Skip directly to content

The Humor of Twain

A Review of James M. Cox’s Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor

James Melville Cox was born on August 4th, 1925 at Brookside Farm, Independence. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a yeoman 1st class in the submarine Dragonet. After the war, Cox earned his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in English from the University of Michigan. In 1955, Cox earned his doctorate in English at Indiana University, where he was offered a teaching position. He later taught at Dartmouth College in Hanover for 27 years as an English professor.

Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor by James Melville Cox explains the life of Mark Twain as a writer and the different styles of ‘humor’ Mark Twain inputs in his novels. He cuts up the life of Twain into twelve different chapters ranging from his discovery of the pseudonym of 'Mark Twain' to the end of his career. In Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, Cox explains the ‘humor’ within the novels of Mark Twain, and how this ‘humor’ reflects Mark Twain’s past. Cox, in a sense, is talking about two people: the life of Mark Twain as Samuel Clemens and the writer himself as Mark Twain. Cox refers Mark Twain as Samuel’s pseudonym and describes all the meaning it had and came to have.

Samuel Clemens was born on November 30th, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. Cox also refers to the birth of the critic on February 3th, 1863, “with the discovery of Samuel Clemens’ pseudonym of 'Mark Twain' in the Nevada Territory.”1 Mark Twain was “born” at the age of twenty-eight, when Samuel Clemens started writing his first light, humorous verse. Clemens was a lieutenant in the Confederate Army in the spring of 1861. He disliked the taste of war and moved West with his brother Orion later in the summer of 1861. Cox never found out whether Samuel deserted his post or got decommissioned from his military status. Cox claims that Samuel likely deserted his post, since the two brothers moved west where the war would be far away from them as possible. Cox states Clemens' “humor arises from his awareness that he is the fool of his illusion, but the awareness is no direct communication of disillusion or despair.”2 This humor arises from the act of revealing the discrepancy between “reality” and illusion. This humor is soon to be revealed when Clemens wrote his first paper with the pseudonym of “Mark Twain”. After Mark Twain’s first publication of The Jumping Frog, he received brand new opportunities beyond California and Nevada across seas in Europe. The newspaper company of The Sacramento Union asked Twain to accompany the steamer Ajax to the Sandwich Islands to write an article about the trip and the islands. This initiated Twain’s life as a professional traveler. Cox stated that The Innocent Abroad was “the book in which Mark Twain defined himself as a humorous traveler.”3 After spending four months in the Sandwich Islands, Mark Twain returned to take a tour in California and Nevada. Afterwards, Mark Twain took a position as special traveling correspondent for the San Francisco Daily Alta California newspaper company. Mark’s chief occupation as a reporter for The Enterprise was to write letters to editors chronicling his travels. If the static aspect of Mark Twain’s experience constitutes the style of his book, it is the emergent aspect that constitutes the action. The two aspects of static and emergent combine to form the humor of Mark.

After The Innocents Abroad, Mark received an opportunity to travel to England to report his discoveries on his recent travels. He married a young woman named Olivia Langdon in the year of 1870. This marriage involved Mark Twain in an additional role in the business world. Olivia’s father, Jervis Langdon, was a wealthy man who made a fortune in the coal industry. In order to outdo his father-in-law, Mark Twain set out to be a literary tycoon, and set himself up as editor and partner of a newspaper company called Buffalo Express. Mark Twain’s Buffalo Express started collapsing financially and he was forced to sell the company, but still lost ten thousand dollars in the process. From this tragedy his career as a writer was being threatened as he contended with being a traveler, a lecturer, and a businessman at the same time. According to Cox, these “occupational distractions were the prodigious expense of his humorous genius making its way toward Roughing It.”4 The two different styles of The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It are the timeline of the adventures between these two books. In The Innocents Abroad, it talks about a journey into the historical and institutional past of a tourist. In Roughing It, it talks about a chronicle of a journey into a world devoted to the future instead of the past.

Roughing It and a short story of Twain's life in the Mississippi in the “Old Times on the Mississippi” told an autobiography of Mark Twain backward in time by successive stages to the threshold of Samuel Clemens’ childhood. Mark’s three earlier books exploited the myth of himself. In his new book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain utilizes the character Tom Sawyer to  make the difference between fiction and the tall tale. It is said that Tom Sawyer was based off of real people; this list might include himself or his family and friends. In this book, Mark Twain goes through some parts of Samuel’s childhood. According to Cox, “four essential elements make up the world of Tom Sawyer.”5 The first element is the figure of Tom himself, standing as the center of the stage. The second element is the stage, which is the summer of St. Petersburg. The third element would be the audience; the audience would include the society of St. Petersburg which would include the adults and the children that function around Tom. The fourth and final element would be the narrator, which acts as an indulgent audience himself. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, there are two base characterization of Tom Sawyer. The first one is that people aren’t unique, but ultimately similar in motive and behavior. The second base is that the social and psychological reality is wedded rather that divorced.

Huckleberry Finn is the book in which Mark Twain discovered the fullest possibilities of his humor.”6 James Cox explains that the highest point in Mark Twain’s career was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, due to his humor embodying a rich range of experience which was never seen before and have been never done again in his career. This was Mark Twain’s longest novel, and for the first time, his humor became more “serious”. This “serious” type of nature Cox is referring to is the amount of reflection The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had on Samuel’s childhood. Since this novel is supposed to be the sequel of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, this is also an extension of Samuel Clemens’ story as a child. After The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s career started to move downhill. It wasn’t a big crash, but his later stories weren’t as big as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or any of his other novels from the past. He started to aim for more a juvenile audience in his later writings in A Connecticut Yankee and The Prince and the Pauper. A Connecticut Yankee was the disaster that made Mark Twain enter into the twilight of his life as a writer. This novel was the breaking point between Mark Twain’s successful years of 1875-85 and the “long aftermath of failures, fragments, and disillusion which characterized so much of Mark Twain’s later life.”7

Cox’s thesis states that Samuel Clemens’ life centered on his sense of this mysterious humor which created the pseudonym of the critic “Mark Twain." This humor of Mark Twain reflected the simple childhood of Samuel Clemens which reflects the literary style of realism and naturalism that has been going on during Mark Twain’s writing career. Mark Twain’s popular novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reflect upon the childhood of Samuel Clemens, since he was involved around the Mississippi River multiple times in his past. Cox sees this humor as a reflection of Mark Twain in Clemens' novels. Cox states that “Mark Twain has more in common with the boy Tom Sawyer…”8

In James Cox’s Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, he wanted to express and define the life of Mark Twain in a perspective that most readers haven’t seen before. He truly wanted us to get a different type of feeling from the actual Samuel Clemens and his pseudonym of “Mark Twain." Cox tried to explain the deep relations between the novels of Mark Twain and the childhood of Samuel Clemens by constantly referring to this symbol as ‘humor.' It’s not used as the average humor we use in our everyday English, but a term to demonstrate the two different characters of Samuel Clemens and “Mark Twain” and the reflected childhood for Samuel Clemens’ past by using simple stories of a boy that might reflect himself or the people he knew during his childhood.

Mark Twain is one of the best authors throughout American history. He has written American classics that are still cherished to this day and used in our educational school system. Novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn related extremely well during the literary era Mark Twain’s career sky rocketed in. During the late 19th century, there was a new writing style that was sweeping through all the writers. This new writing style was known as realism and it reflects the faithful representation of reality. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn define the sweet simple life in the country. Most urban workers forgot about this feeling, since it was the Industrial Revolution during this era as well. These novels related to the young boys who currently lived in the country side and brought nostalgia to the urban workers who once used to live like that when things were more calm when they were children as well. The realistic literary movement and Mark Twain’s books were a perfect combination of why Mark Twain is favored as one of the best writers in American history.

Samuel Clemens was a happy and successful man in his later years. Through his successes from his previous years as a writer during his prime, this old man was done for his generation and waited for the new one to take over the literary world. Samuel Clemens was satisfied with what he had done with his life and on a “Sunday morning [would] stroll up Fifth Avenue…”9 The pen name of Mark Twain was not just an author, but truly a legend in American literature. He will forever be remembered as the man who wrote the classic American novels that are still in the educational system.

Samuel Clemens was a man and a writer who highly deserves to be respected. Samuel Clemens was a wanderer in his early days as a writer. From California to England, Samuel was known more as a professional traveler rather than a writer. His first job was to report what he saw at the Sandwich Islands. He also only wrote short stories and criticized documents at the time. From these small jobs he moved on to being one of the best writers in history and will truly be remembered in a hall of fame for writers.

Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor by James M. Cox is an interesting book using multiple amounts of symbolism to describe Mark Twain’s life. Cox refers Mark Twain as two different people entirely. He mentions Samuel Clemens, which is Mark Twain’s birth name. He uses the name Samuel Clemens as a reflection of Mark Twain’s past mostly around his childhood before he became an adult and professional writer. Then Cox refers to the pen name, Mark Twain. He uses his pen name as a pseudonym of Samuel Clemens and treats him as whole different person. There are two different Mark Twains, the childhood of the past, and the pseudonym of “Mark Twain” the writer. There is also the symbolic image referred by Cox as ‘humor.' It reflects the past of Mark Twain and shows how it relates to Mark Twain’s past and novels. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are huge examples where this ‘humor’ is used. Through these two novels his humor is the largest due to his largest reflection of his past.

Mark Twain’s books reflect on the beauty of America's past time. Comparing his famous novels with current American values, it shows us how simple and valuable our old traditions. The adventure series from Mark Twain describe a simple life of a little boy along the Mississippi. This is how the whole world used to live for centuries. The book reflected well during its era with the realism movement of the late 19th century, but it still can relate to the modern pass time of watching television or playing games with friends. Some country sides in our modern era still have the same concepts and that type of American value shouldn’t be destroyed. The realistic type of writing style of the late 19th century relates to how life was back then. With Mark Twain’s novels it truly gives us a taste of history in our modern era.

The book represents the beginning and the end of “Mark Twain." It explains by using a symbolic figure referred to as ‘humor’ in the novel. This humor reflects the two different characteristics of Samuel Clemens and “Mark Twain”, and how it is reflected upon Mark Twain’s novels.


  1. Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor: 1966. Princeton University Press.3.
  2. Cox, James M. 11.
  3. Cox, James M. 35.
  4. Cox, James M. 83.
  5. Cox, James M. 131.
  6. Cox, James M. 156.
  7. Cox, James M. 222.
  8. Cox, James M. 127.
  9. Keillor, Garrison Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. NY Times. 1.