Mark Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens), was an American author, humorist, and lecturer who is widely considered one of the greatest writers in American literature. His works are known for their humour, satire, and social commentary, and his writing style was marked by his use of colloquial language and regional dialects.
Born on 30 November 1835, Mark Twain’s books contain autobiographical elements featuring real places and experiences from his own childhood. Throughout his life, Twain was a passionate advocate for social justice and known for his outspoken opinions on politics and religion. His literary contributions and whimsical tales greatly impacted American literature, with his works challenging the fundamental issues facing America at the time including racism, class barriers, access to education and the country’s evolving landscapes. Much of his work is still relevant today.
Here’s a breakdown of 10 of his most significant books, in chronological order.
1. The Innocents Abroad
This book chronicles Twain’s experiences on a steamship trip he took to Europe and the Holy Land, and is both a travelogue and a humorous and satirical commentary on American cultural attitudes of the time.
Through his witty observations and humorous anecdotes, Twain skewers the pretensions and foibles of his fellow travellers as they navigate unfamiliar cultures and historical landmarks. A central theme is Twain’s preoccupation with the the modern world profiteering from places of historical significance.
The Innocents Abroad was an immediate success (one of the most successful during Twain’s lifetime) helping to cement Twain’s reputation as a master of American humour and satire.
2. Roughing It
Roughing It is a semi-autobiographical account of Twain’s travels and adventures in the American West, and is a humorous and entertaining read.
The book details his experiences as a young man working as a silver miner, journalist, and stagecoach driver in the rough and tumble frontier towns of Nevada and California. Through his humorous and often irreverent prose, Twain provides a vivid portrayal of the people and places he encountered, including Mormon settlers, Native Americans, and mining communities.
The book also features Twain’s iconic wit and satirical commentary on American society and politics of the time, and is an enduring portrait of the American West.
3. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
This book is a coming-of-age story set in a small town on the Mississippi River, and is a classic of American literature and a beloved children’s book.
Set in the fictional town of St Petersburg, Missouri (based on Hannibal, Missouri, where Twain lived as a boy), the novel follows the mischievous exploits of young Tom Sawyer and his friends as they navigate boyhood in the mid-19th century. Famously Sawyer’s antics include tricking a group of local boys into whitewashing his Aunt Polly’s fence for him, yet later, when Sawyer and Huck Finn witness a murder they fear for their lives when the killer escapes from his trial.
The book is known for its vivid portrayal of small-town life in America, as well as its humour, adventure, and themes of friendship, childhood innocence, and social norms.
Originally a commercial failure, the book ended up being one of the best-selling of Twain’s works during his lifetime, and was one of the first novels to be written on a typewriter. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a timeless work that continues to captivate readers of all ages today and is a symbol of American cultural history.
4. A Tramp Abroad
This travelogue chronicles Twain’s trip to Germany, Switzerland, and Italy through the Swiss Alps in 1878/79, and is known for its humorous anecdotes and satirical observations on European culture and customs.
Through his vivid descriptions and witty prose, Twain paints a colourful picture of the people and places he encounters, including the famous Matterhorn mountain and the Black Forest.
A Tramp Abroad and is somewhat of a sequel to The Innocents Abroad. It also features Twain’s musings on language, art, and the human experience, which make it a thought-provoking, entertaining read.
5. The Prince and the Pauper
This classic work of historical fiction tells the story of two boys from different social classes – Tom Canty, a pauper, and Prince Edward, the heir to the throne of England – who switch places and experience life from a new perspective.
The Prince and the Pauper explores themes of identity, social class, and the power of empathy and understanding, and is known for its engaging narrative, vivid descriptions of Tudor-era England, and Twain’s trademark humour and satire.
6. Life on the Mississippi
Life on the Mississippi is a memoir and travelogue chronicling Twain’s experiences as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River in the 19th century, navigating the river’s ever-changing currents. It is a vivid and detailed account of the river and its surrounding landscapes, as well as and the people who lived and worked on it – providing a commentary on American culture and society at the time.
7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered a masterpiece of American literature and is unquestionably Twain’s most influential work, offering a scathing critique of racism in the pre-Civil War South.
The novel follows the journey of Huck Finn, a young boy from a small town in Missouri (a runaway committed to escaping his abusive, alcoholic father), and his friend Jim (a runaway slave), as they navigate the Mississippi River and encounter various characters and adventures along the way. The book is known for its commentary on slavery, racism, and American society in the mid-19th century, as well as its vivid descriptions of the natural world.
Portions of the work were written in vernacular English, and the book was widely criticised upon release because of its extensive use of coarse language. Throughout the 20th century (and despite arguments that the protagonist and the tenor of the book are anti-racist and powerfully against the institution of slavery), criticism of the book continued due to its perceived use of racial stereotypes and its frequent use of racial slurs.
However, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains a timeless classic and is seen as one of the greatest books of all time.
8. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
This satirical novel provides a commentary on the social and political issues of Twain’s day, using the conceit of time travel to transport a 19th century man to medieval England – maintaining a farcical tone throughout.
The story follows Hank Morgan, a practical and modern-thinking 19th-century man from Connecticut who finds himself transported back in time to King Arthur‘s court in the 6th century. Armed with his knowledge of science and technology, Hank attempts to improve the lives of the people in the court and challenge the status quo by introducing superior warfare technology, ultimately challenging the power of the Catholic Church.
The book is known for its witty commentary on medieval society and its critique of societal structures that limit individual freedom and progress, and acts as a deep criticism of our ability to romanticise the past.
9. Pudd’nhead Wilson
Pudd’nhead Wilson is a novel that explores issues of identity, race, social injustice and class. The story is set in a small Missouri town and follows the lives of two boys, one born into slavery and the other into privilege, who are switched at birth – inevitably their stories collide.
Whilst the novel features Twain’s trademark wit, it also delves into more serious themes through its exploration of the impact of race and social class on the lives of the characters. Pudd’nhead Wilson remains a thought-provoking work of American literature and is a testament to Twain’s ability to weave complex issues into engaging and entertaining storytelling.
10. Following the Equator
Following the Equator is Twain’s final travelogue and a memoir that chronicles his journey around the world, including stops in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa.
The book contains humorous anecdotes and a satirical commentary on colonialism and imperialism, as well as Twain’s observations on the people and cultures he encountered. Through his engaging prose and vivid descriptions, Twain offers readers a glimpse into the beauty and diversity of the world, as well as its complex and often troubling history.