Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain has been captivating the imaginations of readers since he first began publishing articles in his brother's newspaper in the early 1850s. Today, you can find books of literary criticism dedicated to his work in every major library in the country, many complete texts of which focus on single themes in his novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The bulk of Twain's work, however, offers many more research opportunities.
Twain's novels are rich for critical investigation because he tackled so many themes that were relevant to American culture during his time and many that are still relevant today. For instance, you could study morality in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and focus on how Huck views Mississippi Christians, who claim to uphold a high moral code while allowing prejudices and external appearances to govern their judgments. You could also explore themes of liberty and friendship and how situational context can affect the morality of these ideas. For example, Huck commits a crime by hiding Jim but is loyal to his friend and believes he is helping Jim achieve the liberty he rightly deserves.
Sensational Short Stories
Aside from writing novels, Twain wrote short stories prolifically. You can use these stories to investigate themes in the writing, or you can use them to explore the techniques he uses as a storyteller. For example, you could write about his use of narration and style and how these techniques affect humor in "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." In this story, Twain uses humor and sarcasm to introduce how he came upon the tale of the jumping frog, which sets the tone for the humor that follows. This introduction also serves as counterpoint for the language used by Simon Wheeler, whom Twain quotes afterward, and adds to the theatricality of Twain's storytelling.
Twain's writings extend far beyond his fiction, and you can use his essays and works of criticism as a subject for your research project. In "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," Twain dismantles the work of New York novelist James Fenimore Cooper with such biting sarcasm and humor that you can easily dismiss the seriousness of the piece and assume he is poking fun at an old friend. Twain, however, is actually attacking Cooper's work with reckless abandon. You can explore this technique in your essay and focus on how humor affects the integrity of Twain's argument: Does it enhance it or undermine it? You can also investigate how criticism is delivered when it is the artist who takes on the role of being the critic instead of an academic.
Letters of Loss
Mark Twain was also an avid letter writer, and -- fortunately -- many of these letters have been collected and preserved by organizations such as Project Gutenberg and The Mark Twain Project. Twain's letters offer precious insight into his personal struggles, which you can explore in a project. For instance, several of these correspondences address the decline of his wife's health -- and untimely death -- in 1902. You could compare the writing in these letters to those of his essays and fictional works, or you could trace the chronology of his life events through these letters and investigate how these events influenced his professional work at the time.
- Mark Twain: Biography
- Brigham Young University: Discerning Culture from Christianity in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; Michael Taylor
- Novelinks: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Concept Analysis; Baltich
- East of the Web: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County; Mark Twain
- University of Virginia Library: Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses; Mark Twain
- Project Gutenberg: Mark Twain's Letters 1901-1906
- Mark Twain Project: Home
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