Mark Twain: New Perspectives on America’s Quintessential Writer

November 26, 2012
Mark Twain was described by William Faulkner as the “father of American literature”, and his work continues to resonate with us more than 100 years later. Abby Goode’s Spring class, “The Literary Legacy of Mark Twain” explores the life and work of Mark Twain. We visited with her recently to find out more.
WIH Reporter: What is Mark Twain’s literary legacy?
Goode:  Mark Twain tends to be characterized as one of the quintessential granddaddies of American literature. In this class, we will explore his literary legacy, and determine what it is about Mark Twain and his work that continues to reverberate in contemporary culture. We’ll read and discuss a range of his works, from his regional writings, to his humorist sketches, to his historical romances, to his travel writings, from his most famous to his lesser-known, from his most serious to his most satirical. We’ll explore the complexity of his style, intellect, and wit, and talk about why figures like Huck Finn and stories like Connecticut Yankee are still relevant in national and public life.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1st Edition


WIH Reporter: Is it a fair question to ask, who was Mark Twain, really? His opinions, as expressed in his work, changed significantly over time.

Goode: Twain had changing and evolving views, whether it was on education, civil rights, labor, nationalism, and imperialism. Literary scholarship has recently taken up his essay “The German Chicago” and the newly-reprinted “The Treaty with China.” By the end of the course, we will evaluate whether the Mark Twain we’ve explored corresponds with the Mark Twain that exists in popular consciousness, or if there are multiple Mark Twains.

WIH Reporter: In what ways has Mark Twain influenced writers of modern literature?
Goode: There seems to be some scholarly debate around this subject, since it seems far from accurate, but the general belief is that Mark Twain really solidified the emergence of literary realism in the U.S. The first half of the century is generally characterized as “American Romanticism”, culminating in the half-decade of 1850-1855 called the “American Renaissance” (which, as some scholars have argued, saw the production of the best works by Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman). This is perhaps a generalization.

But Twain’s work deeply expanded the possibilities for American literature by introducing realist writing which interweaves romance, satire, and regionalism. His realist style is also characteristic of other writers producing work in the later half of the century such as William Dean Howells, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Rebecca Harding Davis. To speak extremely broadly, Mark Twain’s work marks a distinct shift in American literature from romantic to realist. But he was also constantly satirizing the literary style of others in his novels, or just plain making fun of them, as he did to James Fenimore Cooper, something we’ll talk about in class.

WIH Reporter: Will you be utilizing other media in this class?

Goode: The fun thing about this class is that we’ll be able to explore other media besides the written word. This is because Mark Twain’s literary legacy has extended beyond literature to other media and material cultures. We will watch film adaptations of Twain’s work, and, if there’s time, read some dramatic interpretations or even listen to some musical versions of his major works. Some of his works have even been animated or made into childrens’ shows! We’ll explore the promotion of this famous author’s house in Hartford, CT, and the many Mark Twain museums throughout the country. We can then ask: How is Mark Twain commemorated today and how does that memory connect with his living, breathing written work. How is he portrayed in the digital world?

WIH Reporter: What fueled your interest in Mark Twain?

Goode: As a literary critic in training, I’m always trying to “outsmart”, so to speak, these authors, but Twain always seems to outsmart me. He needs his own intensive study because he’s such a multi-faceted, hard-to-pin-down figure, even though he has become so iconic. I think in this class, we can try to master this crazy Twain character together. Or we may find that he is much more complex than we anticipated.

WIH Reporter: Which well-known writers were extremely influenced by Mark Twain?

Goode: Twain worked closely with William Dean Howells in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a writer who was also a champion of Henry James. The three figures were central to the production of literature in the late nineteenth century. Twain’s popularity soared because he was not only a compelling writer, but a gifted public speaker. Along with James and Howells, Twain set the course of American literature in the years after he came on the scene, probably influencing such other realist writers like naturalist novelist Stephen Crane, or regionalist short story writer Hamlin Garland. Modernist writers acknowledged his incredible impact on the literary landscape also. Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1935 that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called “Huckleberry Finn.” And William Faulkner referred to Twain as “the father of American literature.”

WIH Reporter: Are there parallels in Twain’s time to modern times? The wit and wisdom of his writing – how does in serve us in these times?

Goode: Most scholars of Twain see him as imperialist and nationalist in his early writing career, particularly during the production of Huckleberry Finn, and mark 1900 as the year that Twain began to critique American imperialism. Yet the recent printing of his “Treaty with China,” originally published in 1868, has complicated that reading of Twain’s politics. Twain was both nationalist and critical of his nation. And Twain’s political critique forms part of a larger conversation still going on today. His observations of racial and international tensions in particular continue to be relevant. We will talk about his views on religion, race, and imperialism in detail in the class, and explore how his words might impact our current world.

WIH Reporter: What books would we find on your night table?

Goode: I read so many things at once. Currently I am reading Willa Cather’s O Pioneers (1913), Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (1911), and excerpts of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). I have just recently finished Catharine Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827), which takes place in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. I tend to focus my energies on American literature and also literary criticism. Right now I’m reading Robert S. Levine’s Dislocating Race and Nation: Episodes in Nineteenth-Century American Literary Nationalism (2008) and Stephanie LeMenager’s Manifest and Other Destinies: Territorial Fictions of the Nineteenth-Century United States (2004).

Abby Goode earned her B.A. in English and Spanish from the University of Vermont, where she received the Samuel N. Bogorad Award from the Department of English and the Hannah Howard Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the College of Arts and Sciences.  She also completed an M.A. in Education from Pace University in New York, NY.  Before coming to Houston, Abby taught Spanish Language and Latin American Literature at the Urban Assembly School of Music and Art in Brooklyn, NY.  It was there that she spearheaded and developed the curriculum for an original college preparatory program for eleventh graders, led an instructional development team of eleventh-grade teachers at her school, and conducted teaching workshops for ATLAS Learning Communities and The Urban Assembly.  Currently, she is working towards her Ph.D. in English at Rice University, where she is studying a range of topics related to early American and 19th century American literature.

The Literary Legacy of Mark Twain” begins March 19, 2013.