October 20, 2014 11:16 UTC

People in America

Mark Twain, 1835-1910: One of America’s Best Known and Best Loved Writers

Some experts call “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” the best book written by an American writer.

Mark Twain wrote the "The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin" in 1884.
Mark Twain wrote the "The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin" in 1884.

Multimedia

Play or download an MP3 of this story

BARBARA KLEIN: I’m Barbara Klein.

BOB DOUGHTY: And I’m Bob Doughty with People in America in VOA Special English.  Today we tell about one of America’s best-known writers, Mark Twain.  We also talk about his famous book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

(MUSIC)

BARBARA KLEIN: Mark Twain wrote “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in eighteen eighty-four.  Since then, the book has been published in at least sixty languages.  Some people say it is the best book ever created by an American writer.  American students still read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”  And parents, teachers and literary experts still debate the issues discussed in the book.

BOB DOUGHTY: The writer who became Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in eighteen thirty-five.  He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri on the Mississippi River.  After his father died in eighteen forty-seven, young Samuel went to work as an assistant to a publisher.  Ten years later, he became a pilot on a steamboat that sailed on the Mississippi.  He heard the riverboat workers call out the words “mark twain!”  That was a measure for the depth of water.

In eighteen sixty-one, the American Civil War put an end to steamboat traffic on the Mississippi.  So Clemens traveled west and became a reporter for newspapers in Nevada and California.

BARBARA KLEIN: Later, he wrote funny stories and called himself Mark Twain.  Twain became famous for his story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in eighteen sixty-five.  It tells about a jumping competition among frogs.

Twain also traveled a lot and began writing books about his travels.  His stories about a trip to Europe and the Middle East were published in “The Innocents Abroad.”  And his stories about life in the western United States became the book called “Roughing It.”

In eighteen seventy, he married Olivia Langdon and moved to Hartford, Connecticut.  During the eighteen eighties, he wrote books for children, such as “The Prince and the Pauper.”  It tells about a poor boy who trades identities with a member of England’s ruling family.  Twain also wrote “Life on the Mississippi.”  This book describes his days as a steamboat pilot and his return to the river twenty years later.

BOB DOUGHTY: Mark Twain was already a successful writer before he became famous as a public speaker.  Over the years, he had invested a lot of money in unsuccessful businesses.  In eighteen ninety-three, he found himself deeply in debt.  So to earn money, he traveled around the world giving humorous talks.  His speeches made people laugh and remember events they had experienced.

However, his later life was not a happy one.  Two of his daughters died.  His wife died in nineteen-oh-four after a long sickness.  Some critics think Mark Twain’s later works were more serious because of his sadness.  He died of heart failure in nineteen ten.

(MUSIC)

BARBARA KLEIN: Mark Twain was the first writer to use the speech of common Americans in his books.  He showed that simple American English could be as fine an instrument for great writing as more complex language.  Through his books, he captured American experiences as no other writer had.

American author Mark Twain
American author Mark Twain

Many of the stories take place in Hannibal, Missouri.  The small wooden house where he lived as a boy still stands there.  Next to the house is a wooden fence.  It is the kind described in Twain's book, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” published in eighteen seventy-six.

In that story, Tom has been told to paint the fence.  He does not want to do it.  But he acts as if the job is great fun.  He tricks other boys into believing this.  His trick is so successful that they agree to pay him money to let them finish his work.  “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is considered one of the best books about an American boy’s life in the eighteen hundreds.

BOB DOUGHTY: Tom Sawyer's good friend is Huckleberry, or "Huck," Finn.  Mark Twain tells this boy's story in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”  Huck is a poor child, without a mother or home.  His father drinks too much alcohol and beats him.

Huck's situation has freed him from the restrictions of society.  He explores in the woods and goes fishing.  He stays out all night and does not to go to school.  He smokes tobacco.

Huck runs away from home.  He meets Jim, a black man who has escaped from slavery.  They travel together on a raft made of wood down the Mississippi River.  Huck describes the trip:

READER: "It was lovely to live on the raft.  Other places seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't.  You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft...  Sometimes we'd have that whole river to ourselves for the longest time... We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.  Jim, he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many."

(MUSIC)

BARBARA KLEIN: Mark Twain started writing “Huckleberry Finn” as a children's story.  But it soon became serious.  The story tells about the social evil of slavery, seen through the eyes of an innocent child.  Huck’s ideas about people were formed by the white society in which he lived.  So, at first, he does not question slavery.  Huck knows that important people believe slavery is natural, the law of God.  So, he thinks it is his duty to tell Jim's owners where to find him.  Here is part of the story after Huck decides he must do this.

READER: "I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt.  And I knowed I could pray now.  But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking -- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell.  And went on thinking...

And I see Jim before me all the time; in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing.  But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind."

BOB DOUGHTY: Huck comes to understand that Jim is a good man.  He finds he cannot carry out his plan to tell Jim’s owners where to find him.  Instead, he decides to help Jim escape.  He decides to do this, even if God punishes him.

Huck's moral search is part of Twain's humor.  Huck's heart leads him to do the right thing, even when everything he has been taught tells him it is wrong.  Huck's nature is good, but he has no idea of it.  Twain tells us more through Huck's voice than Huck himself knows.

BARBARA KLEIN: It took Mark Twain longer to write “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” than any of his other books.  He started writing in eighteen seventy-six, but put the story away after about two years of work.  He returned to it in eighteen eighty-three.  It was published the next year.

From the beginning, the book was hotly debated.  Some early critics praised its realism and honesty.  But the leading critics of Twain's time hated it.  They objected to the personality of Huck -- a rough, dirty and disobedient boy.

They were insulted by Twain’s attacks on the commonly accepted morals and traditions of white society.  And they disliked the way Twain used the language of a common, uneducated person to tell the story.  No writer had ever done that before.

BOB DOUGHTY: The debate over “Huckleberry Finn” re-opened in recent years, but for different reasons.  The book uses the racist expressions of its time.  So some people say reading it is too painful and insulting for black children.

They know that Twain was really attacking racism.  But he attacked indirectly, and with humor.  So they feel young people will not understand what he was attempting to do.  A few American schools have banned the book for young children.  A few have banned it for all students.  Some schools used a version in which all racist words have been removed.

Other people say young people can understand “Huckleberry Finn” if they study it with a good teacher.  They say the book remains one of the best denunciations of racism ever written.

BARBARA KLEIN: There is no longer any debate about the importance of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in American literature.  In nineteen thirty-five, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’  There was nothing before.  And there has been nothing as good since.”

(MUSIC)

BOB DOUGHTY: This program was written by Shelley Gollust.  Caty Weaver was our producer.  Doug Johnson read the part of Huckleberry Finn.  I’m Bob Doughty.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein.  Join us again next week for People in America in VOA Special English.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Learn with The News

  • Local residents shout to a pro-democracy protester at a main street at Mong kok district in Hong Kong Friday, Oct. 17, 2014.

    Audio Will Hong Kong Unrest Affect Politics in Taiwan?

    Voters in Taiwan are preparing to choose to vote in local elections that may be partly shaped by protests in Hong Kong. As the election gets closer, leaders of both of the country’s main political parties are being pressured to strongly support democracy activists in Hong Kong. More

  • north korean balloon

    Video Activists to Continue Launching Balloons into North Korea

    An earlier launch across the border led to an exchange of gunfire between North and South Korean troops. South Korean leaders have asked activists to stop launching balloons, but do not have the power to make them do so. | As It Is More

  • African Cheetahs

    Audio Is Cheetah Fast Enough to Survive?

    In 1900, about 100,000 cheetahs lived in the world. Today there are only 10,000 of the animals. It appears that the cheetah is vulnerable to attacks by other animals because of its physiology -- the way its body operates. The cat simply burns a lot of calories -- the energy produced by food. More

  • South Sudan Africa Predicting Famine

    Audio Report: Two Billion Suffer from 'Hidden Hunger'

    People who suffer from hidden hunger have enough to eat, but the quality of their food is low. Ten of the 14 countries with the highest rate of "hidden hunger" are located south of the Saharan Desert in Africa. Several Southeast Asian and South Asian countries have improved since 1990. More

  • Foad, the brother of 15 year-old Nora who left her home in Avignon for Syria nine months ago, shows a portrait he took last September on his cell phone as he attends an interview with Reuters in Paris, Oct. 6, 2014.

    Audio European Women Answer the Call of Jihad

    Hundreds of young Europeans and others have joined jihadist groups in the Middle East. Experts estimate that up to 10 percent of the new members are women. These women are reacting to the lure, or appeal, of a pure Islamic state. And they seem to like the idea of fighting in combat for the jihadists More

Featured Stories

  • Millions of years of history, which can be found on the ocean floor, are collected and analyzed at the Core Repository in New York.

    Video Scientists Create New Maps of Ocean Floor

    Until recently, scientists had mapped only about 20 percent of the sea floor. But our knowledge of the deep seas is changing because of information from satellites. Scientists have produced a new map that provides a detailed picture of the oceans. More

  • General George McClellan created a strong Union force, but he worried he did not have enough men to defeat the Confederacy.

    Audio McClellan Approaches Richmond ... And Waits

    The North and South clashed in a series of battles called the Seven Days Campaign. The struggle saved the Confederacy but came at a terrible price. More

  • Solar Storm

    Audio How to Weather a Solar Storm

    The sun’s energy creates light and heat. It also produces charged electrical particles and magnetic fields. The sun can keep the earth nice and warm and helps our crops to grow. But a sudden burst of that solar energy can cause a power outage. More

  • Video Sting, War, Lou Reed for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame officials nominated Green Day, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Kraftwerk. Also included were The Marvelettes, N.W.A., Nine Inch Nails, The Spinners and The Smiths. | American Mosaic More

  • COLUMBUS

    Columbus Discovers America

    Generations of schoolchildren have been taught that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. In fact, the second Monday in October is celebrated as a national holiday, Columbus Day, to honor the European explorer. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs