Mark Twain's Feel for Language and Locale Brings His Stories to Life

A Feel for Language and Locale Brings His Stories to Life

Mark Twain Portrait
Donaldson Collection / Getty Images

Considered one of the great American Realist writers, Mark Twain is not only celebrated for the stories he tells but also the way in which he tells them, with an unmatched ear for the English language and sensitivity to the diction of the common man. To flesh out his stories, Twain also drew heavily on his personal experiences, most notably his work as a riverboat captain on the Mississippi, and never shied from portraying everyday issues in starkly honest terms. 

Dead-On Dialects

Twain was a master of conveying the local vernacular in his writing. Read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," for example, and you'll immediately "hear" the distinctive Southern dialect of that region. 

For example, when Huck Finn attempts to help Jim, a slave, escape to freedom by paddling a canoe down the Mississippi, Jim thanks Huck profusely: "Huck you's de bes' fren' Jim's ever had: en you's de only fren' olde Jim's got now." Later in the story, in chapter 19, Huck hides while he witnesses deadly violence between two feuding families: 

"I staid in the tree till it begun to get ​dard, afraid to come down. Sometimes I heard guns away off in the woods; and twice I seen little gangs of men gallop past the log-store with guns; so I reckoned the trouble was still agoing on."

On the other hand, the language in Twain's short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" reflects both the narrator's upscale Eastern Seaboard roots and the local vernacular of his interview subject, Simon Wheeler. Here, the narrator describes his initial encounter with Wheeler:

"I found Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the bar-room stove of the old, dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Angel's, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused up and gave me good-day."

And here is Wheeler describing a local dog celebrated for his fighting spirit:

"And he had a little small bull pup, that to look at him you'd think he wan's worth a cent, but to set around and look ornery, and lay for a chance to steal something. But as soon as money was up on him, he was a different dog; his underjaw'd begin to stick out like the fo'castle of a steamboat, and his teeth would uncover, and shine savage like the furnaces."

A River Runs Through It

Twain became a riverboat "cub"—or trainee—in 1857 when he was still known as Samuel Clemens. Two years later, he earned his full pilot's license. As he learned to navigate the Mississippi, Twain became very familiar with the language of the river. Indeed, he adopted his famous pen name from his river experience. "Mark Twain"—meaning "two fathoms"—was a navigational term used on the Mississippi. All of the adventures—and there were many—that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn experienced on the Mighty Mississippi relate directly to Twain's own experiences.

Tales of Abuse

And while Twain is rightly famous for his humor, he was also unflinching in his portrayal of abuses of power. For instance, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, while absurd, remains a biting political commentary. And for all his pluck, Huckleberry Finn is still an abused and neglected 13-year-old boy, whose father is a mean drunk. We see this world from Huck's point of view as he attempts to cope with his environment and deal with the circumstances into which he is thrown. Along the way, Twain explodes social conventions and depicts the hypocrisy of "civilized" society.

No doubt Twain had a terrific knack for story construction. But it was his flesh and blood characters—the way they spoke, the way they interacted with their surroundings, and the honest descriptions of their experiences—that brought his stories to life.