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Twain: Huckleberry Finn

1. Origins: Twain's Life and Career

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About this Lecture


In this module, we think about the origins of Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain's life and career up to 1884, when the novel was first published. In particular, we focus on: (i) what the book is about, its influence on American literary culture; (ii) Twain's early life in Hannibal, Missouri, and the importance of the River Mississippi on which the town stood; (iii) Twain's early career: first as a printer, then as a steamboat pilot, his journey from St Louis to New Orleans; (iv) the importance of the Mississippi as a trade route, especially for transporting enslaved people to and from the slave market in New Orleans; (v) Twain's early experience of the slave trade; (vi) the symbolism of the Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn; (vii) the impact of the Civil War on Twain: his move west, his adoption of the pen name 'Mark Train', his first published work; (viii) the legacy of the Civil War, and the extent to which key questions were still unanswered at the time Twain was writing Huckleberry Finn; and (ix) Twain's continued success as a writer, his marriage, family, and his foray into children's literature including the Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).


In this course, Professor Thomas Ruys Smith (University of East Anglia) explores Mark Twain's 1884/5 novel, Huckleberry Finn. In the first module, we think about the origins of Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain's life and career up to 1884/5. In the second module, we think about what kind of book Huckleberry Finn is, before turning in the third module to the text itself and thinking about Huck and Jim's journey down the Mississippi. In the fourth module, we think about the novel's problematic and controversial ending, before turning in the fifth module to the novel's critical reception, from the very first reviews in 1885 to the criticism of individuals such as Alan Gribben, Jane Smiley, and Toni Morrison.


Thomas Ruys Smith is Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of East Anglia. His primary field of research and teaching expertise is nineteenth century literature and culture, both American and Transatlantic. Frequently, his research is focused around the life and culture of the Mississippi River. His first book, River of Dreams: Imagining the Mississippi Before Mark Twain (Louisiana State University Press, 2007) was an interdisciplinary examination of the different roles played by the Mississippi in antebellum American culture. His second book, Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century (Continuum, 2011), was an exploration of the life and culture of one of America's most fascinating cities during a crucible period in its history. His latest monograph, Deep Water: The Mississippi River in the Age of Mark Twain (LSUP: 2019), is the first book to provide a comprehensive narrative account of Twain's intimate and long-lasting creative engagement with the Mississippi.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Ruys Smith, T. (2021, March 22). Twain: Huckleberry Finn - Origins: Twain's Life and Career [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Ruys Smith, T. "Twain: Huckleberry Finn – Origins: Twain's Life and Career." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 22 Mar 2021,