Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) (1835-1910)

    Contributing Editor: Everett Emerson

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    The question might be asked, "Why is it that Mark Twain's writings and personality are so appealing?" I share my affection for the author with my students. I note that Mark Twain's readers enjoy Huckleberry Finn more if they know some Shakespeare and something about the French Revolution. Both of these loomed large in the author's consciousness when he wrote his masterpiece.

    Mark Twain began his career as a humorist. In both Huckleberry Finn and all of his other better pieces, an important aspect of his work is the speaker's presentation of himself. What connection does this interest in the speaker or teller have to Mark Twain's humor?

    Students are interested but edgy when I raise the question of the word "nigger" in the book. They ought to know that the term was used not long ago by many blacks as well as unsympathetic whites. But the appearance of the word in the book, despite the historical accuracy of the use of the term, needs careful consideration.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    I think it important to see how the shorter works by Mark Twain in the anthology shed light on Huckleberry Finn. I also suggest that the book (Huckleberry Finn) be read as the education of a racist, and that the limits of the education that Huck receives be recognized. Huck loses some of his prejudiced attitudes toward one particular black. Huck is free and easy with Jim because he regards Jim as his inferior. He records no regret when it appears that Jim has perished in the riverboat accident.

    Consider the characteristics of Jimmy's speech (some of which are mentioned in the Mark Twain headnote) in "Sociable Jimmy." In her forthcoming book, Shelley Fisher Fishkin argues that there are close connections between the speech patterns of Jimmy and Huck. Students might be encouraged to compile a list that later could be compared to a similar list of Huck's speech patterns.

    It seems that only one scholar has ever been interested enough in "Sociable Jimmy" to see that it is reprinted. It appears along with other mostly unknown or little known pieces in the handsome book Mark Twain Speaks for Himself, edited by Paul Fatout (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1978). The attention the piece is getting stems wholly from Fishkin's idea that it is an important antecedent to Huckleberry Finn. Is it of enough value that it should be included in an anthology such as The Heath Anthology? Should it be "canonized"?

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Mark Twain was always attempting to escape from the established standard of literary propriety, as the Notice posted at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn shows. Why was he attempting to escape? Was he successful?

    Original Audience

    I remind my students that though the setting is the antebellum South, the book was written after Emancipation; it ought to be recognized that the book is not so much an anti-slavery novel as is Uncle Tom's Cabin. But the mind-set that put property values ahead of human values made slavery possible and did not disappear after the Civil War.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    I invite comparison with John Milton and James Joyce. I invite a consideration of Mark Twain's availability to readers. I suggest that one might ask if this availability has any unfortunate consequences.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. What is the role of Tom Sawyer in Huckleberry Finn? If you have read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, what is the difference between Tom in the earlier book and in Huckleberry Finn?

    2. What aspects of Huckleberry Finn are as vital today as they were one hundred years ago? What in the book helps you understand an earlier era in American history, different from our own?


    Robinson, Forrest G. In Bad Faith: The Dynamics of Deception in Mark Twain's America. 1986, 1-2, 111-22.