeed establish and highlight the qualities most admired by the American audience and paved the way for socially-loaded literary works to make way past the idyllic platitudes prevalent in 18th and early 19th-century literature, as exemplified by Whitman and the like. He also received great critical acclaim and success, and most criticism leveraged at him would be subjective rather than objective.
The real question is whether it is enough to make Mark Twain the father of American Literature. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call him the father of American White Literature, as at that moment in time the literary scene was dominated by white male perspectives (Long and LeMaster 77).
While Mark Twain was very pro-freedom, anti-racist, and liberal for his time, his gender and social positioning, not to mention his upbringing in one of the most racist of southern states limits his perspective (Long and LeMaster 78). And although his black characters are complex and engaging, their stories are not the focus of most of his works, which tell a tale through the eyes of white people. As black identity becomes more integrated into American literature, it would not be prudent to call a man that transformed half of it the father of everything.
Mark Twain can be called the father of American White Literature. His accomplishments are great and he did much to promote the causes of equality, acceptance, and racial justice by opening the eyes of the general public to the critical controversies and hypocrisies that laid the foundation of the US and the Deep South. However, he cannot be called the father of all American literature, as though his influence was great, it portrayed only one perspective, and could not represent the true views on the matters he described from authentic blacks, natives, and other minorities.
That is not to take away from Twain’s accomplishments, but America is slowly moving away from a purely white-centered perspective on history and literature, and declaring a single person, even of such a caliber, the Father of All American Literature, is misleading at best. Mark Twain would not have liked that either, as he was a man of modest character and aware of the distortions and limitations of his viewpoints.
Harrington, Paula, and Ronald Jenn. Mark Twain & France: The Making of a New American Identity. University of Missouri Press, 2017.
Hermann, Spring. Reading and Interpreting the Works of Mark Twain. Enslow Publishing, LLC, 2017.
Long, E. Hudson, and Jimmie R. LeMaster. The New Mark Twain Handbook. Vol. 9. Routledge, 2017.
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Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Strelbytskyy Multimedia Publishing, 2020.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Prentice Hall, 1986.
Whitman, Walt. “I Hear America Singing.” Poets. Web.