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The Life and Times of Mark Twain

The Life and Times of Mark Twain

July 14 - 19, 2019

If you search for the works of Mark Twain in any public library, look under the letter "C," for Clemens, Samuel Langhorne (1835-1910). One of the most beloved of American writers, Mark Twain was actually an invention. When we think of Twain, we imagine the wry humorist in the white suit, a celebrity stage performer reading his works and telling his stories to audiences in the American era he called "the Gilded Age." But we could also imagine Twain and Clemens as twins, a man and an image that are not always distinguishable from one another.

Twain was the most celebrated and successful author of his generation, but Clemens was a desperate bankrupt. Twain was an acerbic critic of racisms and corporate cronyism, but Clemens was (briefly) a Confederate guerilla and (not briefly) the brains behind his own commercial publishing empire. Twain was a lion of the New York literary world, but Clemens was a poor boy from the backwaters of Missouri. Twain was an irreverent, outlandishly imaginative writer and speaker, but Clemens was a staid homeowner and town father in upstate New York and Connecticut.

These seeming contradictions create a richly complex subject, just as the novels, stories, and essays of Mark Twain reflect and critique a richly complex time in American history. Twain produced some of the most memorable (and controversial) works in American literature. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned in some public libraries when it was published in 1885, and it is in some libraries today. Huckleberry Finn is often paired with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), which Twain rightly saw as a children's story. Structured as fantasy fiction, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and The Prince and the Pauper (1882) dwell on the social inequalities of the past in order to reflect on the inequalities of every age. In The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), Twain uses a detective story to examine deep questions of identity, heredity, and education.

In this program, we'll examine Twain's key works, including Huckleberry Finn, essays and short stories, and Pudd'nhead Wilson. We will also engage Twain's time and place, placing him in the context of 19th-century America. Serving as lead faculty in the program are Marc Conner and Jim Warren.