Introduction to Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain

  • Born Samuel Clemens in 1835, he worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.
  • When he started his writing career, Samuel Clemens adopted the name “Mark Twain,” which meant two fathoms, a safe depth for a riverboat.

Life and Times of Mark Twain

I thought these pictures of the river boats and Twain as a young man helped to depict that period of his life when he worked on the Mississippi River. He loved his time on the river and even used “Mark Twain” as his pen name.

  • In 1861, Samuel Clemens avoided the brewing Civil War by going west. He took his first writing job as reporter at the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise.
  • Serious news was often mixed with “reports” that had to be taken with a grain of salt. Soon, he began using the name Mark Twain and affixing it to sketches, reportage, and an occasional hoax. It was a time when he first discovered his talent, his calling, and his voice.

Life and Times of Mark Twain cont.

These pictures of western towns help to illustrate the next phase of Twain’s career as a reporter. The pictures helps us visualize Twain during this period of his life.

“I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.”– Mark Twain

  • Although his most famous novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is criticized for being racist, Mark Twain never expected nor intended the controversy that arose with the publication of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Mark Twain was not racist, but depicted life in his times.

Life and Times of Mark Twain cont.

When HF was published Mark Twain was astonished at the controversy about the book as a racist novel. His response to the criticism was that he wrote as he saw life on the Mississippi when he was growing up there.

"I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse."

Pictures from

Mark Twain’s quote about the controversy over HF.

The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn

  • Twain’s most famous novel is about the relationship between a young white boy, Huck, and a black slave, Jim as they travel along the Mississippi River
  • The novel is set in the mid 1800’s in the South in a fictional town called St. Petersburg
  • During this time, about half of the country was considered “free” and half still supported slavery

Free vs. Slave States in America in the mid 1800’s

Path of the Mississippi River

The path that Huck and Jim take along the Mississippi River is ironic; as they attempt to reach freedom, they actually travel further and further into slave territory.

Themes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

  • Racism and Slavery
    • In Huck Finn, Twain exposes the hypocrisy of slavery. It does not support slavery.
  • Intellectual vs. Moral Education
    • Huck is forced to make a decision between education and moral correctness
  • Mocks or pokes fun at “Sivilized” Society
    • Twain shows the ways in which society of his time did not act in a civilized manner


  • Uses ridicule of wit to attack human faults, vices, shortcomings and follies with the intent to bring about improvement
  • Usually meant to be humorous, but is also an attack on something of which the author/speaker strongly disapproves

Realism became a dominant literary style in the U.S. around the 1870s. Mark Twain is one of the movement's most famous practitioners. Following are the main characteristics of the genre:

American Realism

  • Realism attempts to present the world as it really is. Author William Dean Howells wrote that "realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material." It is a reaction against the "romantic" writing that preceded it (literature that tried to present the world as it “should be”—as an ideal), and it's rarely sentimental or emotional. It reads like a plain, sensible, sober account of whatever action it's describing.

American Realism

  • Everyday life is an important concept in realist works. Realists, generally speaking, don't write about extraordinary people in fantastic situations. They write about plain, normal, everyday folks dealing with the trials and tribulations of plain, normal, everyday life.

American Realism

  • Since writers are most likely to be factual and convey a sense of everyday-ness when dealing with subjects they know intimately, many realists write specifically about places where they live or have grown up. The subcategory of American realism called "local color” (a.k.a. “Regionalism”) tries hard to convey the reality of particular places in the U.S. Much of this local-color realism is set in different parts of the Midwest. This was probably due to the fact that the American West was becoming increasingly settled late in the 19th century.

American Realism

  • Setting their works in specific places leads realist writers to make use of specific dialects, or speech patterns that are particular to certain locales. Writers made a conscious effort to let American characters speak various types of American English. A white man in rural Missouri doesn't, of course, speak like an English gentleman, so it wouldn't be factual and "truthful" to make him sound that way. Similarly, a black woman from rural Missouri may not speak the same way a white woman from the same place does, so it wouldn't be factual and truthful to make her speak in anything other than her dialect.

American Realism

  • Realism generally celebrates the individual. Most realist works feature a central character who has to deal with some moral struggle, hopefully to arrive at an important moral victory or realization before the story's over.

American Realism

  • Realist works are generally plot driven; this means they pivot around conflicts we as readers want to see resolved. A realist work, then, will typically have at least one protagonist (a main character -- not necessarily a likeable person or "hero") and at least one antagonist (another character or a force that will try to prevent the protagonist from getting what s/he wants), and readers will wait to see, as they watch a sequence of increasingly dramatic events, who prevails.

Controversy Surrounding
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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