November 30th: Mark Twain

English · 30 November 2020

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, seemed to have found his purpose of birth in writing some of the most famous works of all time. In one way or the other, everyone probably heard of Tom Sawyer’s and Huckleberry Finn‘s (ad)ventures at and on Mississippi River. The crude language was subject of endless discussions back then and still is, it even led to the stories being banned in the US at first. Being the son of slave owners, Twain’s storytelling might often come across as racist, his anti-slavery views, however, are very obvious as well. His accounts on Jim and Huck demand for friendships across artificial boundaries, racist stereotypes and segregation. Twain was influenced by the dreadful realities of the time. As a boy, he spent several weeks each summer at his uncle’s farm where an elderly slave told him stories. Ron Powers, a biographer of Twain wrote: “race was always a factor in his consciousness partly because black people and black voices were the norm for him before he understood there were differences. They were the first voices of his youth and the most powerful, the most metaphorical, the most vivid storytelling voices of his childhood.

Twain also engaged in critical writings on patriotism, religion and motivations for war: The War Prayer is a controversial poem emphasising that wishing for the victory of the own troops always goes hand in hand with wishing for the suffering of the enemies. Twain commented on the question if he would publish the poem anyway: “No, I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead.”

Having talked about those serious topics, I certainly don’t want to withhold a more amusing work of Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court tells the story of Yankee engineer from Connecticut who is hit on the head several times and finds himself at King Arthur’s court when he finally regains consciousness. With his superior knowledge of the future, he claims to be a magician, calls himself Sir Boss and turns the Middle Ages upside down. All in all, his narrations provide historical access and a unique contemporary view on slavery, religion and society in 19th Century America that is worth reading.