Last Updated 31 Mar 2020

Mark Twain and His Use of Humor

Category Mark Twain
Essay type Research
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Samuel Clemons became known to the world as Mark Twain the man of satire and humor.  Through his humor, he entertained the world during his lifetime and he has continued to entertain for generations.  Practically everyone found him funny, but not everyone understood his biting satire.  His subtly in itself was humorous.  Twain was known toward the end of his life as “the man in white.”

He wore an all white suit and with his shock of white gray hair and he would lecture or perform in front of a black or dark background.  His image, when he performed, was a contrast between good and evil, just like his humor was funny on one level and piercing on another.  It has not needed the careful, retrospective estimate that a great writer's death usually brings to his works for the reading public to have come to the conclusion years ago that SAMUEL L. CLEMENS measures up to a vastly more complex figure in literature than the mere "funny man" that his first and amazingly popular achievements in authorship seemed to make him. (Changing Humor)

Mark Twain was exposed to humor from an early age.  He was brought up in Hannibal, Missouri on the banks of the Mississippi River.  The location of his upbringing was an important aspect of his life.  Steamboats made regular stops daily in Hannibal.  This brought a variety of visitors to the town.  Many of those visitors had interesting and humorous stories to tell and Twain was always ready to listen.  Most of the humor that he came in contact with were from the men who worked on the steamboats.  They would gather by the local stores and the river bank to talk and enjoy a smoke.  The young boys of the town found it the highlight of all of their entertainment to hang out around the men and listen to their stories of wild adventures laced with incidents that were funny.

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There were those who thought that Twain was funny because he was ignorant, but they were mistaken.  Twain's repeated professions of innocence or ineptitude in literary craftsmanship are not to be believed. (Horn)  He was an entertainer as well as an author.  Audiences enjoyed Twain’s delivery of his own stories as they did reading themselves.  He saw many flaws in society, and he knew that writing articles and lecturing people about these vices would only turn them away.

However, when laced with humor, people were much more likely to listen, and then internalize the message.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the social injustices of child abuse, slavery, feuding, and hypocrisy in religion are told in such a way that the reader is amused as well as shocked at the atrocities. He wrote that Huck, on his decision not to turn in Jim, a runaway slave, that he would go to hell if the only way that one could enter heaven was to accept that a man could be owned by another person.

Between 1876, when he began Huckleberry Finn, and 1884, when he completed it, Twain suffered a series of personal and financial disasters from which he never recovered.  A short list would include: the loss of close friends, a drastic break with his publisher, financial troubles running to bankruptcy, ruinous involvements with various patents he had acquired; a bitterly disappointing return to the Mississippi River, Hannibal, and boyhood scenes; and the beginnings of chronic ill health for the four deeply loved female members of his family. (Bercovitch)  Yet with all of the pressures of life he still used humor in his writing.

Twain made use of the newly settled Southwest as the outset of his career.  Using dialect and the regional setting as a tool for humor was just one way that he entertained his readers. The genre that developed originates from the politics and oral histories of a burgeoning region-- full of fire and out to prove itself to the world.

This enthusiasm manifests itself in bawdy, violent, and predominately masculine portrayals of the world of the Southwest. Yet beneath the savagery of the stories, there is an effort at realism and regional descriptions that had not been attempted previously. (Price)  He was able to take them to a place that seemed to move at a slower pace, and where the “city slicker” with all his education was no match for the common sense of the frontiersman.  This is notable in the story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, where the narrator from the city is taken and made out the fool by an older uneducated man in a country store.

Southwestern humor was not the only way that Twain displayed his humor.  He did not feel the need to limit himself by only writing regional literature.  In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the Yankee is an idealist who believes that when transported back in time, that technology and reforms in the church could change the morality of the world.  The naivety is presented in a humorous way, but people were forced to look at morality instead of only focusing on technology.

The short story Luck displayed quite humorously the intelligence of military leaders.  While the story is set in England, the purpose was to question leaders in all countries.  He tells the reader that the man being honored as a brilliant military leader is really a fool.  The narrator is a minister so he should be believable.  He lets us in on the secret that the man has only made all of his heroic and brilliant actions were actually foolish blunders and mistakes.

In Twain’s later years his humor changed.  He suffered tragedies that would shake anyone.  His humor transformed into bitter satire.  While in Europe, he received word that his favorite daughter, Susie had meningitis.  By the time he and Olivia, his wife, returned to America, Susie had died.  This devastated him, and he never really recovered from his grief.

A few years later, Olivia died.  He threw himself into the care of his epileptic daughter, Jean.  Unfortunately, Jean had a seizure and drowned in her bathtub.  Mark Twain had lost most of his family and was a broken man.  After the suffering he went through in such a short amount of time could only affect his humor.  His anger toward God was the target of most of his satire.

In his last work, The Mysterious Stranger, Twain chronicles the wanderings of Satan, the nephew of the famous Satan, on earth.  This work was a product of his bitterness at the loss of the beloved women in his life.  It was published six years after his death and was not completely finished.  However, it should only be natural that a person would change during the course of his/her life.

Mark Twain will always be known to the public as a humorist.  He enlightened millions with his social ideas in a funny and entertaining way.  He brought many issues to life through an amusing little boy that made people think of days gone by.  He will continue to do so for many years to come.  Humor has changed drastically over the years.  Mark Twain’s writings are different from the humor today that relies on someone being hurt or frightened silly.  It is refreshing to see the work of a humorist with substance.

Works Cited

Bercovitch, Sacvan.  What’s Funny about Huckleberry Finn.  18, June 2007,

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1571/is_n27_v12/ai_18486848/pg_3

Changing Humor. 1920.  The New York Times. 18, June 2007,

http://www.twainquotes.com/19200321.html  

Horn, Jason.  Mark Twain: A Study of the Short Fiction Book Review.  Summer 1998.  18, June

2007, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2455/is_3_35/ai_83585394

Price, Angel.  Southwestern Humor and Mark Twain.  18, June 2007,

http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/projects/price/southwes.htm

 

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