Mark Twain still a giant of literature

Although the news of his death is no longer exaggerated, Mark Twain is as much a giant of American literature and culture as ever. ¶ Born Samuel Clemens in the tiny town of Florida, Mo., he became internationally acclaimed for such books as Roughing It, The Prince and the Pauper and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Today is the 175th anniversary of his birth, and he's back in the headlines. Here are five good reasons Twain is still relevant today.

Still a bestseller

Twain may be the first author to hit the bestseller lists with a new book a century after his death. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, a 736-page scholarly tome published this month by the University of California Press, is a surprise success — with more than a quarter-million copies in print, it's still sold out almost everywhere. Twain specified that his complete memoirs not be published until 100 years after his death (in 1910), and apparently a lot of readers have been waiting eagerly.

Still controversial

Twain's best-known work, and the one often cited as the Great American Novel, is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It also holds the honor — one that would no doubt delight the author — of being one of the most frequently challenged and banned books in libraries and schools. These days it's most often challenged for its use, in characters' speech, of the "N" word, but in 1885, the year it was published, Huck was criticized as a poor role model partly because he befriended a black man.

Ernie was a fan

Although Huckleberry Finn remains controversial, it also got major props from a man who knew a little about writing novels himself. "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. ... All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since," Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Green Hills of Africa.

His sense of humor

Twain's writing is beloved for many reasons, but chief among them is his raucous, satirical and quintessentially American sense of humor. In his honor, the Kennedy Center began presenting the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 1998. This year's winner is Tina Fey, whose acceptance speech was censored for broadcast because of a couple of cracks she made about a politician. I'd love to hear Twain's comment on that.

From one entertainer to another

Twain, a hugely popular entertainer as well as a writer, has provided a long career to actor Hal Holbrook, who has been portraying the author on stage and screen in the one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! since 1954. The show, which Holbrook also wrote, won a Tony and an Emmy, toured around the world and has had Broadway runs from 1966 to 2006. Holbrook, who first undertook the role when he was barely 30, is now 85 — and will perform it again tonight at the Clemens Center in Elmira, N.Y.

Mark Twain still a giant of literature 11/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 8:35am]

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