People know about Mark Twain mainly as the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and later on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - these are the books which are promoted academics, the champions of inoffensive literature. To my mind the most significant American writer is Mark Twain. He became a writer during the great American Revolution.
He grew up during slavery, a friend of General Grant and became the most eloquent champion of racial equality, a scourge of hypocrisy, religion and greed. As he wrote in his autobiography “I know best myself and I assume that other people are like me and I draw all my characters good and bad from myself”. It was a tough call.
At the time Americans were more hypocritical than the English. Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women), was outraged even by Huckleberry Fin “It’s a pity that Mr Clements cannot have anything better to say to our innocent youngsters”. Hemingway wrote that all of American literature grew out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but in fact the novels first appeared in Canada and England before they saw the light day in America.MT is of universal significance because his work embodies the transition from a religious age to the post religious age. You haven’t lived until you read Letters from the Earth and A Mysterious Stranger. After god created the world the archangels of course praised it, but Satan, one of the archangels wasn’t impressed. “The spider kills the fly, the bird kills the spider, it is just kill kill kill”. God was offended and banished Satan to the earth where he wrote back to his fellow Archangels about the strange beliefs of people on earth. It reads like a prosecutor's speech, listing God’s crimes against humanity. It is about a century later that the film The Life of Brian caused outrage although it is milder than The Letters from The Earth, so you can imagine what a hard time MT had when he wrote the books. As Bernard Shaw wrote to him “If people understood what you are really saying they would kill you”.
“In God we trust is a wonderful phrase and it would not sound any better if were true”, he said to Andrew Carnegie.
He wrote to a friend "The difference the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning”.
His specifically American in that his work embodies the idea that all men are created equal and also the many ways that American reality failed to live up to this idea.
He dedicated his first masterpiece The Prince and the Pauper to “Those good mannered and agreeable children, Susie and Clara Clemence, this book is affectionately inscribed by their father”.Mark Twain is known to most people as a humourist. His work can be best summarised by Stendhal’s definition of great literature. “It conveys generous sentiments which inspires people to revolt”. If you have youngsters, this is the book to give them during the lockdown from the coronavirus, they will be readers forever.
The story is about a prince Edward the son of Henry VII and a slum kid who look alike and cannot be distinguished from each other, both experience the world in the eyes of both the Prince and the slum kid at a time, when they burnt witches and boiled people in oil and hanged those who thought differently. If you read the book you certainly glad that you weren’t around at the time. As always Mark Twain can give at least a double vision of everything he describes. Horror, cruelty and viciousness is relieved by feeling of goodness, trust and peace which melts your chest. The emotional sway of the book can be compared to classical music, the loud and shocking passages are melt into adagios.
To continue with the musical analogy I would compare the novel to Hyden’s Morning, Noon, and Night symphonies.