Essay, Research Paper: Mark Twain As Philosopher

Literature: Mark Twain

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Mark Twain is, according to critics and readers alike, the first great American
novelist (Reuben). Throughout his lifetime Twain, born Samuel Longhorn Clemens,
held an eclectic mix of jobs, and, wrote a great deal about his experiences and
his boyhood. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (AOTS) and Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn (AOHF) are a pair of novels by Twain that: present the new and radical
changes in the early 1800s in contrast to the old fashioned ways; mirror Twain's
life as a young boy growing up in a one-horse town on the Mississippi River;
and, give the reader an idea of his view that the loss of innocence signals the
coming of age. Twain was born in 1835 and Tom Sawyer grew up in the 1840s.
Around this time, America, especially the North, was undergoing
"revolutionary changes in transportation and communication" (Geise
93). The river steam boat was invented in 1807 (Roberts and Kennedy 305) and
subsequently took over mass transportation from sailboats using the ocean (Geise).
This was a big change from the previous small scale or trans-ocean transport.
After the steam boat came the steam train which revolutionised transportation in
a similar fashion, and they synergistically opened the West to all people and
boosted trade and commerce enormously--not just of the big industrial towns but
of the en-route towns and the farms, In 1849, agriculture accounted for over
half of the nation's economy, whereas today it is one-fiftieth (Roberts and
Kennedy A27). Canals, turnpikes and clipper ships also greatly affected
transport and communication between distant places (311). The times were
revolutionary in that the old ways of taking dirty, bumpy roads long distances
with little profit were over. Another sign of the times was slavery. Racism was
widespread during this time period because many large farms and plantations held
slaves. Feelings towards slaves in Missouri were not generally sympathetic, and
abolitionists were not well accepted because the economy would collapse without
the slave based agriculture. Rudyard Kipling wrote at the end of that century
"The White Man's Burden," (643) that was taken to mean that blacks
must accept their position as underlings. While a false interpretation, it shows
that many Confederates and sympathisers held the view that blacks and slaves
deserved to be oppressed even after the Civil War (1861-1864). TAOTS accurately
reflects the small town economy. The river trade is the centre of all commerce
and without it, town life would end. In Chapter Two of TAOTS, Ben Rogers, a
local boy, pretends to be a steamboat. This exemplifies how important the boats
were to the town. Everything in the town--the mill, the taverns--they all
depended on the trade from the river. The town, consisting of a church, a
school, a general store, taverns a mill and a docking area for the boats also
reflect how important the river really was. The minister's fire and brimstone
sermons (35) preach against the evils of drink, gambling and lust, all of which
would have been demonstrated by the passing river sailors and conmen. In the
AOHF, the town life is not so much the focus of description as river life. But
it is the description of the treatment of slaves that truly stands out. Huck was
poor, but still he was socially above Jim because he was white and not owned.
TAOHF was set a few decades before the civil war so when Huck and Jim escaped
down the Mississippi and headed south, they were putting Jim in more peril. When
they took on board the King and the Duke these other travelers wanted to turn
Jim in. Many non-slave states actually had laws that allowed for the returning
of runaway slaves (Geise 109). Both TAOTS and AOHF are accurate in their
description of the situation (slave-wise and town-wise) at that time. Mark
Twain's views about childhood and the subsequent loss of innocence are a product
of childhood experience growing up in Hannibal, Missouri (pop 500), a small town
on the Mississippi River. As a young boy, he enjoyed skipping school to go
fishing on the nearby island; playing with the off-limits Tom Blackenship
(Draper 3713), the son of the town drunk; or spending time with his sweetheart
Laura Hawkins (Thayer 5). Twain once had a harrowing experience as a child when
he got lost in a local cave with Laura. Living in the small river town, whose
only commerce was from the steamboat trade, he witnessed at least four murders (Sanderlin).
When he was eleven, his father died (Meltzer 75). He quit school in fifth grade
(twelve years old), just as most children did at that time (Kaplan 356). He then
became an apprentice in a printing shop, where he began to write down stories
his overactive imagination created. Twain had an ideal life in Hannibal. Even
though he was poor (Roberts 5), he went to school and Sunday School where he got
some education and made many friends, and much mischief. He and his friends had
exiting experiences together, some of which jolted him out of his innocence.
Once Twain and his friends were playing in the creek and a clumsy German boy,
who makes an appearance in TAOTS, dived into the creek and drowned. The boy had
memorised 3000 verses of the Bible for Sunday school, so Twain had a hard time
figuring out how God could be that cruel. Or, for that matter, how people could
be cruel. He once saw a master brutally murder his slave: not a rare occurrence
in Missouri, a slave state. As a result, Twain underwent ups and downs in his
mood as a child had bad dreams and sleep-walked (Sanderlin 13). All, or most, of
the experiences and feelings Twain had growing up in Hannibal are mirrored in
Tom Sawyer's story. In fact, at the beginning of the novel, Twain tells the
reader that Tom's adventures were the same as the ones he and his friends had,
albeit exaggerated. Tom grew up in a small river town in the 1840s, just like
Twain. It was essentially Hannibal, renamed St. Petersburg, Missouri. St.
Petersburg had the same characters as Hannibal. There was the town drunk, Mr.
Finn; his son Huckleberry; a loving and generous mother figure (Aunt Polly,
based on Mrs. Clemens) taking care of a brat (Sid in the novel, brother Henry in
life) and a responsible girl (Mary in the novel, sister Pamela in Twain's life).
Injun Joe was a miscreant in Hannibal, Becky Thatcher is the Laura mentioned
before, and Judge Thatcher is similar to Twain's father, an unemotional lawyer.
Becky and Tom once got lost in a cave just as Twain and Laura did. Tom once
witnessed a murder and experienced conflicts of emotions and had bad dreams
until he gave into his conscience and told the true murder story, letting an
innocent man go free (Twain 147). Twain wrote a better closing for Tom than he
ever had in real life, because in real life murder was a part of everyday life.
Huck's life is also similar to Twain's, but not in such a direct way. Twain, and
many of his main characters (Paul 1175), including Tom, are fatherless. Huck,
and assumedly his real-life counterpart's father is a "filthy,"
abusive drunk and is often absent (Twain 17, 27). Huck is a dirt-poor boy who is
practical for the sake of survival. Huck sees things in such a straightforward
manner--as opposed to the soft-focus way of both Twain as a child and Tom-- that
the coming of age is very abrupt. Huck also grew up on the river, but, unlike
Tom and Twain, he was so poor that he could not live in a house, or have the
motivation to go to school or Sunday School. One of Tom's dreams was to live a
carefree, rule-free life on the Mississippi River, and he attempts that when he
escapes to the island. Twain wanted a life on the river, and eventually became a
steam-boat pilot (Sanderlin 25). But Huck, on the other hand, actually lived the
river life as a boy. His oppressive father abducted him (31), so he ran away and
floated down the lazy Mississippi with Jim (the slave of Miss Watson), who was
escaping the most oppressive level of society. For a time, Huck and Jim lived a
carefree life. This is the true realisation of Twain's boyhood dream. Because
Jim was a runaway slave, Huck himself actually considered turning Jim over to
the authorities. In a grand moment of "crisis of conscience" (Derwin
6), Huck finally decides to do what is wrong and not turn Jim in. This is
evidence of his practical mind leading to a heart-warming conclusion. But Tom is
such a romantic that he instigates an elaborate plot to liberate Jim, even
though he knows the truth that Miss Watson died and Jim was made free. This
demonstrates Tom's lack of conscience over the conscience that is blatant in
Huck. Twain wrote Huck's character to be the boy he should have been morally,
and wrote Tom to be the boy he was. TAOTS lets the reader into the mind of
Twain. When a boy witnesses evil and loses his innocence, he becomes an adult.
Tom witnesses the murder in the graveyard and becomes very sad until he tells
the truth. This period of melancholy is a transition for Tom. He can no longer
see the world as his playground, he now has to see the shadows, the 'bad' people
of society, along with what is good. He told the truth about the gold and the
haunted house, even though he did not want to. Tom ran away to Jackson Island to
escape society that was oppressing him by not letting him have fun. It was on
the island that he learned independence was not all it 'cracked up to be.' Twain
had to act like an adult at that age, so here he was saying that boys have to
behave like boys before they can become men. When Tom was lost in the cave in
Chapter Thirty he was forced to become the adult because Becky was behaving like
a child. He had already been exposed to reality so he was prepared to take the
responsibility of comforting her and not letting her worry. In Chapter Sixteen
Tom and Joe were not ready to smoke, but Huck was ready to experience some part
of adult life. Huck had always taken care of himself. When he was abducted by
his father he was realistic about his situation and practical in his plan of
escape. Philosophically, Twain wants to show the reader that the boys' loss of
innocence is how they became mature adults rather than remain impractical or
conscienceless boys as they had been before. Adulthood could be a culmination of
events ending in a review that brings one to change their outlook. But Twain's
life was more dramatic. His father died and he was thrust into the 'real world,'
his school of life without much warning. Tom saw the murder and came to an
eventual conclusion: that men can be cruel and so can God, but what one does
personally is what is important. Huck came to this same conclusion more
smoothly. He had always seen society as bad for him. The social mores of
education and religion never did much for him, and social institutions like
class structure and manners were even worse. He accepts having to behave
civilised, but thinks his own way, for example that slavery is not fair. Mark
Twain began writing AOHF before TAOTS, but had to put it aside. When he started
up again he wrote TAOTS for money but kept TAOHF in it's pure form. TAOHF is his
commentary on: society--that it does no good; on religion--that only fools
believe in it; and on men--that they do evil but can do good. But essentially
the novels are simple local-colour stories of boyhood and the journey to manhood
in a romantic, and alternatively, in a realist.
Bailey, Thomas A; and Kennedy, David M. The American Pageant: A History of
the Republic. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1991. Derwin, Susan.
"Impossible Commands: Reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
1990-1995. [13 pages, *637 lines]. Nineteenth Cetury Literature: Electronic
Edition (ncl- e) [OL version of NCLC, available @: http://sunsite.]. Availiable: http//sunsite. articles/derwin.art474.html Kaplan, J. Mr.
Clemens And Mark Twain. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1966. Malik, Thomas A.
"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Masterplots II: Juvenile and
Young Adult Fiction Series, Volume I. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Pasadena, CA: Salem
Press 1991. Meltzer, M. Mark Twain: A Writers Life. New York: Franklin Wates,
1995. Paul, Kathleen. "The Prince and The Pauper." Masterplots II:
Juvenile and Young Adult Fiction Series, Volume III. Ed. Frank N. Magill.
Pasadena, CA: Salem Press 1. Reuben, Paul P. Date unknowm, sporadically
updated.. Mark Twain 1835-1910 [207 lines]. From PAL: Perspectives in American
Literature. Availiable: http://www.
Roberts, Ph.D., James L. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, notes. Lincoln, NE:
Cliffs Notes, Inc., 1971. Sanderlin, G. (1978). Mark Twain: As Others Saw Him.
New York: Coward, McCann & Geohegan, Inc. Siekenwicz, Thomas J. "the
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Masterplots II: Juvenile and Young Fiction
Series, Vol. I. Ed. F.N. Magill. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1991. Study Keys:
American History to 1877. Ed. Robert T. Geise. Hauppage, NY: 1992. Thayer,
Marion P. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, notes. Lincoln, NE: Cliffs Notes, Inc.,
1996. Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York, NY: Penguin Group,
year unknown. ---. Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
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