Mark Twain, the Dialogic Imagination, and the American Classroom

Drew Clifton Colcher


Mark Twain is often read as a provincial realist or naturalist whose works are disseminated in simplified versions as children's stories or seen as humorous social criticism of the southern United States and its dialects. This article focuses on two of Twain’s novels—A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger (published posthumously with various titles)—in order to focus on the more modern, less provincial, novelistic aspects of Twain’s writing. The theories of Mikhail Bakhtin provide the background for a characterization of the novelistic nature of these works in an effort to re-focus Twain criticism away from realist or naturalist analysis and toward semiotic and structural considerations. This essay functions as an introductory-level presentation of Bakhtinian analysis and Twain criticism, as well as a reimagining of the role of Twain’s writings in the classroom, especially in light of recent controversies surrounding the language used in works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Of paramount importance to this argument are the temporal, spatial, formal and thematic coordinates of the two books, and the assertion that they conform to Bakhtin's conception of the novel and how it radically differs from other forms.


Mark Twain; Mikhail Bakhtin; semiotics; novelism; American literature; literary theory; pedagogy; literary criticism; modernism; realism; structuralism

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