Jared Albaum July 30th, 2008
Professor King English 215
Today’s political satirists would not exist if it had not been for the genius and journalistic expertise of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Mark Twain, whose life spanned the critical Civil War period in America, combined journalism and humor in such a way that he was able to mock politicians, American institutions, and human nature.
Clemens was born in 1835 in Florida Missouri and he and his family moved to other small towns in the South. In 1848 Clemens drops out of fifth grade and finds a job at a newspaper owned by his brother Orion. After writing a few sketches for various magazines including the Saturday Evening Post, Clemens left Missouri to work as a printer in New York City.
His career as a journalist was sporadic. His personality seemed more compatible with political satire, a genre that enabled him to blend the news with humor. After a brief time as an apprentice river boat pilot on the Mississippi River, Clemens changed his name to Mark Twain, a term used by river boat captains to signify a depth of two fathoms.
It was at the end of the Civil War in 1865 that Mark Twain found his literary voice. That year he published a humorous short story entitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Many newspapers in the country ran the short story and Twain became an overnight sensation. This short story was significant in American writing because it was one of the first pieces of literature written in dialect.
The popularity of the “Celebrated Jumping Frog” allowed Twain to go on a lecture tour as a comedian. He took his comic approach in life to Europe and wrote a travel book called The Innocents Abroad in which he made fun of the ancient relics of the old world that are supposed to be so impressive to tourists. For example when traveling to the holy land, Twain humorously notes: “to reproduce a Jerusalem street, it would only be necessary to upend a chicken coop and hang it before each window in an ally of American houses.” When he visited Venice, he noted that “the gondolier is a picturesque rascal.”
Mark Twain’s most significant contribution to American literature and to political satire today occurred because of his brilliance as a novelist. Twain is the perfect example of a writer who evolved from journalism to fiction. His earlier novels such as Tom Sawyer, The Innocents Abroad and Ruffing It are mostly comical in nature and do not attack American institutions in a serious way.
Its not until the late 1800’s that Twain’s writing becomes darker and more serious in its criticisms of America. One of the reasons that his satire became sharper may be the personal tragedies that he experienced in his own life. In 1891 he faced bankruptcy, in 1896 his favorite daughter Susy dies, and in 1909, his other daughter Jean dies. In 1904, his wife Olivia dies when they are traveling in Italy. The culmination of these tragic events and Twain’s overall disillusionment with humanity served to produce some of his most successful texts and set the stage for future political satirists who would entertain America.
The key text in Mark Twain’s collection is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which some critics have claimed to be the most subversive text in American literature. Through humor, Twain uses his protagonist, Huckleberry Finn, to attack such respected institutions as education, religion, the family, and the justice system. Twain also had the audacity to pair Huck Finn, a poor white trash dropout with a runaway slave named Jim. By making these two “dregs of society” heroes in his text, Twain thumbed his nose are respectable middle class literature. The fact that he used a variety of dialects rather than standard proper English also annoyed the reading public. In an explanatory note at the beginning of the text, Twain humorously writes “In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremist form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary “Pike County”; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.” The adventures of Huckleberry Finn caused such a scandal in the American Public School System that it was banned in many high schools.
If it had not been for Mark Twain and his courage to dissect American culture, today’s political satirists would have had no one to guide them. Twain fearlessly pointed out the horrors of slavery, the hypocrisy of a twisted religion that allows people to worship together under the same roof and then to go out and kill each other. Political commentators like Jon Stewart and Chris Rock often tackle contemporary issues such as political corruption, torture, and greed through comedy. These same issues characterize American culture during Twain’s years. For example Andrew Carnegie once bragged to Mark Twain that America is a Christian nation. Twain looked at him and responded by saying “so is hell.”
Today’s comedians are quite as talented in pointing out the hypocrisies and follies of human nature. In his Letters From the Earth, Twain has Satan note that man is very strange: “Man has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights… sexual intercourse! It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water.”
Mark Twain has left such an impression on American culture that there is now a Mark Twain humor award given to the comedian who has contributed most to raising the political awareness through comedy. This years award is being given posthumously to George Carlin. One can only imagine the humorous conversations the two of them will have once they meet up in “heaven, or is it hell?”
“America’s Original Superstar.” Time Magazine 14 July 2008.