Mark Twain was a stand-up comedian?
Labeled “The Father of American Literature” by Faulkner, Mark Twain is best known for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, his thinly-veiled contempt displayed by humor was set as a staple of his writing from his first piece, his voice clear and sarcastic as he searched for new ways to achieve laughs at the reader’s expense.
Born in Hannibal, Missouri on Wednesday, November 30, 1835, just two weeks after Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to Earth, Samuel L. Clemens would spend his boyhood on the banks of the Mississippi River, serving as the basis of his two most famous novels. He departed school when he was eleven years old after his father died, working in the field of typesetting while educating himself at the library during the evening. In a port city where steamboat operations were essential for transporting necessities, Clemens was influenced heavily by the industry. He took his pseudonym, Mark Twain, from his experiences, and many of his stories are marked by the importance of the Mississippi River.
A man of many interests and just as many business failures, Twain’s humor was at the heart of his musings no matter how serious the subtext. In his first published piece, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, Twain introduces two characters with different accents. The reader tends to believe he is intelligent, identifying with the man without a southern accent until the end of the story, when the reader realizes he has been taken for a ride and left as the joke, a statement by Twain of misconceptions.
Twain wrote story-heavy poems in where a punch line serves as a moral. In “The Aged Pilot Man”, Twain tells the story of a boat pulled by mules as it forged down the Eerie Canal during a storm. The hero, as the storm rages and batters the boat, boasts of his importance among the cries of those who accept what they see as inevitable death. It appears as if the crew and their hero are done for until a farmer walks up and places a board down for them to cross over as they are near the shore. Twain’s contempt for the attitudes of United States citizens bore through this story and is displayed by the ending when the crew accepted their fate, their prayers unheard, while the most simple solution was available.
It may be said of Twain that his favorite literary device was humor, and it was evident in most of his essays and lectures, as well. In “How to Tell a Story”, he offers the differences between a humorous story and a comic story, expressing in the American-based humorous story, “…the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard…”. He delighted himself with the vernacular of the Australians, writing in The Wayward Tourist: “the first time I heard an Australian say it [’my word’], it was positively thrilling.”
The evidence of Twain’s humor may be traced to the darkest aspects of Clemens’s life, the result of living with the tragedies of those closest to him having passed away. Two of his siblings, his father and mother, three of his children, his wife, and many close friends expired, and he drove himself into the equivalent of nine million dollars in debt. After filing for bankruptcy, he repaid in full those to whom he owed money. It is believed great humor comes from great suffering, and Twain endured pain throughout his life.
“I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: "Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together", Twain said of his life. Indeed, his last day of life was April 21, 1910, the day after Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to Earth since Twain’s birth, a metaphor of his lasting mark on American humor.