In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mark Twain

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Correspondence
  • Databases
  • Journals
  • Reception History

American Literature Mark Twain
Laura Skandera Trombley, Ann M. Ryan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0093


The pseudonym “Mark Twain” does less to conceal the identity of Samuel Langhorne Clemens than to manifest—and market—its many contradictions. Born to slave-owning parents in the border state of Missouri on 30 November 1835, Mark Twain would eventually publish the memoirs of Ulysses Grant and befriend Frederick Douglass. Through works such as Roughing It (1872), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Mark Twain—a former riverboat pilot and bohemian humorist—became an icon of American simplicity. Nonetheless, his appetite for material gain led him to bankruptcy in 1893, like the Hawkins family in his coauthored novel The Gilded Age (1873). Despite his small-town roots, Twain spent years traveling abroad, which he documents in several memoirs, beginning with The Innocents Abroad (1869), his satire of European superiority and American pretensions, and continuing with A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). When he returns to the Mississippi River valley in Puddn’head Wilson (1894), America seems a parochial counterpoint to European sophistication. Twain develops the travel motif—across time as well as space—in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889); eventually, he explores metaphysical regions in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909) and The Mysterious Stranger manuscripts (1890–1910). Mark Twain’s cultural legacy is often associated with his religious and political satires, where he exposes the myths of colonialism and the atrocities of war. However, Twain also indulged in sentimentality in works such as The Prince and the Pauper (1882) and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896). Member of a bohemian class of western writers, Twain discovered fame as the author of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1867). Yet when he died on 21 April 1910, Twain was firmly a part of the eastern cultural elite. Mark Twain’s affect upon American culture can hardly be overstated, though it has frequently been romanticized. W. D. Howells described Mark Twain as “the Lincoln of our literature,” and Hemingway claimed that “all modern American literature” came from Huckleberry Finn. Twain wrote plays, novels, short fiction, and a sprawling, experimental autobiography; he was an essayist, journalist, performer, public intellectual, and raconteur. As a writer, Samuel Clemens became what he claimed James Fenimore Cooper was not, “a word musician,” discovering poetry in the American vernacular, and, in the persona of “Mark Twain,” authoring his most singular and lasting creation.

General Overviews

While there is always an abundance of materials about Twain and his writings, there are a number of works that provide valuable overviews of various aspects of his writings, his use of humor, and his particular interests. Each has a different emphasis, Anderson 1971 and Budd 1999 (both cited under Reception History) emphasize his reviews, while Cox 1966 provides an overview of his earliest to his later writings. Camfield 2003 is subject-driven, and Gibson 1976 looks at the multiple genres Twain chose for his prose palette. Quirk 2007 and Robinson 1986 explore central issues in Twain’s writings—human nature and deception, respectively, and Smith 1962 examines his extraordinary development as a writer. All provide interesting and accessible entree into Twain’s thoughts and prose.

  • Camfield, Gregg, ed. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    An essay collection containing worthwhile pieces by multiple writers on censorship, critical reception, realism, etiquette, performance, and technology, among other subjects. There is also a useful bibliography and chronology of Twain’s life, work, and times.

  • Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.

    Excellent account of the development of Twain’s humor from his earliest sketches to his unfinished manuscript, The Mysterious Stranger. Cox’s study remains valuable for its examination of the growth of Twain’s humor from easy targets to more sophisticated social commentary. Includes a useful chronology of Twain’s major works. Reprinted in 2002 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press).

  • Gibson, William M. The Art of Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

    A survey of Twain’s literary achievements in the many modes and genres he chose. Discusses various approaches to interpreting his works, with copious attention paid to his shorter pieces.

  • Quirk, Tom. Mark Twain and Human Nature. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.

    A study about Twain’s preoccupation with human nature, divided into six chronological eras containing historical landmarks. Quirk includes a mention of social scientists whose theories particularly interested Twain: William E. H. Lecky, William James, and Charles Darwin. He also documents Twain’s evolving thoughts within his literary works and notebooks.

  • Robinson, Forrest G. In Bad Faith: The Dynamics of Deception in Mark Twain’s America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

    The social dynamics of “bad faith” consists of self-deceptions that take place when public ideals are violated. Focusing on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Robinson examines an underlying theme: the dissonance between one’s beliefs, one’s actions, and how behavior is interpreted. He investigates Twain’s dark perspective regarding humankind’s nature, as well as Twain’s complicated relationship with his audience.

  • Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1962.

    Chronological account of Twain’s career as a writer, discussing his best-known works. Smith contends that Twain struggled between his era’s conventionalism and his work as a humorist, and he demonstrates how this tension played out in works from The Innocents Abroad to Puddn’head Wilson. Twain’s development from an anecdotal storyteller to an acerbic satirist is documented.

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