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Life and Work of Mark Twain

Life and Work of Mark Twain

Professor Stephen Railton Ph.D.
University of Virginia

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Life and Work of Mark Twain

Life and Work of Mark Twain

Professor Stephen Railton Ph.D.
University of Virginia
Course No.  2567
Course No.  2567
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Samuel Clemens, the man known to history as Mark Twain, was more than one of America's greatest writers. He was our first true celebrity, one of the most photographed faces of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This course explores Twain's dual identities as one of our classic authors and as an almost mythical presence in our nation's cultural life. It seeks to appreciate Twain's literary achievements and to understand his life by highlighting seven of his major works:

  • Innocents Abroad
  • Roughing It
  • Old Times on the Mississippi
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
  • The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson

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Samuel Clemens, the man known to history as Mark Twain, was more than one of America's greatest writers. He was our first true celebrity, one of the most photographed faces of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This course explores Twain's dual identities as one of our classic authors and as an almost mythical presence in our nation's cultural life. It seeks to appreciate Twain's literary achievements and to understand his life by highlighting seven of his major works:

  • Innocents Abroad
  • Roughing It
  • Old Times on the Mississippi
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
  • The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson.

Professor Stephen Railton is extraordinarily qualified to bring to light the subtlest insights into Twain's texts. An expert on Twain, he has appeared on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer as a distinguished Twain scholar and is the creator of Mark Twain in His Times, an award-winning Internet archive about Twain's life and career. Professor Railton shows the issues that concerned Twain most throughout his lifetime and that appear repeatedly in the pages of his books.

Travel as a Way to Invent Mark Twain

What does Innocents Abroad tell us about Twain and his ambitions? Professor Railton discusses how travel was a way young Sam Clemens could 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 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 and 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, gets conned into buying a horse that throws him from the saddle. But he was very 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 intelligence, subtlety, and playfulness 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 antiracist language, Huckleberry Finn also contains many passages that echo the minstrel show routines so popular with white audiences of the time. Tellingly, these scenes earned him the loudest laughter when he read them on the lecture circuit.

Twain as a Reflection of America

Some say the way you read Mark Twain depends on 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 quality of 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 was he 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 about 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 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 that 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 despairing 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 Twain struggled with 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 believed he would die when it next appeared in 1910. And he did. In many ways, he was just as rare and just as brilliant.

View Less
24 Lectures
  • 1
    Needing No Introduction?
    Mark Twain was a celebrity of almost mythic status. After explaining the origin of Samuel Clemens's famous pseudonym, we begin the course by asking what Mark Twain meant to his American audience and to the man who created him. x
  • 2
    From Samuel Clemens to Mark Twain
    This biographical lecture sees Twain's life as one of milestones. The financial success brought by his literary triumphs was at times disrupted by disastrous investments such as the Paige typesetting machine. His happy married life was to sustain the shock of several family tragedies. x
  • 3
    The Sense of Mark Twain's Humor
    Twain was frank in saying that as a humorist "I have always preached." His sermon consisted of "cracking up" idols of reverence to make room for truth. His well-known speech about the "cannibals" of the Sandwich Islands shows him tickling the audiences' funnybones as it pokes them in the ribs. x
  • 4
    Marketing Twain
    Concerning his writing, Twain once confessed that the motive of profit had an importance "almost beyond my own comprehension." This lecture explores why money meant so much to Twain, and details the marketing schemes he used to maximize his income. x
  • 5
    Innocents Abroad, I—Going East
    Henry Ward Beecher organized Twain's trip East as a pilgrimage to pay obeisance to the founding monuments of Western culture, but Twain turned the tables and allowed the American reader to look down on Europe. Was Twain psychologically preparing America for its role as a world power? x
  • 6
    Innocents Abroad, II—Traveling to Unlearn
    Twain's goal in Innocents Abroad was to teach his readers to see the Old World with their own eyes rather than through certain established texts. But when he trains his deconstructing wit on the holy sites of the Bible, we might ask what of value can remain after everything has been mocked into submission. x
  • 7
    Roughing It—Going West
    Roughing It mined Twain's own past as a prospector and turned it into comic frontier fiction. It also marked Twain's first prominent use of American vernacular language, and his intimation that it deserved a place in American literature. x
  • 8
    The Lecture Tours
    Despite the rigors of touring and the limitations imposed by his audiences' tastes, Twain came to love the thrill of live lecturing. He skillfully blended the serious academic content that audiences demanded with his own trademark sardonic wit. x
  • 9
    The Whittier After-Dinner Speech
    When Twain used the occasion of celebrated writer John Greenleaf Whittier's birthday to lampoon the pretentious and stilted prose style of Longfellow, Emerson, and Holmes, many felt he had disgraced himself. Twain could never firmly decide whether he'd gone too far. x
  • 10
    "Old Times on the Mississippi"
    Twain's tale of learning life's lessons along the banks of the Mississippi is a touching remembrance of innocence giving way to experience. But Twain's omissions, such as any acknowledgement of slavery's integral role in Mississippi riverboating, undermine its strengths. x
  • 11
    The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
    Tom Sawyer was described by its author as "a hymn to childhood," and Tom's idyllic and carefree story still appeals today. The novel is also a hymn to the mythic childhood of the nation itself, a simpler time whose vision is compelling, whether or not it truly existed. x
  • 12
    The Performances of Tom Sawyer
    Tom's need to be attended to as a "glittering hero" acts in symbiosis with the bored townspeople's need for a flamboyant and vicarious distraction. By the end, Tom's character has grown, but the novel's attention has shifted almost entirely to the anti-hero, Huck Finn. x
  • 13
    Huck Finn, I—Defining an American Voice
    The qualities that made Huck objectionable to the Concord Library Committee in 1885 are the same that equip him for heroism. He is a cultural illiterate, unburdened by the literary conventions that shaped belief in the antebellum South. He sees through his own eyes, not through books. x
  • 14
    Huck Finn, II—The Quest for Freedom
    Though Huck is not well read, he has still, to use Twain's term, been "trained" or conditioned by the people around him to accept slavery and other injustices. This lecture considers whether, after they have taken the trip together down the river, Jim can free Huck. x
  • 15
    Huck Finn, III—The Great American Novel?
    Huck Finn displays the best and worst of America, as Twain saw it. By elevating Huck and Jim in stature above their social superiors, it celebrates democracy. By showing the commonplace cruelties of the "common" townsfolk, it is skeptical about it. Do Huck and Jim symbolize the best of this country, or are they exceptions to the rule? x
  • 16
    Huck Finn, IV—Classrooms and Controversy
    Racism has played a tragic part in this nation's history. Are novels like Huckleberry Finn part of the problem or part of the solution? Distinguished critics have called Huckleberry Finn both antiracist and "the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written." x
  • 17
    Connecticut Yankee, I—Unwriting the Middle Ages
    One of the first-ever tales of time travel, Connecticut Yankee allows its hero Hank Morgan to view medieval Europe through modern eyes, and "unwrite" what Twain saw as the chivalric nonsense perpetuated by Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. x
  • 18
    Connecticut Yankee, II—Revisiting the Nineteenth Century
    While Hank Morgan is quick to point to the corruption and superstition underlying medieval culture, his unexamined faith in technology and progress wreak unintended havoc in Arthur's court. There are indications that even Twain failed to see the ironies in the story he was telling. x
  • 19
    Connecticut Yankee, III—The Quest for Status
    Throughout Connecticut Yankee, Hank employs technological tricks that masquerade as magic to impress the gullible citizens of the 6th century. While professing to deplore superstition, he winds up indulging it at every turn to win the people's acclaim. A careful reader can sense the thinly disguised anxieties of Twain the performer. x
  • 20
    Pudd'nhead Wilson—Fictions of Law and Custom
    When the enslaved mother Roxy switches her apparently white son with the son of her master without arousing suspicion, racial classifications seem reduced to "a fiction of law and custom." The ultimate fate of the two boys has bedeviled those who would clearly understand Twain's view of race. x
  • 21
    Anti-Imperialist Works
    Twain wrote in 1900, "I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land." As America's international power grew, he was determined to set the force of his growing international stature against its misuse. x
  • 22
    Late Twain in Public
    Mark Twain's last 15 years were publicly triumphant. His "Around the World" tour drew crowds in every city, and his use of the proceeds to repay his debts made him a paragon of virtue at home. It was in these years that he first wore his famous white suit, the uniform of the glittering hero he'd become. x
  • 23
    Late Twain in Private
    A happy family wrecked by disaster; an ocean journey gone horribly wrong; the narrative of a microbe in the bloodstream of a drunk. If these stories don't seem terribly familiar, it's because Twain never published them, but they offer a glimpse at the dyspeptic and tormented soul he had become in his final years. x
  • 24
    Sam Clemens is Dead/Long Live Mark Twain
    When Sam Clemens died, newspapers from every region but the South rushed to claim him as their own. The debate still rages over who gets to define him and what lessons are to be drawn from his life. That he means so much to so many is perhaps his greatest legacy. x

Lecture Titles

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Stephen Railton
Ph.D. Stephen Railton
University of Virginia
Dr. Stephen Railton is Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He came to Virginia from Columbia University, where he earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. Professor Railton has published numerous articles on American literature and has written two books, including Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Imagination. He has also appeared on PBS's Newshour with Jim Lehrer as an expert on Mark Twain. Dr. Railton has also created two award-winning Web-based electronic archives, intended to explore the uses of electronic technology for teaching and studying American literature: Mark Twain in His Times ( and Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture (, which won Gettysburg College's prestigious Lincoln Prize, awarded for the finest scholarship on Lincoln and the Civil War era.
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Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 32 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Delightful and Insightful This course is a pleasure to take, and has my highest recommendation for any with an interest in Mark Twain. As it happens, Huck and Tom are not among my favorite fictional characters, and even this excellent course has not motivated me to re-read them. But their place and that of their author is so iconic in American literary history that the course is very worthwhile regardless of your views of the books - several of which, of course, are considered to be among the best of American literature. And the course does provide a number of valuable insights into Twain's writings that I, at least, didn't catch the first few times around, as well as a necessarily brief but fascinating overview of most of his works, both published and not. Even more engaging, for me, is the story of Twain's life (with Professor Railton rather unexpectedly treating Twain as an invented character of Samuel Clemens, a la Stephen Colbert, rather than simply a more mellifluous pseudonym.) This is one case where the author's life was as interesting as that of his characters, and the description of the losses and despair of his later years is particularly affecting. Professor Railton is the epitome of professorial easy listening - perhaps a bit too easy. He speaks in a casual, conversational, relaxed manner, and is well-organized and easy to understand. But, while I have no tolerance for the usual literary theory jargon, I did find myself wishing he spoke with more focus and academic formality, as this may have allowed a greater information density and depth. So - an excellent portrayal of the life and works of Twain/Clemens, very worth taking for pretty much anyone who has ever heard of him. April 9, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Wow!!!!! I have listended to over 75 teaching Company Course in the last ten years, and this is one of my three favorites... even though I'm not a student of English Literature, nor do I have a particular interest in Mark Twain. But I am interested, and make my livelihood in marketing and innovation consulting. So it was a wonderful surprise for me to discover that Samual Clemens was a masterful marketer in his day. I won't ruin the surprise by saying much here. But I will say that Professor Railton does a superb job of a) explaining the underlying psychologiocal drivers, that prompted Clemens to do what he did, and b) getting into the details of how, specifically, Clemens, succeeded in marketing his books and lecture tours, through the creation of the alter-ego, fame-seeking personnae we know today as Mark Twain. This is an extraordinary course, brilliantly told, with great, geat insight. It's an odd notion I admit, but part of me wishes that Professor Railton would ctreate a workshop for business entitled: "Mark Twain, Master Marketer!" December 5, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great presentation Mark Twain is brought alive in this series. Well worth the time. I especially enjoyed the professors lapsing into Twain's vernacular. November 9, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Twain Met (Audio download) Mark Twain the author, or the social activist, or the humorist/satirist, or world traveler, or philosopher...or all of the above (behind?)? I was blown away by these lectures. I had had to read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" as a young adult. And, as a young adult, I paid little attention to the meaning of the words that were written, only hoping to retain enough to make it through the tests and quizzes...I'm sure many of you reading this had a similar experience (and are now old enough to admit it). Dr Railton introduced me to one of the most interesting and admirable characters of American history. His delivery, despite a slightly off-putting habit of droppin' the last letter of some words and a sometimes halting speaking style was clear and to the point. His presentation was a very well planned framework of this man's life and works in several contexts and wove them together artfully (I cannot praise Railton's content more highly). These lectures deeply affected me, perhaps because I have an educational background other than literature or perhaps because it exposed me to a part of the world of knowledge about which I want (really want) to know more. I look forward to reading more of Twain's works (at least three anyway...hey, I'm not perfect). I highly recommend this lecture series, especially if you can catch a bargain...if not, get it any way. It will not disappoint.. August 25, 2013
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