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Mark Twain’s Style of Humor Lives On in Today’s Comedy

By Alan Burkholder

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Almost everyone in the world loves Mark Twain. There’s no denying that his work has had quite an impact on society, both in the past and in the present.

Don’t lie to me. You’ve heard the name Tom Sawyer before. If you know who Tom Sawyer is, you probably also know about his friend Huckleberry Finn. These two troublemaking brats have become two of the most famous child characters in all of literature. I say two of the most because a certain young woman from England has recently had more success in the way of children’s literature.

However, Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the name Mark Twain, is arguably the most celebrated author in classic American literature.

Being from a small town in Missouri, Twain had an American upbringing, and as such Twain’s books are very American in nature. These stories range from a story about a notorious gambler in Nevada who gets too cocksure about a jumping frog, to a man from Connecticut who winds up face to face with King Arthur and builds an industrial empire which later ruins their society. Whoops.

His books varied in message and tone, but Twain always had one quality which set him apart from other writers of the time: a sharp and dry wit. Twain was at heart a humorist, and he never stopped trying to be the witty gentleman, even in old age. He was aware of his humanity, and often poked fun at his own flaws.

“We ought never to do wrong when people are looking,” he wrote in “A Double-Barrelled Detective Story.”

But where did Clemens get his inspiration? What was the source of Twain’s persona as a witty individual?

Part of the blame can be pinned on Sam’s mother. While his father was strict and humorless, his mother was always the unconventional woman. She was humorous in nature and she bounced around from religion to religion, even once taking her son to a temple rather than a church.

According to Steve Courtney, publications editor at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, Sam and his mother would often joke a lot with each other, probably trying to see if they could outwit one another.

“This disposition to experiment is an inheritance from my mother,” Twain said in a Feb. 28, 1901 lecture reported in the New York Times.

Twain was also inspired by a lot of other people in his life. He based several characters in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on his boyhood memories in Hannibal, Missouri. His mother became Aunt Polly, his childhood sweetheart became Becky Thatcher, and several troublemaking boys combined to make the ever-bothersome Huckleberry Finn. He also based the runaway slave Jim on his butler, George Griffin.

Twain wasn’t just about characters, though. He was also heavy into politics and could never keep his mouth shut about anything. The grand result of this love of satire was a book called The Gilded Age, in which Twain practically tore American values of the time apart at the seams and revealed the ugly truth beneath all of it, all the while never letting up or apologizing for his actions.

Despite his controversial nature, however, Twain was not a troublemaker. He was simply a rabble-rouser, and he always had a good reason for writing every shocking sentence he ever put to paper.

“Always do right,” Twain wrote in 1901. “This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Twain’s work, to this day, continues to both gratify and astonish readers all over the world. Part of the reason is the way Twain presents his humor.

Mark Twain House & Museum Chief Curator Patti Philippon said Twain tended to write how people actually sound.

Instead of being flowery and poetic, Twain wrote his books in plain English so that the message wouldn’t be lost.

“You can understand (Twain) a lot better” than most writers of the time, Courtney said.

People had written plainly before Twain, Courtney said, but he was “the first to make it a point.”

Twain, however was never completely blunt. He realized that in order for the audience to get the message, he had to make it interesting. He didn’t tell you to be honest. He simply said, “when in doubt, tell the truth.”

Twain is not the only person in the world to use humor as a selling point, however. Modern entertainers borrow heavily from Twain’s method of telling stories like they happened. Good humor is always a welcome addition to any story.

Most modern comedies realize that in order to be funny, there doesn’t need to be a lot happening.

Shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and Louis CK’s Louie draw a lot of praise and laughs basically having a small group of people who have a small focus, but a lot of insight. I like to refer to this kind of humor as “Seinfeldian,” after the show (and comedian) that made it popular.

One person who’s familiar with this style of humor is Patrick Skahill, the producer of WNPR’s The Colin McEnroe Show, a Connecticut-based radio program that deal heavily with satire and wit.

Before each show, Skahill said, the producers and stars of the shows “keep an eye out for weird stories,” and then “brainstorm and think of ideas” that they want to discuss.

“Most of it is on the fly,” Skahill said.

Humorists don’t always script everything. Often, they just come up with ideas and work with them from there. This was certainly true of Huckleberry Finn, which started out as the sequel to a boy’s book and turned into one of the most humorous and heartfelt books in recent history. A lot of modern humor is based on social satire. Twain was not shy about social satire.

Twain did a lot of lecturing in his time, which was basically the 19th century equivalent of stand-up comedy. He would go out on stage, start telling a tale, and leave the audience roaring.

Off the stage, Clemens was shy and hated talking to people. On stage, he was a social commentator who seemingly knew more about the country than every politician of the era combined.

Philippon said Twain and Clemens were the same at the core, but Twain was more of a “persona.”

Twain used this persona when writing jokes, because Twain was much funnier. The same can be said for a lot of modern comedians. Everyone adopts a sort of stage persona, whether it be the loudmouth who loves to judge people, the quirky girl who observes a lot of crazy stuff happening, or the good-natured fat guy who likes to poke fun at himself.

All have a character on the stage who represents an exaggerated version of themselves. They earn bonus points if they act like this off of the stage as well.

Comedy writers also like to indulge in exaggeration for comic effect. Twain was a master in this field, especially when it came to his satire. Early in his career, Twain wrote in a newspaper about a “Terrible accident” that hadn’t actually happened, a satire on the sometimes alarmist nature of the news. Alarmingly enough, this kind of satire still holds up today, as several members of Saturday Night Live could easily attest.

Twain’s humor is timeless, touching on topics that are still relevant after about 150 years. To this day, people still follow his lead, in comedy, drama and in writing overall.

In his story, “Green Hills of Africa,” novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All of modern American literature can be traced back to … Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

It seems rather ridiculous to place this much credit upon one person, but Twain was brilliant enough to deserve it at the time.

And he still deserves it today.

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Mark Twain’s House Has Always Had a Certain Ring To It

Mark Twain House, July 2013

The Mark Twain House, July 2013

By Ambriel Johnson

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

    Hearing the ring of a telephone has become a regular sound in the American household, something easily taken for granted.

However, in Mark Twain’s time, the Gilded Age, this harsh ring was out of the ordinary. Only the wealthiest of households had these new-age communication devices installed in their homes.

Fascinated with modern technology, Twain himself had a telephone in his Farmington Avenue mansion. He didn’t use the phone much, though he complained about the quality of the phone calls endlessly.

The member of the household who used the phone most was the family butler, George Griffin.

The 25-room home built for Samuel Clemens, his wife and daughters – Mark Twain was Clemens’ pen name – was a showcase.

“They were an up-to-date, sophisticated family,” said Steve Courtney, author of The Loveliest Home That Ever Was: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford.

The Victorian Gothic Revival house features a breathtaking grand hall with decorative arts by designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, a glass walled conservatory overflowing with green plants, a cozy library, and a third floor billiard room where Clemens wrote his world-famous novels.

Tiffany supervised the interior decoration of the house and designed most of the glasswork.

Legend says the home was designed to look like a riverboat to mimic the theme in Twain’s masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, construction began in 1873. The house rested on a large parcel of land when Twain owned it, even more than the museum owns today.

“There was a much more rural landscape then,” Courtney said.

The family moved into the house in 1874, three years after Twain decided to build a home in Hartford.

The house in Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood had hot and cold running water, central heat, gas lighting and other modern conveniences common in the day.

“Any middle class home had indoor plumbing by 1874,” Courtney said, adding that gas lighting wasn’t new, either.

The Clemens family had all these things.

“In general, it was a time of tremendous change, a very dynamic time,” Courtney said.

Gas lighting, which eliminated the problem of smelly whale oil and weak lights that would damage the eyes, was popular.

“Central heating was pretty new,” said Courtney, as were the speaking tubes the Clemens had in their walls.

Family members used the speaking tubes to communicate with household staff in different parts of the house.

The telephone made communication with those outside the house easier.

Twain’s house was one of the first in Hartford to have a phone, Courtney said, and the listing for Samuel Clemens was one of the first in the local phone book.

Before people had phones, Courtney said, “To talk to someone, they would have to ride their horse downtown.”

Courtney said there were odd noises coming over the phone line, possibly because people didn’t know how to install the wiring.

Twain kept score, Courtney said, of the various noises he heard on the phone. He tallied them as “cannon fire” or “thunder” and subtracted the number of times he heard them from the balance of his phone bill.

“There were definitely things that went wrong,” Courtney said.

Courtney said Twain was always interested in inventing and once invented a game for his daughters so they could learn about British royalty.

Twain also invented a self-pasting scrapbook, Courtney said, that proved quite popular in his time.

Twain invested in items that were familiar to him, Courtney said, such as the typesetter and the Paige Compositor. Courtney said Twain lost $300,000 on the Paige Compositor.

Despite his interest in technological gadgets, Twain remained old fashioned when it came to his work.

Twain had a typewriter, Courtney said, and it made writing faster. But Twain didn’t like using it. He did have other people type his stories for him, Courtney said, but preferred writing in longhand himself.

“It was fashionable to have new and updated technology,” said Courtney, and Twain loved to keep up with the latest trends. “He was interested in fads.”

The Clemens family lived happily in their home until 1891, when mounting debt forced them to leave. In order to pay off his debt, Twain was forced to go on a lecture circuit.

Some of the family went with Twain on his circuit and others stayed elsewhere. They never lived there again.

In the 1920s, the home was sold to real-estate investor J.J. Wall and survived a number of different owners, including a boarding school for boys.

Katharine Seymour Day’s Friends of Hartford campaign ultimately saved it from demolition, restored it, and made it the popular museum that it is today.

In 1963, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Daughters Died of Illnesses That Can Be Treated Today

By Lina Allam

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

     Like any father, Samuel Clemens adored his children and worked hard to provide them with the life that he never had.

But during the 1800’s medicine wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and Clemens lost three of his four children at a young age to medical troubles that might have been prevented today.

susy_clemens

Susy Clemens

Clemens, famous for the writing he did under the pen name Mark Twain, lost h is first and only son, Langdon, to diphtheria around the age of 19 months.

Clemens and his wife Olivia also had three girls: Suzy, Clara, and Jane, who lived in the family’s Hartford home until their teenage years.

But when their father lost all his money from investing in the failed invention, the Paige Compositor, he traveled the world doing public speaking to pay off his debts.

When the time came for his family to return home, his oldest daughter, Suzy, then 24 years old, died of meningitis.

Meningitis is a bacterial or viral infection that attacks the brain or spinal cord. The viral strain is untreatable, but eventually the patient’s organs are able to defend the body against the virus, though it could take a week or two.

Bacterial meningitis can be treated through antibiotics, however if it is not treated, it can be fatal. This deadly type of meningitis – called meningococcal disease – causes an overwhelming infection in the body’s internal organs.

If antibiotics are given early during the infestation, the antibiotics could save a life, said Dr. Leonard Banco, a pediatrician and the chief medical officer of Bristol Hospital.

At the time Suzy died, there weren’t antibiotics available to treat the disease, according to Dr. K. Patrick Ober, an endocrinologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who has a keen interest in historical medicine.

Jean, the youngest daughter, was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 15 and suffered seizures.

Banco said epilepsy is a seizure disorder that occurs in an organism mainly because of incorrect wiring in the brain. In a person with epilepsy, this causes seizures to sometimes occur in order for the body to regain its normal state. They can include the clenching of teeth and intense shaking, Banco said, and sometimes loss of consciousness.

An epileptic episode occurs because of a large discharge of energy released by the brain, Banco said.

jean_clemens

Jean Clemens

But unlike meningitis, epilepsy cannot be cured and is often something that one is born with.

Without antibiotics and other medicine, Ober said, medical treatment during the time of Mark Twain was limited. Some medicines doctors used, including Lepomane, which is a drug like heroin and often leads to addiction, could be harmful.

Without other options, doctors also often tried to bleed the patient out in order to remove any of the “bad” or “sick” blood, Ober said.

Doctors had no way to treat meningitis in Jean’s day. Ober said there was no medicine for epilepsy. Many medical professionals at the time thought that the epileptic seizures were the cause of intense amount of stress.

Though her family tried to keep Jean calm, she died of a heart-attack brought on by a seizure in 1909. She was 29.

Today, epilepsy is most treated with anti-seizure medicine, though sometimes other treatments are used, according to information provided by the Mayo Clinic.

Clemens Girls Learned Many Languages

By  Indira Senderovic

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

     Mark Twain’s three daughters grew up learning foreign languages, mostly at home.

Suzy, Clara and Jean Clemens all were homeschooled in the family’s Farmington Avenue mansion in Hartford, according to Mark Twain House & Museum tour guide Grace Belanger.

Their mother, Olivia Langdon Clemens, was an educated woman, having attended a women’s college in Elmira, New York, so she handled some of the lessons for her daughters.

They also had tutors and others who provided instruction.

Just like her father the famous author, Susy was a talented writer.

At the young age of 13, she secretly wrote a biography of her father that he published when he found out about it.

Clara, an accomplished musician, was only two years younger than Susy.

All the Clemens girls’ early years included a full social life‚ home schooling in language and music‚ and traveling.

The youngest daughter was Jean, who was born in 1880. Though she was also homeschooled, Jean took some classes in France. Jean was like her mother, kind-hearted and fond of animals.

According to Belanger, one of the family’s household staff was a German woman who spoke with the girls only in native language. She said this sometimes frustrated the girls.

German was one of four languages the Clemens girls learned. They also studied Latin, Italian and English.

Karen Demonte, who teaches Italian at Wethersfield High School, said it is hard to be motivated to learn a new language.

“Learning a new language can be frustrating, but if you keep trying you will succeed for sure,” she said.

Much like the German woman on the Twain household staff, Demonte doesn’t talk to anyone in English. In the classroom, it’s strictly Italian

“That’s what helped a lot of students pick up the language faster,” Demonte said.

Demonte said she believes that the Clemens were right to have their children learn multiple languages.

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