Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Resurrection

Dear Readers,

I just wanted to check in to make sure that you are still reading my blog. You never know when an important new item will show up here, even more than 1 year after the last. I also got a strange email in Hungarian from Google that was regarding my blog. As always, please leave comments! The first to do so wins a special prize.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Samuel Clemens's short bio

Born on November 30, 1835, Samuel Clemens grew up in the town of Florida, Missouri. Missouri was a slave state and Sam’s father owned a slave, so naturally slavery contributed to Clemens’s development. After completing fifth grade in 1847, Clemens left school to work for the local newspaper, arranging the stories for printing. In 1853, Sam went to New York City, where he worked for more newspapers and contributed articles as well. This was his first professional writing job. After that, he took a job working on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. His experiences there influenced his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Next, he joined the Confederate Army but quit after two weeks. His experience there contributed to his adamant pacifism later in life. Then in 1861, Clemens’s brother Orion was appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Clemens accompanied him to Nevada, where he tried his hand at silver mining, hoping to strike it rich, but he never succeeded. He started working for the Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise, where he first used his pen name Mark Twain.
            Clemens’s first large success was his short story, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog”, which was published countrywide. After that, he was hired by the Sacramento Union to report on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). His articles became more and more popular. He was next hired to visit Europe and the Middle East by the Alta California. Samuel Clemens married Olivia Langdon in 1870. He took a job working for the Buffalo Express in Buffalo, New York, and then in 1871 moved to Hartford, Connecticut where he wrote many of his novels. One book he co-wrote, The Gilded Age, criticized the obsession with getting rich, while at the same time Clemens enjoyed a huge, expensive, new house.
            Samuel Clemens’s largest downfall was when he became bankrupt in 1891 due to bad investing. His friend Henry Rodgers, a principal at Standard Oil, helped Clemens to get in money in order after that. Clemens still wanted to pay back his debts so he set off on an expansive lecture tour around the world to earn money. He finally returned to the United States in 1900 after earning enough money to pay everyone back. On August 21, 1910, Samuel Clemens died of a heart attack.
            Other events that could have affected Clemens’s writing are the deaths of his first two daughters and his wife in 1896, 1909, and 1904.
            Twain’s literary influences include Charles Dickens and the Gothic romance style, Thomas Paine and the revelatory style, and Josh Billings and the humorist style. Twain is most associated with humorous or satirical writing and his onomatopoeic habit of depicting dialect, which contribute to his renown as a pillar of American literature and language.

Gribben, Alan. "Samuel Langhorne Clemens." American Short-Story Writers Before 1880. Ed. Bobby Ellen Kimbel and William E. Grant. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 74. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Feb. 2010.

The Mark Twain House. "Biography." The Mark Twain House. Web. 30 Mar. 2010. .

Monday, March 15, 2010

Roughing It

Roughing It should almost be called The Adventures of Mark Twain. Written thirteen years before Huck Finn, it is easy to see how one novel leads to the other. Roughing It is a semi-autobiographical work detailing Twain’s travel and exploits when heading west, much like how Huck Finn tracks Huck’s adventures down the river.

The story begins in 1861, when Twain’s brother is appointed secretary of Nevada Territory. He and Twain take a stagecoach in two weeks from Independence, Missouri, to Carson City, Nevada. In mood for adventure, Twain heads to Virginia City to try his luck at silver mining, but fails to strike it rich. Soon after that, he gets his first job as a writer for the newspaper The Territorial Enterprise. Thus he spirals into his career as a writer.

To readers of Huck Finn, one passage that Twain confers when he is 250 miles past Salt Lake City is puzzling and seemingly hypocritical: “…we came across the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen, up to this writing. I refer to the Goshoot Indians. From what we could see and all we could learn, they are very considerably inferior to even the despised Digger Indians of California; inferior to all races of savages on our continent’ inferior to even the Terra del Fuegans; inferior to the Hottentots, and actually inferior in some respects to the Kytches of Africa”(632). After reading Finn, this kind of racism feels very characteristically unlike Twain. From the same person who makes the case for Jim in Finn, how can the simple racism of naming all Indians as inferior come? Perhaps Twain thought that American Indians were inferior but blacks were equal to whites? Is it that Twain’s ideas changed between when he wrote the two books? Did he only include this passage for humor (“Goshoot Indians” seems like an attempt at humor)? This one puzzles me and if you have any ideas please add a comment below to edify me.

Readers of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court will know how Twain is a skeptic—demonstrated in how The Boss never trusts magicians or others who claim to know secret magic. Similarly they will know him as a humorist and satirist. We get a taste of that in Roughing It when he discusses The Book of Mormon: “Some people have to have a world of evidence  before they can come anywhere in the neighborhood of believing anything; but for me, when a man tells me that he has ‘seen the engravings which are upon the plates,’ and not only that, but an angel was there at the time, and saw him see them, and probably took his receipt of it, I am very far on the road to conviction, no matter whether I ever heard of that man before or not, and even if I do not know the name of the angel, or his nationality either”(619). Twain’s biting sarcastic tone conveys his skepticism of religion quite humorously. Even though he is only criticizing Mormonism here, Twain’s skepticism can be extended to almost any religion, and it is probable that he did not go any farther because to Christianity was popular at the time.

Much like how he makes fun of southerners in The Adventures of Huck Finn, Twain disparages the hopeful miners in Nevada as he recounts the tale of every miner’s dream, to find the fabled Whiteman cement mine: “The tradition was that […] three young Germans […] sat down to rest one day, when one of them noticed a curious vein of cement running along the ground, shot full of lumps of dull yellow metal. […] I saw a piece of cement as large as my fist which was said to have been given to Whiteman by the young German, and it was of a seductive nature. Lumps of virgin gold were as thick in it as raisins in a slice of fruit cake”(719). Whoever could believe in such this as a cement mine filled with gold would have to be as dumb as the rock of cement itself, which itself evens knows that it hails from Whiteman’s creation. Twain thusly greatly exaggerates the gullibility of the miners and suavely pokes fun at them, never as obviously as in Finn. Later in the book he details the laziness of the miners. They will post many claims, but dig a few feet into each one before moving to a new claim. Perhaps he Twain was just frustrated to never strike it rich himself.

As in Huck Finn, Twain conveys his progressive nature and view of the cowardice of courts in Roughing It. He believes that by requiring that jurors have not heard any details of a case they are picked for, the jury vetting process eliminates intelligent people, who are likely to have read newspaper reports of crimes before they make it to trial, and includes ignorant and stupid jurors who are illiterate and thus haven’t read newspaper reports. “Why could not the jury law be so altered as to give men of brains and honesty and equal chance with fools and miscreants?” (783). Twain suggest a change to the status quo, thus revealing progressivism. This particular fervor stems from a case where an obvious murderer is found Not Guilty, which is very similar to occurrences referenced to in Huck Finn by Sherburn. Sherburn claimed that jurors would not convict out of cowardice. It is such a similar situation in Roughing It that one cannot help but wonder whether the scene in Huck Finn evolved out of the one in Roughing It. This one adds the idea that perhaps ignorant men are cowardly and intelligent men are brave. But is that a valid conclusion? Doesn’t everyone express cowardice in the same way, by allowing what seem to be small transgressions because it would take too much effort to stop, like letting yourself be robbed a penny at a time. Oh yeah, Twain despise laziness, too.

In a display of Twain’s pure humor and a remark of his on human nature I close my blog post. Near Virginia City, Twain and his companions embark on a curious adventure. A flood and snowstorm strike them at nearly the same time, and as they head back from the miners’ inn to the city, the get lost in the snow. Finally, their last fourth matches burn out without starting a fire. Resigned to death, the three huddle together and drift off to sleep. When Twain wakes up and realizes he isn’t dead, he makes a remarkable discovery: “I rose up, and there in the gray dawn, not fifteen steps from us, were the frame buildings of a stage station, and under a shed stood our still saddled and bridled horse!”(702). Other than being a humorous tale, this encounter serves to relate Twain’s thoughts on human nature, namely the blindness and tunnel vision that so many of us possess. We get locked into one way of thinking, trap ourselves, and resign to a fate. High schoolers can especially identify with this. So many of us focus on colleges, test scores, and grades for so long that to do poorly seems like the end of the world. But its not, just like it was not the end of Twain’s life.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Huckleberry Finn #2

When Huck is in Arkansas he says that "what a body was hearing amongst [the men] all the time was: 'Gimme a chaw 'v tobacker, Hank.'
   'Cain't; I hain't got but one chaw left. Ask Bill'"(139).
In this passage Twain makes fun of the poor southerners by representing them as buffoons. He makes fun of the same poor whites who ignorantly accept slavery when they themselves are, economically, slaves to the wealthy. Spat on from above by the landowning class, the poor whites want to feel powerful, too, so they spit on the blacks below them. Twain's comment is equally on the pathological insecurity of the poor whites, which can also be seen today. Some Americans claim that we have the best healthcare system in the world. When you look at the facts, that simply isn't true. Those Americans are so insecure about their flawed healthcare system, and so filled with worry that they might not be able to pay their bills, that the only way to resolve the situation is to lie to themselves and to everyone else and claim that their poor system is the best.

After Sherburn kills the drunk Boggs, a lynch mob surrounds his house. He is standing on the roof above the door with a shotgun. He addresses the crowd: "'The idea of you lynching anybody! It's amusing. The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a man!'"(146). Using Sherburn as a mouthpiece, Twain shows his opinion of the common person as cowardly and his thoughts on mob mentality. Twain believes that mob mentality can make people do something that they normally wouldn't do themselves, such as kill a person. He believes that most people try to avoid conflict as much as possible and will only stand up for themselves when it is easy to do so or when it is hard not to do so, such as when there is a mob behind a person. Sherburn, furthermore, seems to idolize the idea of a man without cowardice. But does Twain? He certainly doesn't admire those who acquit murderers, but he also seems to dislike the "man who goes in the night to lynch the rascal". He also disparages armies who fight "with courage that's borrowed from their mass, and from their officers". Twain appears to condemn all violence in this passage.

The last sentence of the novel, narrated by Huck is, "But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before"(294). Knowing they would be the last words read, Twain must have crafted these words to be meaningful. And lo: showing a disdain for the status quo or what he has experienced in the past, Huck is showing a hunger for the new. He wants change, much in the same way many Americans do today. Huck is of the mind that the next day can always be better than the last. Twain reveals himself in this passage as an optimist, an improver, and a striver. He doesn't want to settle for what we have today because it's good enough. He wants everything to keep getting better. He doesn't want to fall back to tradition. In this passage, Twain as a progressive is apparent.

One of the first times Huck shows deeper moral understanding than Kohlberg's Stage Four of following the law in order to prevent chaos comes when he promises not to turn in Jim. He says: "'I said I wouldn't, and I'll stick to it. Honest injun, I will. People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don't make no difference. I ain't a-going to tell, and I ain't a-going back there, anyways'"(43). Hucks shows real, strong morals. He understands the law and he understands society's potential reaction to his act, but to him it is a higher moral to keep his word to Jim. This shows him reaching above Kohlberg's Stage Four, an act of true moral development. Beneath Huck's moral growth, Twain's statement is apparent: law is not sacred just because.

The moment of moral realization of the novel is when Huck decides not to turn in Jim:
It was a close place. I took . . . up [the letter I’d written to Miss Watson], and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. (214)
 Here is when Huck finally decides that he does not agree with society's rules and shows evidence of morals above following the law. Twain's message is quite clear: always question the law, other people, and yourself. Just because the law is such a way doesn't mean that you can't be the one to make everyone else realize what is wrong with the law. The same can be said for other people and society. Regarding questioning oneself, Huck spent plenty of time figuring out himself. Twain asks that you ponder your own motivations for a while before you decide to act.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Twain writes Huck Finn after slavery was abolished during reconstruction, but it is set in the time of slavery. Twain's portrayal of race relations during slavery is a criticism of the race relations that were "turning south" again in his time.

Twain communicates that racism is learned and not natural by showing a child's off-put reaction to slavery. Twain shows the impersonality needed to support racism: when Huck gets to know Jim personally he cannot turn him in.

Twain also ponders morality in his novel. At first, Finn lives in Kohlberg's second level of moral development, the conventional level. He shows interest in following laws, placing him at or around stage four, authority and social-order maintaining orientation.. Then shows hints of stage five, social contract orientation, when he runs from his father, whom has broken his social contract. Finally, Finn breaks free of stage four and ascends to stage four and a half or four plus, when he decides not to turn in Jim from realizing that he does not agree with society's decision that slavery is okay. Twain wants readers to consider their own moral development and relate it to Finn's.

Twain is a writer but chiefly a humorist. In the middle portion of the book, his portrayal of poor Southerners as buffoons incapable of recognizing a fleecing who are only interested in chaws of tobacky is meant to dig on their ignorant acceptance of slavery when they don't realize that they have more in common with the black slaves than the rich white landowners. As poor people spat on from above by the landowning class, they wanted someone to spit on below them, so they accepted the enslavement of blacks as it created a social class lower than themselves. Twain's use of humor is thus highly effective in communicating the tragic irony of the situation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The last of The Long Valley

In this eclectic mix of short stories set in the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck explores the biting sadness of loss, the yearning desire for freedom, the aggravating feeling of loneliness, the anxiety of flight, the perverseness of malice, the pleasures of warmth, and the merit in honor. Flowing together beautifully, fourteen stories mark the pages of Steinbeck's The Long Valley. Highlights include “The White Quail”, in which Mrs. Teller struggles with self-expression through her immaculate garden; “Flight”, in which PepĂ© realizes the weight of manhood; and “The Red Pony”, in which Jody encounters loss and Billy wrestles with vow.

More on Twain

Books by Mark Twain that I have read:
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
I plan to read:
  • Roughing It