The realism and humor of Mark Twain is the result and culmination of Southwesterm humor. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, his life began in the small village of Florida, Missouri-- moving to Hannibal, Missouri within a few years. It was Hannibal that served as Twain's model town for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Twain was apprenticed to a printer in 1847 and by 1850 was working with his brother Orion's newspaper, the Hannibal Journal.
It was on May 1, 1852 that Twain wrote his first story--a Southwestern humor sketch. "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" was published in the Boston Carpet-Bag and was Twain's first published literary work. Soon after this, Twain left to become a journeyman printer and traveled throughout the north until his well known decision to become a river boat pilot on the Mississippi River in 1857. After a short stint with the Confederate Army in 1861, Twain spent the next six years in the West as a miner, newspaper reporter and writer. It was during these years that Twain developed his insight and appreciation for the Southwestern way of life through personal experience. "Jim Blaine and His Grandfather's Old Ram"and "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" are Southwestern humor sketches that Twain penned soon after.
The best of American humorists, Twain employed his exposure to early Southwestern humor in his writing through a blending of its facets into his own style. Whereas early Southwestern humor sketches created a "gentleman" narrator who condescendingly described a "frontier clown" figure, Twain fused the two characters. He transforms the vernacular figure and the narrator into one character who no longer condescends to laugh at the expense of others, but who creates humor from his own mishaps and naivete. This character allows for a more complex psychological study of societal issues and allows Twain to examine the American mind with more complexity than earlier Southwestern humorists.
Although some portions of Twain's work are considered violent by contemporary readers, his emphasis on brutal behavior is greatly diminished when compared to the work of early Southwestern humorists. An audience consisting of many female readers may be one factor in this change. Early Southwestern humor was predominately circulated through Porter's Spirit of the Times. This nineteenth-century sporting magazine undoubtedly addressed a predominately male audience who typically enjoyed the rough humor of the sketches. Yet Twain's audience knew no limitation--appealing to male and female, adult and child--requiring more decorum within the social boundaries of the day.
Twain is an American icon. He is equally familiar to Americans today as in his prime over one hundred years ago. This popularity is due to an appeal which transcends regional boundaries as well as generational changes. Unlike early Southwest humorists, Twain is not a vehement Southern secessionist nor a passionate literary advocate for a particular political party. On the contrary, Twain grapples with the problematic issues relevant to all regions of the country in his time and ours.