Mark Twain started out writing just for himself—and wound up that way too. In between he attempted nearly every genre, found success at most of them, and all but reinvented American fiction and travel literature.
Twain honed his style while writing for the scrappy, bumptious broadsheets of the Western gold and silver booms. Somewhere, in a Saratoga trunk up in the Sierra Nevada, probably lie as many lost Twain newspaper columns as have already been found. Until they surface, more than enough early newspaper sketches survive that a reader can still watch a precocious riverfront kid turn a little more into Mark Twain with each byline.
He always remained more comfortable with sprints than with marathons. His first attempts at fiction took the form of short stories. What came to be called "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865) made his name, and, even to the end of his life, Twain probably found short fiction more congenial than the novel.
Twain revolutionized travel writing with The Innocents Abroad (1869). The book started out as journalistic letters, but he reworked, padded, and finessed them extensively upon his return from the Middle East. The result anticipates the so-called New Journalism in its insistence on the writer's experience as no less important than his itinerary.
After the huge success of The Innocents Abroad, Twain applied the same style to a sojourn he'd already taken. Roughing It (1872) hysterically encapsulates Twain's years in the West, and some of its episodes rival any travel literature for description, characterization, and downright hilarity.
Some critics dismiss The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) as toss-offs, written more for his daughters than for the ages. But the former numbers among his few durable, well-carpentered plots, and the latter ends with surely the most age-inappropriate bloodbath in the annals of children's literature.
Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) remains a fascinating curiosity and Twain's most direct consideration of slavery. The plot machinery has a tendency to clank, but the very lack of a settled consensus about its meaning and worth makes it irresistible reading. In it Twain rewrites the switched-doubles plot of The Prince and the Pauper, only this time he emphasizes the racial tension of the era.
Several of Twain's last essays never saw print in his lifetime. They were blistering, so misanthropic that few would have recognized them as the work of America's beloved white-suited grandpa. Yet these broadsides too are Mark Twain and, for those who can take them, stand among his strongest work.
"Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry."
—Mark Twain, from Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894)
The perennial popularity of Mark Twain and his characters ensures a steady stream of successors to the already more than a hundred adaptations of his work, not excluding versions of Tom Sawyer filmed in Russia, Japan, and Romania. None of these can be called a masterpiece, nor can the multiple movies of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. But even the most wrongheaded of them can kickstart a conversation about how not to betray a beloved book on screen, and a few have some delightful performances. There are also some howlingly awful ones—most attributable to child actors, cast mainly for their cuteness, trying and failing to nail Twain's anachronistic Pike County dialect and slang.
The early 1980s brought a spate of Twain adaptations on PBS from screenwriter Philip H. Reisman, Jr., and director Peter H. Hunt. They collaborated on a creditable Life on the Mississippi (1980) followed by a Peabody Award-winning short film of "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" (1981) for the National Endowment for the Humanities-underwritten American Short Story series. Separately, Reisman wrote a well-received version of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1984), with Ken Howard of The White Shadow in the title role. Meanwhile Hunt directed a version of "The Mysterious Stranger" (1982), something called Sawyer and Finn (1983), and, best of all, a long, stunning 1985 version of Huck Finn (take your pick between 108- and 213-minute cuts) starring Samm-Art Williams and Harry Potter audiobook reader Jim Dale.
Twain's life has served as fodder for at least three biographical films: Ken Burns's impeccable PBS documentary Mark Twain (2001); The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), with Fredric March donning the white suit and fright wig; and the gold standard, Hal Holbrook's 1967 film of his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!
For the original stage version, Holbrook lovingly cobbled together choice stories and observations from Twain's own writings and lectures. After performing varying versions of the show for decades, he ultimately wound up with untold hours of memorized Twain from which to choose—all the while puffing on Twain's ever-present cigar for punctuation. In any medium, Mark Twain Tonight! remains perhaps the best tribute to Twain, a man who always flirted with fame as a playwright (and won it again in 2007 for Is He Dead?, as reconceived by David Ives) but settled for popularizing the American novel.
"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."
—Ernest Hemingway, from The Green Hills of Africa (1935)