Fresh and funny today as he was more than a century ago, Mark Twain wittily distrusted everything bogus, inflated, predictable or empty. He was a man of a thousand American parts — novelist, stand-up comic, travel writer, impresario, capitalist, full-time celebrity and coruscating social critic — whose ear for dialogue, nuance, slang and absurdity seldom failed him. No wonder we still read him, debate him, scold him, censor him. William Dean Howells aptly canonized him as the “Lincoln of our literature.”
Although his life and works have been ceaselessly raked over by such fine critics as Ralph Ellison, Justin Kaplan, and more recently by Ron Powers, Twain remains a mysterious stranger. How did the uneducated boy from Hannibal, Mo., become the energetic superstar who seemed to encapsulate the very essence of America, even as he skewered it? He was a liberal, a racist, an anti-imperialist, a kind man, an angry man, a nonracist and a riot.
Two new books squarely place Twain, né Samuel Clemens, in the booming, tearing America that he loved and loathed. The amply illustrated “Mark Twain’s America: A Celebration in Words and Images,” by Harry L. Katz and the Library of Congress, with a poignant foreword by Lewis Lapham, opens with a salute to Twain’s early years and to the Mississippi River, whose surface and depth Twain once likened to a book with “a new story to tell every day.” Chronicling Twain’s peripatetic life in a series of lithographs, wood engravings, newspaper clippings and stunning photographs, many of young Clemens, the volume ischock-full of pictures of such contemporaries as Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman and J. P. Morgan. Also plentiful are the illustrations from Twain’s various publications as well as front-page editorial cartoons — there’s a particularly horrid cartoon of Susan B. Anthony — along with pictures by Eadweard Muybridge and Lewis Hine, as well as a little-known Thomas Nast painting of the New Orleans riots of 1866.
Since its publication, “Mark Twain’s America” has come under criticism for what some Twain specialists say are a number of errors and missing or inaccurate attributions, and the Library of Congress recently issued a statement pledging “to correct resulting problems” in any forthcoming editions. But the book is more notable for its many visual documents than the facts of Twain’s life, which are readily available elsewhere. A self-educated printer-journalist, in his early years Twain had paddled his beloved Mississippi as a steamboat pilot (we see a picture of his pilot’s certificate) until the Civil War, when for two weeks he served as a Confederate irregular (he quit). He then lit out for the Nevada Territory, illustrated in a fine photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan. (We also see the seal of the Nevada Territory, attributed to Twain’s brother, and several drawings from “Roughing It,” Twain’s book about his experiences on the frontier, in which he sounds like Huck Finn.) Leaving Nevada for California, he worked as a miner, a prospector and a newspaper reporter. By then he had changed his byline to Mark Twain (a river phrase meaning two fathoms, or 12 feet deep) and in 1869 published the successful “Innocents Abroad,” an irreverent sendup of the American tourists he had accompanied on a landmark excursion to Palestine.Continue reading the main story
1 Racism and the Debate Over Teaching Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn In today’s American society, which is considered to be post-racial, there are still discrepancies about what is and is not racist. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ( Huckleberry Finn ) is one of the great American novels; it is also one of the novels considered to be racist, and many feel that it should be taken out of the school curriculum. Considering the United States’ widely diverse culture and the history behind the nation, the debate over Huckleberry Finn is one that is influenced by many parents, educators, and most importantly, students. The novel is considered the one that all other American literature stems from, but it is almost constantly brought under scrutiny for the racial aspects, the sexist qualities and the almost laughable ending. The debate over whether or not the book is truly racist strongly impacts the decision on whether or not the book should be taught in the American public school classroom. While there are racial elements in the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the novel as a whole is not racist and should still be taught in the upper levels of public school because of the historical realism and the true meaning that Mark Twain meant to represent. The use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn causes a huge reaction to the novel. Obviously, there are different reactions depending on culture, historical opinions, and what race one happens to be. However, one also has to take into account Twain’s usage of the word, and what he wants the word to symbolize. While many do not approve of Twain’s usage in Huckleberry Finn, it is not implied that he uses the term in a racial way. The use of the n-word in the novel does not necessarily have to represent the racial opinions of Mark Twain, and does not make the novel racist. To many, using the n-word means that one implies racism and intends to degrade others. To many African Americans, the use of this term is wrong, and in today’s culture, this is true. If