Getting to know Mark Twain: What are the best resources?
March 30, 2015 12:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on a project that involves Mark Twain and I have only a few weeks to get to know his body of work, literary style, philosophy, etc. What are they key works I should be looking at to get a sense of Twain?

Is it going to be worth it to re-read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Which other novels and stories are best representative of his literary style? Same question for his essays and other works.

Is there a key biography?

What are the essentials of Twain?
posted by hamsterdam to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If you haven't already, watch Ken Burns' documentary about Mark Twain. That will get you on track.
posted by Jode at 1:30 PM on March 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would probably read Huckleberry Finn and Puddin'head Wilson. If you want to get a feel for the later, more cynical Twain, read Letters from the Earth. It might not be a bad idea to at least flip through his final, unfinished novel, Number 44, the Mysterious Stranger, and especially read the ending, because it's totally bonkers.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:46 PM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I guess the key biography would be his autobiography, but I'd also recommend reading as many of his letters as you can... there are a couple of free Kindle volumes on Amazon.

As far as his books go, I'd say Life on the Mississippi is the one I'd read if I wanted to get a sense of who he was and where he came from.

Here's the complete works on Gutenburg if you want to go crazy. The letters are here, too. I think you could literally scroll through that page and stop anywhere and learn a lot, but a couple of favorites:

DISGRACEFUL PERSECUTION OF A BOY is satire about racism against Chinese workers.

FENNIMORE COOPER'S LITERARY OFFENCES is a great, acidic piece of criticism:

I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that Deerslayer is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that Deerslayer is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

That kills me.

Sorry if that's not helpful... he was so prolific and his voice is so strong that I don't think anything really stands out as more representative than anything else.
posted by Huck500 at 1:50 PM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain by Roy Morris, Jr
Mark Twain: Man in White - The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden
Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens by Jerome Loving
Mark Twain's Other Woman by Laura Skandera Trombley

And I think A Tramp Abroad is essential reading. Twain was a great friend of my husband's great-grandfather and was a pall-bearer at his funeral.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:24 PM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Mark Twain Papers and Project at the Bancroft Library.
posted by gyusan at 3:42 PM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding A Tramp Abroad. His travel writing is wonderful.
posted by irisclara at 12:54 AM on March 31, 2015

Quickly, the mysterious stranger is special because it is different and dark. His life parallels Victor hugos. Both famous in their own times. Both outlived their daughters. Both seemed to become very sad toward the end. comparing that end of life story to something written decades earlier is enlightening.
posted by jander03 at 8:03 AM on March 31, 2015

I was entertained and edified by Mark Twain: A Life, by Ron Powers.
posted by bryon at 2:47 AM on April 1, 2015

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