American Literature: Mark Twain and Realism
American Literature: Mark Twain and Realism
During the literary time period of Realism, many authors exemplified the characteristics of Realism; however, Mark Twain outstood all the rest. Twain is a great example of the Realist time period for literature. The Realist time period took place from 1850 until the turn of the century and he played a major role in the start of modern literature. Mark Twain really embraces the styles and conventions that the Realistic time period focused on. Realism is “the faithful representation of reality” (Campbell). Realism seemed like real life in the 1800s.
Through the late 1800s, Realism emerged as the literary movement to focus on. Realism was the movement that bridged the Romantic time period to the Modern time period. As Realism emerged, it was defined as any work of fiction published in the late 1850s (Campbell). Through the course of this time period, Realism became very popular through different events in history. The major event that took place was the Civil War, 1861-1865. During the war, many soldiers had experienced down time when battles were not being fought. Reading would be a way to pass time in-between battles and this pushed the issue for more books to be published. Although Mark Twain didn’t publish his two most famous novels until 1876, other authors provided the soldiers with good Realist literature (Arpin 411). “Realism lasted from the Civil War until the turn of the century when Mark Twain wrote fiction devoted to accurate representation of American lives” (Campbell). The Civil War was the major impact on the beginning of Realism and the end of Romanticism. After the Civil War, “an increase in literacy rates, the growth of industrialization and urbanization, and a rise in the middle class provided a fertile environment for readers” (Campbell). These actions helped define Realism to what it is seen as today.
The best way to depict Realism is by analyzing the authors’ ability to narrate their respective novels. Many realist authors wrote using an unbiased perspective of life by only stating the facts and not delving into the characters’ heads no matter what part of society they were from (Galens 246). These authors used the style of an objective narration, which is a major characteristic of Realism, to satisfy all aspects of life. Through the way of life in societies, Realism was defined to be incorporating the customs of the area in the work. “Not only did Realism impact literature, it impacted religion, philosophy, and psychology” (Galens 258). This movement hit home on every form of life and shifted the way people saw life in the late 1800s.
Now, focusing on philosophy and religion, these factors were very apparent in Realist novels. “Many authors put forth their effort to bring in philosophical and religious debates to accompany their descriptions on the physical details in novels” (Galens 253). The use of these debates helps authors to focus on more than one theme throughout the course of a novel. Twain, in particular, liked to focus on freedom and independence combined with slavery as an influence in his novels (Hill 64). Some examples of these themes are found in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Going back to all Realist writers, in general, they “wanted to use all levels of society in their novels by addressing socioeconomic class conflict” (Galens 251). The idea of incorporating both the rich and the poor in books became a good idea in the minds of Realist novelists. Realism became known to involve these themes in literature.
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The use of setting, characterization, and the narrative voice helped define realist authors by using these styles to excellence (Galens 253). The narrative voice is a key in Realist writing and it is a main style of Realism. “Many writers wanted to focus of the objective reality by using a ‘storyteller,’ who is not involved in the story, instead of a character to tell the story” (Galens 253). As a result, most Realist novels are written in the third-person objective point of view. Another style of Realism is the characterization by the authors. Many authors were known for their wide range of characters, from both ends of society, as well as, going into deep psychological detail with certain characters (Galens 253-4). This characterization helps the reader to dig deeper into characters to learn how each one develops in their respective novels. The authors of Realism based their stories in both the city and the country. Authors looked to portray the working conditions, as well as, to involve historical events during the time at which he or she wrote (Galens 253). Twain showed this by writing about slavery during the Civil War.
Realism expanded throughout the nineteenth century as many different variations came about to the authors. Regionalism, local color, and Naturalism were all based on Realism. “In the United States, Regionalism and local color fiction, in particular, were American offshoots of Realism. Realism also exerted a profound influence on drama and theatrical productions” (Galens 246-7). Regionalism focused on geography by using the native speech of the one’s that live in the area (Arpin 419). Regionalism was used by Twain to help dive deeper into a particular culture and certain area of the United States. Through these two versions of Realism, authors were able to expand their focuses on Realism to include more detail. “Local color fiction… focused on the local customs, traditions, dialects, and folklore of small town and rural America” (Galens 255). Local color and Regionalism liked to focus on a specific area, or culture, and their way of life.
Mark Twain is an exemplary figure in the Realistic time period. However, most people don’t know that “Mark Twain” is the writing name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The major dates in Clemens’ life were his birth, marriage, and death. He was born on November 30th, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. Twain was born to John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens, which means he took his mother’s name. He was married Olivia Langdon in February of 1870. Clemens’ demise occurred on April 21st, 1910, in Redding, Connecticut (Hill 65). Throughout Clemens’ life, one would suspect him to have received numerous awards; however, the only award he ever received was for being the faster typesetter in Missouri. As a teenager, Clemens worked at several jobs as an apprentice and typesetter (Hill 68.) This work was mainly for his brother Orion, until Twain decided to leave the family business. In the following years, Clemens traveled America and became a licensed pilot (Hill 69). However, the Civil War started and Clemens had to give up his profession. “On 2 February, 1863, he employed the pseudonym Mark Twain for the first time on one of his contributions to a Virginia newspaper” (Hill 69). This is when he Clemens, the pilot and the typesetter, became Twain, the exemplary author.
Twain exemplified the characteristics of the Realist time period. “Mark Twain is the best-known example of a regional writer whose realism far surpassed local bounds” (Arpin 420). He has been described to be one of the best writers of not only this time period, but of all time. His novels are outstanding and well-known around the world. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most popular novels ever written, however, there is much controversy over Twain’s “masterpiece,” such as its racism (Gerber 95). Even through this controversy, people still want to read this wonderful book. Some major influences in Twain’s writing were, obviously, The Civil War, along with the Era of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age (Hill 64). He was influenced mostly by the war and the issue of slavery. He lived during the time of slavery and was present to witness, first-hand, what slaves went through in the South. Twain’s masterpiece, as previously noted, is a book that deserved to be focused on. It is written excellently and has many of the characteristics that a Realistic novel needs to have. Two of his short stories, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “A Visit to Niagara,” were also observed for the characteristics of the Realistic time period. These were the most well-known short stories by Mark Twain.
Mark Twain was an expert in using Realistic characteristics in his works of literature. There are two of many characteristics that make a novel belong in the Realistic time period. One is that the “diction is natural vernacular, and the tone may be comic or satiric” (Campbell). Basically, the author uses the native language of the region where the book is based to provide a Regionalist effect. The second characteristic is the way the authors depict ordinary people in their everyday lives. The last, but not least, characteristic is that “the events are plausible” in Realistic literature (Campbell). These three characteristics helped to define what we know as the Realistic time period.
Twain orchestrated his writing in such a way that his diction emphasized a certain region, especially in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book is based in the South and the way the characters talk sounds just like they have accents from the South. “I hain’t got no money, I tell you” (Twain 20). Reading this makes a person think that they are in the South in the late 1800s. Other quotes, such as, “I wisht old Boggs’d threaten me, ‘cuz then I’d know I warn’t gwyne to die for a thousan’ year,” (Twain 134) and “Doan’ you ‘member de house dat was float’n down de river, en dey wuz a man in dah, kivered up…” (Twain 278), exemplify that this novel takes place in the far south of America during the Civil War. The diction that Twain uses resembles the area to where the setting of this particular book is. As a result, this vernacular helps the reader to understand the book to a bigger extent by understanding how people in that region talk and live.
Twain showed his views of ordinary people living their everyday lives in his works. In “A Visit to Niagara,” the first couple of lines are typical things a visitor would say in a trip to Niagara Falls. “The hotels are excellent, and the prices not at all exorbitant” (Twain 19). This could be the thoughts of everyday people making a trip to the border. Also, the word “exorbitant,” shows possible diction of the language used in that particular region of America. “I found Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the barroom stove of the dilapidated tavern in the decayed mining camp” (Twain 11). This shows the life of Californians, which is where the story takes place in “A Celebrated…” Many men traveled westward in search of mining for gold and other valuables. Realist writing showed people what happened on a regular basis during the second half of the 19th century. Huck Finn “hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens” (Twain 111). This shows what people eat on a daily basis in the South and how their culture can be different from other regions.
“Realistic novels avoid the sensational, dramatic events of naturalistic novels and romances” (Campbell). Twain used many events from his life to form the novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Hill 69). In these novels, Twain mirrored the character of Tom Sawyer after himself. He also portrayed Huck to be a combination of his childhood friends. These stories were based on Clemens’ childhood. He wanted to reflect on his past adventures and tough times. “When they told me there was a state in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote ag’in” (Twain 26). At this time in the South, slavery was still legal and this quote is referring to a black man in Ohio who is wearing nicer clothing than the whites. As Huck progresses through the novel, he discovers a runaway slave, Jim. This puts Huck in a tough predicament because he is a white boy dealing with a slave. “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn't do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way” (Twain 82). Huck overcomes what he was brought up to think about blacks. He leaves his mind open to all the possibilities. Since Huck is based on Twain’s childhood friends, I come to believe that these events happened to at least one of his friends. Huck comes to meet a family and realizes that “each person had their own nigger to wait on them” (Twain 101). This resembles what slavery was like prior to the Civil War. Slaves were abundant and often outnumbered the family members that owned them. These plausible events show how Twain was able to relate his life through some not so fictional characters.
Mark Twain was the most exemplary author of the Realistic time period. His works of literature, both novels and short stories, displayed many characteristics that occurred in the era of Realism. His plausible events, diction, and depiction of everyday life were some of the main proponents of his writing. Twain never won any awards for his works, but he was deprived because his literature was outstanding. He did have an award named after him, however. The Mark Twain Prize is presented at the annual Kennedy Awards in honor of his humorist writing. Twain exemplifies Realism and shows how to use these characteristic perfectly.
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