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Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students
Mark Twain and American Culture
Mark Twain has been called America’s Cervantes, our Homer, our Tolstoy, our Shakespeare. Ernest Hemingway maintained that all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. President Franklin D. Roosevelt got the phrase "New Deal" from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. This seminar will explore the vitality and versatility of the work of this remarkably current author, focusing on the culture that shaped him and that he, in turn, helped shape. We will look at the ways in which Twain's work illuminates and complicates his society's responses to such issues as race and racism; the seductive lure of technology and the dangers it can entail; heredity versus environment; and what it means to be "American." Throughout our discussions and debates we will pay close attention to the ways in which his books provide a window on the social history of his time and the ways in which they speak to our own time, as well. We will explore how comedy and satire can unmask hypocrisy and arrogance, and will examine the many strategies Twain experimented with to get us—his readers—to think for ourselves. The class will culminate in a field trip to the Mark Twain Papers at the Bancroft Library, UC-Berkeley, where you will be able to see some of his early rough drafts, read his mail, look at what he wrote in the margins of books owned, and explore things he wrote but never published.