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.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Shelley Fisher Fishkin

Shelley Fisher Fishkin is the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, professor of English, and director of American Studies, at Stanford. "I'm constantly astonished at the places that Mark Twain can take us, and how fresh and insightful he remains. Whether we're interested in the 'Black Lives Matter' movement, or state of American political discourse, Mark Twain speaks to us in such germane and relevant ways that it's almost uncanny. Interested in probing the complexities of our love affair with technology? In how our society treats animals? In whether nature or nurture plays more of a role in making us who we are? Twain was there. And following him where he leads us is a great adventure. I can't wait to take that journey with you!" Prof. Fishkin has written or edited more than 35 books on Mark Twain that include Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices and Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. She also recovered, published, and helped produce on Broadway a hit "new" comedy by Mark Twain that you'll read in class.