Frontier humor and realism
Two major literary currents in 19th-century America merged in Mark Twain: popular frontier humor and local color, or “regionalism.” These related literary approaches began in the 1830s — and had even earlier roots in local oral traditions. In ragged frontier villages, on riverboats, in mining camps, and around cowboy campfires far from city amusements, storytelling flourished. Exaggeration, tall tales, incredible boasts, and comic workingmen heroes enlivened frontier literature. These humorous forms were found in many frontier regions — in the “old Southwest” (the present-day inland South and the lower Midwest), the mining frontier, and the Pacific Coast. Each region had its colorful characters around whom stories collected. Twain, Faulkner, and many other writers, particularly southerners, are indebted to frontier pre-Civil War humorists such as Johnson Hooper, George Washington Harris, Augustus Longstreet, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, and Joseph Baldwin.
Like frontier humor, local color writing has old roots but produced its best works long after the Civil War. Obviously, many pre-war writers, from Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne to John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell, paint striking portraits of specific American regions. What sets the colorists apart is their self-conscious and exclusive interest in rendering a given location, and their scrupulously factual, realistic technique.
Life and Works:
Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name of Mark Twain (1835-1910), grew up in the Mississippi River frontier town of Hannibal, Missouri. Ernest Hemingway’s famous statement that all of American literature comes from one great book, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, indicates this author’s towering place in the tradition. Early 19th-century American writers tended to be too flowery, sentimental, or ostentatious — partially because they were still trying to prove that they could write as elegantly as the English. Twain’s style, based on vigorous, realistic, colloquial American speech, gave American writers a new appreciation of their national voice. Twain was the first major author to come from the interior of the country, and he captured its distinctive, humorous slang and iconoclasm.
For Twain and other American writers of the late 19th century, realism was not merely a literary technique: It was a way of speaking truth and exploding worn-out conventions. Thus it was profoundly liberating and potentially at odds with society. The most well-known example is Huck Finn, a poor boy who decides to follow the voice of his conscience and help a Negro slave escape to freedom, even though Huck thinks this means that he will be damned to hell for breaking the law.
Twain’s masterpiece, which appeared in 1884, is set in the Mississippi River village of St. Petersburg. The son of an alcoholic bum, Huck has just been adopted by a respectable family when his father, in a drunken stupor, threatens to kill him. Fearing for his life, Huck escapes, feigning his own death. He is joined in his escape by another outcast, the slave Jim, whose owner, Miss Watson, is thinking of selling him down the river to the harsher slavery of the deep South. Huck and Jim float on a raft down the majestic Mississippi, but are sunk by a steamboat, separated, and later reunited. They go through many comical and dangerous shore adventures that show the variety, generosity, and sometimes cruel irrationality of society. In the end, it is discovered that Miss Watson had already freed Jim, and a respectable family is taking care of the wild boy Huck. But Huck grows impatient with civilized society and plans to escape to “the territories” — Indian lands. The ending gives the reader the counter-version of the classic American success myth: the open road leading to the pristine wilderness, away from the morally corrupting influences of “civilization.” James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, Walt Whitman’s hymns to the open road, William Faulkner’s The Bear, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are other literary examples.
Huckleberry Finn has inspired countless literary interpretations. Clearly, the novel is a story of death, rebirth, and initiation. The escaped slave, Jim, becomes a father figure for Huck; in deciding to save Jim, Huck grows morally beyond the bounds of his slave-owning society. It is Jim’s adventures that initiate Huck into the complexities of human nature and give him moral courage.
The novel also dramatizes Twain’s ideal of the harmonious community: “What you want, above all things, on a raft is for everybody to be satisfied and feel right and kind toward the others.” Like Melville’s ship the Pequod, the raft sinks, and with it that special community. The pure, simple world of the raft is ultimately overwhelmed by progress — the steamboat — but the mythic image of the river remains, as vast and changing as life itself.
The unstable relationship between reality and illusion is Twain’s characteristic theme, the basis of much of his humor. The magnificent yet deceptive, constantly changing river is also the main feature of his imaginative landscape. In Life on the Mississippi, Twain recalls his training as a young steamboat pilot when he writes: “I went to work now to learn the shape of the river; and of all the eluding and ungraspable objects that ever I tried to get mind or hands on, that was the chief.”
Twain’s moral sense as a writer echoes his pilot’s responsibility to steer the ship to safety. Samuel Clemens’s pen name, “Mark Twain,” is the phrase Mississippi boatmen used to signify two fathoms (3.6 meters) of water, the depth needed for a boat’s safe passage. Twain’s serious purpose, combined with a rare genius for humor and style, keep his writing fresh and appealing.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
While The Adventures of Tom Sawyer retains some of the fragmented, episodic qualities of Twain’s earlier, shorter pieces, the novel represents, in general, a significant literary departure for Twain. He toned down the large-scale social satire that characterized many of his earlier works, choosing instead to depict the sustained development of a single, central character. Twain had originally intended for the novel to follow Tom into adulthood and conclude with his return to St. Petersburg after many years away. But he was never able to get his hero out of boyhood, however, and the novel ends with its protagonist still preparing to make the transition into adult life.
Twain based The Adventures of Tom Sawyer largely on his personal memories of growing up in Hannibal in the 1840s. In his preface to the novel, he states that “[m]ost of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred” and that the character of Tom Sawyer has a basis in “a combination . . . of three boys whom I knew.” Indeed, nearly every figure in the novel comes from the young Twain’s village experience: Aunt Polly shares many characteristics with Twain’s mother; Mary is based on Twain’s sister Pamela; and Sid resembles Twain’s younger brother, Henry. Huck Finn, the Widow Douglas, and even Injun Joe also have real-life counterparts, although the actual Injun Joe was more of a harmless drunk than a murderer.
Unlike Twain’s later masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer concerns itself primarily with painting an idyllic picture of boyhood life along the Mississippi River. Though Twain satirizes adult conventions throughout The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he leaves untouched certain larger issues that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores critically. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer never deals directly with slavery, for example, and, while the town’s dislike of Injun Joe suggests a kind of small-town xenophobia (fear of foreigners or outsiders), Injun Joe’s murders more than justify the town’s suspicion of him. Because it avoids explicit criticism of racism, slavery, and xenophobia, the novel has largely escaped the controversy over race and language that has surrounded The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To this day, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer remains perhaps the most popular and widely read of all.