Mark Twain and American Realism

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an example of a form of realism known as regionalism. American regionalism’s focus on “local color” builds on traditional realism’s interest in the accurate representation of the “real” world, using close sociological observation to render reality in even higher resolution. Setting is paramount in regionalism, as the story often takes place in a remote or rural location and the environment acts as a character itself, enabling the writer to explore the characters’ relationship to civilization and the wilderness. Whereas realism is more often associated with writers who are white, urban, and male, regionalism is more often associated with rural, nonwhite, immigrant, and female writers, for example Alice Dunbar Nelson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Kate Chopin.

Mark Twain helped to pioneer the American realist tradition, and regionalism in particular, in direct response to the unrealistic sentimentalism of romantic novels. In a humorous but cruel essay titled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences,” Twain claims that his predecessor James Fenimore Cooper’s novel Deerslayer “scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115.” For Twain, in order for fiction to come to life, all of the details have to be closely observed and clearly reported. This creates an internal consistency to the novel and its characters, making them believable. Twain complains that one character in Deerslayer “talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, . . . [and like] a negro minstrel in the end of it.” Twain’s Explanatory at the beginning of Huck Finn assures the reader that the way his characters speak is not only realistic, but regionally accurate. Huck always talks like himself, and he always sounds like who his upbringing made him: a white, lower class, minimally educated young man.

While tying a story so closely to a specific time, place, and way of speaking might seem like a limiting technique, Twain was able to use the closely-observed specificity of regionalism to create a story that feels universal. Ernest Hemingway alleged that “all of American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” while Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, noted his predecessor’s use of the Southern American vernacular and the impact it’s had on American literature and national identity. Twain’s frequent use of the n-word marks the book as a product of its time, and has caused some readers to mistake Huck’s acceptance of slavery for Twain’s own attitudes toward the institution. But Twain uses regionalism not just to represent the attitudes and behavior of his characters, but to criticize them, and the book on a whole is a searing indictment of all forms of bondage. Twain’s clear-eyed and compassionate depiction of the dehumanizing effects of racism, the dangers of conforming to societal custom, and the desire for freedom inherent to all human beings enables his book to transcend its genre and feel radically ahead of its time.

Read more about regionalism in Zora Neale Hurston’s They Eyes Were Watching God.