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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Life and Work of Mark Twain is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 57.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mark Twain Unmasked Professor Railto gave me a whole new way of looking at one of my literary idols, Mark Twain. His in-depth look at many of Twain's writings unveiled a side of the genius I had not discovered myself. Thank you for this.
Date published: 2020-05-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A historical take on an aspect of literature. This course enables a student of history to pause from that "occupation" and take a foray into literature and english language, albeit from a historical perspective. What eases this transition is, of course, the subject matter, the author Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain. Even without having read all, or even most, of the author's celebrated works, one comes away from the course with a great deal of knowledge and an enhanced perspective.
Date published: 2020-04-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Looking elseware. Content there but wanted to pull it out a bit faster.
Date published: 2020-03-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Critical to understanding the man. I absolutely love this course and the reasons why I would became obvious from the minute I began. So much of what I knew of him rested solely on his written word. This course will will open your eyes just as it did my own.
Date published: 2019-10-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Twain Unmasked Professor Railton begins this process in his very first lecture as he begins to separate Mark Twain the construct, from Samuel Clemens the man. My wife’s favorite lecture was number 23, “Late Twain in Private”, where Dr. Railton discusses the late, unpublished (and largely unfinished) works of Mark Twain. Neither of us had read any of them, nor were we familiar with them as even existing. All along the course of the course, we are treated to Samuel Clemens as a person his transition to Mark Twain the writer and the biographies of both (strangely not exactly the same). But in this we are also presented with plenty of discussion about many of his well-known works such as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, later works like “Connecticut Yankee”; and some lesser (at least for me) known works and incidents. For example I was completely unaware of the Whittier After-Dinner Speech and consequent fallout. Further I loved that Professor Railton, as any good professor should, introduced me to look in new ways at works that I had read, and perhaps thought I know. How many ways for example could we consider Huck Finn or Connecticut Yankee? More than occurred to me, and at least some as a consequence of being introduced to some of Twain's statements later in life. As I took this course in audio, I was not distracted, as some reviewers were, by Professor Railton’s body mannerisms during his delivery. Further, although he had occasional glitches in his delivery, there was nothing that I thought untoward. I doubt that I would have gained anything from a video version. There were many occasions were I found little tidbits that I loved, but that were likely not that important. The description of the ‘cub’, riverboat pilot getting a lesson on trusting what he already knew was a gem, for example (as I had not read that work). Get this if you have any interest in Twain or late 19th century American life and times. It gave me new insights into this era, especially as to race, imperialism and capitalism. It confirmed others.
Date published: 2019-07-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great treatment of the master Twain I have always love Twain and grew up yearning to live the Tom Sawyer Huck Finn life. It was fascinating to learn of Twains life and adventures. His heart and soul and his own adventures. The lecturer could have left out his thoughts on how slavery marked Twains work, and influenced the stories. We will never know Sam Clemens thoughts on the slave issue or the civil war. But he do have his wonderful look at the world around him
Date published: 2018-12-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from a very good course Well , I'm only through the third lecture but it's very informative .
Date published: 2018-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable learning I enjoyed the "rolling story" lectures. It made learning fun!
Date published: 2018-09-21
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