There are few writers in American literary history who have become cultural icons. Yet Samuel Langhorne Clemens, born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835, and later known as Mark Twain (a nom de plume taken from his riverboat piloting days meaning two fathoms deep, or safe water), has clearly staked a place for himself in the larger American collective conscience, leaving a legacy not only as a fountainhead of American literature itself but also as a resilient and persistent figure in American popular culture. Ernest Hemingway famously remarked that “all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” William Faulkner echoed Hemingway's canonizing praise, acclaiming Twain “the father of American literature.” At the same time, Twain's image, humorous quips, and aphorisms have been a constant of the popular media.
His novels and stories have been remade into comic strips, children's films, and cartoons; his image and his words regularly figure in commercial advertising campaigns; and his likeness even appeared in a 1990 segment of the television program Star Trek. That he continues to predominate and to be celebrated in circles of both high and low culture is only fitting, for in his life as in his art, Twain played with and on the distinction between high art and popular culture and in doing so fashioned a literature grounded in the American vernacular. In this light, he joins Walt Whitman in fulfilling Ralph Waldo Emerson's call for a truly American voice and literature.
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