Mark Twain’s Modernism

In a less-than-famous book titled Green Hills of Africa (1935), Ernest Hemingway famously declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Though he disregards the novel’s controversial ending—Twain was “just cheating”—Hemingway claims that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is “the best book we’ve had … There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”[1]

Hemingway’s famous quip is often cited as Huckleberry Finn’s (1884) nomination for the title of “Great American Novel.”[2] While I’m not so sure of the value or meaning of that honorific, Hemingway’s assessment also captures something more historically and conceptually specific and more intellectually generative.

The use of the word “modern,” the groping for origins (“all modern American literature comes from one book”), and the claim to a site of rupture (“nothing before” / “nothing as good since”)—all this situates Twain’s most famous novel in the language of “modernism,” a capacious term that describes the broad moment or movement or revolution to which Hemingway certainly belonged.[3]

More important than the claim that Huckleberry Finn is a great novel, Hemingway’s appraisal raises the question of whether this icon of nineteenth-century US realism ought to be thought of as a modernist text and whether—and to what end—its author should be labeled a modernist.

Perhaps the novel’s best claim to being labeled a modernist text is the praise it garnered from one of transatlantic modernism’s most famous and influential writers and gatekeepers, T.S. Eliot. 

In 1950, Eliot wrote an introduction to an edition of the novel published by Cresset Press. One of the key points of appreciation Eliot has for Huckleberry Finn is its stylistic “innovation,” a term that remains central to any definition of modernism. For Eliot, Twain’s “new discovery” is his achievement of writing “natural speech in relation to particular characters” without even a single “sentence or phrase” compromising the illusion of each character’s voice.[4]

A careful reading of Eliot’s introduction reveals an even deeper connection between this icon of literary modernism and Huckleberry Finn: Eliot locates in the novel a number of the prescriptions for modernist poetry that he outlined in his most widely read essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919). 

For example, Eliot explains in “Tradition” that a mature poet has what he calls “the historical sense”: “This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.”[5] In his introduction to Huckleberry Finn, this dialogue between the timeless and the temporal becomes translated as a relation between the mature “vision” of Huck and the boyish “imagination” of Tom. For Eliot, Twain is a composite of these two boys, an author split between his desire for the fleeting—fame, wealth, and security—and the “permanent.” According to Eliot, Huck is a timeless character, “one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction,” belonging alongsideUlysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Hamlet.[6]

What principally makes Huck a “permanent symbolic figure” and the novel a book of “permanent interest” is Huck’s impassive “vision.” Eliot describes this quality in “Tradition”:

[T]he bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.[7]

from “Tradition & The Individual Talent” by T. S. Eliot

In his introduction, Eliot ascribes to Huck this “escape from personality,” and he finds in Twain an example of unconscious genius. Of Huck, Eliot writes: “He sees the real world; and he does not judge it – he allows it to judge itself. … He is the impassive observer: he does not interfere, and, as I have said, he does not judge.”[8] Then, near his conclusion: “Perhaps all great works of art mean much more than the author could have been aware of meaning: certainly, Huckleberry Finn is the one book of Mark Twain’s which, as a whole, has this unconsciousness.”[9]

According to Eliot, both Huckleberry Finn and its author embody Eliot’s own prescriptions for mature modernist poetry. If Eliot comes short of labeling Twain a “modernist”—a label Eliot himself was wary of—he at least identifies Twain as a sort of contemporary, as a writer that helped Eliot shape his vision of what modernist writing ought to do, and as someone similarly consumed with the vexed relation between past and present and between conscious and unconscious “discovery” in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. 

Beyond Eliot, Twain’s claim to modernism reaches further into the mid-twentieth-century US literary canon. Just as Eliot and Hemingway found elements of themselves in Twain, Ralph Ellison envisioned his work as the development of a particular “dialectic” he located in Huckleberry Finn. In “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” (1953), Ellison identifies Huckleberry Finn as a novel whose form and content were fit to address the principal moral problem in the postbellum US. For Ellison, Twain renders Jim “not only a slave”—not merely reducible to his objectification under US chattel slavery—but a whole “human being” and a “symbol of humanity” itself.[10]

Ellison’s modernism drew from Twain’s dialectical negotiation between its “technical aspects,” or the novel’s formal innovation, and its “moral values,” which Ellison saw as an appreciation of individualism and social order common to Jim and Huck alike. For Ellison, writers such as Hemingway and Steinbeck, figures more typically identified as modernists, lacked Twain’s combination of moral vision and technical innovation, leaving them unsuited to grapple with what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the problem of the Twentieth Century,” i.e. “the problem of the color-line.”[11]

Along with their shared interest in formal innovation, Eliot’s traditionalism and Ellison’s moral sense capture what they thought to be the genuine modernism of Huckleberry Finn. But perhaps Twain’s strongest—or at least most radical—claim to the title comes from another one of his novels: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

It this thing, this thing that dimly worries anyone who thinks about an historical anything which has induced every one, Mark Twain in A Yankee At King Arthur’s Court and then all that have been written since then has made them attempt to in one way and another way try to make a thing a thing that they recognize while they are writing …[12]

from Narration: Four Lectures by Gertrude Stein

These difficult words were written by the famously difficult Gertrude Stein. 

In the fourth and final installment of Narration (1935), Stein described this “thing” as the difficulty of writing history. Nineteenth and twentieth-century historians filled their time by writing about events that had already happened. For Stein, this gap between the event and the moment of writing presents a troubling time lag. She argues that for writing to really be alive—for writing to be considered writing at all—it cannot lag behind its subject. In Connecticut Yankee, Stein saw a model for her own creative project—that is, to write “history” without that time lag, and, even more broadly and ambitiously, to write without reference to anything preceding the act of writing. 

As it happens, what we today call non-representational or abstract art finds a surprising antecedent in Twain’s time-travel novel.

Stephen Pasqualina’s essay “Delirium So Real: Mark Twain’s Spectacular History” appears in J19 Volume 7, Number 1 (Spring 2019)

So, is Twain a modernist? Hemingway, Eliot, Ellison, and Stein lead me to believe not that Twain ought to be permanently rebranded, but that reading him as a contemporary of “modernism” brings to the surface often surprising and deep revelations about both Twain and the modernists who wrote in his wake. I’ve written elsewhere, for instance, on Twain’s engagements with technological “spectacle” and the “technological sublime,” especially in regards to his emotional and financial investments in the Paige Compositor, a failed work of modern technology.

For his formal innovations, his “escape from personality,” his deployment of novel writing techniques to register postbellum racial issues, his novel approach to history, and his wide-ranging engagements with modern technology, it is clear that not only did Twain anticipate a number of modernism’s principal concerns but he also gave modernist writers a template and foil to find the language they needed to define “modernism” for themselves.

Stephen Pasqualina is a postdoctoral fellow in the Core Humanities program at the University of Nevada, Reno. His research focuses on modernist literature and visual media, the history of technology, and historiography and historical theory. His current book project examines the technological mediation of historical memory in US modernism from 1880 to 1945. Recent publications can be found in J19 and Modernism/modernity.

[1]Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), 23. Though not central to my focus here, it is worth contextualizing Hemingway’s remarks, in which he attaches a racist epithet to Jim’s name, producing a phrase that does not appear as written in Huckleberry Finn: “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” Ralph Ellison takes issue with these lines in the essay cited below.

[2]For example, see David L. Ulin, “Celebrating the genius of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 14, 2010:

[3]On the difficulties of defining “modernism,” see Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers, Modernism:  Evolution of an Idea (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015)

[4]T.S. Eliot, “Introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain),” The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vol. 7: A European Society, 1947 – 1953, edited by Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 503 – 504.

[5]Eliot, The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vol. 2: The Perfect Critic, 1919 – 1926, edited by Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 106.

[6]Eliot, “Introduction to Huckleberry Finn,” 502.

[7]Eliot, “Tradition,” 111.

[8]Eliot, “Introduction to Huckleberry Finn,” 502.

[9]Ibid., 508.

[10]Ralph Ellison, “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan (New York: The Modern Library, 1995), 88.

[11]Ellison, “Twentieth Century Fiction,” 91. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk(New York: Penguin, 1996), 1.

[12]Gertrude Stein, Narration: Four Lectures (University of Chicago Press, 2010), 61-62.