Lesson One: Twain and Rogers American Originals
Samuel Clemens, who was known as Mark Twain, was born in Missouri in 1835 the year of Haley's Comet, and vowed he would live to see the comet pass over again. Indeed, Twain died in 1910, the day after the comet's return. A humorist, philosopher, and writer of social satire, Twain was world famous in his lifetime. Influenced by the Mississippi River, which coursed by his boyhood home of Hannibal, Mo, Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Ernest Hemmingway characterized as "the best book we've had." During his younger years, Twain's attitude of humorous tolerance balanced his understanding of human frailty. As he got older, and suffered misfortunes both financial and personal, his writings became more critical and satirical, and finally, bitter. Nevertheless, at his death, the obituary in The New York American declared, "He was easily the chief of our writers, by the only valid test. He could touch the emotional center of more lives than any other."
Will Rogers, an American actor, humorist, writer, and philosopher, was born in the Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1879. As a young man Rogers became an expert rider and "rope twirler." Over time Rogers' gentle wit drew more attention than his lariat, and he soon had top billing in vaudeville acts, including the world-renowned Ziegfeld Follies. By the early 20s he was making movies, and became one of the biggest stars of his day. Soon his humor was revealed through writing. He began a syndicated column in 1922, often focusing on the human foibles revealed through current events. His words, expressed in more than 2800 daily articles, demonstrated an uncanny wisdom and understanding of the human condition. Rogers was killed in a plane crash in Alaska in August 1935.
Although born two generations apart, Mark Twain and Will Rogers each developed a style that was quintessentially American. Their approach was direct, their words plain, and their humor caught the spirit of the day. Both men are considered giants of American humor.
- Provide students with background information about both Will Rogers and Mark Twain. If time permits a more detailed study of the two humorists, consider these suggestions:
- Show students either the PBS documentary, Mark Twain, directed by Ken Burns, or the video, Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight.
- The C-SPAN American Writers series has featured the Writings of Will Rogers. Although this four-hour presentation is too long for class viewing, portions of it would provide students a better understanding of Rogers' life and work. The series is available through
- Check your local video store for vintage films that feature Will Rogers. He made over three dozen in his career, beginning in 1918 in silent cinema, and ending with a 1935 film, Steamboat 'Round the Bend. Though this will not compare to the video coverage of Twain, it will give students a flavor of Rogers' personality.
- Divide students into research groups, assigning them to study about either Rogers or Twain. Invite students to visit Web sites that provide insights into these authors, and will help them find needed resource.
Here students will find the story of Twain's life through a collection of texts, photos, illustrations, and clippings of his day. The material is presented chronologically, thus students can easily see how his approach to humor changed over time.
This is a site that features many of Twain's quotations, newspaper collections, and related resources. It can be accessed alphabetically by subject.
This is a comprehensive Twain interpretive site developed at the University of Virginia that focuses on how his works "were created and defined, marketed and performed, reviewed and appreciated." The site even includes obituaries about Mark Twain.
This site provides the most detailed look at Rogers' life. Biographical information is arranged under the following headings: performer, journalist, ambassador and philosopher.
This site includes at least one newspaper article written by Rogers, along with some of his most memorable quotes.
This is most useful for gathering quotes by Will Rogers.
Information about the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, OK is featured. The site also provides contact numbers for tapping other information about the humorist. Full-length articles by Rogers are harder to find on the web than those covering Twain's work, but with a little lead-time, students could use this source to get needed primary materials.
- Ask each group to gather information about the life of its chosen writer. (For example: education, family life, financial circumstances.) Have students provide specific examples of how the writer's humor was expressed. Newspaper writings? Lectures? Film? Novels?
- Using the Web site links provided, or video clips, ask each group to compile a short set of examples from the writer's work, including at least one complete sketch, or article. Have students analyze the writing, including these elements: What were the subjects of his writings? How did he use language (vocabulary, tone, grammar)? What clear views, including biases, did he express through his writings? What type of audience would be most attracted to the writing? Is there any indication that the writer's background-geographic, educational, or professional-shaped the writing? Is the writing appealing, despite the passage of time? Would foreign audiences "get" the writer's humor, or is it uniquely American?
- Ask students to present their findings to the class. As a part of the presentation ask each group to:
- Provide biographical information about the writer, using a visual organizer-either a poster or a handout;
- Present the words of the group's chosen writer either through readings or video clips. Encourage props and costumes.
- Create a two-minute monologue in the style of the group's writer. For example, popular political topics such as the current president's agenda, the environment or school prayer make good subjects.
- After all groups have presented, conduct a compare and contrast discussion. Using the board, ask all students to identify likenesses and differences between these two writers. Have students discuss the results.
Ask students to consider who among humorists today would be considered the comedic descendant of these two pioneers? How would the modern-day comedian's way of working be different from that of Rogers or Twain?
Have students revisit the compare and contrast list and circle characteristics or works of both humorists that seem uniquely "American." Have the groups who studied each author enrich the "American" list with more examples from their research. Remind students that both Twain and Rogers were often identified as humorists who reflected American culture. Ask the class if their lists bear this out.
After the discussion, have students compose a culminating writing, using one of the quotes below as a starting point:
He (Mark Twain) was curiously and intimately American. No other author had such a tang of the soil-such a flavor of the average national mind.
New York American, April 22, 1910
He (Mark Twain) is often thought to be among the best to express, or expose, the spirit of the American people.
The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture
He (Will Rogers) made himself into the archetypal American Everyman, apparently baffled and out-smarted by the machinations of politicians and tycoons, but in reality always managing to get the better of them through shrewd and timely use of common sense and self-effacing humor.
The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture