Where do we put Mark Twain? In the pantheon of great American authors, of course – you can’t imagine American literature without him – but once that’s established, where precisely does he belong? Forcing him to keep company with other 19th century greats such as Hawthorne or Melville seems all wrong. For that matter, putting him in the company of almost any fiction writers seems off, a point complicated by the fact that not only do his novels and stories not strongly resemble other American fiction, they do not resemble each other to any great degree. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are both novels about boyhood, but otherwise they could not be more different (sometimes it seems as though he wrote Huck to make amends for Tom Sawyer, a novel about the upper South in the mid-19th century that says almost nothing about slavery).
Twain does have his literary heirs, as Hemingway pointed out in his famous proclamation that all American literature comes from one book, Huck Finn. But Hemingway was saying, I think, that Twain taught American writers that it’s all right to use the American vernacular, a lesson that kicked open an important door for a lot of authors. Weirdly, Twain himself was not one of them. Huck, for all its greatness, is a one-off. He never wrote another book like it. So, the one novel of his that we can call influential cannot be called representative.
The more Twain you read, the more confusing it all becomes. He was superbly funny, and his humour doesn’t date, but who else among great American writers is funny? Thurber and Faulkner? That pretty much calls the roll. And even the question of humour gets complicated, because while it is never merely a side dish or a sauce, neither is it always the main course. We think of him as a novelist, a travel writer, a memoirist, and an essayist, but no one would argue that he was first and foremost any of those things. In fiction alone, he wrote realism, fantasy, historical romance, even a fictional biography of Joan of Arc. Is there any other American writer who specialized less in any genre, or achieved more in so many?
His greatest single work, to my mind, is Life on the Mississippi, a book that contains autobiography, history, travel writing, humour, and even fiction, if you include the flatboat scene that he nicked from Huck. Ironically, that book comes closer than any other to exemplifying Twain because it defies taxonomy. It is a work that only he was equipped to write, a book that only he would have thought of writing, and like the man himself, it stands majestically alone.
Photograph © A. F. Bradley