Professor Susan Harris - Mark Twain

Hall Distinguished Professor emerita of American Literature, University of Kansas.

Mabel Fry Teaching Award, 2006

Henry Nash Smith Award, 2005

Selected Works

  • Mark Twain, the World, and Me (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2020).

  • God’s Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902 (Oxford, 2011).

  • The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain (Cambridge, 1996).

  • 19th-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretive Strategies (Cambridge, 1990).  

  • Mark Twain's Escape from Time: A Study of Patterns and Images (Missouri, 1982).

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Episode #1

Q:  How did you become interested in Mark Twain?

A:  It was an accident!  When I was a graduate student, searching for a dissertation, I wanted to write about Melville.  But my committee said, “don’t do a one figure dissertation; choose at least one more writer.” So I chose Mark Twain. As I wrote my dissertation and then as I wrote my first book afterwards, I became increasingly interested in Twain.

Episode #2

Q: What made Twain so unique in his lifetime?

A: That’s a complicated question requiring a multifaceted answer. We have to think first about his contexts, both his literary context and his cultural context. His literary education was broad. He was a voracious reader, steeped in English literature, especially Shakespeare and the King James Bible. He also read European writers, including Don Quixote, echoes of which we can see in his writings.  The United States context was even more complex. During the years of Twain’s youth (he was born in 1835), there was a call to create a uniquely American literature, one that reflected the diversity, including the linguistic diversity, of the United States. Twain was one of the many writers who answered that call, drawing on speech patterns, dialects, and characters from across the U.S. racial and ethnic spectrum.

Episode #3

Q: How was Twain transformative?

A: He was listener with a very keen ear for how people spoke. So one thing that he did--and I think this is where he is transformative—is that he removed the narrative framework from his vernacular tales.  Here’s the literary history: up to the appearance of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the traditional way to communicate vernacular characters was via a framing narrator—generally a fairly literate standard-English speaker who was often somewhat contemptuous of rural people. That narrator introduces the vernacular character by way of anecdote, on the order of, “I was traveling down the Mississippi River by steamboat, and there was this backwoodsman who amused the passengers with his stories.”  He then gives the narration over to the vernacular character, who tells his (or her) story in dialect.  At the end of the story, the frame narrator takes back the narration, making sure that he retains power.  In that way, the narrator acts as an intermediary—a buffer--between the reader and the vernacular character, thus maintaining social, or class, difference. But in Huckleberry Finn, there is no framing narrator. Huck speaks to us in his dialect and from the depth of his own vernacular values. And in doing so, he gives us a uniquely American voice, one from his time and social place. I think Huck’s voice is what Hemingway was referring to when he said that all real modern American literature comes from one book, Huckleberry Finn. In effect, Mark Twain loosed the vernacular on the world, giving it vocal power. If you think of that in tandem with the idea of popular democracy, that’s a truly transformative act.

Episode #4

Q: Was Twain on a mission to portray America to the rest of the world?

A: I’m not sure he has a destiny at first—that’s a pretty far reach for a young writer! During his lifetime he was probably better known for his travelogues than for his novels. In a way he invented the American in Europe, the tourist, the traveler. I remember when I first read Innocents Abroad, which was first published in 1868. I kept laughing because what he was portraying was still true—the bumbling American tourist, the crafty European guides and shop-keepers still existed when I read it fifty years ago.  Thematically, Innocents portrayed the clash of future-oriented, scientifically-minded Americans with the backward-looking, faith-oriented Europeans. In many ways Twain was portraying Americans to themselves more than to the world.  Americans were brash, often philistine, but they were also the people of the future.

Episode #5

Q: Do people still read Twain?  If so, why does he still resonate today?

A: People do read Mark Twain. Most people would say that Twain still resonates because he is funny—and he is. But his humor comes through his extraordinary grasp of the English language, which he learned from all the reading he had done all his life, and from all the listening to how people around him spoke. His linguistic fluidity, his imaginativeness, his fearlessness in creating words from other words, all made him stand out from other writers of his time. He was also a superb landscape artist, able to render a unique sense of place through language. All of these skills position him at the top of prose stylists in the United States. And with the linguistic facility, there is this biting humor that often blasted hypocrisy, pretension, and racism. He had an acute sense of the human condition, and he rooted universal human foibles in the specifics of time and place. That’s why his characters, bizarre as they may seem, also feel familiar.

Episode #6

Q: How did Twain view the Jewish people & did this evolve over time?

A: 

I think you can track Twain’s evolution with Jews in the same way you can track his evolution with African-Americans. He was born into a slave-holding society and he inherited an essential racism.  He also inherited a knee-jerk antisemitism that mirrored his racism and was typical of the people around him.  But he traveled, and lived in cities, and socialized with educated African Americans and with Jews. In 1898-1899, he spent fourteen months in Vienna, where he was involved with circles of highly educated Jewish intellectuals—doctors, philosophers, scientists—Sigmund Freud, for instance. And this changed him, just as meeting people like Frederick Douglass had changed his ideas about African Americans.

I should note that in contrast, Twain never got over his racism concerning Native Americans, and I think it was because he never had a chance to know educated American Indians.  As he noted himself, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness.”

Episode #7

Q: What led him to write the essay, Concerning the Jews?

A: “Concerning the Jews” was written in the wake of Twain’s time in Vienna in 1898-99. He had already published one essay (“Stirring Times in Austria”) about the intense factionalism permeating the Austrian parliament and Austrian society in general. One of his observations concerned the prevailing antisemitism; whenever the various factions needed someone to scapegoat, they blamed the Jews.  One reader wrote to Twain asking why, since there were no Jews in Parliament, the legislators should still blame the Jewish community.  That’s what prompted “Concerning the Jews.” It was, and remains, a very problematic essay.  Overall, the Jewish response to it was,“with friends like this, who needs enemies?” Twain thought he was defending the Jews, but all he was doing was polishing old stereotypes.  For instance, he noted that because Jews were perceived as having money, they were accused of being stingy and greedy.  Instead of noting that by far the bulk of Jews, especially in the U.S. and eastern Europe, were very poor, he insisted that Jews were rich because they were smarter than Christians.  As you can imagine, this wasn’t very helpful.  But it does show how hard it can be to shed yourself of inherited prejudices.

Full Interview - Professor Susan Harris