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MARK TWAIN: THE FIRST TRULY AMERICAN WRITER

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Twain helped define the rhythms of prose and the contours of American moral map. Twain’s quirky, ambitious, strikingly original fiction and nonfiction engaged some of the perennially thorny, messy challenges we are still grappling with today - such as the challenge of making sense of a nation founded on freedom by men who held slaves...

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2015-09-08

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Introduction

  William Faulkner called Mark Twain “the first truly American writer”; Eugene O’Neill dubbed him “the true father of American literature.” Charles Darwin kept Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” on his bedside table, within easy reach when he wanted to clear his mind and relax at bedtime. Joseph Conrad often thought of Life on the Mississippi when he commanded a steamer on the Congo. Friedrich Nietzsche admired Tom Sawyer. Ernest Hemingway claimed “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn”. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the phrase “New Deal” from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a book which led science fiction giant Isaac Asimov to credit Twain (along with Jules Verne) with having invented time travel. When José Martí read Yankee he was so moved by Twain’s depiction of “the vileness of those who would climb atop their fellow man, feed upon his misery, and drink from his misfortune” that he wanted to “set off for Hartford (Connecticut) to shake his hand.”

   Twain has been called the American Cervantes, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and etc. From the breezy slang and deadpan humor that peppered his earliest comic

sketches to the unmistakably American characters who populated his fiction.   Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was America’s literary Declaration of Independence, a book no Englishman could have written — a book that expanded the democratic possibilities of what a modern novel could do and what it could be.

   Twain helped define the rhythms of prose and the contours of American moral map. Twain’s quirky, ambitious, strikingly original fiction and nonfiction engaged some of the perennially thorny, messy challenges we are still grappling with today - such as the challenge of making sense of a nation founded on freedom by men who held slaves; or the puzzle of our continuing faith in technology in the face of our awareness of its destructive powers; or the problem of imperialism and the difficulties involved in getting rid of it. Indeed, it would be difficult to find an issue on the horizon today that Twain did not touch on somewhere in his work.

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§1. MARK TWAIN: THE FIRST TRULY AMERICAN WRITER

   Realism was described by an American journalist Ambrose Bierce as “the art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads” and having “the charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring worm.” That definition would have delighted Mark Twain , born Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910), because of its mordant wit and because all of his work could be seen as a series of negotiations between realism and romance. He relied, frequently and frankly, on personal experience: in accounts of his travels, for instance, like The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), and A Tramp Abroad (1880). Even those books of his that were the results of strenuous imaginative effort can be read as attempts to resolve his inner divisions, and create some sense of continuity between his present and his past, his critical investment in common sense, pragmatism, and progress and his emotional involvement in his childhood and the childhood of his region and nation.

   The inner divisions and discontinuity were, in fact , inseparable. For all of  Twain’s best fictional work has to do with what has been called “the matter of Hannibal”; that is, his experiences as a child in the slave holding state of Missouri and his years as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi.   This was not simply a matter of nostalgia for the good old days before the Civil War, of the kind to be found in other, simpler writers born in the South like, say, Thomas Nelson Page or Richard Malcolm Johnston (1822–1898). Nor was it merely another example of the romantic idealization of youth, although Twain did firmly believe that, youth being “the only thing worth giving to the race,” to look back on one’s own childhood was to give oneself “a cloudy sense of having been a prince, once, in some enchanted far off land, & of being in exile now, & desolate.”    It was rather, and more simply, that Twain recognized intuitively that his years as a boy and youth, in the pre-Civil War South, had formed him for good and ill. So to explore those years

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was to explore the often equivocal nature of his own vision. It was also, and more complexly, that Twain also sensed that the gap, the division he felt between his self and his experiences before and after the war was, in its detail unique of course, but also typical, representative. So to understand that gap, that division, was to begin at least to understand his nation and its times.

1.1.Overview: Biography and Writing

Twain moved with his family to the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri

when he was 4. A small town with a population of about a thousand, Hannibal was

a former frontier settlement that had become a backwater. Leaving school at the age of 12, Twain received his real education as a journeyman printer; and, having spent his first eighteen years in the South, he began to travel widely. His travels eventually brought him back to the Mississippi where, in the late 1850s, he trained and was licensed as a riverboat pilot. After his years in Hannibal, this was the most formative period of his life.

   “I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since,”Twain was to say later, in Life on the Mississippi (1883). “The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in earth.” Piloting taught Twain lessons in freedom that were to be immensely valuable to him later. But when the Civil War began, the riverboats ceased operation and, after a brief period serving with a group of Confederate volunteers, he traveled west. There, he spent the rest of the war prospecting for silver with his brother and then working with Bret Harte as a journalist in San Francisco. It was while working as a journalist in the West, in 1863, that he adopted the pseudonym Mark Twain. And in 1865 he made that name famous with the tall tale, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”   Brief though it is, the tale is notable not least because it reveals many of the vital ingredients in Twain’s art: the rough humor of the Southwest and Western frontier, a recognizable teller of the tale (in this case, a character called Simon Wheeler), above all, a creative use of the vernacular and the sense of a story springing out of an oral tradition, being told

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directly to us, its audience. Twain now began touring the lecture circuits. His lively personality and quotable remarks made him immensely popular. His lecture tours also reinforced his habit of writing in the vernacular, the American idiom: “I amend the dialect stuff,” he once said, “by talking and talking it till it sounds right.” His first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867), appeared just before he set sail on a trip to Europe and the Holy Land. This was followed by his account of that trip, in Innocents Abroad, his humorous depiction of his travels west in Roughing It, and a satirical portrait of boom times after the Civil War, The Gilded Age (1873), written in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner.

    Twain first turned to the matter of Hannibal in a series of articles published in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Old Times on the Mississippi.” Revised and expanded, with new material added (some of it, as Twain candidly admitted, “taken from   books” by others, “tho’ credit given”), this became Life on the Mississippi eight years later. What is remarkable about the essays and the book is how Twain turns autobiography into history. In his account of his own personal development, the author distinguishes between the romantic dreamer he once was, before training as a pilot, who saw the Mississippi merely in terms of its “grace,” “beauty,” and “poetry,” and the sternly empirical realist he became after his training, when he could see the Mississippi in more pragmatic terms – as a tool, to be used and maneuvered. That same model, contrasting the romance of the past with the realism of afterwards, is then deployed to explain larger social change: with the South of the author’s childhood identified with romance and the South of his adult years, after the Civil War, associated with realism – enjoying a sense of “progress, energy, and prosperity” along with the rest of the nation. The key feature of this contrast, personal and social, between times before the war and times after, is its slippery, equivocal nature.

 The glamour of the past is dismissed at one moment and then recalled with elegiacregret the next, the pragmatism and progress of the present is welcomed

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sometimes and at others coolly regretted. No attempt is made to resolve this contradiction. And similar, if not precisely the same, confusions are at work in The

Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a book clearly based on the author’s childhood years in Hannibal, renamed St. Petersburg.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

§2. «The Adventures of Tom Sawyer»

  «The Adventures of Tom Sawyer» Sawyer (1876), a book clearly based on the author’s childhood years in Hannibal, renamed St. Petersburg. At the time of writing Tom Sawyer, Twain’s uncertainty about his purposes was signaled by the fact that he changed his mind over who the book was intended for, adults or children. “It is not a boy’s book at all,” he wrote to his friend William Dean Howells, “It will only be read by adults.” But then he announced, in his preface, “my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls. I hope that it will not be shunned by men and women on that account.” That uncertainty is then registered in the narrative. There is immediacy in some of the language, but there is distance in much of it, an attempt to sound sophisticated, mature, refined: characters do not spit, for example, they “expectorate,”clothes are“accoutrements,” breezes are “zephyrs,” buildings are “edifices.” There is the stuff of childhood fantasies (the delicious thrill of overhearing regretful adults mourn your untimely death, bogeymen, the discovery of treasure) and the staple of adult discourse (the tale of Tom and Becky, for instance, is a parody of adult courtship).

   There is the tendency, on the part of the anonymous narrator, to be ironic and

patronizing about the “simple-hearted” community of St. Petersburg and its “small

plain” buildings. And there is also an impulse toward elegy, toward seeing that very same place as “a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.” The only attempt to resolve these contradictions is also the one Twain resorts to in Life on the Mississippi: to impose on his material the notions of personal development and

social betterment – in other words, the myth of progress. Tom turns out to be, in

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the words of his Aunt Polly, not “bad, so to say – only mischeevous.” By the end of the story, he has shown his true mettle by assuming the conventional male protective role with Becky and acting as the upholder of social justice. The integrity and sanctity of the community is confirmed, with Tom’s revelation of the villainy of Injun Joe and the killing of the villain. And Tom is even ready, it seems to offer brief lectures on the advantages of respectability: “we can’t let you into the gang if you ain’t respectable, you know,” he tells his friend, Huck Finn. That this attempt to resolvethe divisions of the narrative is less than successful is evident from the fact that Tom Sawyer, like Life on the Mississippi, is interesting precisely because of its discontinuity.

  It is also implicit in the author’s intuitively right decision to give equal weight at the end of the story to the voice of the outlaw, Huck, as he tries to resist Tom’s persuasions. “It ain’t for me; I ain’t used to it,” Huck tells Tom: “It’s awful to be tied up so.

 §3.  “Huckleberry Finn”: main themes, motives, problems, language.

   The voice of Huck, the voice of the outsider, that begins to be heard at the end

of Tom Sawyer takes over completely in what is without doubt Twain’s greatest work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, begun in 1876 and published in 1885.      Twain began Huckleberry Finn simply as a sequel to Tom Sawyer, with several narrative threads carried over from the earlier work. Even as he began it, however, he must have realized that this was a very different, more authentic work. For the   manuscript shows Twain trying to catch the trick, the exact lilt of Huck’s voice.         “You will not know about me,” the first try at an opening, is scratched out. So is the second try, “You do not know about me.” Only at the third attempt does Twain come up with the right, idiomatic but poetic, start: “You don’t know about me.”      Like a jazz musician, trying to hit the right beat before swinging into the full melody and the rhythm of the piece, Twain searches for just the right voice, the right pitch and momentum, before moving into the story of his greatest vernacular

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hero. The intimacy is vital, too: in a way that was to become characteristic of American fiction, the protagonist addresses “you” the reader directly, in terms that appear spontaneous, sincere, unpremeditated. We are drawn into this web of words in a manner that convinces us that we are enjoying an unpremeditated, vital relationship with the hero. The spontaneity is also a function of the narrative structure. Twain once said that he relied on a book to “write itself,” and that is the

impression, in the best sense, given by Huckleberry Finn. The story has a structure, of course, that of the picaresque narrative (Don Quixote was one of Twain’s favorite books), but that structure is as paradoxically structure less as the structure of, say, Moby-Dick or “Song of Myself.”

 The book flows like the Mississippi, at a constantly altering pace, in unanticipated directions; new characters, episodes, incidents pop up without warning, old characters like Jim or Tom Sawyer reappear just when we least expect them to. Like the great works of Melville and Whitman, too, Huckleberry Finn remains an open field, describing an open, unstructured and unreconstructed spirit. It does not conclude, in any conventional fashion. Famously, it ends as “Song of Myself” does and many later American narratives were to do: looking to the open road, with the hero still breaking away – or, as Huck himself has it, ready to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.”

   Twain later described Huckleberry Finn as “a book of mine where a sound heart

and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers a defeat.” The central moral dilemma Huck has to face, in this deeply serious, even tragic comedy, is whether or not he should betray his friend, the escaped slave Jim, by revealing Jim’s whereabouts to other whites, including Miss Watson, his owner. For much of the narrative, Huck is equivocal. Sometimes he sees Jim as a slave, as property that should be returned; and sometimes he sees him as a human being and a friend, requiring his sympathy and help. And the vacillation stems from Huck’s uncertainty over what takes priority: the laws of society, his social upbringing which, however patchily, has shaped his conscience, or the promptings of his own

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heart, his instincts and feelings as an individual. The book is about the historical injustice of slavery, of course, and the social inequity of racism, the human use or denial of human beings.

  But it is also about the same fundamental conflict. Huck must choose between the law and liberty, the sanctions of the community and the perceptions of the individual, civil and natural justice. He chooses the latter, the lessons learned from 

his own experience, the knowledge of his own rebellious heart. In doing so, Huck reflects his creator’s belief at the time in aboriginal innocence, the purity of the asocial – and asocial or presocial creatures like the child. And he also measures the

extent of the creative triumph, since Twain manages here a miracle: that rare thing,

a sympathetic and credibly virtuous character. The sympathy and credibility stem

from the same source: Huck is a grotesque saint, a queer kind of savior because he

does not know he is doing good. His notions of right and wrong, salvation and

damnation, have been formed by society. So, when he is doing good he believes that he is doing evil, and vice versa. His belief system is at odds with his right instincts; hence, the terms in which he describes his final decision not to betray Jim. “All right, then,” Huck declares, “I’ll go to hell.”

  Twain’s strategies for shifting Huck’s conflict from the personal to the mythic are several. Easily the most important, though, is his own, almost certainly intuitive,variation on the contrast between the clearing and the wilderness: the riverbank and the river. The riverbank is the fixed element, the clearing, the community. On the riverbank, everyone plays a social role, observes a social function; either without knowing it. Everyone is obsessed with appearances and disguises, and uses language to conceal meaning and feeling from others and themselves. Everyone behaves like an actor who has certain lines to say, clothes to wear, things to do, rather than as an independent individual. It is a mark of Huck’s individuality, incidentally, that, on the riverbank, he is constantly forgetting the role he is playing, who he is supposed to be. Everyone, in short, denies their essential humanity on the riverbank, and the humanity of others: here, Jim is not a

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human being, he is the lowest form of social function, a slave. What adds to the power of this portrait is that, as with the account of the Puritan settlement in The Scarlet Letter, it is simultaneously mythic and historical. This is society, the machinery of the social system seen from the standpoint of individualism. It is also a very specific society, that of the South before the Civil War. Drawing on the

devices of the Southwestern humorists, but exponentially developing them, Twain

offers a brilliantly detailed satirical picture of the Old South: poor whites like Pap

Finn and the people of Bricksville, middle-class farmers like the Phelps family,

wealthy planters like the Grangerfords – and, of course, the slaves.

 But it is also a satire on one particular kind of social “style” that Twain knew only too well. It is a tragic account of what, generally, happens when people stop seeing and testing things for themselves, as individual human beings. But it also a very American tragedy about a moment in American history when a sense of humanity and individuality was lost, with terrible consequences for the nation.

  The river, the fluid element and the medium for escape for Huck and Jim, is, of

course, Twain’s version of the mythic wilderness. It is a place where Huck can enjoy intimacy with Jim and an almost Edenic harmony with nature. Recasting Huck as an American Adam, Twain shows his hero attending to the moods of the river and its surroundings and, in turn, projecting his own moods in and through those natural surrounds. Huck appears to enjoy a separate peace here on the river, a world apart from rules, codes, and clock time, where “lazying” becomes a positive activity. Free from the post lapsarian compulsion to work, Huck can simply be and wonder: live, meditate, and marvel at the miracle of the particular, the minutiae of life. It is in these episodes on the river that the indelible connection between the voice of Huck and his values becomes clear. Huck scrupulously, instinctively tells it as it is. He sees things as they are, free of social pretence or disguise. He describes things as they are, not cloaked in the rhetoric of society. So he can judge things as they are, not as the social system would tell him to judge them. It is also in these episodes that Huck’s power as a syncretic figure becomes clear. Huck Finn

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brings together and synthesizes the warring opposites of Twain’s earlier work.  Huck is a focus for all his creator’s nostalgia, all his yearnings for childhood, the lost days of his youth, the days before the Civil War and the Fall; and he is also, quite clearly, a projection of Twain’s more progressive feelings, the belief in human development and perfectibility – he suggests hope for the future as well as

love of the past. Again, this is measured in the language of the book, in that it is precisely Huck’s “progressive” attention to the use and function of things that

gives his observations such color and immediacy. His words do not deny the beauty of things: the glory and splendor, say, of a sunrise on the Mississippi River. But neither do they deny that things are there for a purpose. On the contrary, they acknowledge that each particular detail of a scene or moment has a reason for being there, deserves and even demands recording; and they derive their grace and force from that acknowledgment. The language Huck is given, in short, is at once exact and evocative, pragmatic and poetic: it reveals things as they are, in all their miraculous particularity. And Huck himself, the speaker of that language, comes across as a profoundly realistic and romantic figure: a pragmatist and a dreamer, a simple figure and a noble man – a perfect gentle knight, who seems honorable, even chivalric, precisely because he sticks closely to the facts.

 As many commentators have observed, the last few chapters do represent a decline – or, to use Hemingway’s more dismissive phrase, “just cheating” – in the sense that Huck is pushed to one side of the action, and Tom Sawyer is permitted to take over and reduce the issue of Jim’s slavery to the level of farce. For all Huck’s occasional protests at Tom’s behavior, or his famous final declaration of independence, the comedy loses its edge, the moral problems are minimized, and the familiar divisions in Twain’s writing begin to reappear. There

are many possible reasons for this, but one possible one is that Twain was perhaps beginning to have doubts about the effectiveness and viability of his hero.

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 §4. «Huckleberry Finn».It’s role and importance for American Literature.

  No author before Twain had been able to blend the American condition in such a fascinating and engaging manner. It is not surprising then, that 115 years later, close to 1,000 different editions of Huck Finn have been published since the novel first appeared as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade). The translations number more than 100, and the amount of scholarly articles and books continue to dominate the study of American literature. Critical interpretations run the gamut from expansive social commentary of post-Reconstruction in the South, to linguistic interpretations of the African-American voice, to exploration of dark humor and the mythical trickster character. The book has continued to invite exegesis and ignite controversy, and its position as an American classic appears to be ensured.

  Simply put, the book continues to thrive because of its original narrative style, its realistic subject matter, and its depiction of loyalty and sacrifice, regardless of the consequences. Unlike former southwestern humor characters, such as George Washington Harris' Sut Lovingood and Johnson J. Hooper's Simon Suggs, Huck does not rely upon an authoritative, gentleman narrator to introduce the story or help explain its significance. There is no doubt that Twain drew heavily upon his literary predecessors for inspiration, but Huck's story is his own. He tells it from his own boyish point of view, free from any affectation, underlying motive, or purpose. In doing so, Twain created a completely original American voice. Twain did more, however, than depict a realistic version of an average American boy, he also presented the squalid and cruel environment of the South in a brutal and raw manner, including its use of the horrid and offensive term, "niggers." The unabashed narrative approach to racism and the American condition prompted American author Langston Hughes to comment that Twain's work "punctured some of the pretenses of the romantic Old South." By allowing Huck to tell his

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own story, Twain used his realistic fiction to address America's most painful "sacred cow": the contradiction of racism and segregation in a "free" and "equal" society.

   What is the most rigorous law of our being?” Twain asked in a paper he delivered the year Huckleberry Finn was published. His answer? “Growth. No smallest atom of our moral, mental or physical structure can stand still a year. ... In other words, we change - and must change, constantly, and keep on changing as long as we live.”

 This child of slaveholders who grew up to write a book that many view as the most profoundly anti-racist novel by an American clearly spoke from his own experience. Troubled by his own failure to question the unjust status quo during his Hannibal childhood, Twain became a compelling critic of people’s ready acceptance of what he called “the lie of silent assertion” — the “silent assertion that nothing is going on which fair and intelligent men are aware of and are engaged by their duty to try to stop.” Experience also taught him not to underestimate the transformative power of humor.   The greatest satirist America has produced wrote that the human “race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication ,  Persecution - these can lift at a colossal humbug -push it a littlecrowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

Conclusion

Mark Twain endures because he is greater than any of his possible classifications-  philosopher, literary comedian, world traveler, realist, Naturalist, hoaxer, novelist, vernacular humorist, after-dinner speaker-with  which he might be labeled. He did practically everything that was expected  of a man of letters in his age, and he generally acquitted himself well in every  department. He gave his countrymen pride in themselves, their humor, their literature. And he elevated the station of his calling: among Twain's achievements, one of his grandest was his

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success in making literary humor seem like a respectable profession. His wealth, his Nook Farm home, his fraternal relations with the influential and the lionized-

these and other signs of status laid a benediction on his career so lasting that all subsequent authors of comic sketches, stories, and novels owe him a large debt. He rescued the funnyman from the smudged-print pages of Billings, Phoenix, and Nasby and restored him to the honored tradition of Benjamin Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell. Moreover, Twain mixed seriousness and comedy so subtly in works like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court that he himself did not always understand his initial intentions, and he thus educated publishers and reviewers and readers about the deeper possibilities of humor, preparing American audiences for John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Thomas Berger, John Barth, and others. American literature would have flourished without Mark Twain's contributions.

  Yet it would be stuffier, less redolent of the river and the West, less alluring. He has given us, along with rich impressions of life on rafts, steamboats, stage coaches, railroad cars, and ocean ships, a reassurance that we are not travelling into some black hole of the future, that we have a renewable and accessible past that guarantees a sane and attainable future. By finding amusement in the writings and speeches of one American figure of the nineteenth century, we assuage disturbing anxieties about our historical and cultural isolation when we contemplate with misgivings the dawning age of computer technology, biological engineering, and galactic transportation. If we can palpably touch the steamboat pilot's wheel with Mark Twain, then our grip on the spaceship controls of the twenty-first century feels surer as we extend our capacity to shuttle a supply of  humor into the farther reaches of human history.

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Literature

1. Gray R.J. A History of American Literature, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012

2. Borges L. British Literature American Literature

3. MARK TWAIN: The First Truly American  Writer. Commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death

4.Cox, James. “Remarks on the Sad Initiation of Huckleberry Finn.” Sewanee Review. Vol. 62 (1954) 389-405.
5.

Contents

Introduction…………………………………………………………………….2

§1. MARK TWAIN: THE FIRST TRULYAMERICANWRITER……………3-4   

1.1.Overview: Biography and Writing………………………………………….4-6

§2. « The Adventures of Tom Sawyer»………………………………………….6-7

§3.  “Huckleberry Finn”: main themes, motives, problems, language………… 7-12

§4. «Huckleberry Finn».It’s role and importance for American Literature………………………………………………………………………12-13

Conclusion…………………………………………………………………..13-14

Literature……………………………………………………………………15


 

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