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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Life and Work of Mark Twain (The Great Courses)

Life and Work of Mark Twain (The Great Courses) - Stephen Railton Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was such an interesting character that a series of 24 lectures by an experienced professor on the subject can't help but be interesting. I listened to these lectures to prepare myself for the Great Books KC group meeting. Our main focus is Huck Finn, but I'm glad I listened to all of the lecures to learn more about the author.

I was particularly interested to learn about Mark Twain's lecture tours and after dinner speeches. He mounted five major lecture tours through the USA, had one around the world tour, and appeared more than three hundred times as a speaker at various banquets. By all accounts he was a master of the craft of working the line between making his listeners uncomfortable enough to laugh and at the same time satisfy their expectations of propriety. He apparently was a master of timing, comic pause and "deadpan" delivery.

The following link provides an example of an after-dinner speech given by Mark Twain:
Professor Railton devotes one whole lecture to this speech. It gives an example of a speech by Mark Twain that wasn't well received by the audience. In modern vernacular we would label the speech as a comic roast of Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes who were present in the audience to which he was speaking. Later critics charged that Mark Twain wasn't showing proper respect to these eminent individuals. I guess 19th Century folks hadn't yet caught on to the concept of a roast.

Mark Twain lived long enough into the 20th Century for his voice to be recorded. But if any recordings were made they have been lost. Since there are no surviving audio recordings of his speeches we are dependent on the descriptions provided by his contemporaries. His voice is described as being distinctive and slow. He describes his drawl - "pulling his words" - as an "infermity." Onstage, it heightened the ludicrousness of whatever he was saying. Twain himself acknowledged that the heart of live performance was not its matter, but its manner. His platform techniques, according both to the newspaper reports and his own accounts of "How to Tell a Story," displayed a mastery of the performer's art.

Mark Twain was very conscious of the differences in American dialects and worked hard to render them in an accurate manner. It's interesting to note that in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he provided an Explainatory Note at the beginning of the book states the following:

"In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect, the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary "Pike-County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shading have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech."

He goes on to explain why he felt it was necessary to write this note to the readers:
"I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding."

To us this simply sounds like Twain humor. But in the context of the 19th Century it was needed because Twain was cutting new ground with this book. The Huck Finn book was the first to be narrated in the first person voice of a back-woods uneducated child who didn't follow the rules of proper English grammar. The speech of the other characters in the story were also of rural America, and I'm sure plenty of critics would have seized on the differences in speech as sloppy writing of Twain's part.

William Dean Howells said that Mark Twain was "the Lincoln of our literature." To Ernest Hemingway, he was the father of "all modern American literature." This set of lectures does a good job of exploring Mark Twain as both one of our classic authors and as an almost mythic presence in our cultural life as a nation.