Why is Mark Twain so important?
Visitors to Hannibal learn quickly that Mark Twain (whose actual name was Samuel Clemens) is not just another famous American author. He's THE giant of American literature which in fact includes a long list of authors alive and dead who allude to Twain's work in their own great novels. Since I taught English literature at the high school and college level, I understand well why Twain deserves this status. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, are just three modern American masterpieces that owe a lot to Mark Twain.
Basically, for those who are American and uninformed, or foreign and curious, Mark Twain is at first the most authentic American author writing in the American dialect, and so is the rough equivalent of England's Shakespeare, Spain's Cervantes, Russia's Pushkin, France's Dumas, Italy's Dante, and so on.
Twain was first a newspaper reporter and short story comic. His adventures of Tom Sawyer, and countless western and travel stories are thick with social and political wit.
More importantly, Twain followed the example of the great Cervantes by adapting the picaresque novel, a theme of self-discovery among rogue companions, by travel in America's heartland. Like Don Quixote, Twains' characters amuse the audience as they stumble into chance but profound discovery of themselves and society.
In Huckleberry Finn, a 10 year old white boy runs away from home, collaborates and "protects" black Jim, who is also seeking freedom from brutality of slavery. In chapter after chapter, Twain studies a variety of social ills, while Huckleberry Finn earns his manhood through protecting a man marked by society. Meanwhile, it is actually subservient black Jim who navigates the raft on the turbulent Mississippi, seemingly wrong direction--south and toward New Orleans, the slave auction capital. By facing many risks, Jim earns his freedom in the most meaningful way, until ironically news arrives that his master had written a will to set him free.
Thus, Twain's use of authentic American vernacular for the adventure down America's greatest waterway--the Mississippi, results in a brilliant analysis of America's deepest political controversy--slavery and racism. Copies of Twain's works are available for free on-line. To get most out of reading Huckleberry Finn, the modern reader is advised to read slowly and to take advantage the wealth of critical explanations, chapter by chapter, also available on-line. One hundred years out, Twain's works are not easy reading, but they are well worth the effort.