On this day in 1884, at the age of 49, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, published his new novel, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," a direct sequel to "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." "Huckleberry Finn" is regarded as one of the great American novels, along with other classics such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby," John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath" and Toni Morrison’s "Beloved."
“To me, ["Huckleberry Finn"] is one of the most profound pieces of literature ever written,” said Kathy Farretta, who teaches history at Coconino Community College.
Farretta also hosts the Brown Bag Lecture Series at Riordan Mansion State Historic Park, and in celebration of the prolific writer’s birthday, she is presenting Mark Twain in the American West, which examines how Twain’s experiences in the West shaped him as a writer.
The Far West
Before he was Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens was a steamboat pilot, a lowly on-again, off-again writer and printing apprentice. Having grown up on the banks of the Mississippi River, the steamboat pilot was the pinnacle of life, the top of society as far as a young Clemens could see, says Farretta.
With the Transcontinental Railroad yet to be constructed, travel in the U.S. was scarce, but, nevertheless, there was a push toward the West. And when his brother, Orion, was appointed secretary of the new territory of Nevada by President Abraham Lincoln, Clemens followed, taking an offer as assistant to the secretary.
A decade later, Twain would write Roughing It, featuring semi-autobiographical travel stories from his time in the American West, a place, to most Americans, still full of myth and mystery. In it he writes: “I never had been away from home, and that word ‘travel’ had a seductive charm for me. Pretty soon [Orion] would be hundreds and hundreds of miles away on the great plains and deserts, and among the mountains of the Far West, and would see buffaloes and Indians, and prairie dogs, and antelopes, and have all kinds of adventures, and maybe get hanged or scalped, and have ever such a fine time, and write home and tell us all about it, and be a hero.”
Clemens took hastily to Nevada with hopes and dreams of discovering a new world, as well as himself, and according to Farretta, this was crucial to his becoming a distinguished and lauded writer.
“I felt like that his time in the West really defined who he was,” Farretta said. “At that time in the U.S., there’s so much going on: There’s Indians being displaced. There’s slavery that we’ve got to figure out. We’re going to have this great big war. There’s this restlessness, this push.”
It was in the West where Clemens, though he would express unfavorable views toward Native Americans, experienced the plight of the Indians in Nevada and the cruelty to the Chinese in San Francisco. It was in the West where Clemens, tired of working under his brother, became a miner, and eventually began working as an editor for the Territorial Enterprise. It was in the West where Clemens, at the request of his friend Artemus Ward, would write his first successful short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
It was in the West where Clemens would become Mark Twain.
A Fish Looking at the Water
“When he was alive, [Twain] was a celebrity with immense popularity, and people loved him in a way that I almost can’t even give you an example today. I used to use Michael Jordan as the example, but I don’t think anyone remembers him anymore!” said Farretta.
While many might see Twain as a writer or a humorist, Farretta says, though he was those things, he was, above everything else, a storyteller. Specifically, Farretta hopes with her Brown Bag Lecture on Twain, to remind people of his oral storytelling, his lecture circuit and speaking engagements.
“He had grown up spending all his summers on his uncle’s farm and they had slaves there. And he was allowed to play with the kids and listen to their stories. So he grew up in this storytelling slave culture and learned how to tell a story, so he’s a really great storyteller and would give these great talks. He would polish them over and he would give them like he was making them up on the fly, but he was just a really great speaker.”
Twain, in a time when literature and writing felt like this sophisticated, bourgeois or high-class form or storytelling, connected with audiences for his use of vernacular, his every-day persona and his pointed, often rebellious social commentary. He was an abolitionist. He was anti-slavery, despite America’s feelings at large and even his own family’s history with slaves.
“He was a fish looking at the water he’s swimming in. He wrote about real things,” said Farretta. “I think that’s his gift; he tells stories that are real and meaningful, whether it’s a travel story where he’s throwing in stuff to make everybody laugh or it’s a piece of anti-imperialist literature where he’s ripping your heart out or it’s a story about boy floating down a river and deciding what it means to be human.”