Why Mark Twain Still Matters

Mark Twain i i

A hundred years after his death, the writings of Samuel Clemens — better known as Mark Twain — continue to influence American culture and literature. Ernest H. Mills/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ernest H. Mills/Getty Images
Mark Twain

A hundred years after his death, the writings of Samuel Clemens — better known as Mark Twain — continue to influence American culture and literature.

Ernest H. Mills/Getty Images

One hundred years after his death on April 21, 1910, "Mark Twain remains as central as ever not only in American literature but in American life," writes James M. Cox, a leading Twain scholar.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have never lost their places as required reading in schools, and they remain templates for young adult fiction. Mark Twain — the pen name of author Samuel Clemens — is the great poet of America's longest river, while his quotes on politics and human nature enjoy a constant half-life as staples among speechmakers.

His deceptively relaxed style has had a profound influence on generations of American writers. "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn," Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1935.

To examine his legacy and enduring importance, NPR spoke with Jerome Loving, a literature professor at Texas A&M University. Following previous biographies about Walt Whitman and Theodore Dreiser, Loving has just published Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens.

Most humor doesn't travel well across time. Why does Mark Twain still make us laugh, while the humorists who were his contemporaries have been forgotten?

Of course, when you analyze humor, you often kill it. But the best kind of humor is pretty serious, and his jokes go to the roots of human nature. It's humor that doesn't depend on its own time. It's universal.

Jim Smiley, in his most famous story ("The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"), jolts you with his incongruity, his willingness to gamble about anything, even the death of the Parson's wife. With Huck Finn, there's all the hypocrisy he sees along the river.

Do you think he is mainly remembered as a humorist and genial chronicler of childhood, or do people have a sense of his dark side — the darkness of his humor, as you mention, and the near-nihilism of his later works?

I think to the general public, he's remembered for his humor — like a much more important Will Rogers. His fame rests on the nostalgic boyhood stories about the river, and the humor.

He himself had a problem with being a humorist, wanting to be a more refined kind of writer. His family, proper Victorians, wanted him to write more like Henry James or his friend William Dean Howells, and he tried. He wrote books with no vernacular language. His family thought Joan of Arc was his best book, and now it's his least read.

Can you talk about the importance of his style, which I think is what Hemingway was getting at in his famous quote that all American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn?

It's had a profound impact. It was Whitman that brought in the vernacular in poetry, and Twain did it for prose. The American language is kind of freed up by our literature, by Whitman and by Mark Twain.

We no longer looked back on the British for approval as we did for so long. Early in the 19th century, a Scottish critic said, "Who reads an American book? Who would want to?"

Mark Twain remains one of the most important writers on race and slavery. Can you speculate about what he would have thought about the election of Barack Obama to the White House?

I think Twain would have been very happy.

Huck is never against slavery, he's for the owner. He says, 'All right, then, I'll go to hell,' when he decides to help free Jim. After emancipation, we all want Jim free. In the book, only Jim wants Jim free.

It's such an under-the-radar way of writing about race. That book was thought of as a boy's book. Then he tried again with Pudd'nhead Wilson, which was seen as a funny book until the civil rights era of the 1960s. We really become more alert to Twain's more serious side in the 20th century.

Of course Twain knew blacks from the 19th century perspective, but he was very progressive. He contributed to the college expenses of two or three black students. One who went to Yale [Warner T. McGuinn] went on to become a mentor to Thurgood Marshall, so there's that connection.

In a way, it's a dream come true, from Jim on down.

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