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Rating Mark Twain's work

'Tom Sawyer' is overrated, and 'What Is Man' is overlooked.

November 14, 2010

ESSENTIAL

"The Innocents Abroad"

"Roughing It"

"Life on the Mississippi"

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

"The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson"

These are the jewels in Twain's crown, the center of his reputation and his vision of American life. Spanning much of his career, they highlight his skills as a journalist and travel writer ("The Innocents Abroad" and "Roughing It"), his eye as an autobiographer and social observer ("Life on the Mississippi") and his groundbreaking work in the novel ("Huckleberry Finn" and "Pudd'nhead Wilson"), as well as his sense of fiction as a moral force.

OVERRATED

"The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"

"The Prince and the Pauper"

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"

"Tom Sawyer Abroad"

"Tom Sawyer, Detective"

Although some of these novels are among his best-known books, they also highlight the commercial side of Twain, the writer who produced fast and for money, who balanced his more evocative efforts with popular fiction that is, at times, formulaic and not entirely thought-out. "The Prince and the Pauper" and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" rely on a suspension of disbelief that their narratives don't entirely support, and the Tom Sawyer novels seem flatter and more sentimental as time passes — visions of a past that never was.

OVERLOOKED

"King Leopold's Soliloquy"

"What Is Man?"

"The Mysterious Stranger"

"Letters From the Earth"

As Twain grew older, he became embittered, by personal tragedies and his loss of faith in the human race. Yet these four late efforts are as engaged as anything he ever wrote, addressing imperialism ("King Leopold's Soliloquy") and good and evil ("The Mysterious Stranger," "What Is Man?") with righteous rage. Best of all is "Letters From the Earth," never published in its entirety in Twain's lifetime, a series of letters purportedly written by Satan and portraying "Man [as] a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable.… Yet he blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the 'noblest work of God.'"

—David L. Ulin

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