Twain, Mark (1835–1910)

The essayist, novelist, and humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens is better known by the pseudonym Mark Twain. He is most noted for authoring The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the latter often touted as the great American novel.

Soon after Twain's birth in Florida, Missouri, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, which he later recast as St. Petersburg, the setting of Tom Sawyer and parts of Huckleberry Finn. Hannibal, which was important to the slave market on the Mississippi River, had a profound influence on Twain's writing, particularly his views on race, articulated most cynically in The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). As an adult, Twain became acquainted with Mississippi steamboat life on his abridged journey to South America, where he anticipated establishing himself in the coca trade. Twain received his pilot's license in 1859, working the river until the onset of the Civil War halted river commerce. These years on the Mississippi provided Twain with a diversity of experience that greatly informed his writing, especially his Mississippi River novels, for which he is best known. After serving briefly in the Confederate Army, Twain moved to Nevada, where, as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise, he first signed a piece as Mark Twain, a pseudonym meaning "two fathoms" for riverboat pilots, and "two drinks on credit" for Nevada citizens.

Though renowned for his witty social commentary, Twain's most lasting contribution to literature is, arguably, his children's fiction, which Twain maintained was intended for both children and adults. The somewhat nostalgic depiction of BOYHOOD found in Twain's Tom Sawyer books has come to stand in for boyhood itself, with Tom Sawyer exemplifying the "good bad boy," an important departure from the more didactic children's fiction of the time. This departure is felt most powerfully in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain's most sensitive rendering of child consciousness. Twain's choice to narrate the novel in Huckleberry's voice was revolutionary. His Tom Sawyer sequels—Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896)—were neither as intimate nor as complicated, though they were also told in Huck's voice. Twain's other novels associated with child readers, The Prince and the Pauper (1882) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) feature adult protagonists.

Theatrical and cinematic versions of Twain's two major books are common; one of the earliest is a dramatization of Tom Sawyer authored by Twain in 1884, though never staged. Huckleberry made it to the boards in November 1902, in a production that fared well. Perhaps the most famous of the many film versions of Huckleberry Finn is the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production, released the same year as The Wizard of Oz. Featuring Mickey Rooney as Huck, this adaptation was the first to focus on the relationship between Huck and Jim, an escaped slave who accompanies Huck down the Mississippi. In 1993 Walt Disney Pictures released their film adaptation, The Adventures of Huck Finn, starring Elijah Wood. However, despite these numerous retellings, ubiquitous media representations, and nearly uniform critical acclaim, both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are consistently challenged and banned throughout the United States for addressing so directly issues of race and class.

See also: Children's Literature.


Budd, Louis J. 1983. Our Mark Twain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Haupt, Clyde V. 1994. Huckleberry Finn On Film: Film and Television Adaptations of Mark Twain's Novel, 1920–1993. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Hill, Hamlin. 1973. Mark Twain, God's Fool. New York: Harper.

Hoffman, Andrew. 1997. Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. New York: William Morrow.