Les dix petits nègres

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Agatha Christie

Mark Twain had an obvious love for the river, and had spent considerable time on the Mississippi River. Born in 1835 as Samuel Clemens, Twain achieved renowned for his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, as well as for his travel diaries. He turned to writing for a career following the success of these works, and he drew upon his knowledge of the river for much of it. In fact, Twain had been a riverboat pilot in his younger days—an experience that would serve him well when he began working on Life on the Mississippi (1883) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), which itself was the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876. His knowledge of life on the river combined with his cynical outlook on human nature produced the satirical Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, advancing the childlike innocence captured in Tom Sawyer to the next level of fiction, through which Twain could comment on the various societal ills that affected his day and age.

Twain lived the latter part of his career comfortably in Hartford, Connecticut. He had married Olivia Langdon in 1870, three years before the move to Hartford. They had four children, three girls and a boy. The boy died just before his second birthday.

Twain was a frequent lecturer, an occupation which helped him earn money with which he could pay his financial debts. His wit and ability to be both subtly abusive and humorous won him many fans. His liberal friends helped him to embrace a caustic view of the conventional American life, and his wide and extensive travels broadened his vision of mankind in general.

What Twain intended to do with his sequel to Tom Sawyer was not quite clear even in his own mind when he began the work. Essentially, he was undecided as to whether it should proceed in the fashion of Sawyer, or whether it should be a vehicle through which he could express his views on society in a sharply critical manner. For this reason, the book appears to have three different tones, a fact which is not surprising considering that it was written in three different bursts of inspiration.

The first segment earnestly deals with Huck’s boyhood struggles and is very much composed in a vein similar to Tom Sawyer. However, when Huck and Jim abandon civilization for life on the river, the novel takes up a new, biting and satirical tone. This new tone reflects the second segment of the novel, which is considered to be Twain’s commentary on the social classes and the abomination called man. This section of the novel is comprised of Jim and Huck’s episodic journey down the river, including Huck’s witnessing of the Grangerford/Shepherdson feud and the events surrounding the duke and the king. The third segment has been considered less than worthy of the rest of the novel. Ernest Hemingway believed Huck Finn was a great book but that readers should stop before the arrival of Tom Sawyer and the boys’ attempt to “free” Jim. The fact is that Twain himself was unsure of how to end the novel, and finally he decided to return it to its roots, with Tom having his own farcical adventure much to Huck’s and everyone else’s displeasure.

Twain’s later writing is characterized by intense cynicism and hopelessness for mankind. “The Mysterious Stranger,” for example, paints mankind as hopelessly cruel and self-interested. While strains of this are apparent in Huck Finn, Huck himself proves to have more heart than Twain is willing to give his later characters, and perhaps for that reason Huck Finn is considered to be one of, if not the greatest, American novel.

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