Mark Twain: The Father of American Literature

American Icons, Featured Article, Hometown Heroes, People
on November 11, 2012
Library of Congress To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. —Mark Twain

More than a century after his death, Mark Twain remains a literary icon, and his words and wit resonate across the generations.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Mo., Twain as a young man worked as a typesetter and wrote newspaper articles. He later piloted steamboats on the Mississippi River and traveled west to mine for gold and silver. While in Nevada, he began writing again, using the pen name Mark Twain, a riverboat term. As his humorous articles became popular, his literary star rose. His beloved Mississippi River and his boyhood years, spent in Hannibal, Mo., inspired him to write “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” published in 1876, and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” in 1884.

Twain, who wrote and lectured until his death in 1910, was one of the first American authors to write in the vernacular—that is, simple, everyday language. An opponent of slavery, he often combined humor with scathing social commentary.

Harriet Smith, who served as lead editor on the 2010 bestseller “Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1,” at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke with “American Profile” about the man hailed as the father of American literature.

American Profile: When did Twain become widely popular in the U.S.?
Harriet Smith: His story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” published in the New York Saturday Press in November 1865, spread his reputation to the East Coast. Before that, his fame was limited to California and Nevada, where he had sojourned since 1861. The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, was a best-selling account of the Quaker City pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land, which confirmed his popularity.

AP: Twain forbade the release of his autobiography until a century after his death. What surprising things will readers now learn?
HS: Mark Twain has always been a popular author…and his 100-year embargo has made them curious to know what he hesitated to make public while still alive. The general reader is probably not familiar with Mark Twain’s personal side, and will be surprised to read his accounts of family life and descriptions of his children. That being said, we have tried to make it clear that there are no “revelations” in the book, and that most of this material has been in print before. Our edition is the only one that presents the text as he wanted it, however, uncut and in the proper sequence.

AP: Why did Twain forbid publication for so long?
HS: Mark Twain had already decided in 1876 that he could not write freely unless he knew that his words would not be published until long after his death… posthumous publication was a successful strategy that freed him from self-censorship and allowed him to speak his mind without fear of the consequences.

AP: Most autobiographies are written in chronological order. Why did Twain choose a rambling style instead?
HS: Although from the start Mark Twain announced that he did not want to write a chronological narrative, the evidence suggests that he did plan to put the chapters in a traditional chronological order eventually. It was not until 1904, in Florence, Italy, that he completely embraced the notion of a “meandering” narrative, which he described this way: “Start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.”

AP: Twain dictated his life story. Why?
HS: Mark Twain claimed that dictating an unstructured narrative was less tiring than planning out a more traditional work… he claimed, “There are little slips here and there…the subtle something which makes good talk so much better than the best imitation of it that can be done with a pen.”

AP: Does Twain indicate which of his books was his favorite?
HS: Recollections of Joan of Arc. He was fascinated by Joan and her mysterious powers, and in awe of her courage in leading her people to fight the English.

AP: Twain’s autobiographical dictations from April 1906 to February 1907 will be included in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 2, and his dictations from March 1907 to December 1909 will be in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3. What will those cover?
HS: Included are comments on [contemporary author] Bret Harte, religion, his Oxford degree, financial interests, the burglary at [Twain’s Connecticut home] Stormfield, and the death of his daughter Jean, among many other things.

AP: When will the remaining two volumes of his autobiography be available?
HS: We are hoping to have both in print within the next five or six years.

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