Humorist, lecturer, author & steamboat Captain are just some of the many ways in which you will find Mark Twain described in today’s history books. I am impacted more by his skill as a social observer and descriptive writer though. His artistry in the description of human behavior has always held me in awe of his ability to see to the core of a person. It has not only allowed me a glimpse into the mind of a great writer but has also brought about a better understanding of myself, of my writing, and of those around me.
Mark Twain is considered a humorist, but his humor was not in the actual joke; it is in the comical way he allowed the reader to look at everyday events from a different perspective. He is a master of exploring the simplistic absurdity of otherwise normal situations. Twain uses humor as a way to openly talk about many different issues that were not politically correct during his time (and a few that are still not). His use of humor allowed two things. First, by being presented as a humorous piece, the publisher could print something that might otherwise be considered offensive. Secondly, it prevented a certain amount of backlash against Twain because he was able to say it was meant to be funny.
“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.” This was one of the first quotes that I had ever read by Mark Twain. I found it in one of the several books by Mark Twain that my father owned. Growing up, I often likened myself to Tom Sawyer and many times attempted to learn what I could of adolescent human behavior for my own personal gain. Unfortunately, I was never able to convince my friends that lawn mowing was enough fun to have to pay for the privilege of doing it.
During his many hours of people watching, Twain was able to notice details of behavior in everyday life that many writers overlooked. He realized early in his career that human behavior was not as simple as love and hate, or good and bad. He would through his careful study of people, discover that the different behaviors displayed by people often reflect their varying viewpoints of the same life experiences. His ability to describe his own experiences and to provide details as to the experience of others was what made his writing style exceptional.
Of course, this genius was dramatically apparent in The Adventures of Huck Finn, one of his most acclaimed works. Twain’s own experiences as he tried to understand the issues of slavery and the injustices of the times became the character, Huck Finn. Raised in a slave owning family, Twain had become personal friends with many of those slaves. Through these friendships, he became fascinated by their folklore and storytelling abilities. The character of Jim is a compilation of his many slave friends and the folklore that they kept alive through stories.
Another important aspect of Twain’s writing that I find significant is the way he uses humor in his quest for a better understanding of God and his own spirituality. “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” Statements such as this caused many writers to comment that Twain’s later works had a dark side. Nevertheless, I found him asking many of the same questions that I have asked in my own search for spirituality. I personally don’t consider his last writings to be dark, but rather truthful.
His life was immersed in individuality, from the day he was born as Haley’s comet streaked across the sky, until the day he died eighty-five years later when the comet returned. Try to look at life through another’s eyes, do things differently, be an individual…these are the lessons I have learned through his writing.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”