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Mark Twain: Exploring His Life and Work with Primary Sources

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A stereograph of Mark Twain, taken in the last years of his life

Mark Twain’s reputation spans the centuries: He spent much of his lifetime as one of the most famous writers in the United States, and his works continue to appear in classrooms, as well as in debates over the curriculum. Even now, more than a century after his death, the discovery of an unpublished Twain tale has led to the publication of a new children’s book, which is the subject of an upcoming program at the Library of Congress.

It comes as no surprise that a figure of such lasting renown would be well represented in the online collections of the Library. By exploring Twain’s works, as well as the accounts and portraits of Twain by others, students can examine the many different roles this author played in his lifetime and gain a sense of the many traces he left on the nation’s literary and cultural history.

Twain’s rise to fame coincided with the rise of photography, and by some reckonings he was one of the most photographed Americans of the nineteenth century. Photographs of Twain can provide students with insights into the ways in which he was perceived and portrayed, while caricatures, cartoons, and other illustrations of the author provide additional points of view. Browse a selection of Mark Twain images here, and ask students to consider what they might learn from the differences between the varied perspectives on the author they present.

“The Autobiography of Mark Twain,” from the New-York Tribune, 1907

Twain lived much of his life in the public eye, and newspapers enthusiastically documented his travels, his business troubles, and his many opinions. The Library’s historic American newspapers project, Chronicling America, includes a healthy selection of journalism about Twain. You might ask your students to examine the ways in which Twain is portrayed in these accounts and to identify the ways in which they differ from the ways in which he is perceived today.

Reading articles about Twain is no substitute, however, for reading articles by Twain himself. Twain began his writing career as a journalist, and his tall tales and satirical sketches appeared in newspapers throughout his life as an author. Chronicling America has a collection of his newspaper work here. You might ask students to look at the other materials that appear on these newspaper pages–news stories, advertisements, and other features–and decide what inferences they can draw about how Twain’s work was being presented by the newspapers’ creators. Was he seen as a comic entertainer? A political commentator? A literary author?

Once students have whetted their appetite with some of Twain’s lighter pieces, they may be ready to tackle the novel often hailed as his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They can leaf through a copy published in 1885 page by page on the Library’s web site. In preparation, you may want to visit an earlier post on this blog that includes strategies for addressing the controversies that have accompanied this book since the nineteenth century.

Please let us know what other Twain-related resources you discover, and share your students’ insights in the comments!




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