Travel as a Way to Invent Mark Twain
What does Innocents Abroad tell us about Twain and his ambitions? Professor Railton discusses the theme of travel as a way for the young Sam Clemens to escape his past as a Confederate soldier, riverboat pilot, and newspaper reporter. Like the American pioneers who headed West, Clemens wanted to reinvent himself.
Before heading to Europe and the Middle East to write the travel letters that would become his first book, Clemens could barely wait to depart. "I am wild with impatience to move-move-move!" he wrote to his mother.
Through Innocents Abroad, you will consider how Twain helped America to overcome its insecurities about Europe's intellectual and cultural superiority. He skewers the notion of high European culture with subtle criticism and broad burlesque.
Dr. Railton leads you through Twain's accounts of his suffering near-butchery by a "suave" French barber, Venetian gondoliers in shreds and patches of clothes with their underwear exposed, and beggars wandering randomly in front of high-vaulted cathedrals.
Walking Humor's "Fine Line"
This course will help you understand Twain's greatness as a humorist. It also reveals how he struggled with his talent for making people laugh.
In Roughing It, Twain made his semi-autobiographical character the butt of the joke, who, at one point, was conned into buying a horse that throws him from the saddle. But he was also conflicted about debasing himself as a buffoon for the sake of a laugh.
Moreover, he correctly sensed that people laugh most intensely when they are made to feel uncomfortable. The humorist's job is to walk the fine line between creating discomfort and giving true offense.
For most of his career, Twain walked that line successfully, gradually nudging his audience's sensibilities a little further year by year. He attacked objects of social, cultural, and political reverence with just enough playfulness, subtlety, and grace to get away with it.
Even so, on issues such as racism, Twain often faced a dilemma. Dare he speak the truth, at the risk of upsetting the audience whose approval he craved, financially and emotionally? His solution was to hedge his bets.
For example, for all its strong anti-racist language, Huckleberry Finn also contains numerous passages that echo the minstrel-show routines so popular with white audiences of the time. Tellingly, these scenes earned him the loudest laughter on the lecture circuit.
Twain as a Reflection of America
Some say the way you read Mark Twain depends upon the way you see America. How did Twain himself see it? In many ways, he was its fiercest booster.
Roughing It, a story of fortune hunting in the Nevada territories, is a vindication of the American enterprise. Twain marvels at the country's natural beauty and the daring of the Pony Express riders. He also includes copious examples of the new frontier dialect, advertising America's new way of living and speaking.
A believer in capitalism and free enterprise, he peppered his vocabulary with the language of entrepreneurship. Somewhat unnervingly, he referred to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as "capital," so confident of its commercial potential.
In other respects, however, Twain had serious concerns about the direction his country was taking. Between the lines of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur 's Court, he displays misgivings as to whether the American dream of progress isn't really an apocalyptic nightmare vision, complete with smoke-belching factories and warfare waged with land mines and Gatling guns.
In addition, Twain's own travels through the British Empire, and the outcome of American intervention in the Philippines, made him increasingly cynical about America's role abroad. Many of his anti-imperialist works remained unpublished during his life.
Twain died as a widely beloved figure. But he himself once wrote: "Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody."
In his private life, Samuel Clemens struggled with doubt, disappointment, despair, and an increasing misanthropy that was greater than any contained in his most sarcastic satires. Even his closest friends almost lost patience with his rantings on how to exterminate what he called "the damned human race."
Dr. Railton explores in some detail the unpublished manuscripts, discovered after his death, that reveal the dark and hopeless side of Mark Twain. They include such partly completed works as The Enchanted Sea Wilderness, The Great Dark, and Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes.
These writings identify the issues with which Twain struggled in his later years, but they do not detract from his legacy. Twain was fond of comparing himself to Halley's Comet: he was born during its appearance in 1835 and died when it next appeared in 1910. In many ways, he was just as rare, and just as brilliant.
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