American Voices: Mark Twain

The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Mark Twain


Photo of Mark Twain. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Mark Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. The town supplied the setting for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The prolific Twain wrote in a dazzling array of formats: journalism, travel writing, short stories, novels, essays, speeches, lectures, and even a play and a children’s book.

A true original, Twain was among the first writers to use colloquial language, or everyday speech. He was a skilled humorist but also addressed serious subjects like slavery, which he viewed as an abomination. Indeed, as he matured, Twain’s writing took on an increasingly critical view of his fellow Americans. At the same time, he was a beloved national and international celebrity.

Samuel Clemens, a former steamboat pilot, derived his pen name, “Mark Twain,” from a nautical term used by sailors on the Mississippi River. “Mark twain” is short for “mark number two” or two fathoms (12 feet): the safe depth for a steamboat. The use of this name forever links the author with his early life on the Mississippi River.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn transformed American prose style; it served as a declaration of independence from the genteel English novel tradition. Huckleberry Finn utilized a clean, crisp, no-nonsense, earthy, vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented energy and immediacy; it was a book that talked. Huck’s voice combined with Twain’s satiric genius changed the shape of fiction in America.”
—Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities and Professor of English, Stanford University

Select Works by Mark Twain

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