Mark Twain produced a considerable number of essays during his long writing career.
But since he frequently combined fictional and nonfictional elements in his short works, Twain’s writing, as his editors have often noted, cannot always be easily classified according to traditional literary categories such as the short story or essay, making it difficult at times precisely to determine his output within a specific genre. His versatility as an essayist is shown by the broad range of essay forms he mastered: travel letters, sketches, articles, memoirs, literary and art criticism, social and political commentary, and philosophical treatises. Writing on an astonishing variety of topics, ranging from such trivial matters as curing a cold or riding a bicycle to the major cultural and social issues of his time, Twain attracted a large and diverse audience. His essays appeared in various newspapers and in magazines with a wide readership, including the Galaxy and Harper’s, as well as in the more prestigious and literary publications such as the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review.
Twain’s immense skill as a humorist greatly contributed to his popular appeal and became a hallmark of his writing style, which is also distinguished by his innovative use of narrative and rhetorical devices and an ability to render with accuracy and clarity the physical and emotional texture of places and events. His “Sandwich Islands” letters (1873), for example, vividly describe the exotic life and customs of the Hawaiians while humorously exposing the ways the missionaries and the American government have corrupted their idyllic existence. Annexation is necessary, Twain ironically declares, so that “we can afflict them with our wise and beneficent government.” In “Queen Victoria’s Jubilee” (1897), Twain presents a detailed portrait of another world—the pomp and pageantry of an English royal procession. He varies the narrative structure of this essay by incorporating the device of an imaginary account, told by a “spiritual correspondent,” of the procession celebrating Henry V’s victory at Agincourt in 1415 to reflect upon England’s material progress and growth as a world power in the 19th century.
Writing on diverse social and political issues in his polemical essays, Twain used his talent as a satirist artfully to reveal and attack various forms of hypocrisy, injustice, and oppression. Though his views are not always consistent, he is recognized today as an important social commentator and reformist. Particularly effective in these essays is the way in which Twain creates satiric irony by his skillful control of point of view.
Narrating ‘The Czar’s Soliloquy” (1905) and “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” (1905) in the form of a dramatic monologue, Twain condemns the political evils caused by despotism by having the rulers ironically reveal their crimes while attempting to defend themselves.
This device works especially well in the latter essay in which Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo, which included the murder, mutilation, and enslavement of millions of Congolese, is forcefully documented in the reports he reads. Oblivious to the truth this material contains, Leopold develops ridiculous and self-serving arguments to refute the charges against him.
One of the most important ways Twain uses point of view to create satire in his essays, and one which has received considerable critical attention, is the development of fictional narrators to express views that are in opposition to his own. The speaker in “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy” (1870), whom John Gerber (1962) identifies as an example of the “Moralist” in his seven categories of masks Twain assumes, describes how society and its institutions condition its members to accept and perpetuate injustices against the Chinese; yet he ironically fails to recognize that racism and the evils it causes are wrong.
Believing, instead, that a boy who was arrested on his way to Sunday school for stoning a Chinaman was doing the “high and holy thing” society taught him, the speaker is outraged because the boy is being unjustly punished for doing his “duty.”
Although Twain continued to use elements of the comic tradition he learned from the Southwest humorists during his early years as a journalist (e.g. burlesque, exaggeration, and narrative poses), his later polemical and philosophical essays have more affinity with the invective style of Swift and Voltaire. Speaking in his own voice rather than using a persona in “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901), Twain produced his finest satire of imperialism by masterfully interweaving numerous rhetorical devices into the pattern of his argument: metaphors, puns, allusions, symbolism, irony, and understatement. Using the metaphor of the “Blessings-of-Civilization Trust” to represent the Western governments and the Christian missionaries, he develops a lengthy discussion of how their exploitation of the Chinese, South Africans, and Filipinos has become so blatant that the people in darkness are beginning to see “more light than…was profitable for us.” With Swiftian irony, Twain presents his modest proposal to solve this problem by recommending that Trust return to the former practice of concealing its true motives under the guise of offering the people the “blessings of civilization” so it “can resume Business at the old stand.”
Firmly committed to the principles of realism in his own writing, Twain also used them when judging the literary merit of other authors. In a skillfully developed and humorous essay, Twain presents a devastating attack on James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels (despite his failure to appreciate the conventions of romantic fiction) for their lack of verisimilitude in characterization, plot action, and dialogue, and for Cooper’s verbose and inaccurate style (“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences,” 1895). In contrast, he praises William Dean Howells’ “sustained” achievement as a great stylist; and in his insightful analysis of nonfiction passages written by his fellow realist, Twain reveals the qualities he sought in his own prose: “clearness, compression, verbal exactness, and unforced and seemingly unconscious felicity of phrasing” (“William Dean
Howells,” 1906). In addition, Twain exhibits his ability to marshal evidence, uncover faulty reasoning and logic, and expose pretentious and dishonest writing in his carefully crafted essay attacking Edward Dowden’s biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley (“In Defense of Harriet Shelley,” 1894).
Although Twain has long been recognized as a major literary artist, his essays have not been given as much critical attention as those written by other important 19th-century American novelists such as Henry James and William Dean Howells. This is due in part to the topical nature of some of his writing and the difficulty at times of classifying his short fictional and nonfictional works. However, the literary importance of his essays, particularly the later ones, continues to be re-evaluated (e.g. William Macnaughton, 1979). Furthermore, the work being done by the Mark Twain Project in publishing the definitive editions of Twain’s writing should greatly contribute to the reassessment of his accomplishments in all genres—including the essay.
See also Satiric Essay
Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 30 November 1835 in Florida, Missouri. Moved to Hannibal, Missouri, 1839. Printer’s apprentice and typesetter for Hannibal newspapers, 1847–50, and worked on the Hannibal Journal, 1850–52; printer and typesetter in St. Louis, New York, and Philadelphia, for the Keokuk Saturday Post, lowa, 1853–56, and in Cincinnati, 1857. Apprentice river pilot on the Mississippi, 1857–58, and pilot, 1859–
60; secretary to his brother in Nevada, and worked as a goldminer, 1861. Staff member, Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, Nevada, 1862–64; wrote for newspapers in San Francisco and Sacramento, 1864–69. Visited the Sandwich Islands, 1866, and France, Italy, and Palestine, 1867. Editor, Buffalo Express, 1869–71. Married Olivia Langdon, 1870 (died, 1904): one son and three daughters. Moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and became associated with Charles L.Webster Publishing Company, 1884; invested in the Paige typesetter and went bankrupt, 1894. Lived mainly in Europe, 1896–1900, New York, 1900–07, and Redding, Connecticut, 1907–10. Awards: honorary degrees from three universities. Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1904. Died in Redding, 21 April 1910.
Essays and Related Prose
A Curious Dream and Other Sketches, 1872
Sketches, New and Old, 1875
Punch, Brothers, Punch! and Other Sketches, 1878
How to Tell a Story and Other Essays, 1897; revised edition, 1900
The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Essays, 1900
My Début as a Literary Person, with Other Essays and Stories, 1903
Speeches, edited by F.A.Nast, 1910, and Albert Bigelow Paine, 1923
What Is Man? and Other Essays, 1917
Travels with Mr. Brown, Being Heretofore Uncollected Sketches Written for the San Francisco Alta California in 1866 and 1867, edited by Franklin Walker and G.Ezra Dane, 1940
Traveling with the Innocents Abroad: Mark Twain’s Original Reports from Europe and the Holy Land, edited by Daniel Morley McKeithan, 1958
Life as I Find It: Essays, Sketches, Tales, and Other Material, edited by Charles Neider, 1961
The Complete Essays, edited by Charles Neider, 1963
Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (Library of America), edited by Lewis J.Budd, 2 vols., 1992
Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches, edited by Tom Quirk, 1994
Selected Writings of an American Skeptic, edited by Victor Doyno, 1995
Other writings: 15 novels (including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884; A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, 1889), short stories, and many volumes of travel writing.
Collected works editions: The Writings (Definitive Edition), edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, 37 vols., 1922–25; Works (lowa-California Edition), edited by John C.Gerber and others, 8 vols., 1972–93 (in progress).
Johnson, Merle, A Bibliography of the Works of Mark Twain, New York: Harper, revised edition, 1935 (original edition, 1910)
McBride, William M., Mark Twain: A Bibliography of the Collections of the Mark Twain Memorial and the Stowe-Day Foundation, Hartford, Connecticut: McBride/Publisher, 1984
Rodney, Robert H., editor, Twain International: A Bibliography and Interpretation of His Worldwide Popularity, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982
Tenney, Thomas Asa, Mark Twain: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1977
Baetzhold, Howard G., “Samuel Langhorne Clemens,” in American Literary Critics and
Scholars, 1850–1880, edited by John W. Rathbun and Monica M.Grecu, Dictionary of Literary Biography vol. 64, Detroit: Gale Research, 1988:34–47
Bellamy, Gladys Carmen, Mark Twain as a Literary Artist, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950
Budd, Louis J., Mark Twain: Social Philosopher, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962
Ferguson, De Lancey, Mark Twain: Man and Legend, Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1943
Foner, Philip, Mark Twain: Social Critic, New York: International Publishers, 1958
Gerber, John C., “Mark Twain’s Use of the Comic Pose,” PMLA 77 (June 1962):297–304
Gibson, William M., The Art of Mark Twain, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976
Krause, Sydney J., Mark Iwain as Critic, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1967
Macnaughton, William R., Mark Twain’s Last Years as a Writer, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979
Neider, Charles, Mark Twain, New York: Horizon Press, 1967
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