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Archive for the tag “Huckleberry Finn”

The Grating American Novel

By Grant Henry

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

For a nation so proud of its literary canon, the most popular books in America tend to be nothing to write home about.

William Faulkner and Mark Twain are among the many skilled authors that have defined the standards for the novels and nonfiction writing of the nation. But when checking The New York Times bestseller list, you will never find books of the caliber of American Classics listed.

The erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey succeeded in selling a million physical copies in only 11 weeks, and that is not considering the millions of sales on digital e-readers like the Kindle. Meanwhile, there likely are hundreds of potential instant classics that get ignored every year.

Back in the 1990s, according to the Lakeland Ledger newspaper, the Delray Beach Public Library in Florida had little space in the library and used the frequency a book was loaned out to decide which stayed on shelves and which were archived in a back room.

To the discomfort of many, the number of times novels by Tom Clancy or Stephen King got checked out was high enough for those books to stay openly available while works by Hemingway and other classic authors had to be stored away, only obtainable by asking a librarian for access.

Stories like these are not rare. The reading habits of the average American seems to contradict what they learn in their high school English courses. Those who are angry about this are incredibly vocal about their thoughts on the matter.

What audacity writer James Patterson must have, to write cheap thrillers meant to mildly entertain people on airports! He should put his talent – and team of ghost writers – on the task of creating something meaningful that will last against the changing tides of cultural fads! It is the saddest thing to learn that those books get read more than critical darlings and classics, many fans of literature and struggling novelists might say.

Folks on the side of high-brow literature fight a mean fight when given the chance. They cannot fathom the stark contrast between the opinions of critics and the reading habits of consumers.

What needs to be considered when addressing the topic of high and low art is the criteria and amount of time required for something to be regarded as “important,” and how public perception and awareness of a work of art can change drastically over extended periods of time.

Let’s look at Mark Twain’s novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Though it paved the way for the modernist movement, the novel’s controversy existed right from publication.

The language, for example, was criticized. In Huck Finn, Twain portrayed the common language of Missouri rather than the idealized Oxford way of speaking commonly seen in literature. Today, English majors and writers alike see this as a milestone in literature, but at the time of release, people saw the phonetically spelled words an inconvenience that got in the way of telling the story.

Critics hated the handling of race as well. To some, the runaway slave Jim comes off as a caricature and the heavy use of the word “nigger” is still a tough issue today.

Stephen King, Patti P

Stephen King at The Mark Twain House in July 2013

But over time and many readings, the consensus grew to see the novel as incredibly anti-racist, vilifying the communities that owned slaves and raised children to morally accept it.

The world could easily have shrugged Huck Finn aside after its publication, and the book wouldn’t be seen as the achievement it is today. But the test of time proved it a classic and a high contender for the Great American Novel. It’s unfair to compare classics like Huck Finn to most modern novels because contemporary fiction doesn’t have the volumes of in-depth analysis Huck has.

It took decades for The Great Gatsby to gain the legendary status it has today, and A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously long after John Kennedy Toole’s suicide. We will not know what novels will define our generation, just as people didn’t know how Huck Finn would be remembered a century ago.

But even so, is it worth throwing a fit over people reading paperback romance novels rather than complex contemporary fiction? Should we care when Twilight sells more than a Murakami novel?

Many people believe that people shouldn’t sweat over books that don’t strive for greatness. The popular novelist Stephen King calls himself “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”

During a recent appearance at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, King explained that he dislikes people who willingly avoid the kind of pop-literature that often includes his own work. He compared those people with children who try to keep different types of food on their plate from touching.

Sculptor Joe Keo brought insight, pointing out that art is a business just like anything else. An artist, Keo said, is more than a pretentious person wearing a beret.

An artist is anyone, and the few artists that become household names are incredibly uncommon.

An actor isn’t only those seen on the Hollywood screen or Broadway stage, either. There are thousands of actors trying to make a living doing what they love.

To bash books that become financial successes despite sub-par quality is to put up an imaginary distinction that does not exist.

Joe Bun Keo

Joe Bun Keo

One of Mark Twain’s primary focuses when writing was to make money.

In an 1887 letter to William Dean Howells, Twain wrote, “High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”

Had it been impossible to make money from book sales, we wouldn’t have James Patterson OR Mark Twain.

Time sorts out the imbalances we observe in present-day art. You likely don’t know the name of the novel that will be known as this generation’s greatest literary achievement. That book will be analyzed and read extensively in literary journals and English classes everywhere.

50 Shades broke sales records, but that won’t go on forever. As long as you wait it out, you will find the early 21st century’s Great American Novel, but for now, don’t sweat about it.

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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.

Distinctly American, Twain’s Style Celebrated the Vernacular

By Cecilia Gigliotti

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Do you speak American?

Mark Twain did. In fact, he is credited with pioneering the presentation of a distinctly American language as literature.

At the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Patti Philippon, chief curator, and Steve Courtney, publicist and author, had much to say about the forward-thinking 19th-century literary superstar. According to Philippon, Twain’s use of the vernacular – “slangs and colloquialisms” peculiar to certain geographical regions and races – is what makes books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stand out.

“It’s putting into words how people from that era sounded,” Philippon said.

Of course, oftentimes people didn’t sound so nice. Huckleberry Finn is defined today by the censorship and controversy surrounding Twain’s extensive use of the racist word “nigger.”

At New Britain High School a few years ago, a teacher in an American Lit class began to teach the novel – but not before closing the door. She introduced the book in hushed tones and told students not to mention it if they ran across the principal. She never said why.

Today, teachers across the state and the nation are working to combat this sensitivity.

Prof. Kerry Driscoll, who teaches English at the University of St. Joseph, is a longtime Twain enthusiast. She taught a summer class on Huckleberry Finn at the Twain House, where she has lectured a number of times.

Kerry Driscoll

Prof. Kerry Driscoll

In her experience teaching the book, two major dialectical barriers have stood in Driscoll’s way.

“At the level of comprehension,” she said, “It’s hard for students to understand.”

Sometimes, it helps students to hear the language rather than read it.

“What I recommend is that if there’s a word or sentence that you don’t understand, say the sentence out loud,” Driscoll explained.  For instance, when the character Jim says “gwine,” what could g-w-i-n-e possibly mean?

“Sound it out,” Driscoll said, and the reader realizes that Jim is saying ‘going to.’

The accuracy of Twain’s characterization through dialect is astounding. Driscoll often asks her students’ opinions on why Twain includes, before the first chapter, a list of the seven dialects used throughout, such as ‘rural Pike County.’

“This is a realist book,” Driscoll said.

In using local dialects, Twain is holding a mirror to the lifestyle of those regions.

The other obstacle in Twain’s use of dialect is harder to conquer. The racial slur, Driscoll said, is what “makes the book so controversial.”

But she said it is key to understanding the “evolution of [Twain’s] own racial attitudes” and those of the times.

A recent edition of Huckleberry Finn in which the word ‘nigger’ is replaced with the word ‘slave’ is “an appalling decision,” Driscoll said. “That’s not the book Mark Twain wrote.”

As a teacher, she said, it is her responsibility to use the word in class discussion and stay true to Twain’s motives.

“The word appears 219 times in the book for a reason,” she said. “I’m going to read what Mark Twain wrote. It’s deliberately ugly, and I want students to hear it.”

Her determination has occasionally come at a cost. A student once complained that she was a racist teacher forcing the class to read a racist book.

But Driscoll has no intention of abandoning her approach.

“There’s no magic cure or fix,” she said, adding that the best teachers can give their students is “background preparation” – the word’s historical context and the obvious differences in tolerance of the word between the 1880s and now. Still, this is sometimes not enough to alleviate the soreness.

There’s been soreness for a while, and for a number of reasons. Since its publication, school districts and libraries in 28 states have banned the book.

But in 1885, public outrage stemmed from the opinion that Huck was not a proper role model for children. People were taken aback at Huck, the “irreverent” narrator, said Driscoll.

Driscoll described Huck as a “white-trash kid [allowed to] tell his own story on his own terms.”

In a pivotal scene, Huck decides to protect his friend Jim, a runaway slave, despite childhood teachings that the act would condemn him for eternity.

“All right, I’ll go to hell,” the boy resolves.

Huck was “a bad boy,” said Philippon, and Twain’s adult readers had a problem with that.

Driscoll pointed out the irony that while the objection in 1885 was not to the language used but to Huck’s offensive behavior, it has only been since the New York City school board banned it in 1957 that Huck’s character is celebrated and the language is found offensive.

The civil rights movement of the ‘60s, Courtney said, was a turning point for the racial slur. That was when it evolved into “a fighting word,” he said.

But Driscoll holds fast to her image of Twain as a “careful wordsmith.” Whatever words he chose, he wanted, she said.

In an 1888 letter, Twain wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Lightning can be both amazing and frightening to behold. It is an energetic force capable of destruction, but it plays a necessary role in the ecological cycle, and nature certainly would not be complete without it.

Using his charged language, Mark Twain infused our literature with a little more lightning, a spark that is uniquely American.

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