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Mark Twain and His Humor According to Critics Essay (Critical Writing)

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Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30 1835. He is a celebrated American author, critic, and humorist who first used his name Samuel Clemens in Nevada and California. He worked as a printer in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. He also became a steamboat pilot at the river ports of St. Louis and New Orleans. He and his family moved to Nook Farm in Hartford, Connecticut in the 1860s then to Fredonia, New York and Keokuk, Iowa. These localities embedded in Samuel Clemens a hybrid of cultures, commerce and traditions. At age 22, Twain became a steamboat pilot. He also became a miner in Virginia City, Nevada after traveling with his brother Orion across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains (Gribben).

Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published in November 1865 at New York Saturday press after failing to make it in a compilation. He was then commissioned by the Sacramento Union to write travelogues. He also became a travel correspondent to the Alta California newspaper. His The Innocents Abroad is also the product of his 5-month sail with the pleasure cruiser Quaker City in 1867. The follow-up to this travel literature is Roughing It chronicling his journeys to Nevada and the American west. It lampooned western society as much as The Innocents Abroad critiqued the Middle East and Europe. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today is his collaboration with neighbor Charles Dudley Warner and an attempt to writing a novel. His next important works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, called the first Great American Novel.

Twain made a great deal of money through his writing but his investments on scientific inventions and investment in publishing made him lose money faster so that in order to pay his creditors in full, he lectured around the world even if it was no longer his legal obligation to pay them (Cox, 127). The wit and humor of Mark Twain is what endeared him to his readers and set him apart from his contemporaries and most of the well-known writers before him.

Van Wyck Brooks suggested that Twain entered New England, “emasculated by the Civil War” (90) of which at that time had the male population reduced so that there was feminization of the then American culture and Twain as Cox observed, became “an invader” (Sewanee Review, 596) where, “genteel society he brought free drinking and smoking, to morality he added humor, to sentiment, burlesque, to seriousness, play” (Krauth, 368). He was chronicled to own personal copies of works by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Joseph Field, William Tappan Thompson, George Washington Harris, Johnson Jones and Joseph Baldwin. His humor is much credited to “the Old Southwest ” which was very evident in Huckleberry Finn. According to Krauth (369), Twain’s writing became humorous because of the impact of New England culture which the writer adopted when he moved to New England in 1880s. As a correspondent for Alta California, Twain was noted to have opined about Harris’ humor as quite usual and normal in the West but as something unacceptable by the eastern people. Twain “reshapes the tradition of the Southwestern humor by writing within it as a Victorian” (Krauth, 369). He however, did not sell out to New England gentility at the cost of his art but an innate part of Mark Twain is a propriety that separated him from frontier life.

Through Huckleberry Finn, Krauth insists of Twain’s propriety in the following ways:

  • Reshaping some of the stock situations and the characters which were predominant to the Southwestern humor such as the common Southwestern characters: the con-men Duke and the King, the camp meeting, the circus and the Royal Nonesuch
  • Selected from the raw materials few certain subjects and discarding the rest
  • His propriety governed his creation of characters such as Huck who has become a classic challenger of morality until today, thus, “as a Victorian, Twain reformed Southwestern humor” (Krauth, 369).

It is but normal to base most of Twain’s humor on his greatest as well as most popular novel. Here, he described the orgies of camp meetings as something that could induce “a cow laugh” (127) that nevertheless maintained the innocence of Huck as the child observer. Southwestern humor was enumerated to include hunting, fights, mock fights, animal fights, courtings, weddings, honeymoons, frolics, dances, games, horse races, contests, militia drills, legislature and the courtroom, sermons, camp meetings, religious gatherings, visitor of a humble home, country boy in the city, riverboat, rogue adventures, pranks and tricks of a joker, gambling, trades and swindles, cures, sickness and medical treatments, drunks, foreigners and dandies, and local eccentrics. Some of these themes are present in Adventures of Huckleberry, but they are mostly ridiculed and share the sense of dehumanizing men through Twain’s presenting them as bestial creatures (Krauth, 373).

Krauth keeps to an idea that despite the Southwestern description of a man as “hard, isolate(d), stoic and a killer,” (374) Twain disparages him (a man) and “reveals the pernicious traits in gentleman and commoner alike” (Krauth, 374). White adult males in Adventures of Huckleberry do possess these features, because the new Judge, the drunken Pap, and Colonel Sherburn are indeed depicted as aggressive and destructive people, but such an imminent violence is attributed to white males only (Krauth, 374). Nevertheless, sentimentality which was typical for Victorian life on the nineteenth century is still present in this novel. Huck often gives voice to his emotions being quite sentimental at this. He “dismisses emotional outpourings as “tears and flapdoodle”, “soul butter and hogwash,” “rot and slush,” (Krauth, 377) because he is a gentleman with extraordinary tenderness. As Krauth has observed, Huck’s “remark reveals […] how bound together in Huckleberry Finn humor and sentiment are” (381).

When it comes to literary intention, Robinson (358) finds Melville and Hawthorne to present conscious ideas accessible to critical scrutiny and describes Twain to be a “shakier ground […] notoriously makeshift, fragmentary, and prone to drastic contradictions” (358). The shift and blending of a black child’s voice to a white child’s was effortless and unconscious that leaves even modern critics wondering. Another, Henry Wonham who’s work Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale proposed that the humorist adopted “the rhetoric of the tall tale […] to provide a structural and thematic pattern that he would return to throughout the rest of his career” (Wonham, 12). He further observed that in balancing anecdotal quality and developmental theme, Twain sustained a “digressive, exaggerative style of humor and thematic coherence at the same time” (114).

To this, Robinson (363) concluded that Twain was unconsciously drifting and surrendering to the min’s natural flow with narrow focus on specific incidents disregarding structure and thematic concerns such that his novels took time to be finished. As Twain himself wrote to William Dean Howells, he was delighted with the “dewy & breezy & woodsy freshness” against the “darling and worshipful absence of the signs of starch, & flatiron, & labor & fuss & the other artificialities” (363). In most of his sharing with friends and fellow critics, Twain upheld those which did not seem to have a method, where there is careless progress of a story unmindful of how it ends, whether brilliant or not, or if it shall end at all as if what he wrote “write itself” (Robinson, 364). Here, restraint, expediency, policy, and diplomacy were shunned and what is presented to the reader is unencumbered authenticity which lies in penetrating a transparent disguise. Some of Twain’s books had been perceived to have lacked literary design or planning, fragmented at most, so that he advised his audience of aspiring writers in 1902 that when working on a story and a moment lags, they should set the work aside, “until some future tie, when the right way to treat the subject shall have come to you from that mill whose helpful machinery never stands idle – unconscious celebration” (Robinson, 365).

Twain indulged on the unconscious creativity although he acknowledged to have methods, as if what he wrote were passed on to him, the mind, like a machine of which one cannot dictate on it, “unless it suits its humour” and that all ideas came from the outside, second-hand and drawn from a lot of external sources (Robinson, 366).

Wonham (12) further noted Twain tall tale rhetoric “as a strategy for drawing his disparate comic material into extended and coherent narratives’ ‘ (12). Wonham believes that Twain tried to include the naïve reader or audience to his narrative through “his drawing speech and affected seriousness” (147). Wonham further suggests that Twain was fully conscious, a spinner of tall tales and as such, Twain considered a multiple audience, his words with multiple meanings all at once so that the words may mean different to each audience (31). Robinson (364) joined that this meant there are both outsiders and insiders to the joke, and one of them is the butt of the ridicule.

This however, is not the case in all of his works. There is much criticism especially on Pudd’nhead Wilson of which Twain was seen to have the most inconsistent narration thereby, readers are cautioned by critics to beware (Robinson, 370). It was considered a merging of bits and pieces, of characters that appear from nowhere without purpose but for completion and for profit, seen as Twain’s way to address his dwindling resources at that period of his as publisher.

Further, Robinson noted on previous view about Twain as a well-suited travel writer as the humorist is freed to examine diversity of the world instead of consistency and transitions. Again, Twain’s structure was seen as weak, linking it to twain’s perception of worldly order as tantalizingly elusive. In the later chapters of Roughing It, Mark Twain obviously becomes disenchanted with the Far West. The deception of tall tales become cruel and painful with consequences which the humorist could not ignore as he narrated about a practical joke played on him, and its impact on his new-found attitude of shunning practical jokes, or even practicing them (Robinson, 375). Robinson attacked Woman’s interpretation of Tom Sawyer as “a carefully planned and elaborated rhetorical contest between the narrator, who is improbably characterized as an inflated sentimentalist, and Tom, whose tall tales are subtly contrived” in order to affirm community values.

For Wonham, all these tall tales affirm the community’s commitment to common sense, that inspire sappy women to petition the governor for a after-death pardon of Injun Joe. For Robinson, on the contrary, there is irrationality everywhere in Tom Sawyer which he contends to have un-designed penetration to “complex social dynamics, conscious and unconscious, racial and sexual, of village life” and as Twain wrote, his intent for Tom Sawyer was for the entertainment of boys and girls. As such, Robinson (380) proposed that the question of intention when it comes to Mark Twain is quite questionable and delicate. Those readers should be conscious of what the humorist wrote and what he actually meant. Twain for Robinson is not a highly conscious writer humorist but “an artist of decidedly inchoate intentions whose work invites, and even demands, close attention to unconscious motives” (380).

Budd (233) also considered much about the perception of critics and readers of Desperate Encounter with an Interviewer as classically humorous. It was a play at the absurdity of interviewing, fame, of death and living, of absurdity and it being a classic Mark Twain the humorist (233). Written in 1874, the short anecdotal went into its conclusion:

“A. Goodness knows! I would give whole worlds to know. This solemn, this awful mystery has cast a gloom over my whole life. But I will tell you a secret now, which I never have revealed to any creature before. One of us had a peculiar mark, a large mole on the back of the left hand,–that was me. That child was the one that was drowned.

Q. Very well, then, I dont see that there is any mystery about it, after all.

A. You dont? Well, I do. Anyway I dont see how they could ever have been such a blundering lot as to go and bury the wrong child. But, sh!–dont mention it where the family can hear of it. Heaven knows they have heart-breaking troubles enough without adding this.

Q. Well, I believe I have got material enough for the present, and I am very much obliged to you for the pains you have taken. But I was a good deal interested in that account of Aaron Burrs funeral. Would you mind telling me what particular circumstance it was that made you think Burr was such a remarkable man?

A. O, it was a mere trifle! Not one man in fifty would have noticed it at all. When the sermon was over, and the procession all ready to start for the cemetery, and the body all arranged nice in the hearse, he said he wanted to take a last look at the scenery, and so he got up and rode with the driver.

Then the young man reverently withdrew. He was very pleasant company, and I was sorry to see him go” (Twain).

It was said that when Twain wrote this, he had been siding with the “would-be elite who warned that the circulation-hungry newspapers were pandering to shallow tastes while lowering the standard for public discourse” (Budd, 234). It was sneered upon as a collaboration of a humbug politician with an equally humbug newspaper reporter. However, Twain at that time was not yet trailed upon or interviewed by reporters. In fact, he has known to have encouraged interest of the press. It was also viewed as an attack on the New York Sun which sensationalizes (p 235). The anecdote is also an attack on the common sense. Rationality is mocked as mass media is saturating the world with information both useless, and mostly senseless. It asks the interviewer to spell “interview” as well as directly states that reporters go after those who are “notorious” and not emulation-worthy individuals. Here, Twain shows how disappointed he is with the media. As Budd has noted, Twain “teased, baited, and insulted (and sometimes offended) his audiences” (236); he was irreverent, but ascertained equality between himself, his audience, and his host. And he admitted that it took a heap of sense to produce a good nonsense (Budd, 238).

Mark Twain is a man of talent. It cannot be said that he sustained a consistent writing ability as a humorist, a critic and a great novelist, but it was enough that two or three made it to the consciousness of millions. It is not, however, the form or intent of Twain that has endeared him to his readers but his humor, off-sided, unconscious, flowing and natural in self-deprecation manner, from his travelogues to his opus — Huckleberry Finn, and maintained even in his lesser-known writings.

Twain is a man of mistakes and a man who made bad financial moves and choices. This is quite often shown in his works. However, his sentimentality cannot be ignored; he tried to express this sentimentality through his leading characters. He was able to present this to his readers by making them laugh about the sublime subtleties of “other centeredness” most apparent again in his opus, his unforgettable Huck Finn. Namely this character was used by Twain to depict Victorian life and to present the image of a man of Victorian times.

In sum, critics have different ideas about the humor which is present in some works of Mark Twain. At this, most of them agree that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the novel on which Twain’s humor is based. This novel presents different images of men in Victorian times mixed with Twain’s own ideas about the features which a real gentleman should possess. Today, as more readers discover Huck or Tom, they are reminded of true values that are not dictated upon by what is acceptable or popular but what one truly feels as which he should do, right or wrong. By providing his readers a character that is Huck, Twain has forever given joy and humor as well as sense of direction not about his method or work style, but to humanity as a whole. It is not so much about who was the better humorist or greatest novelist, but who has given his readers an insight to what shall remain wrong and what shall remain forever as right. And with the bonus to laugh it all out, that is the essence that is Mark Twain and his humor.

Works Cited

Brooks, Van Wyck. The Ordeal of Mark Twain, rev ed. New York, Dutton. 1970. Web.

Budd, Louis J. “Mark Twain’s “An Encounter with an Interviewer”: The Height (or Depth) of Nonsense. Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 55, No. 2, 2000, pp. 226-243. Web.

Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton University Press, 1966.

Gribben, Allan. 2004. The University of North Carolina. Web.

Krauth, Leland. “Mark Twain: The Victorian of Southwestern Humor.” American Literature, Vol. 54, No. 3., 1982, pp. 368-384. Web.

Robinson, Forrest G. An “Unconscious and Profitable Cerebration”: Mark Twain and Literary Intentionality Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 50, No. 3, 1995, pp. 357-380. Web.

Sewanee Review. “Humor and America: The Southwest Bear Hunt,” 83. 1975.

Twain, Mark. “An Encounter with an Interviewer.” 1874. Cyber Studios, Inc. Web.

Wonham, Henry B. Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale. New York: Oxford University Press. 1993. Web.

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