To understand Mark Twain as an author, it is first required to understand him as a man. His experience with the Mississippi River provides a substantial amount of biographical information, chronicling his time as a steamboat pilot in his youth. Here, Samuel Clemons devised his pen name, Mark Twain, being the oft-heard call of the ship’s leadsman, signaling that the water below was at least 12 feet deep and safe to cross. His memoir, Life on the Mississippi, first gives a history of the river as explored by Europeans and Americans, then tells of his time apprenticing on the river cruisers. With this work the reader learns about one of the author’s most foundational experiences, as navigator, which denotes Twain’s very style of storytelling: an exploration of the expanding world all around him.
As Twain’s first popular success, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County provides a great starting point amongst the celebrated American author’s works. This short story captures the human element of tall tales Twain adored so dearly, in the form of a recount at a bar. A stranger approaches a bartender looking for a man named Leonidas W. Smiley, and after he admits that he knows a Jim Smiley, he launches into a anticlimactic story about the infamous gambler. Published originally as Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog, and later, The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, this story is an essential read of Twain’s.
Unquestionably Twain’s most influential work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most poignant American novels date, known for its raw, often humorous depictions of southern antebellum society. With portions of the work written in vernacular English, the novel can prove a tad tricky for the unaccustomed reader. The work documents the travels of Huck Finn, a runaway committed to escaping his abusive, alcoholic father. As a continuing focus of scholarly learning, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents those all-American themes of race and prejudice in a satirical light, during one of America’s most formative and commented-on periods.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) is Twain’s most directed novel of social criticism. It tells of a Connecticut engineer’s journey back in time to the age of King Arthur’s court, and maintains a farcical tone throughout. Deemed as a magician by his middle aged cohort, Hank Morgan rises to power in Arthur’s court, with his introduction of superior warfare technology, which ultimately challenges the power of the Catholic Church. Having been known to have a firm stance on domestic affairs, Twain directed much of the commentary of the book to popular engagement with the writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose works, being popular amongst the southern nobility, evoked in Twain much contempt with regards to the southern caste system during the Civil War era.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the first novel featuring Twain’s most famous characters: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher and Aunt Polly. Set in a town along the Mississippi River, this story quickly introduces the craftiness of the story’s protagonist, whose punishment from dirtying his clothes in a fight, to whitewash his Aunt Polly’s fence, remains today as a symbol of American cultural history. The plot of the story intensifies after Sawyer and Huck Finn witness a murder at night in a graveyard. After the killer escapes from his trial, the gang runs away, and faces an uncertain challenge ahead.
Twain’s most successful book during his lifetime and one of the best-selling books of all time, The Innocents Abroad certainly has struck a cord with readers right across the globe. Detailing the author’s voyages throughout Europe and the Middle East, Twain maintains a mostly light-hearted critique of the experience; in the cultures he witnesses, and even with his fellow travelers. A central theme throughout the book is Twain’s preoccupation with the imposition of the modern world on history, whereby petty profiteering from historical significance is seen as wasteful and disgruntling, especially in the author’s visit to Italy.