Life and Work of Mark Twain

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

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.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Stephen Railton

About Your Professor

Stephen Railton, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

Life and Work of Mark Twain is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 52.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An informative and entertaining gem! I would have trouble heaping excessive praise on this course! Anyone wishing to know a little more about Mark Twain, or to gain a greater perspective on the culture and times in which he lived, would benefit immensely from this thoroughly engaging and revelatory course. Professor Railton superbly intermingles relevant biographical details about Samuel Clemens' life with excerpts from, and meditations on, his works, and through it all helps us better understand both what Twain saw in his culture and fellow men and women and tried to do in his writings. His mission, essentially, was to "unlearn" his readers (and, later in his lecture appearances, his auditors) of the things they "thought" they knew -- the mental framework constructed by culture and through which people believed they perceived truth -- in order to wipe that film from their eyes so that they COULD see what was really there. These false frameworks were of both kinds: the larger -- beliefs by which people thought that slavery was "natural" and "ordained" -- and the smaller -- the ways in which each of us tends to regard our own behavior as laudable while regarding that of others with greater suspicion. He also discusses the apparent sense of entrapment that Clemens felt by his most successful creation: the personal of "Mark Twain." When people bought his books, or flocked to hear him in person, or just to see him as he passed through their town or village, they expected Twain, not the person Clemens behind, within, or inside Twain. And this meant that over time Clemens came to understand that there were just certain things he could not say or do because they would not "fit" the constructed Twain. As a man who deeply valued success -- and for him commercial success resulted in personal adulation -- he could not take on too directly the myriad prejudices of his varied audiences for, as he related in more than one story, doing so would not allow him to get through to them but, rather, would result in their turning away, not wishing to hear what they regarded as challenging their truths. Each lecture was fascinating and anything but dry. Professor Railton tried to help us not only "hear" Twain, but also to "see" as Twain/Clemens did. I came to the conclusion of this course with the greatest of reluctance, and with a heightened appreciation for Samuel Clemens and his multiple accomplishments, as a person and as an artist. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2017-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic Insights Into Mark Twain's Life and Work I am a bit of a "Twainiac" (that is, I'm passionate about Mark Twain) and I promise you, these lectures are perhaps the finest introduction to Twain's life and work that you can find. Whether you don't recall much about Twain other than Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn or you've already read a lot of Twain and Twain biographies, you will learn much from these lectures and deepen your appreciation of Twain. An excellent example is his treatment of one of Twain's most provocative books, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" -- the lecturer demonstrates how the book can literally be read two different ways. There is so much depth and wisdom in these lectures, and they are fascinating to listen to. I would go so far as to say these lectures are brilliant. I first bought and listened to this course about 5 years ago, and recently I listened to all of them completely through again, and loved them -- prompting me to write this review. (NOTE: I see some negative reviews of the DVD/video version. I listened to the CD/audio version. I honestly can't see any reason to WATCH this (video) rather than simply LISTEN to it (audio).)
Date published: 2017-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very useful review of Mark Twain's life and works Bought this course for my wife, who is giving a course on Mark Twain in a local emeritus college program. This was excellent background material for this course. Speaker was very knowledgeable and informative, and presented very well. Both she and I would highly recommend this course for anyone at all interested in Mark Twain.
Date published: 2017-10-22
Rated 1 out of 5 by from big disappointment I see there are already a number of reviews that state one of the main reasons I returned this course unfinished...the interminable swaying of the professor and the swinging of the camera to follow. But my disappointment goes further: The rambling presentation that really does not explore the life or the work of Mark Twain in any coherent detailed manner. Most of chapter 4 is spent explaining "subscription books", and how they had to be padded to make them long enough to sell...Very apropos, as that is exactly what the course this professor seems to be following. Not at all up to the standards I have experienced the multiple courses I have purchased.
Date published: 2017-10-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well researched and presented a good oversight of his work. The lecturer is average but his work is good.
Date published: 2017-10-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Life and Work of Mark Twain Very interesting subject and very interesting speaker. However I started to feel a bit seasick watching the professor swaying back and forth and the cameraman following him to keep him centered. But the topics are very interesting
Date published: 2017-09-24
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Poor presentation My wife and I tried to watch this as a DVD and we both thought that it left a lot to be desired. Professor Railton it seems to us was not well prepared and there was a lot of dead space during his lectures. He also was rocking - again we had to stop watching him because of this rocking.
Date published: 2017-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informational and Fun! What an incredible course! The professor has a great teaching style and pace. There is so much to learn...about the life of Samuel Clemons, about Mark Twain as author and commentator, about the era, about how literature affects the reader, about the impact of Mark Twain's writings for his and for future generations. There's a nice, thoughtful presentation of the question "should Huck Finn be taught today"? I can't imagine anyone not benefitting from this course!
Date published: 2017-02-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course whether you know Twain or not If you know (and love) Twain, you will greatly enjoy this course. If you don’t know or don’t love Twain, then you really need this course. If you don’t really know Twain, this course provides a pretty thorough introduction. With only 24 lectures, it can’t cover everything, but it focuses on key works, like Huckleberry Finn. He gives these key works in depth treatment: four lectures on Huckleberry Finn, for example. You will not only have a better understanding of this “Great American Novel,” but you will learn what it tells us about Twain himself and his thoughts on America. With regard to Huckleberry Finn, he spends one lecture discussing whether it should be banned from classroom because of the depiction of slavery and the treatment of slaves, which many find offensive today. The professor concludes that Huckleberry Finn can be a good place to start a discussion of slavery, race relations, etc. He acknowledges that that might not be an acceptable answer for everyone. If you do know something about Twain, you will learn even more here. For example, Twain’s later writings include a strong anti-imperialist stance. The professor also relates this to previous discussions and works. One could interpret A Connecticut Yankee in this way. One of the things he does best is view these classic works from different perspectives and with different interpretive results. A Connecticut Yankee can be read as arguing that the modern world is better than the medieval world. However, the modern changes made in that medieval world bring negatives effects along with the good. The soap factory that makes everyone cleaner, pollutes the sky. The professor also reads the books for what they say about Twain/Clemens and what was driving him. For example, Tom Sawyer is theatrical and likes to be the center of attention. Does this sound a bit like Twain himself? He also looks at Twain’s work beyond the best-known novels. He looks at less familiar novels, such as, Puddin’ Head Wilson, and at short stories, speeches, and non-fiction One of the themes that runs through the course is Twain’s use of deadpan humor. He also relates his writings to Twain’s life. This course gets A’s on my two key criteria: was it thought-provoking and did it make me want to learn more. It even got me thinking about going back and rereading some of the books I have already read.
Date published: 2016-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Done! We listen to these lectures as we drive to work. They have introduced us to some writings we weren't familiar with, they have expanded our understanding of writings we did know. The professor's style is interesting, and keeps us coming back for the next lecture.
Date published: 2016-10-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Enjoyable My wife and I (both retired) occasionally take long road trips and listening to the Great Courses has been very rewarding. This particular course on Mark Twain has been very enjoyable, and I feel the professor's insights are particularly interesting. The miles go back quickly when so entertained.
Date published: 2016-09-16
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Academic and dull This review is based on the audio download. I see this course has a lot of positive reviews - and it is clear to me that many people use different criteria than I do when assessing a course. I really need to mix learning with entertainment, because I use these courses to distract me when I am travelling, exercising or doing mundane chores. For other people, the large amount of information here might, itself, be enough to recommend it. I use 5 criteria to assess a course - and yours, of course, may be different: 1. Do I look forward to listening to or watching the next episode? No. I was profoundly disappointed in this course. I had expected to enjoy it, as I enjoy Mark Twain's writing. But this one bored me. I had to force myself through the first seven lectures, and then gave up. It is possible it became more interesting later, but I had a lot of other courses I could listen to, and I just moved on. 2. Do I feel I learned something interesting or useful from each episode? Yes, although I was bored, there was (for me) new information here, so if that is what you are looking for - and not entertainment - it could be worthwhile. 3. Would I recommend this, without hesitation to a friend? Life is short, and there are a lot of good courses at the Teaching Company that mix education with compelling presentations. So, for this course, my answer is No, I would recommend they buy something else. . 4. Do I find the speaker’s lecturing style compelling and interesting? No. This was like listening to someone read his dissertation - page for page, footnote by footnote. I get enough of this in my professional life, and I really don't want it in my leisure time. 5. Would I buy another course from this lecturer, without hesitation? Not a chance. And I will be seeking a refund on this one - something that, to its great credit, the Teaching Company does provide, quite willingly.
Date published: 2015-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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!"
Date published: 2013-12-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great presentation Mark Twain is brought alive in this series. Well worth the time. I especially enjoyed the professors lapsing into Twain's vernacular.
Date published: 2013-11-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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..
Date published: 2013-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Tribute to a Great Author DVD REVIEW: Professor Stephen Railton has assembled an engrossing presentation about this important, enormously famous, significant & treasured American author (and lecturer). As an admirer of Mark Twain since I was as young as Tom Sawyer, I found this course to be an entertaining, hugely informative excursion into the life and works of Samuel Clemens. Lectures recorded in 2002. The lecturer's deep understanding and knowledge are immediately appreciable from the first talk, which hooked me, pulled me right in, leaving me wanting more please! May I add that, unlike some reviewers, I did not feel that Dr Railton was just reading from his script. Dr Railton has a conversational, folksy, charismatic "You Are There" speaking style which makes each of his lectures an exciting adventure. He expounds so well on the way Mark Twain influenced Samuel Clemens, and vice-versa: an extremely compelling topic. Highly insightful that the business-savvy Clemens trademarked the name Mark Twain. Naturally, there are some readings from the works of Mark Twain; these are not overdone but balanced carefully against the lecturer's main narrative. This is a "must-have" course, to be enjoyed by those new to Mark Twain as well as to long-term admirers... and everyone else! Top marks.
Date published: 2013-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Twain: I thought I knew you but I was wrong. A wonderfully eye-opening view of the life and times of Mark Twain and how that affected his writing, and vice versa. Well researched, well presented, well fleshed out view of the man, his life, his times, his struggles, his writings, the world's influence on him and his influence on it. Brilliant and pleasurable. I will listen to this course again one day.
Date published: 2013-02-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A most enjoyable course. A thorough and well presented introduction to one of America's greatest writers. Recommended for anyone who wants to read any of Twain's works.
Date published: 2012-12-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Overview With minimal knowledge of Mark Twain except for reading Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as a teenager, I purchased the lecture series for easy educational listening in my car. Professor Stephen Railton did not disappoint me as he reveals the genius and frailties of this literary icon. Samuel Clements innovative, humorous writings and speeches are well analyzed by Prof. Railton in the context of an adventurous, complex man navigating through life with a willingness to take risks and endure the consequences. I found the lectures to be very beneficial for my understanding of the man and his gifted works.
Date published: 2012-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from solid intro to Mark Twain Good substance and good presentation. The prof is not quite the equal of some of the super outstanding lit profs such as Arnold Weinstein or Irwin Weil but this is still a useful introduction. I barely noticed that the prof dropped his "gs" on words ending in "ing" and found his presentation clear and pleasant. (I purchased the CD).
Date published: 2012-07-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Getting to know our American Icon With a subject as broad as the “Life and Work of Mark Twain,” it would be impossible to cram everything into a series of 24 lectures, but Prof. Stephen Railton gives it a good shot. It would also be hard to avoid just wanting to fill the lectures with passages from Twain’s works, but Railton dodges that danger as well (although he includes many key passages to illustrate particular points of his discussions). This course will introduce you to Twain’s primary works, and give you a decent overview of his life. The professor also explores important subjects such as the place of race in Twain’s works (and world), the duality of Twain/Clemens, the author’s desire for fame and fortune (and its frustrations), and the “dark side” of Samuel Clemens, especially at the end of his life. Personally, I thought that four lectures on Huck Finn was a bit much, especially when other works were skipped entirely, but Railton is a Twain expert so I’ll trust him on his choice. The main “negative” about this course is Railton’s delivery. I bought the audio download version, and judging by other comments, I made a good choice. But even in audio-only format, Railton comes across as very hesitant and uncomfortable with his script. There are hundreds of painful “uhs” and “ums,” as well as sentences that just trail off into oblivion, as though he thought there was more left in the script but realized that he had hit a “period.” And as others have pointed out, for some reason he thought it would be “folksy” to drop the “g” at the end of all his “-ing” words, which just becomes an annoyance. So in summary: good marks for content, so-so marks for presentation.
Date published: 2012-04-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Mark Twain As is true of most if not all of the Teaching Company courses, the course content was excellent. I learned a lot about the life of Samuel Clemens, and about Mark Twain's writings. I have to mark the professor's presentation down. It is well below the quality of other Teaching Company courses. I expected some humor, given the subject matter. That was sorely lacking. More distracting, though, was the professor's habit of dropping g's at the end of words ending in ing. For example, he said goin', makin' seein', somethin', etc. This was extremely grating, especially for an English professor, and took away from the enjoyment of the lectures. I found myself listening for the next dropped g, instead of to the course content. The professor was not trying to impersonate Mark Twain's down home style, given the other points of his presentation. I would not recommend this course to anyone who values the English language for that reason.
Date published: 2012-03-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Twain The information is good, but buy the CD if possible. The instructor rocks from one foot to the other in nervousness. he is tied to his notes as if he is not comfortable, or familiar with his subject. It is very irritating to watch. Finally, we had to black out the TV and just listen to the sound.
Date published: 2012-03-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from "Lighting out for the territories" -- Brilliantly! [Audio Version] I am a lifetime fan of Mark Twain. I’ve probably read Huckleberry Finn a dozen times. Finn is a multilayered book, and each time I read it I come away with another level of understanding. Many consider Finn as The Great American Novel, and I agree. Few American novels even come close. I am presently about a third of the way through Vol. 1 of the recently published massive ‘Autobiography of Mark Twain’ -- over 700 pages long. I’ve also read a half-dozen books about Twain, and I’ve read all of Twain's books, essays, and short stories. The above is what I ‘brought to the table’ when I listened to Professor Railton’s ‘Life and Work’ course. I was extremely impressed. The course is the next best thing to reading Twain’s original work! Railton’s four lectures on Huck Finn were magnificently done. As a proponent of the freedom of speech, I especially appreciated Railton’s balanced review and analysis of the ongoing controversy of banning, censoring, and/or editing Huck Finn. (I noticed that the May 2011 issue of the high-circulation ‘Costco Connection’ magazine has an article on the debate over ‘sanitizing literary classics.’ Twain’s been dead for over 100 years, yet some folks still want Huck [published in 1885] ‘cleaned’ up!) The celebrity aspect of Twain’s life is well-explored in the course. We also get a better understanding of the ‘impostor’ theme that runs through much of Twain’s life and work. When Dr. Railton discusses Twain on the lecture circuit, in the context of the 19th century’s great Lyceum movement, I couldn’t help but think that The Teaching Company’s Great Courses are kind of like a modern day equivalent of old Lyceum lectures. Nineteenth-century folks would attend Lyceum courses to improve their lives with adult education. If you’re not a fan of Twain, please consider taking this course -- you might change your mind. If you are a fan of Twain, this course is a downright must-have. All of us, at least several times in our lives, should ‘light out for the territories.’ Professor Railton is mighty intelligent guide, and shines his own bright light on Twain’s life and work in his own unique way. Highest possible recommendation!
Date published: 2011-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beneath the Surface of an Icon If any one American author is an icon, it would surely be Mark Twain. Professor Railton does commendable work to take us beneath the surface. I believe there are flaws, and I will discuss them briefly. But, first, because of the far greater assets, I want to recommend the course strongly, particularly for readers who have read a novel or two of Twain's but do not know much about him. The professor is quite good at digging into who Mark Twain was to Samuel Cemens. This is fascinating. Further, he explores richly the relationship between Twain's interest in making money and becoming known and famous and the course of his literary career. This, too, is important and sheds light on, and perhaps raises questions about, Twain's work. The lectures from Tom Sawyer through Connecticut Yankee are the high point of the course. The study of Huck Finn as reflective of the character, the hopes, and the limits of common man in mid-century America is first rate. And the look at Connecticut Yankee, a novel I had not read, was excellent - how it was marketed, how it cut against romantic impressions of the middle ages, and the sharp and almost-modern critique of industrial values then ascendent in the country. The professor loses steam at the end, but so did Mark Twain! I would have enjoyed deeper textual study more often. And I think the professor gets a bit squishy at times. For example, he argues that there are both democratic and anti-democratic tendencies in Huckleberry Finn. I certainly see the appreciation of the comon man, but I don't see much in the way of praise of democratic practice among the societies described in the novel. In any event, this is a solid 5 star course. If you're after Twain, you've come to the right course.
Date published: 2011-03-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Will the real Samuel Clemens stand up? I enjoyed this presentation of the life and work of Mark Twain and have only one criticism. Professor Railton belabors his points. After he has made a point he goes on to give more evidence of it and then tells us at the end of the course what he has told us many times before. For example: Twain's unwriting of history in his "Connecticut Yankee" and "Innocents Abroad"; his unwriting of social beliefs and values in "Huck Finn" and "Pudd'nhead Wilson"; his constant discussion of the issues of slavery and racism, rank and class, and prejudices of a culture. I didn't need 4 lectures on "Huck Finn" and 3 on "Connecticut Yankee." I would rather have heard his views on other issues such as religion. I would rather have heard more about his many short works. However, by the end of the course I definitely had a good feel for the differences that existed between Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain. All in all, I would recommend this course.
Date published: 2011-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Interesting I recommend this course to anyone interested in Twain and his works. It is as good as any of the Great Courses, with interesting and incisive insights. (It is not as challenging or abstruse as some of the courses--e.g., the physics courses--but, then, I do not equate abstrusity with quality.) Both the professor's content and delivery are very good. An enjoyable course. I listened on CD and detected no need to view this course on DVD.
Date published: 2010-10-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Twain the Triumphant Failure Persona Although this course started slowly, and I had my initial doubts (about the content and instructor), it warmed up in the second half to be quite interesting and relevant. Mark Twain was an interesting character, an invention and artifice that took on a life of it's own. From a start within the imagination of a runaway rebellious outsider he worked awfully hard to make it big and fit in... and succeeded. In a time of idealistic/romantic literary tastes (think Emerson and Longfellow), he pioneered the notion of realistic observation and the introduction of common-man's "voice", and used humor (dead-pan, ironic, self-deprecating), (combined with self publishing and direct marketing - "subscription sales") as the vehicle to get his books in the door. He consistently was able to break new ground and turn his failures and setbacks into triumphs. As professor Railton tangentially describes Twain via one of his most memorable character, Tom Sawyer, "Deeper than his need to be free, is his longing for attention." Twain was created to both achieve fame and to hide something (perhaps the Huck Finn side which did his best to avoid attention and hide his shame of being "trash", and yet stay wild and outside respectable social conventions), trying to become somebody - the "glittering hero" - yet fearing he becomes somebody else in the process; (thus Twain's recurring theme of the impostor). These are the fascinating - tragic/comic aspects of Mark Twain's "Life and Career" which I am glad to now know more about. Yet there were several times during these 24 lectures I didn't think I'd make it to the next one. Perhaps my vague (idealistic) illusions of the bubble bursting writer were being popped themselves...and what I was left with was only so much more understandable (realistic) petty ambition (for wealth, acceptance and fame) and disillusion (with their attainment). Yet beyond this personal drama and disappointment, Twain was a remarkably effective tool in bringing a new approach to American writing, and a willingness to confront the establishment (and 19th century American cultural norms) head-on. But as entertaining as Twain was supposed to have been (his saving grace), Professor Railton is not. He is however an adequate lecturer, well informed and dedicated to his subject (and this is his saving grace), gradually preparing the listener to finally draw connections and conclusions between Twain and his characters . Overall, I'm somewhat ambivalent about this course, and although I resisted the urge to return it and eventually finished it, I doubt I'll listen to it again (unless I somehow find myself back in high school with a report to write....but then I'll pinch myself and awaken from that nostalgic dream). Meanwhile I'm looking for copies of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to read again...
Date published: 2010-06-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Definitely Could Order as an Audio Course If you're like me, you often wonder if you're missing out on anything "important" if you order one of the audio options instead of the DVD. In this case, the answer is no. Feel free to order as an audio as most of the "visuals" are quotations from the texts with a few pictures of Twain and some illustrationsfrom his books which could easily be seen if you read the books. I'm not criticizing the DVD--only letting people know that audio CD or download is a legitmate alternative for this course. The course is as it is described but I would like to point out that more texts than the what are named in the lecture titles are covered. I especially liked the fact that the instructor spent some time on Twain's unfinished works and other lesser known works that were published after Twain's death. I was a bit disappointed in the professor's delivery. He knows his stuff, but appeared to be a bit jittery and sometimes almost stammered when he spoke. He also had this habit of swaying back and forth, which wouldn't have been so bad except sometimes the camera followed him and I was just glad I wasn't prone to motion sickness (perhaps another reason to get the audio).
Date published: 2009-08-30
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