In the second lecture of Hillsdale College’s free online course on Mark Twain, which you can follow along with me here, Kelly Scott Franklin, an assistant professor of English at the college, traces the connection between humor and democracy throughout the author’s work.
Twain’s Young Life Influenced His Writings
As a teenager, Twain, who was born Samuel Clemens, began publishing short stories and humorous pieces at newspapers where he apprenticed. He went on to become a steamboat captain on the Mississippi River, a scene that would inspire much of his later work.
After a brief stint in the Confederate Army, Twain deserted his post and traveled with his brother to the Nevada Territory, as it was called at the time. Out west, Twain became a journalist and eventually signed an article with his famous pen name for the first time in 1863.
As a rising star in the latter half of the 19th century, Twain adhered to the tenets of realism, which sought to depict the world as it is. He rejected the simplistic, good-guys-always-win type of Sunday school stories with overtly moral themes that he was raised on. Instead, Twain wrote stories about complex characters who faced evil–that sometimes went unpunished.
In his satirical work “The Bad Little Boy,” Twain tells the story of a bad little boy named Jim, whose crime of stealing the teacher’s pen-knife goes unpunished, while another innocent boy named George was punished for it. Throughout Jim’s “charmed life,” he was able to defy the odds. He went fishing on Sundays and didn’t get struck by lightning. When he grew up, Jim became a well-respected man and member of the legislature.
In this work, Twain makes it clear that simplistic morality is not realistic. In real life, sometimes the bad guys get the biggest cut of cheese and the good ones get a raw deal.
Throughout many of his works, Twain elevates those who society had marginalized at the time. In his short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Twain juxtaposes two narrators — one from the East and one from the West — to highlight the stiffness of the man from the urban setting. It is the westerner, who lacks proper diction, who is the most memorable character, as he delivers some of the funniest lines. Twain elevates the character who would have ordinarily been cast aside to the status of something like a hero. His treatment of characters — allowing anyone, regardless of social status or class, to become the protagonist of a story — is democratic.
In his writings about a segregated America, Twain depicts the racist attitudes that were pervasive in his time, and does so realistically. He often repeats the slurs hurled at African-Americans at the time, but in doing so, he portrays racist attitudes as narrow-minded and wrong. Ironically, Twain’s work, namely “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” has been censored in recent years due to its use of racial slurs.