Mark Twain and American Humor
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Division: The New School for Public Engagement
School: School of Undergraduate Studies
Course Number: NLIT 3331
Course Format: Lecture
Location: NYC campus
Permission Required: No
The works of Mark Twain offer rich commentary on 19th-century American culture in addition to their intrinsic aesthetic merits. American humor, which at the time was still close to its folkloric origins, is integral to Twain's writing. We begin by considering the shaggy dog story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country" and the outlandish burlesque and social commentary of Roughing It. We then enter into Twain's Mississippi River writings from the period of his greatest literary success. Old Times on the Mississippi describes Sam Clemens' days as a cub pilot. Twain further mines his youth for Tom Sawyer, an idyllic celebration of childhood (and a subtle, ironic depiction of the American dream), and for Huckleberry Finn, a poignant quest for moral certainty in a corrupt world. Episodes of rollicking humor carry much of the narrative in all three works, but the comedy grows darker and the satire sharper in each successive work.