Mark Twain: A Skeptic's Progress

September 17, 2010, through January 2, 2011
Photograph of Mark Twain

The Morgan Library & Museum and the New York Public Library—which hold two of the world's great collections of manuscripts, rare books, letters, and other items related to the life of Mark Twain (1835–1910)—present a major exhibition at the Morgan exploring a central, recurring theme throughout the author's body of work: his uneasy, often critical, attitude towards a rapidly modernizing America. The exhibition coincides with the 175th anniversary of Twain's birth in 1835 and is composed of more than 120 manuscripts and rare books, including original manuscript pages from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Life on the Mississippi (1883) as well as letters, notebooks, diaries, photographs, and drawings associated with the author's life and work.

Mark Twain's life spanned an era that saw much of the world—America in particular— embrace the Industrial Revolution. With the expansion of transportation and communications technology, there was a cultural shift from small-town rural concerns to a large-scale national agenda centered on great cities. As a young man, Twain had traveled by foot, horse, and riverboat. As a mature man, and one of the most widely traveled Americans, he journeyed by international steamship and railroad and even saw the advent of the automobile.

For Twain such technological, industrial, and urban developments were the means by which America might become a more prosperous and just society and also realize the nineteenth-century dream of universal progress. While he saw this achievement embodied by the concentration of educational and cultural institutions in Northern cities and towns, his conflicted love affair with his native South and its traditions, his close observation of the natural world, and his skepticism about the possibility of changing human nature made him doubtful about the effectiveness of these means and even about the possibility of human progress. In his final two decades, the skeptic saw his worst fears justified by the advance of European imperialism and its attendant atrocities in Africa and Asia as well as by America's own expansionist ambitions. Throughout his life, only his faith in the clarity and cleansing possibilities of the written word remained constant. Mark Twain: A Skeptic's Progress captures the essence of the author's wit, humor, and philosophy in relation to his era's great changes in all their guises, with examples of his work as a novelist, short-story writer, fabulist, critic, lecturer, and travel writer.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens—better known by his pen name, Mark Twain—was the quintessential American author, humorist, lecturer, essayist, and master of satire. Twain enjoyed immense public popularity during his lifetime and became a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and royalty.

The exhibition features extensive portions of autograph manuscripts of two key non-fiction works. In Life on the Mississippi (1883), Twain examines the history of the river and the impact of technological progress and urban development on river life and paints sharply contrasting portraits of urban life in the North and South. Twain casts his critical attention more widely in the extensive account of his world travels published in Following the Equator (1897), which employs savage sarcasm to express his outrage at the crimes that the Western colonial powers perpetrated on the native populations of Africa, Asia, and Australasia.

Life on the Mississippi is Twain's memoir of his youthful years as a cub pilot on a steamboat paddling up and down the Mississippi River. The author used his childhood experiences growing up along the Mississippi in a number of works, but nowhere is the great river and the pilot's life more thoroughly described than in this account. Told with insight, humor, and candor, Life on the Mississippi is an American classic. Twain's deep nostalgia for the world of his youth gives special resonance to his observations on advances in technology, urban development, agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, and social justice, which changed the traditional culture of the South while bringing benefits to many.

An inveterate traveler, Twain crisscrossed the Atlantic more than a dozen times and also visited Turkey, Palestine, Hawaii, Australia, India, and South Africa. Wherever he went, he always absorbed the scenery and in his mind played the part of the American Vandal, the rube traveler who pretends to understand things he doesn't. The exhibition includes autograph manuscripts and an extensive display of illustration mock-ups, comprising numerous photographs and drawings for Following the Equator (1897), Twain's final work of travel literature, which began with the wildly successful The Innocents Abroad (1869).

Also on view are four pages of Twain's greatest work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, called by Ernest Hemingway the source of all modern American literature, and numerous leaves of the autograph manuscript of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), a fable that grows increasingly grim as Twain shows how the well-intentioned use of technology leads to self-destruction because of humanity's incorrigible selfishness and need to worship authority. The pages from Huckleberry Finn are from the first half of the book, which were thought lost and only found in 1990, and depict Huck and Jim on their raft in the Mississippi as well as a ribald song (which Twain is believed to have sung at his own wedding) sung by a boatman.

Twain's numerous attempts to participate in and capitalize on the entrepreneurial spirit of the times were predominantly failures. The exhibition introduces his experiments and includes an example of a memory game for acquiring and retaining all sorts of facts and dates. The original three-piece game was conceived and designed by Twain and produced by Charles L. Webster & Co. in 1891. The game includes a boxlike board with the game printed on one side and rules on the other, as well as a small pamphlet of facts and a box containing the playing pins.

The exhibition is supplemented with handwritten manuscripts and typescripts of other works by Twain, his letters and correspondence, drawings and illustration mock-ups for printed editions, photographs, and several three-dimensional artifacts.

Mark Twain: A Skeptic's Progress is co-curated by Isaac Gewirtz, Curator of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library and Declan Kiely, Robert H. Taylor Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the Morgan.

This exhibition is generously supported by the Margaret T. Morris Fund for Americana and Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey C. Walker, with additional assistance from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, The Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation, and the F. M. Kirby Foundation.

No. 4 in a series of seven photographic portraits of Mark Twain, each inscribed by Twain, 1906, gelatin silver prints on card. Purchased on the John F. Fleming Fund, 2007; MA 7253.