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Mark Twain
Pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens
(1835-1910)

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Realist literature is defined particularly as the fiction produced in Europe and the United States from about 1840 until the 1890s, when realism was superseded by naturalism. This form of realism began in France in the novels of Gustave Flaubert and the short stories of Guy de Maupassant. In Russia, realism was represented in the plays and short stories of Anton Chekhov. The novelist George Eliot introduced realism into English fiction; as she declared in Adam Bede (1859), her purpose was to give a "faithful representation of commonplace things".  Mark Twain's best work is characterized by broad, often irreverent humor or biting social satire. Twain's writing is also known for realism of place and language, memorable characters, and hatred of hypocrisy and oppression. 

Mark Twain and William Dean Howells were the pioneers of realism in the United States. Born in Florida, Missouri, Clemens moved with his family to Hannibal, Missouri, a port on the Mississippi River, when he was four years old. There he received a public school education. After the death of his father in 1847, Clemens was apprenticed to two Hannibal printers, and in 1851 he began setting type for and contributing sketches to his brother Orion's Hannibal Journal. Subsequently he worked as a printer in Keokuk, Iowa; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and other cities. 
 

USA 1940. Realism/Naturalism. Literature. Mark Twain. Commercially used first day cover.

USA 1940. Realism/Naturalism. Literature. Mark Twain. Definitive stamp.

Later Clemens was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until the American Civil War (1861-1865) brought an end to travel on the river. In 1861 Clemens served briefly as a volunteer soldier in the Confederate cavalry. Later that year he accompanied his brother to the newly created Nevada Territory, where he tried his hand at silver mining. 

In 1862 he became a reporter on the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, and in 1863 he began signing his articles with the pseudonym Mark Twain, a Mississippi River phrase meaning “two fathoms deep.” After moving to San Francisco, California, in 1864, Twain met American writers Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, who encouraged him in his work. In 1865 Twain reworked a tale he had heard in the California gold fields, and within months the author and the story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” had become national sensations. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the sequel to Tom Sawyer, is considered Twain's masterpiece. 

The book is the story of the title character, known as Huck, a boy who flees his father by rafting down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave, Jim. The pair's adventures show Huck (and the reader) the cruelty of which men and women are capable. 

  • Germany 2001. Illustration to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. 

  • USA 1972. Illustration by Norman Rockwell to Tom Sawyer.  

Germany 2001. Realism/Naturalism. Literature. Mark Twain. Illustration to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. USA 1972. Realism/Naturalism. Literature. Makk Twain. Illustration by Norman Rockwell to Tom Sawyer

Another theme of the novel is the conflict between Huck's feelings of friendship with Jim, who is one of the few people he can trust, and his knowledge that he is breaking the laws of the time by helping Jim escape. Huckleberry Finn, which is almost entirely narrated from Huck's point of view, is noted for its authentic language and for its deep commitment to freedom. Huck's adventures also provide the reader with a panorama of American life along the Mississippi before the Civil War. Twain's skill in capturing the rhythms of that life help make the book one of the masterpieces of American literature. 

Maldives 1985. Realism/Naturalism. Literature. Mark Twain. Stamp #1 in a set illustrating Mark Twain's Novels. Maldives 1985. Realism/Naturalism. Literature. Mark Twain. Stamp #2 in a set illustrating Mark Twain's Novels. Maldives 1985. Realism/Naturalism. Literature. Mark Twain. Stamp #3 in a set illustrating Mark Twain's Novels. Maldives 1985. Realism/Naturalism. Literature. Mark Twain. Stamp #4 in a set illustrating Mark Twain's Novels.

In 1884 Twain formed the firm Charles L. Webster and Company to publish his and other writers' works, notably Personal Memoirs (two volumes, 1885-1886) by American general and president Ulysses S. Grant. A disastrous investment in an automatic typesetting machine led to the firm's bankruptcy in 1894. A successful worldwide lecture tour and the book based on those travels, Following the Equator (1897), paid off Twain's debts. 

Twain's work during the 1890s and the 1900s is marked by growing pessimism and bitterness -- the result of his business reverses and, later, the deaths of his wife and two daughters. 

Significant works of this period are Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), a novel set in the South before the Civil War that criticizes racism by focusing on mistaken racial identities, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), a sentimental biography. 

  • USSR 1960. Commemorative issue for the 50th anniversary of Twain's death. 

USSR 1960. Realism/Naturalism. Literature. Mark Twain. Commemorative issue for the 50th anniversary of Twain's death.

Twain's other later writings include short stories, the best known of which are “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899) and “The War Prayer” (1905); philosophical, social, and political essays; the manuscript of “The Mysterious Stranger,” an uncompleted piece that was published posthumously in 1916; and autobiographical dictations.

Grenada 1985. Realism/Naturalism. Literature. Mark Twain. Souvenir sheet with Disney characters, depicting The Prince and the Pauper.

Twain's work was inspired by the unconventional West, and the popularity of his work marked the end of the domination of American Literature by New England writers. 

He is justly renowned as a humorist but was not always appreciated by the writers of his time as anything more than that. Successive generations of writers, however, recognized the role that Twain played in creating a truly American literature. 

He portrayed uniquely American subjects in a humorous and colloquial, yet poetic, language. His success in creating this plain but evocative language precipitated the end of American reverence for British and European culture and for the more formal language associated with those traditions. 

His adherence to American themes, settings, and language set him apart from many other novelists of the day and had a powerful effect on such later American writers as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, both of whom pointed to Twain as an inspiration for their own writing.

In Twain's later years he wrote less, but he became a celebrity, frequently speaking out on public issues. He also came to be known for the white linen suit he always wore when making public appearances. Twain received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1907. When he died he left an uncompleted autobiography, which was eventually edited by his secretary, Albert Bigelow Paine, and published in 1924. In 1990 the first half of a handwritten manuscript of Huckleberry Finn was discovered in Hollywood, California. After a series of legal battles over ownership, the portion, which included previously unpublished material, was reunited with its second half, which had been housed at the Buffalo and Erie County (New York) Public Library, in 1992. A revised edition of Huckleberry Finn including the unpublished material was released in 1996. 

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