(This is a digital version of an exhibit that graduate students in the Department of English mounted
in the Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture during 2010.

Below: Illustration of Mark Twain from Life magazine (13 July 1905), special color insert; Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Papers of Mark Twain (MSS 6314).

The assignment I gave the graduate students enrolled in the seminar "Mark Twain in His Times" was this: to create an exhibit of materials from Special Collections that would explore Twain's significance for America -- the nation that made him the first American idol. They took it from there. The resulting exhibit -- drawn largely from the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature -- focuses on the relationship between the nation's culture and Twain's achievements during the lifetime of Samuel Clemens (1835 - 1910), the man behind the pen name. Each student has identified a pair of items that manifests the ways the author's imagination and the preoccupations of American culture symbiotically affected one another. — Stephen Railton

Click on any item below to view a larger image.

Celebrating Life on the River

The significance of steamboats in nineteenth-century America is reflected in W.G. Lyford's Western Address Directory and Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. Lyford's text provides readers with contact information for merchants in riverfront cities, such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, and contains a listing of steamboats "on the western waters." Twain's personal copy of Life on the Mississippi includes his notes made in preparation for an oral performance. His marginalia describe the "gallant steamers" of "30 or 40 years ago" and how they "vanished after the railway's rise."
      — Sean Ruday

Top: W. G. Lyford, The Western Address Directory (Baltimore: J. Robinson, 1837). Gift of H. Cabell (E165 .L99 1837)
Bottom: Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (Boston: Osgood and Company, 1883). Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (PS1314 .A1 1891). Author's personal copy

Exploring the Western Frontier

From 1861 to 1867, during the rush for silver, Mark Twain lived in the Nevada Territory and elsewhere in the American West. These experiences served as the impetus for Roughing It, his second travel narrative. In this 1862 letter to his brother, Twain sketched the mining country in Esmeralda, Nevada, much as a surveyor might. In a U.S. government report on "the most practicable route for the railroad," a survey drawing depicts California, where tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad began to be laid in 1863. By the time Twain published Roughing It in 1872, the railroad had been completed, having paved the way for American "progress."
      — Audrey Golden

Top: Letter from Mark Twain to Orion Clemens, 22 June 1862. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Papers of Mark Twain (MSS 6314)
        REST OF LETTER –     PAGE 2     |     PAGE 3     |     PAGE 4
Bottom: Survey drawing from Reports of explorations and surveys to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean (Washington, D.C.: B. Tucker, 1855-1860), vol. 7 (F593. U58 1855b)

Re-imagining the American Hero

In August 1865, in the wake of the conclusion of the Civil War and President Lincoln's assassination, Harper's New Monthly Magazine published "Abraham Lincoln's Personal Recollections." The essay contributed to the phenomenon of American myth-making by ignoring Lincoln's original reluctance to emancipate the slaves. Mark Twain, whose reputation steadily grew in postbellum America, understood that although slavery no longer existed in the U.S., its influences would long echo in the country's memory. During Reconstruction, Twain wrote "George Washington's Negro Body-Servant," an article satirizing the frequently republished obituary of Washington's body servant, George, whose existence reminded Americans that Washington -- an American hero -- owned human beings. Even as he seems certain the death notice will resurface, Twain remarks, "let him stay buried for good now."
      — Kirsten L. Paine

Top: Illustration for Alger, "Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln" in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (August 1865), vol. 31, no. 182, pp. 222-223. (AP2 .H3)
Bottom: Mark Twain, "George Washington's Negro Body-Servant: A Biographical Sketch," The Galaxy (1866), vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 154-156. (PS1322 .M451 1870 no. 4)

Naming the Gilded Age


The Gilded Age -- the title of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's novel -- endures as the name of an era in the United States (roughly from 1865 to 1901) that saw the rise of a tycoon class, specious speculations, industrial expansion, and pervasive political corruption. Reprinted in the biography of muckraking cartoonist Thomas Nast, a cartoon shown here illustrates the downfall of a circle of financiers and politicians who illicitly profited from westward industrial development. The corruption Nast helped expose is the focus of Twain's only novel to directly critique contemporary politics. Character Colonel Sellers's improvised railroad map depicting common household items is a comical portrayal of upward mobility achieved by tenuous investments. Despite the fact that Twain, like Nast, is remembered as a great satirist, The Gilded Age is rarely read today.
      — Jenny Elizabeth Braun

Top: Railroad map from Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age; a Tale of Today, fully illus. from new designs by Hoppin, Stephens, Williams, White, etc. (Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1873). Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (PS1311 .A1 1873b)
Bottom: Cartoon from Albert Bigelow Paine, Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1904). Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (PS2708 .Z9P253 1904)

Entertaining America on the Road

Billed as "an amusing and instructive pastime," the Portrait Artists Card Game contains thirty-two pairs of cards - one displays a picture of the author and the other a matching biography. Mark Twain is categorized as a humorist. His biographical card mentions his early journalism career and lists recent works, including "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, and The Gilded Age. The card also notes Twain's 1873 lectures in London and refers to his growing international status.
After a decade-long hiatus, Twain re-embarked on the lecture circuit with friend and fellow writer, George Washington Cable, in order to promote his forthcoming novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The "Twins of Genius" performed in eighty cities across the United States and Canada in 1884 -1885. During the tour, Cable suggested to Twain that he read Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, which later influenced Twain's writing of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
      — Lisa McGunigal

Top: Portrait Artists Card Game, 1873. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (PS138 .P67)
            BACK OF CARD     |     GAME BOX COVER
Bottom: Signed Publicity Photograph for the "Twins of Genius" Lecture Tour, 1884-1885. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (MSS 6314)

Creating American Boyhood


Boyhood was an American preoccupation in the nineteenth century. Like many other novelists of the time, Horatio Alger, Jr. wrote about well-behaved boys, who rose from "rags to respectability." By contrast, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer was rambunctious and mischievous. Alger's 1883 book, Abraham Lincoln: The Backwoods Boy, or How a Young Railsplitter Became President, depicts a boy who -- at first glance -- looks like he could be in Tom Sawyer's gang. But the "awkward, sad-faced, ragged boy" leaning against the cabin is Abraham Lincoln, who "would forty years later sit in the chair of Washington, and become one of the rulers of the earth." While Alger tried to teach boys to behave well, Mark Twain celebrated the adventurous boy, even when he misbehaved.
      — Anna Ioanes

Top: Horatio Alger, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, The Backwoods Boy; or, How a Young Railsplitter Became President (NY: John R. Anderson & Henry S. Allen, 1883). Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (PS1029 .A3A6)
Bottom: Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Hartford, Chicago, Cincinnati: The American Publishing Company, 1876). Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (PS1306 .A1)

Illustrating Race in America

Whether or not Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is an anti-racist or racist novel remains a subject of debate even today. However, the novel's original illustrations portray the African-American character Jim in decidedly unenlightened terms. The New York artist, Edward W. Kemble, used a local white teenager as a model for all of the novel's 174 illustrations. The model's apparent delight in posing as Jim -- "He would jam his little black wool cap over his head, shoot out his lips and mumble coon talk all the while he was posing," Kemble wrote -- is evident in the novel's stereotyped depictions of the character. Kemble's illustrations were so popular with readers and reviewers in Twain's time that they established the artist as the preeminent illustrator of African Americans. Hundreds of Kemble's caricatures appeared in magazines and newspapers over the next few decades, suggesting the extent to which Twain's text influenced racial representation in post-Reconstruction America.
      — Jean Franzino

Top: Kemble Illustration in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Co., 1885). Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (PS1918 .A9 H9 1885)
Bottom: E. W. Kemble, Comical Coons (New York: R.H. Russell, 1898) (NC1429 .K42 1898)

Investigating Race Pseudo-scientifically

Father of eugenics and cousin to Darwin, Sir Francis Galton published the first scientific look at fingerprints in 1892. Twain, living on the cheap in Italy and excited by Galton's project, worked the conceit of the identification of a human being by means of "finger marks" into his novel Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). In the work, two antebellum infants, one white, one 1/32 black, are switched in the crib and raised conversely as slave and master. Twain made use of Galton's murky science to untangle the chaos of racial confusion in the plot, but, in the process, suggested that blackness was inherently criminal. The marginal illustrations for the first American edition of Pudd'nhead depict the racially indistinguishable babies with their "natal autographs."
      — Kenny Williams

Top: Francis Galton, Finger Prints (London: Macmillan and Co., 1892). (GN192 .G22 1892)
Bottom: Mark Twain, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins (Hartford, Conn.: American Pub. Co., 1894). Taylor Collection of American Best-Sellers, Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor (1894 .C44 T7)

Critiquing Imperialism

In 1898, American journalist Murat Halstead published The Story of the Philippines and Our New Possessions. In this celebratory account of U.S. involvement in the Pacific sphere, Halstead employs pro-imperialist language, reflecting the commonly held view of the time that America should consolidate its empire and secure its place as a world power. First published in 1901 in the North American Review, Mark Twain's essay, "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," was later reprinted and distributed in pamphlet form by the Anti-Imperialist League of New York. In the essay, Twain sharply criticizes U.S. and European imperialist projects in China, Cuba, South Africa, and the Philippines. The essay's title ironically refers to Matthew 4:16, a Bible verse frequently cited by missionaries, whom Twain disdained.
      — Lauren Hauser

Top: Murat Halstead, The Story of the Philippines and Our New Possessions (Chicago: H.L. Barber, 1898). (DS659 .H19 1898a)
Bottom: Mark Twain, To the Person Sitting in Darkness (New York: Anti-Imperialist League of New York, 1901). Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (PS1322 .T62 1901)

Mark Twain Lives On

Although Samuel Clemens died on April 21, 1910, "Mark Twain" is still a living part of our national consciousness. These last three items -- curated by the class as a whole -- reflect some of the ways America keeps returning to "Mark Twain" to entertain, represent, and define itself.


  Over the last century, Twain's life and works have inspired the creation of more than 100 feature films and television movies. The 1930s -- when sound technology and color photography made Hollywood the capital of American entertainment -- marked the heyday for films featuring Tom Sawyer. David O. Selznik produced Tom Sawyer for United Artists the year before he made Gone with the Wind for MGM. Both films depicted the Old South in new "American Technicolor." American moviemakers have continued to interpret Twain's texts. For instance, in the years after the Civil Rights movement, Huck Finn became Twain's most filmed text. In 1990, the classic American cartoon character Mickey Mouse played both leads of the Disney animated film, The Prince and the Pauper, based on Twain's 1881 novel.
  In 1985, 100 years after the publication of Huckleberry Finn, the musical Big River opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York City, winning seven Tony awards and running for 1,005 performances. Despite dozens of dramatizations of Mark Twain's works, including the recent Broadway premiere of his own play Is He Dead?, Big River marked the first intersection of Twain's imagination with the musical, a quintessentially American art form. While the play revels in glossy, exuberant song-and-dance numbers, it also grapples with the complicated racial undercurrent in Twain's novel by putting Huck and Jim's friendship in the spotlight. The iconography of the white boy and black man on the raft has now become as familiar as Mark Twain's face, but such images were not widely reproduced until the mid-twentieth century.
  During his lifetime, Mark Twain was a familiar presence in dozens of American periodicals. Even today, magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic know that putting Twain on the cover is good for sales. When he appeared on Time's seventh annual "Making of America" issue on July 14, 2008, Twain became the first writer recognized as a founder of American culture (previous choices included Franklin, Jefferson, and Lincoln). The magazine's articles emphasized his presence in our times, as the original of political humorists like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, as the critic of imperialist wars, and as a spokesman for enlightened racial attitudes. Interestingly, the "Mark Twain" described in Time is someone his own contemporaries would hardly have recognized; many of the passages quoted in the magazine are from works that Twain withheld from publication during his lifetime.

Top: Lobby card for the David O. Selznik Production of Tom Sawyer (1938). Courtesy of Dave Thomson.
Middle: Song Book for Big River (1985); Music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hautpman
Bottom: Cover, Time Magazine (14 July 2008)

We would like to thank Kelly Miller, of the David and Mary Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture, and George Riser and Petrina Jackson, both of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, for their generous assistance with this exhibit.