Stephen Railton – Life and Work of Mark Twain
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Author: Stephen Railton Ph.D.
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Information: Samuel Clemens, the man known to history as Mark Twain, was more than one of America’s greatest writers. He was our first true celebrity, one of the most photographed faces of the 19th and 20th centuries.
This course explores Twain’s dual identities as one of our classic authors and as an almost mythical presence in our nation’s cultural life. It seeks to appreciate Twain’s literary achievements and to understand his life by highlighting seven of his major works:
Old Times on the Mississippi
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson.
Professor Stephen Railton is extraordinarily qualified to bring to light the subtlest insights into Twain’s texts. An expert on Twain, he has appeared on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer as a distinguished Twain scholar and is the creator of Mark Twain in His Times, an award-winning Internet archive about Twain’s life and career. Professor Railton shows the issues that concerned Twain most throughout his lifetime and that appear repeatedly in the pages of his books.
Travel as a Way to Invent Mark Twain
What does Innocents Abroad tell us about Twain and his ambitions? Professor Railton discusses how travel was a way young Sam Clemens could escape his past as a Confederate soldier, riverboat pilot, and newspaper reporter. Like the American pioneers who headed West, Clemens wanted to reinvent himself.
Before heading to Europe and the Middle East to write the travel letters that would become his first book, Clemens could barely wait to depart. “I am wild with impatience to move, move, move!” he wrote to his mother.
Through Innocents Abroad, you will consider how Twain helped America overcome its insecurities about Europe’s intellectual and cultural superiority. He skewers the notion of high European culture with subtle criticism and broad burlesque.
Dr. Railton leads you through Twain’s accounts of his suffering near-butchery by a “suave” French barber, Venetian gondoliers in shreds and patches of clothes with their underwear exposed, and beggars wandering randomly in front of high-vaulted cathedrals.
Walking Humor’s Fine Line
This course will help you understand Twain’s greatness as a humorist and how he struggled with his talent for making people laugh.
In Roughing It, Twain made his semi-autobiographical character the butt of the joke, who, at one point, gets conned into buying a horse that throws him from the saddle. But he was very conflicted about debasing himself as a buffoon for the sake of a laugh.
Moreover, he correctly sensed that people laugh most intensely when they are made to feel uncomfortable. The humorist’s job is to walk the fine line between creating discomfort and giving true offense.
For most of his career, Twain walked that line successfully, gradually nudging his audience’s sensibilities a little further year by year. He attacked objects of social, cultural, and political reverence with just enough intelligence, subtlety, and playfulness to get away with it.
Even so, on issues such as racism, Twain often faced a dilemma. Dare he speak the truth, at the risk of upsetting the audience whose approval he craved, financially and emotionally? His solution was to hedge his bets.
For example, for all its strong antiracist language, Huckleberry Finn also contains many passages that echo the minstrel show routines so popular with white audiences of the time. Tellingly, these scenes earned him the loudest laughter when he read them on the lecture circuit.
Twain as a Reflection of America
Some say the way you read Mark Twain depends on the way you see America. How did Twain himself see it? In many ways he was its fiercest booster.
Roughing It, a story of fortune hunting in the Nevada territories, is a vindication of the quality of American enterprise. Twain marvels at the country’s natural beauty and the daring of the Pony Express riders. He also includes copious examples of the new frontier dialect, advertising America’s new way of living and speaking.
A believer in capitalism and free enterprise, he peppered his vocabulary with the language of entrepreneurship. Somewhat unnervingly, he referred to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as “capital,” so confident was he of its commercial potential.
In other respects, however, Twain had serious concerns about the direction his country was taking. Between the lines of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he displays misgivings about whether the American dream of progress isn’t really an apocalyptic nightmare vision, complete with smoke-belching factories and warfare waged with land mines and Gatling guns.
In addition, Twain’s travels through the British Empire, and the outcome of American intervention in the Philippines, made him increasingly cynical about America’s role abroad. Many of his anti-imperialist works remained unpublished during his life.
Twain died as a widely beloved figure. But he himself once wrote: “Everyone is a moon and has a dark side that he never shows to anybody.”
In his private life, Samuel Clemens struggled with doubt, disappointment, despair, and an increasing misanthropy that was greater than any contained in his most sarcastic satires. Even his closest friends almost lost patience with his rantings on how to exterminate what he called “the damned human race.”
Dr. Railton explores in some detail the unpublished manuscripts, discovered after his death, that reveal the dark and despairing side of Mark Twain. They include such partly completed works as The Enchanted Sea Wilderness, The Great Dark, and Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes.
These writings identify the issues Twain struggled with in his later years, but they do not detract from his legacy.
Twain was fond of comparing himself to Halley’s Comet: He was born during its appearance in 1835 and believed he would die when it next appeared in 1910. And he did. In many ways, he was just as rare and just as brilliant.
Needing No Introduction?
From Samuel Clemens to Mark Twain
The Sense of Mark Twain’s Humor
Innocents Abroad, I—Going East
Innocents Abroad, II—Traveling to Unlearn
Roughing It—Going West
The Lecture Tours
The Whittier After-Dinner Speech
“Old Times on the Mississippi”
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Performances of Tom Sawyer
Huck Finn, I—Defining an American Voice
Huck Finn, II—The Quest for Freedom
Huck Finn, III—The Great American Novel?
Huck Finn, IV—Classrooms and Controversy
Connecticut Yankee, I—Unwriting the Middle Ages
Connecticut Yankee, II—Revisiting the Nineteenth Century
Connecticut Yankee, III—The Quest for Status
Pudd’nhead Wilson—Fictions of Law and Custom
Late Twain in Public
Late Twain in Private
Sam Clemens is Dead/Long Live Mark Twain
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