Creator of such quintessentially American literary characters as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (1835–1910) was a writer, humorist, inventor, and world traveler. His journeys and adventures inspired several of his books, including Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, and others.
Kent Rasmussen is the author or editor of twelve books on Mark Twain, including the award-winner Mark Twain A to Z, as well as more than a dozen other works.
Simply Charly: You’ve written and edited numerous books on Mark Twain. What, in particular, sparked your interest in his work?
R. Kent Rasmussen: I never studied Mark Twain in any formal setting outside a seventh-grade English class in which I read Tom Sawyer and a 10th-grade class in which I read Huckleberry Finn. All I can remember from the latter class was that I found Jim’s dialect difficult to read. A friend from my high school days insists that I went around telling people what a great novel Huckleberry Finn was, but I have no recollection of either doing that or even thinking that at the time. Now, of course, I fully endorse that sentiment.
Formal school work aside, my interest in Mark Twain actually began when I was eight or nine, shortly after my grandfather died and left my family a large set of Twain’s books, and I read Tom Sawyer for the first time. I loved books as a boy, and because there were few in our home, those Twain volumes became very special to me. My serious interest, of course, began much later, stemming from an incident that occurred while I was a grad student in African history at UCLA. In a seminar, a fellow student made a chance remark about Twain’s description of the Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print.” That remark stuck in my memory and came back to haunt me nearly a quarter-century later, when I was back at UCLA, working as an editor on the Marcus Garvey Papers. One day, I determined to learn where Twain had said that and his purported quote about “the coldest winter” he ever spent being “a summer in San Francisco.” I went to the campus’s Research Library and checked out Roughing It as the most likely source of those quotes. That book does contain the Book of Mormon description, but I eventually learned there’s no evidence he ever made the famous remark about San Francisco weather.
Reading Roughing It started me on the journey that has kept me deeply engaged with Twain for more than 27 years. In all this time, I can honestly say that the man has never bored me.
While reading Roughing It, I became so entranced by Twain’s thoughts and turns of phrase that I decided to read everything he had published and collect snappy passages for a volume of quotes similar to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Collecting those quotes helped me focus my reading and appreciate Twain more than ever. While my agent was looking for a publisher for it, I got a contract to write a general reference book, Mark Twain A to Z. Over the next two-and-a-half years, that project immersed in Twain an average of 12 hours a day—yet I never got bored. Nearly a quarter-century and 11 more books later, I’m still not bored by the man.
SC: William Faulkner called Twain “the first truly American writer,” while playwright Eugene O’Neill referred to him as “the true father of American literature.” What distinctive qualities of his work earned him this praise?
RKR: Because my training and inclinations are those of a historian, not a literary critic, I should begin by admitting I don’t know enough about American literature to offer any original thoughts on this question. I can, however, say that Twain is generally credited with being a prime mover in helping American literature break free of European literary conventions. He signaled his determination not to be bound by conventional expectations in his first major book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), a highly embellished account of his first trip to Europe and the Holy Land. That book derives most of its humor from mocking Old World values. His breakthrough work, however, was his fourth novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), which broke all literary rules by narrating its story in the vernacular voice of an ignorant backwoods boy who could barely string together a grammatical sentence. When it was first published, the book was severely criticized for its ostensible crudity, but some critics recognized its language for its authenticity and vigor, and it consequently paved the way for later writers to throw off the constraints of genteel literary traditions.
SC: What do you think is one of Twain’s most underrated works?
RKR: I’m tempted to answer Huckleberry Finn. However, even if that were the best answer, I should use this opportunity to comment on some other work that doesn’t get much notice, as no one could seriously argue that Huckleberry Finn gets insufficient attention.
One of the things that has kept my interest in Twain alive for so many years is that almost everything he wrote—from short sketches to long books—has at least one quality giving it a special interest. I don’t always recognize those qualities on a first or even a second reading, but eventually, they register on me and provide a nice little feeling of discovery. Twain seems always to be deeper than one realizes and ever full of surprises. It’s especially fun to find those surprises where we least expect them.
Twain’s 1894 novella, Tom Sawyer Abroad, may not be his most underrated work, but it is one that has not drawn much critical attention and certainly hasn’t drawn much praise. On its surface, it’s one of his most pedestrian stories. Through a series of misadventures, Tom, Huck, and Jim find themselves aboard a marvelous balloon craft, flying across Africa’s Sahara Desert. The three friends have a series of loosely connected adventures—including a scary encounter with lions, a thrilling brush with brigands attacking a caravan, and an amusing crisis when Jim is briefly stranded atop the Great Sphinx as angry Egyptians try to get at him. Just as the story gets interesting, however, it suddenly ends: Tom gets a message from his Aunt Polly ordering him to return home immediately, and he meekly climbs back in the balloon craft with Huck and Jim and leaves Egypt. I can still recall how disappointed I was when I first read the story as a boy.
There is, however, much more to the little book than that, and a University of Central Missouri scholar named Charles D. Martin recently called attention to its surprisingly deep significance in an essay titled “Tom Sawyer’s Lessons in Geography; or, the Holy Land as Flapdoodle in Tom Sawyer Abroad.” To anyone who reads Tom Sawyer Abroad, one of its most salient attributes is the frequent bickering among its three main characters. To the casual reader, much of the talk seems like tedious nonsense. Martin, however, shows there’s much more to it. He sees the story as “essentially a geography lesson couched in the form of a romantic narrative” that “serves as a corrective to the proliferation of dull school textbooks and other insipid instructional narratives that passed as boys’ stories at the end of the nineteenth century.” Moreover, he sees the story as laying “bare the inherent ideological bias of geography and establish[ing] the science as an implement of imperial conquest.” Wow! After reading Martin’s essay and then rereading Tom Sawyer Abroad, I had to admit that I had long undervalued the story.
Rather than explaining more about Martin’s stimulating thesis, I’ll merely make the point that although Tom Sawyer Abroad may still seem a bit pedestrian, there is obviously much more to it. It may not be Twain’s most underrated story, but it is an exciting example of why it is necessary to read everything he wrote carefully to avoid missing important points. When Twain wrote Tom Sawyer Abroad, I don’t think he had much conscious intention of making the points Martin has found. Nevertheless, those points are there because they were in his nature. Whichever of Twain’s works we read, we should always be prepared for surprises.
SC: There are several accounts of how Twain, né Samuel Clemens, adopted the use of his pseudonym. But one recent researcher says Clemens’ nom de plume was actually selected while reading a humor journal called Vanity Fair. What’s the real story?
RKR: Despite Twain’s fame, the voluminous records documenting his life, and the enormous amount of scholarly research done on him, no one knows for sure how or why he chose “Mark Twain” as his pen name. What is known for sure is when he adopted that name, the phrase mark twain had long been used as a navigational term for water two fathoms (12 feet) deep. Moreover, during the four years he piloted steamboats on the Mississippi River, he must have heard leadsmen crying out those words thousands of times while sounding the river’s depths. I doubt he needed anyone else’s help to think of using the phrase as his pen name. “Mark Twain” sounds like a real person’s name and has a snappy ring to it. Should there be any mystery about why Sam Clemens adopted it as a pen name in 1863? Apparently so, as several theories have been advanced to explain it.
One old theory that was repeated in a recent biography suggests that while Twain was a newspaper reporter in Nevada—where he first used that pen name—he was in the habit of ordering two drinks at once and instructing bartenders to “mark twain” on his tab. However, his friend who told that story later admitted it had been a hoax. More recently, as you point out, a researcher found an 1861 issue of the old humor magazine Vanity Fair containing a satirical sketch using navigational terms for character names, such as “Lee Scupper,” “Bob Stay,” and “Mark Twain.” Pointing out that the Nevada newspaper for which Twain worked received Vanity Fair, the researcher went on to suggest that’s where Sam Clemens got the idea of adopting “Mark Twain” as his own pen name. Sounds plausible, and I wouldn’t argue it couldn’t have happened that way, but the theory has several problems. First, there is no evidence that Clemens actually saw that sketch. Second, even if he did read it, is that proof that he needed it to get the idea of using “Mark Twain” as a pen name? After having heard the phrase countless times on the Mississippi, did one of the world’s most creative authors really need someone else to give him that idea? Personally, I don’t think so.
SC: In his own time, Twain was better known as a travel writer than a novelist. He traveled extensively throughout the globe, visiting five continents and sailing across the Atlantic 29 times before the advent of flight. He once wrote that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth…” How much were his travels motivated by the need to make money rather than as pleasure trips?
RKR: Yes, Twain was a remarkably widely traveled man. He may, in fact, have been the most widely traveled author of his time. Publication of a book on his sea voyages recently led me to get involved in discussions of exactly how far he may have traveled during his lifetime. My rough-and-ready estimate was well over 300,000 miles. That may not sound like much by modern standards of automobile and airplane travel, but keep in mind that figure is equivalent to 12 trips around the equator or more than 100 coast-to-coast trips across the United States. Ask yourself what other writer traveled equally as far during the 19th century. No one whom I can think of.
It’s true that during his time, Twain was better known as a travel writer than a novelist. His best-selling work during his lifetime was his first travel book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). In fact, that stout book was apparently the single best-selling American travel book of the 19th century. Twain also published four other similarly hefty travel books, each very different from the others. He obviously got a great deal of pleasure from traveling, but one could argue that four of those five travel books were about trips he undertook for the express purpose of making money. The Innocents Abroad is about the voyage to Europe and the Holy Land he made aboard the steamer Quaker City in 1866. That trip was paid for by a San Francisco newspaper in return for which Twain wrote travel letters and also received cash payments. After he returned home, a publisher persuaded him to adapt his letters into the book that became The Innocents Abroad. That book’s fabulous success gave him the idea that he might make a living from writing books.
Not surprisingly, his next major work was another travel book, Roughing It (1872), about his experiences in the Far West during the early 1860s. He had no thought of writing a book about his western travels during those years until the success of The Innocents Abroad prompted him to look for another subject. He had, however, gone west with the idea of making money. He hoped to strike it rich in Nevada’s booming mining fields. That didn’t happen, but in becoming a professional writer, he did eventually find another kind of wealth. Incidentally, while he was in the West, he made his first trip abroad—a voyage to the then independent Hawaiian kingdom. He undertook that trip for the express purpose of making money selling travel letters to a Sacramento newspaper, but he enjoyed the islands so much that he ever afterward longed to return there.
In 1878-1879, Twain did something unusual: he went to Europe with the avowed intention of collecting material for another travel book—the one that became A Tramp Abroad (1880). His struggle to find a voice for that book is evident in its strained attempts at humor. Curiously, while that book is not much admired by Americans, it is probably his most popular travel book in Europe—especially in Germany, which figures prominently in the book.
During the early 1880s, Twain determined to write what he hoped would become a standard text on the Mississippi River, next to which he had grown up in Missouri and on which he had piloted steamboats during the late 1850s. To that end, he returned to the river in 1882 to collect additional material. The result was Life on the Mississippi (1883), a fascinating mixture of geology, history, memoirs of his apprentice piloting days, reminiscences of his return to the river, and marginally relevant tall tales.
Twain’s last travel book, Following the Equator (1897), is a relatively straight-forward (for Twain, that is) account of the round-the-world lecture tour he made to pay off the debts of his failed publishing company. He undertook the journey with the idea of getting a book out of it, so it’s fair to say he had two financial motives for making the trip.
Twain made many other journeys for lots of different reasons. In 1891, for example, he closed down his big Hartford house and took his family to Europe in the hope of saving money on living expenses. As his business ventures were falling apart over the next few years, he crisscrossed the Atlantic many times in the vain hope of salvaging his interests at home. It was after those efforts failed that he decided to undertake the round-the-world lecture tour. In earlier years, he had traveled great distances on lecture tours in the United States. He came to hate that kind of traveling, which he undertook solely for profit and returned to lecturing in 1895 out of his desperate need for money.
Arguments could be made that Twain undertook much of his other travel for financial motives, but he did do some significant traveling purely for pleasure. The best examples are probably the five trips he made to Bermuda; he didn’t profit financially from any of them. He last visited the island in 1910, shortly before he died.
SC: Twain’s reckless pursuit of wealth caused him to go deep into debt to the tune of over $200,000 which in today’s dollars amounts to approximately $5 million. What were some of his financial foibles?
RKR: Because of his father’s financial failings and the hardships his family consequently endured during his youth, Twain was driven by a lifelong fear of going bankrupt himself. Although he probably became the highest-paid American author of his time, he was always on the lookout for additional ways to make money. One way he tried was creating his own book-publishing firm to maximize profits from his own and other authors’ books. The firm started with spectacular success—Ulysses S. Grant’s Civil War memoirs. Unfortunately, because of this early success, Twain thought he had a golden touch in the publishing business. He didn’t. The Grant memoirs proved a fluke. It didn’t take long for bad publishing and investment decisions to catch up with him and doom the company, and a national financial panic in 1893 didn’t help.
Twain’s greatest business failing, however, was his fondness for investing in new inventions. He had a reasonably good eye for spotting promising new technologies, but his business sense was often poor, causing him to make bad or mistimed decisions. His biggest investment blunder by far was pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the automatic typesetting machine developed by Hartford inventor James Paige. This invention was truly a mechanical marvel, as it could set, justify, and redistribute individual pieces of metal type at lightning speed … when, that is, it was working properly. Unfortunately, it tended to break down and consequently couldn’t be relied on to meet the high-pressure demands of the newspaper plants in which Twain hoped this machine would become the industry standard. Its inherent design flaw was trying to mimic complex human typesetting steps that constantly shuffled easily damaged pieces of metal type. While Paige was spending many years and much of Twain’s money perfecting his machine, another inventor, Otto Mergenthaler, came along and developed the slower but far more reliable linotype process that would dominate newspaper typesetting over the next century. In sharp contrast to Paige’s compositor, Mergenthaler’s machine set type by pouring hot lead into molds to make single-piece “lines” of type that were simply melted down for recasting after each use.
When Twain dictated his autobiography in later years, he accurately said of himself: “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.” Had he pushed Paige to get his machine to newspapers sooner, he might well have realized his dream of vast riches. Instead, his investment was a total loss and one that also precipitated the bankruptcy of his publishing company in 1894. Thanks to an around-the-world lecture tour and prudent financial guidance from his new friend H. H. Rodgers, a Standard Oil tycoon, Twain paid off all his debts in full and restored both his solvency and his reputation. In fact, his recovery from near ruin helped make him a hero in the public eye.
Even after his perilously close brush with financial disaster, Twain couldn’t resist throwing money at questionable inventions. One that particularly appealed to him in 1898 was a Polish inventor’s process for photographically transferring patterns to woven textiles, such as carpets. This time, however, before sinking money into it, Twain had the sense to pass the idea by Rodgers. His friend found that no matter how good the process was, there was almost no market for it. Twain continued to look for new ways to make money until the end of his life. Remarkably, despite his often poor judgment, he left an estate worth a substantial fortune when he died in 1910.
Nine years before his death, Twain wrote this maxim: “To succeed in business: avoid my example.” We can only wish he had heeded that advice himself and had spent less time trying to be a businessman and more time being a writer.
SC: Twain’s most celebrated work is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, Ernest Hemingway wrote that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Yet, at the same time, it’s one of his most controversial books particularly because of its use of the n-word which appears 219 times. Many schools across the country have banned it from their reading lists, while others have chosen to sanitize its language by substituting the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word. What’s your take on this whole controversy?
RKR: I can appreciate the discomfort African American students feel dealing with that offensive word in classrooms and would rather have them read modified texts than not read the novel at all, as some educators seem to prefer. The NewSouth editions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer that substitute “slave” for the offensive word contain editorial introductions, carefully explaining what has been altered and why. I assume that teachers in every classroom using those editions make sure their students read and discuss these introductions, so they understand exactly what has been changed in the text. Every student reading a NewSouth edition should, therefore, know that almost everywhere the book says “slave,” Twain originally wrote “nigger.” How likely is it, then, for anyone reading the word “slave” not to think of the other word? At least one high school teacher I know who has used the NewSouth edition of Huckleberry Finn in his classes has found that is exactly what has happened among his predominantly African American students. If altering the text spares students from embarrassment and allows them to appreciate the novel better, isn’t that all for good?
Incidentally, NewSouth also publishes unaltered texts of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that are physically almost identical in appearance to the altered editions. This makes it possible for individual students in the same classroom to choose (perhaps with the input from parents) which editions they will read. Personally, I would prefer that students read Twain’s books as he wrote them and can only hope that concern over the objectionable word will eventually fade and cease to be an issue. Meanwhile, I applaud teachers brave enough to experiment with the NewSouth editions.
SC: Twain endured many tragedies during his lifetime, having suffered the deaths of several family members. Do you think his writing style grew progressively darker because of these experiences?
RKR: A little, perhaps, but Twain’s writing always had a dark side. Look at The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), for example. Twain wrote that book during the mid-1870s, apparently one of the happiest periods of his life. He had a loving wife and two healthy daughters; his family was living in a magnificent new home he had built in Hartford, Connecticut; and both his income and his fame were growing rapidly. Despite all those good things, Tom Sawyer is such a dark book that some educators don’t believe it should be read by young children. Consider its contents: Tom has a moment when his spirits sink so low that he contemplates suicide, and he lives in a village periodically ravaged by measles and scarlet fever, both of which nearly kill him and cause villagers to live in constant fear. Tom and Huck Finn witness a brutal murder in a graveyard. After Tom later testifies against the murderer, Injun Joe, he has terrible nightmares of Joe’s coming to kill him. Later, Joe and his criminal partner plan to assault the Widow Douglas, not to rob or kill her, but to physically mutilate her. Finally, the book climaxes with a terrifying episode in which Tom and his sweetheart, Becky, get lost deep in a labyrinthine cavern in which Tom discovers the murderous Joe is hiding. Are Twain’s later writings any darker than all that? When I wrote my introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of Tom Sawyer, I made point-by-point comparisons between Twain’s book and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, emphasizing the horrific aspects of both.
To be fair, I should acknowledge that the early 1870s were not an altogether happy time for Twain. In 1870, the year he married his wife, Livy, his father-in-law died a miserable death from stomach cancer. A month later, a college friend of Livy’s died from typhoid fever while a houseguest in Twain’s home. Pregnant and exhausted from caring for her father and friend, Livy then fell seriously ill and nearly died herself before delivering her first baby prematurely. That child, Langdon, was never healthy and died a year and a half later. An essay by Joseph Csicsila in Mark Twain and Youth (which I co-edited with Kevin Mac Donnell), argues that Twain began writing Tom Sawyer to exorcise his grief over losing his son.
Twain experiences other painful losses early in his life. His father died when he was only 11, by which time three of his six siblings had already died. His most painful loss, however, may have been that of his nearly 20-year-old brother Henry when he was an apprentice steamboat pilot. He had gotten Henry a clerking position on a steamboat whose boiler exploded in 1858, and Henry died a slow and painful death after inhaling steam in the accident. Twain was there when he died and felt a terrible responsibility for his brother’s death. He expresses some of his grief in Life on the Mississippi. Were all these early tragedies any less awful than those Twain suffered during his last years?
SC: Twain’s full autobiography was published for the first time starting in 2010, a century after his death. What, if any, new insights did it reveal?
RKR: Not many, actually. Large parts of the texts had been published in earlier, incomplete editions, and those editions included most of the interesting passages. As one already familiar with all the earlier editions—including one I edited myself for Penguin—I didn’t notice much that surprised me. The full edition completes sections that earlier editions had truncated and repairs passages in which earlier editors had toned down Twain’s language, but such corrections are neither voluminous nor sensational. Any reader hoping to find shocking revelations had to be disappointed. The significance of the new edition is that we no longer have to wonder what has been left out or what has been altered. It’s very unsatisfying to read books which we cannot be sure haven’t been tampered with by editors. It’s always unsatisfying to read books whose text has been silently altered by editors, and the first editors of Twain’s autobiography made some outrageous changes in his words.
SC: Why do you think Twain still matters today?
RKR: As we are now entering a time in which the very concept of objective truth is decaying, I believe that Twain matters more today than ever before. His entire life was a search for truth in all its forms. His writings constantly attack hypocrisy and shams, helping us to remember that such a thing as truth exists.