In this lesson, students will learn about Mark Twain’s career as a journalist, novelist, and humorist. After viewing a video about his life, students will examine a caricature of Twain from the humor magazine Puck and will read a letter he wrote to a close friend and fellow author. The lesson concludes with students writing a Twain-style piece about a contemporary issue.
20 - 40 minutes
- Unique - one of a kind
- Bustling - moving or acting full of energy
- Masterful - self-willed and powerful
- Halt - to stop
- Influential - having or exerting power over others
- Prospect - to search or explore for minerals
- Unpretentious - modest or plain
- Chronicle - to record in order of events
- Zany - whimsically comical
- Turbulent - showing disturbance or disorder
- Insightful - displaying the ability to see into inner characteristics and truths
- Hypocrisy - the behavior of people doing things they tell others not to do
The Gilded Age was a period in late 19th century American history characterized by vast differences in wealth between rich industrialists and ordinary people, many of whom lived in extreme poverty. The term “gilded age” was coined by Mark Twain in a book he co-authored with that title. The term refers to an American society characterized by a glittering surface of greedy elites who, along with corrupt public officials, indulged in luxuries, while ordinary people struggled to meet basic needs.
Learn more about the Gilded Age:
Background on Mark Twain | Storyteller, Novelist, and Humorist
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. At age four, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a large town on the Mississippi River where the steamboats came. As a young boy, he dreamed of becoming a steamboat pilot, navigating the fancy boats from city to city up and down the Mississippi River. It was a steady, well-paying, and exciting career.
However, his father died in 1847, and 12-year-old Twain left school to work as a typesetter for a newspaper in order to earn money for his family. At the newspaper, he dabbled in writing, sometimes publishing his own articles. Over the next decade, Twain worked as a printer at newspapers in numerous U.S. cities.
Nevertheless, in 1857, he returned to Hannibal and became a steamboat pilot apprentice—a dream come true! He earned his license in 1859, but the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 put a halt to river trade, and cut short his career.
In the summer of 1861, Twain boarded a stagecoach headed to Nevada to try his luck at silver mining. While in Nevada, he rekindled his desire to write, becoming a journalist for the local newspaper, the “Territorial Enterprise.” There he adopted his pen name, Mark Twain (a steamboat term meaning “second mark” on the depth measuring line, that indicated 12 feet of water—a depth safe enough for a steamboat to pass through).
In 1865, Twain was sent as a correspondent to the exotic Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii. His articles on Hawaii were so popular that when he returned to the United States, he went on a lecture tour, getting paid to tell stories about his experience of the islands.
He next worked as a correspondent in Europe and the Middle East, which inspired his book, “The Innocents Abroad” -- a humorous tale of American tourists in the Old World. While working as an overseas correspondent, Twain became friends with Charles Langdon, his future brother-in-law. When they returned to the United States, Twain met Langdon’s sister, Olivia, and they were later married in 1870. Twain and his wife settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where he focused on writing novels.
Unlike American writers before him, Twain wrote his stories in an emerging American vernacular—using the speech of common folk. His writing style reflected his hardscrabble life on the frontier, the Mississippi River, and the Wild West. His writing addressed corruption that he saw in post-Civil War government and business. His novel, “The Gilded Age,” (he coined the term) exposed to the American public the greed of the rapidly industrializing and newly wealthy country.
Twain also used his sardonic humor to criticize certain American attitudes. His Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a witty and wry novel, exposing American hypocrisy and racism toward African Americans. Twain was an abolitionist and an ardent supporter of civil rights for African Americans and women, even campaigning for women’s suffrage.
Twain was a master American author. He identified and used a uniquely American voice throughout his prolific writing career, from journalist to novelist. He employed humor and wit to expose the corruption, greed, and blind ambition that he saw emerging in post-Civil War society.
On April 21, 1910, Mark Twain—considered by future American writers as the father of modern American literature—died at his home in Connecticut.
- Ask students: In what ways are you similar to or different from most people your age? What makes you unique?
- Introduce Mark Twain:
Mark Twain, one of our nation’s most beloved authors, created works of fiction and non-fiction that were characterized by his unique humor and the use of everyday language, something that was highly unusual in mid-19th century America.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. What made Mark Twain’s writing unique for his time?
2. How did growing up on the Mississippi River influence Mark Twain’s career and beliefs?
3. If Twain were alive today, what aspects of American life do you think would most amuse and most enrage him?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right. This image of Mark Twain appeared in Puck, a humor magazine, on December 16, 1885. The drawing was done by Joseph Ferdinand Keppler and turned into a lithograph by Mayer, Merkel, and Ottman in New York City. Keppler immigrated to the United States in 1867 and quickly found work as a cartoonist. In 1876 he launched Puck, and at first was the only creator of cartoons (called “Puckographs”) for the magazine. His satirical drawings, often of political figures, greatly influenced the development of American cartooning. Puck, the first magazine to feature colored lithographs like this one, was published until 1918, two years after the magazine had been purchased by William Randolph Hearst.
1. Joseph Keppler, who did this drawing of Twain, was known for his caricatures, drawings in which certain aspects of a subject are exaggerated in a humorous way. Which features of Twain’s are most noticeable in this cartoon? Why do you think Keppler made the choices he did?
2. The objects floating behind Twain’s head say Huckleberry Finn, Innocents Abroad, and Tramp Abroad, all of which are titles of books he authored. Why do you think the artist chose to depict books in a way that make them appear as if they are flying?
3. How does Keppler show that there was a large audience for this event without fully developing the view of the crowd?
Written Primary Source Activity (15 minutes)
Students will read an 1876 letter from Mark Twain to his friend William Dean Howells after Howells had reviewed an advance copy of Tom Sawyer. The two men had met in 1869 when Twain came to the Boston office of The Atlantic Monthly to personally thank Howells for a positive review he had written of The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s first book. Howells, sometimes called “The Dean of American Letters” for his accomplishments as a novelist, editor, playwright, and critic, remained a close friend of Twain’s until his death in 1910.
Download the Primary Source Activity [PDF].
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment, or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.
Mark Twain used humor and vernacular language to depict the society in which he lived and to point out its shortcomings and hypocrisies. Using satire and every day speech, write a paragraph describing a current trend or issue that bothers you. Examples include: over-reliance on technology, cell phone “addiction,” materialism, income inequality, sexism, etc. (Note: satire is defined as the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.)