Mark Twain and the American West
Grade level: 8-12
In this lesson students learn how Samuel Clemens became America's first celebrity authorMark Twain. As they investigate how we all have different selves which we project at different times in different ways, they study the transformation of Clemens into Twain, looking at the variety of ways he signed his name, the clothing he used to project a public image, and the writing style for which he would become America's most beloved author.
Students put Clemens' life in the context of Westward expansion by creating a timeline which is then used to make deductions about how the West affected Twain, and how Twain's writing affected the ways in which the nation perceived and mythologized the West. As a whole class, students read three chapters of Roughing It.
In discussion and through writing assignments they focus on the ways in which Twain developed a distinctive Western voice, analyze how his persona functions in the telling of the tales, and scrutinize the tales for both the stereotypes and truths they reveal about a West which was vanishing even as Twain wrote about it. Then students break up into smaller groups, each assigned the task of reading and reporting on a chapter of Roughing It to the rest of the class. Students write creative pieces inspired by Twain as well as analytical essays about his work.
Relevant National Standards
- Appreciate the distinctively American voice of Mark Twain.
- See how Twain's writing was molded by his adventures in the American West and how his work has since shaped our perceptions of the West.
- Appreciate the literary device of using a persona to tell a tale; specifically to analyze the role Twain plays as a persona in the tales he recounts.
- Understand the rapid Westward expansion of America in the 19th century.
Many discrete teaching activities within this lesson could be taught in from one to three class periods. To complete the entire unit would require two to three weeks.
- Copies of Mark Twain's Roughing It or computers with internet access from which chapters of the book can be downloaded and printed.
Browse the text by chapter at the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.
- Other Web sites with relevant material to this lesson (addresses provided within the lesson).
- Materials for writing and drawing.
- Index cards.
- The PBS series The West, Episodes Four (Episodes 3 and 5 are helpful as well).
- Outline maps of the 48 contiguous United States.
Activity 1: What's in a Name?
- Tell students that they are going to read a selection of chapters from Roughing It, a book published by Mark Twain in 1872 about the adventures he had in the American West in the 1860's. Explain that "Mark Twain" is the pen name or pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910). Clemens grew up in Missouri, was briefly a printer and then a Mississippi River steamboat pilot, but when the Civil War closed the river to transportation Clemens was forced to find other work. After a brief stint in the Confederate Army he headed West with his Unionist brother, Orion, who was the newly appointed secretary of the Nevada territories. In 1863, while writing for the Territorial Enterprise, he first signed a piece of writing "Mark Twain."
- Ask students to experiment with the many reasons for why Clemens might have chosen the pseudonym "Mark Twain." What are the various connotations of the word "mark" for example? The usual explanation for his choice is that it derived from a term used by riverboat men to measure the depth of the waters mark twain meaning "two fathoms deep."
- Discuss with students the different terms we use for authors who write under an assumed name such as:
- Pen name
- Nom de plume
- a.k.a.(also known as)
- Persona. Persona is a bit different from the other terms. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it as "a character assumed by an author in a written work; the personality that a person [here a writer] projects in public; image."
- Now ask students why an author might choose to write under an assumed name. Tell students that often writers who do so never divulge their true identities. Why might this be the case? Clemens, however, delighted in being known as Mark Twain, America's first celebrity writer.
- Now go to "Mark Twain in His Times," a Web site at the University of Virginia at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/index2.html. Click on the box "Sam Clemens as Mark Twain" and then on "Yours Truly." (You can go to this page directly at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/sc_as_mt/yrstruly.html.)
Print out the page of Clemens/Twain signatures, make copies and distribute them, or use one copy and make an overhead with it. (If students can use computers, or if you can project what is on yours, click each signature for a further discussion of its use in a particular document.) Ask the class to comment on the variety of names, signatures, and penmanship styles used by the author.
- Now pass out sheets of paper on which students can write the variety of ways they sign their names. Do they sometimes use just initials? A nickname? When if ever do they use a middle name? Have they experimented with writing their name as a graffiti "tag"? Have they ever had their initials monogrammed?
- You can ask a variety of questions as students share or experiment with different ways to write their names, such as:
- What are the origins of their nicknames? Are there family stories attached to them? Have some students discarded their nicknames as they have grown older, or added new ones?
- Can students remember a fictional character who has assumed a variety of names over the course of a novel (e.g. Frankie in McCuller's The Member of the Wedding)? What do these changing names represent?
- Does everyone call each of us the same thing at all times? Do parents have special names they call children in private? Do boyfriends and girlfriends have pet names for each other? Do formal settings require us to use one name over another? Who are we in each of these settings? Are we the same "person"?
Activity 2: The Clothes Make the Man
- Clemens had a variety of jobs before he found his calling as a writer. Out in Nevada territory, as befit his new identity as silver miner, he discarded the clothes he wore as a riverboat captain, and put on a blue woolen shirt and boots. But he is best remembered for the flamboyant white suits he wore in his old age as America's favorite author.
- Now access "Mark Twain in His Times" at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/index2.html, and go to "Sam Clemens as Mark Twain" and click on "The White Suit."
- As students get a chance to view Mark Twain, hold a discussion on the ways that clothes define you. Ask students how their clothing projects a persona, or public identity. How do different outfits they might wear on different occasions project their different personae?
Activity 3: Viewing "Preachers and "Jackass Rabbits."
- Show Episode 4 of The West beginning at 47:30 minutes into the film with the title, "Preachers and Jackass Rabbits." It ends at 60:00. The segment introduces Samuel Clemens as he heads West, and concludes with Mark Twain, the writer.
See Episode 4, "Preachers and Jackass Rabbits" for more information.
Focus questions for viewing the episode:
- Why did Samuel Clemens head West?
- What is Clemens seeking in the West? Does he find it?
- What does he discover is his calling? How has the West played a role in his discovery about himself? How is this reflected in the name under which he wrote for the Territorial Enterprise?
- How do you think he will portray the West to the rest of America?
Activity 4: Twain's Life in the Context of Westward Expansions: a Timeline.
- Divide the class into three groups:
Group I: Samuel Clemens' life
Group II: Events in the West
Group III: Territorial Growth of the U.S. in maps.
Tell each group that they will be responsible for adding information onto a multi-level timeline of Clemens' life.
- Post a string along a long bulletin board. The timeline should begin in 1830 and end in 1910 (the year of his death.) Divide it into clearly marked decades. Then divide the entire timeline into three "bands." Inside band I, Group I will post information about Clemens' life. Inside band II, Group II will post information about Events in the West, and the third band will be reserved for Group III's maps of the West.
- Instructions to each group of students:
- Instructions for Group I:
You are to research Clemens' life. Assign group members a decade of Clemens' life to research. (If the class is large, some students will need to work in pairs.) For each decade choose a minimum of five and maximum of seven significant events in Twain's life. Discuss your choices. For each event write a 3x5 index card. List the date and a topic at the top. Write a short paragraph about the event or the book he published. Then make a small drawing to illustrate the event (or download an image from the Web.)
Begin research with this Web site's biography of Samuel Clemens. See also, "Mark Twain at Large: His Travels Here and Abroad" from the U.C. Berkeley Library: http://library.berkeley.edu/BANC/Exhibits/MTP/.
- Group II:
You are to research events in the West that coincided with Clemens' life. Assign group members one decade of Clemens' life to research. (Again, if the class is large, some students will need to work in pairs.) For each decade choose a minimum of five and maximum of seven significant events. Discuss your choices. For each event write a 3x5 index card. List the date of the event and topic at the top. Write a short paragraph about the event. Then make a small drawing to illustrate the event (or download an image from the Web).
Begin research with The West's Interactive Timeline and the overview of Episode Four, Death Runs Riot.
- Group III:
This group will prepare a series of maps of the U.S. showing territorial growth from 1830-1910, the time period during which Clemens lived. Ask your teacher for 8 outline maps of the United States, one for each decade. Each student should be assigned to fill in or two of these, depending on the size of the group. Make sure you use bold colors and create a key.
- To conclude the timeline activities, ask each group to place all of its index cards, drawings and maps in the appropriate spaces on the timeline.
Hold a discussion that focuses on the following issues:
- In what part of the United States did Twain grow up? (Missouri entered the Union in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise.)
- What role did the Mississippi River play in his life?
- How old was he when he journeyed out West in the 1860's?
- Did the West play an important part in Twain's life after his marriage? Where did he principally reside once he had a family?
- Which of Twain's books draw on his early recollections of his life in the West? In what famous stories or accounts does the West play a principal role?
- What impact did his books play on America's perceptions of the West?
- Twain's life spanned close to a century. During that time how would you describe the westward expansion of the United States? How did travel change within that time period? How did the West itself change?
Activity 5: Reading Chapters from Roughing It as a Class
This activity involves reading several chapters and includes opportunities for several large group and small group discussions; several creative writing assignments build off of the readings and discussions.
- Roughing It can be accessed chapter by chapter from "Mark Twain in His Times" at http://etext.lib.virginia.e /railton/index2.html. Once you click on the title of the book on the homepage a table of contents for the site on Roughing It appears. To access the chapters used in this lesson go to "Browse etext."
For a map of the journey described in the book click on "Mapping the West in Words & Pictures." (Later this lesson will draw on other resources from the Roughing It site.)
For a look at primary source documents relating to the book go to the University of California at Berkeley Web site at http://library.berkeley.edu/BANC/Ehibits/MTP/west.html and click on "Roughing It in the West and Hawaii, 1861-1866."
This activity will use the following chapters:
- Use the class timeline on Twain to deduce information about the writing of Roughing It.
- When did Twain make the journey he describes in the book?
- What book had he published previously? How is it related to this book in terms of literary genre?
- How many years after the journey did Twain write Roughing It?
- Where was he located when he wrote it?
- When was the transcontinental railroad built? How would this have increased interest in the West? Concomitantly, how would the railroad destroy the West Twain had known?
- Do you think Twain knew that the West of his childhood and young adulthood was vanishing? How might this have affected the way that he described it?
- Generate discussion about Roughing It in general by posing the following questions:
- Who is the author of Roughing It, Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain?
- Is Mark Twain, as narrator, a character in the book and if so, how may he be a different person(a) from Samuel Clemens?
- In what ways might Clemens' experiences on this journey have prompted him to assume the name of Mark Twain by journey's end? (Clemens first signed his name as Twain writing for the Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise where he went to work after having failed at timber and silver mining.)
The class will read and discuss several chapters from Roughing It as a whole group. Discussions will serve as models for smaller groups which will be assigned to read and prepare (as per instructions) one of the remaining chapters.
- Reading Chapters XXVIII and XXIX
Download and make copies of Chapters XXVIII and XXIX on Silver Mining, distribute them to students, and ask the class to read them for homework.
Browse individual chapters at the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.
Vocabulary words from the chapters:
- Focus on the first paragraph especially. Here the Humboldt River is described with typical "Western humor." How does Twain use comparison and hyperbole which he then deflates? How are these techniques typical of the "tall tales" told orally on the frontier?
- Focus on the second paragraph for some of the imagery that is later used as a motif in these two chapters - the high canyon and the bottom crevice which parallel his high expectations and deflated hopes.
- In what ways does Mark Twain play the "innocent abroad" in these chapters? How does he make a fool of himself several times over? Do you think Samuel Clemens made as much of a fool of himself in reality as Mark Twain makes a fool of himself as narrator of these adventures? Explain.
- How does Mr. Ballou function as the voice of reality - the straight man in a comedy, so to speak?
- How accurately do you think Twain captures true-to-life dialogue? How is dialogue used to express character? How may Twain have differed from other American authors writing at the same time in this regard (e.g. William Dean Howells, Henry James)?
- In what way is chapter XXIX a further deflation of the high hopes with which Twain starts out his career in mining?
- What lessons has Twain learned from his adventures here?
- In what way does Twain mock all of the miners (except Mr. Ballou) who swarm the area?
- Creative Writing Assignments
- Describe a time in your life when your high hopes were unexpectedly deflated. How did you feel at the time? As the narrator of these events are you able to look back on yourself with a bit of mockery and wisdom you did not have at the time?
- Twain has a wonderful list of the names of mining claims which express the confidence and great expectations of their owners. Write a poem or description in which you use names similarly. (The names of race horses come to mind).
- Pick a very dreary place that you know well. Write about it by using comparison and exaggeration. Make it come alive for us, even though inherently the place does not have much going for it.
- Whole Class Reading of Chapter XLIX about law enforcement
Download this chapter, distribute it, and ask the class to read it for homework.
Vocabulary words from the chapter:
- Focus on the opening paragraph. How does it establish that the telling of a tale is something that is passed along, person to person. How might a tale "grow" or be embellished under these circumstances?
- Twain shows how out West, the normal status of various roles in society is inverted. Those we most admire are least admired. Write a variety of roles he mentions on the board and ask students to place them in the order in which we would rank their status. How do residents in the mining towns evaluate their fellow residents? On what basis? Why do find the inversion funny?
- How is the jury system also perverted? What problems exist with juries today? How do we attempt to solve them?
- Ask students if "outlaws" are still admired today. For example, why do we so love to watch movies about the mafia?
- What do students find funny or amusing about this chapter?
Ask students if they think Twain could have a serious purpose even though he uses comedy as a technique? Does humor sharpen or dull the effect of his anger?
- Twain appears to keep digressing as he recounts what he has seen, as if he is casually just "telling" us things. At mid-point he says, "My idea, when I began this chapter,.." Ask students to make an outline of the topics he covers. What is the logic that underlies the seemingly off-hand organization of the piece?
- Do you feel that Twain is "stretching the truth" about crime in the West or do you think he is painting a pretty accurate depiction? Why?
- In what way is Twain's voice similar to the voice he uses in Chapters XXVIII and XXIX? How is it different? Suppose he had told this chapter in the voice of Samuel Clemens. How might it have differed from "Mark Twain's"?
- In what way might a story like this one have contributed to the mythologizing of the West?
- Creative Writing Assignments
- Retell the events told in this chapter from a different viewpoint, as for example from a woman's viewpoint or that of an investigator for a law enforcement agency.
- Pick a topic that makes your blood boil with anger. Try to get us worked up about it too, but do so using some irony and humor.
Activity 6: Reading Chapters in Small Groups
- Put students into several small groups and assign each group one of the remaining chapters (or the public lecture) on the list. After each group has read and discussed their chapter they should prepare a presentation to the class based on it. The tasks they should complete are as follows. They can be divided up among group members either by you or by the learning teams themselves.
- Instructions to Groups:
- Access the "Advertisements & Publicity" for Roughing It from "Mark Twain in His World" at: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/roughingit/ripubhp.html. Create an advertisement for your assigned chapter (or lecture) based on the ones on view.
- Access "Selected Illustrations" from the same Web site (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/roughingit/illus/riillhp.html. Create an illustration for the reading you are presenting.
- Summarize the plot of the chapter or lecture.
- Prepare to read out loud a selection from your assigned reading. Choose it to illustrate a point the group wishes to make about the selection.
- Discuss the persona of Mark Twain in your reading. What is his "voice"? (e.g. Is he bumbling innocent, outraged reporter?)
- Discuss the various writing techniques he uses such as hyperbole, "word paintings" of the landscape, colloquial dialogue, etc.
- Discuss in what ways he has mythologized the West, or stereotyped different groups of peoples, such as the Chinese or Mormons.
- Compare the story assigned to your group to one of the episodes discussed as a class.
- As an option, appoint a member to be a moderator of a panel discussion. The moderator can pose questions that group members can debate in front of the class.
Activity 7: Comparing Twain's West to the West presented in the video series.
- Now show selections of The West that cover some of the same material Twain describes in Roughing It. Ask students to comment on how accurately they feel Twain captured the "real" West, or alternatively, how he stereotyped and mythologized it.
- Episodes to watch:
- Episode 3, "The Diggings" 34:57 to 48:42. This depicts California during the Gold Rush era and can be compared to Clemens' experiences mining for silver. (Review the episode description: The Diggings.)
- Episode 5, "The Artillery of Heaven" 19:06-25:53 which covers the Chinese workers who built the transcontinental railroad. (Review the episode description: The Artillery of Heaven.)
- Episode 5, 40:00 to 46:00, which covers the Mormons and polygamy. (Review The Woman's Exponent for more information.)
- Students can be assessed for how well they worked cooperatively in their two learning groups (time line group, and story presentation group).
- Students can be assessed for the accuracy and relevancy of the index cards they contributed to the time line.
- Students can be evaluated for their role in the group presentation of a chapter from Roughing It. How well did they analyze the chapter? How effectively did they present it to the whole class.
- If you assigned one of the creative writing assignments, students can evaluated for how well it reflected the themes and writing techniques under discussion in this unit.
- Assign an essay to the class. Students can compare the episode they studied as a small group to one of the chapters discussed as a whole class. Or, students can be asked to write an essay based on one of the themes of this unit, such as Mark Twain's persona, his application of oral story telling techniques to high art, etc.
- Compare the work of Twain to that of another Western author such as Bret Harte or Ambrose Bierce.
- Read another work of Twain's which depicts his life on America's "vanishing frontier" such as Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Discuss how he adapted various literary techniques he first used in Roughing It.
- Choose another period in American history, such as the Vietnam War era, and study authors who have depicted it for later generations. Interview people who lived through those times and compare their impressions of the times to the portrait of the era painted by writers. Do we continue to mythologize our past?
Relevant National Standards
This lesson addresses the following national curriculum standards.
- Language Arts (9-12)
established by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning
- Understands the effects of the author's style and complex literary devices and techniques on the overall quality of a work. (e.g. tone;irony;mood …point of view;voice; understatement and overstatement; narrator…)
- Understands relationship between literature and its historical period…how writers represent and reveal their cultures and traditions.
- Uses a variety of techniques to convey a personal style and voice.
- Synthesizes information from multiple research studies to draw conclusions that go beyond those found in any of the individual studies.
established by the National Center for History in the Schools
- Era 4: Standard 2E
The student understands the settlement of the West . Therefore the student is able to: Explore the lure of the West and the reality of life on the frontier.
About the Author
Joan Brodsky Schur teaches social studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. Her work in the classroom has been described in various articles she has written over the years for Social Education. Joan and fellow-colleague Sari Grossman are the editors of In A New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature. Joan is also a contributing author to the Constitution Community, a Web site of the National Archives at www.nara.gov/education/cc/.