Mark Twain: The Man of the Mighty Mississippi
The stock advise for aspiring writers is to “Write what you know,” and Mark Twain did just that. He was born, with the given name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835 in the town of Florida Missouri, but was raised in the town of Hannibal situated right on the iconic Mississippi river. And so being intimately acquainted with this beloved waterway, he used this river and his hometown as the setting for two of his most loved novels; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the sequel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it was this idyllic setting that Twain used to write his adventure stories and dealt with such serious topics as slavery, the value of freedom and human worth.
In fact, the primary plot of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn involves quest of two individuals to find freedom by escaping from their circumstances by way of the Mississippi river. Jim is an escaped slave, who is headed for the free state of Illinois and Huck is the wild-child who is running away from a tyrannical drunken father and the social norms of society which don’t make sense to him and being imposed on him by his very religious guardian, the widow Douglas. Thus, the wild and woolly river itself symbolizes freedom for the both of them as they both flee from their “owners.” This book is also a kind of coming of age story for Huck as he comes to the realization that the norms and common beliefs of his elders really are often unjust, unfair, and just plain wrong when he utters what are probably some of the most important words in American literature, “All right, then. I’ll go to hell,” regarding the common belief in his hometown that those helping an escaped slave will suffer eternal damnation. This statement is in fact the climax of the book and the moment when Huck truly becomes free in his own mind and finds the courage to become his own independently thinking man.
Mark Twain, himself, was also an independently thinking man and a truly colorful, larger than life, public figure who mastered many trades in his lifetime. He was a printer, a journalist, a steamboat pilot, a witty humorist and public speaker, as well as the author of 20 novels. And in his books about the American South, he was also a master of writing in local dialect of the town, thereby making his characters come alive through their unique colloquial speech.
“Pap” Finn, for example, was the course drunken father of Huck who did not believe in education, and his profound ignorance becomes apparent when he blasts his son for learning to read,
Don’t you give me none o’ your lip….You’ve put on considerable frills since I been away. I’ll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You’re educated they say-can read and write,…I’ll take it out of you. Who told you you might meddle with such hifalut’n foolishness, hey?—who told you you could?
Pap Finn goes on to blast the “govment” for giving black people the right to vote in free states in a later part of the book.
Now while Twain denigrates Huck’s abusive father, he elevates Jim, the escaped slave, with dialogue when Jim speaks about the realization of his true worth as a person when he says;
I’s rich now, come to look at it. I owns myself, en I’s wuth eight hund’;d dollars. I wish I had de money, I wouldn’ want no mo’ .
Twain was one of America’s greatest and most endearing writers of all time and more than succeeded in writing “The Great American Novel”, and was adept at capturing both the entertainment value of adventure in a book and also highlighting the important issues of his day. He was truly larger than life and a real versatile literary genius with a whole range of talent.
He died on April 21, 1910 of a heart attack.