Twain: An American Humorist

Was Mark Twain the first truly American writer?


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques
Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


Students will analyze humor and the American character, developing a definition of “American humor.” Students will then analyze selections from the work of Mark Twain, seeking the characteristics that led William Faulkner to say that Twain was “the first truly American writer.”

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Broaden experience in computer skills.
  • Discern characteristics perceived to be distinctly American.
  • Discern that the goals of humor often go beyond entertainment and can be aimed at satirizing and debunking.
  • Exercise performance skills.
  • Gain understanding of and appreciation for Mark Twain’s giant stature as the first “true” American humorist.
  • Gain understanding of some of the intricate processes of Mark Twain’s projection of humor.
  • Recognize the basic sources from which humor emanates in human expression.
  • Recognize specific devices used in visual and performing arts to generate humor.
  • Recognize that the drive to shape a national consciousness in America in the first part of the 19th century included passionate appeals for a national literature.
  • Strengthen process skills of reading, writing, analysis, and collaborative problem-solving.

Teaching Approach

Comprehensive Arts Education

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Research
  • Cooperative Learning

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teacher should be familiar with global examples of humor, such as the works of Aristophanes, Swift, Voltaire, and Shakespeare, and with the work of Mark Twain.

Teachers should be familiar with 19th century American culture.

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Students will be most successful if they’re fairly familiar with American popular culture.
  • Students should recognize the 19th century as a time of significant change for the United States.


  • Individualized Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction


Depending on available resources, teacher may need to print or cue up selections from Mark Twain

Accessibility Notes

ELL students could add to the lesson by sharing examples of how humor in their own cultures differs from that in the United States.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Ask students to make two columns on a sheet of paper and write the heading "America, the place" at the top of one column and the heading "America, the people" above the other column.

Assign students to make jot lists for each column, freely recording in words and phrases what they think are the distinctive characteristics of "America, the place" and of "America, the people."

2. As a class, create a master list delineating the students’ perceptions of America and its people.

Ask students to consider if their lists would describe Americans both today and in the 19th century. Add, change, and subtract characteristics to arrive at a list which Mark Twain and the class could agree upon. Encourage students to consider some of the following questions:

  • Is diversity part of the unity of America?
  • Are there prevailing goals in America?
  • What do you think a national literature should celebrate?
  • What should a national literature criticize?
  • Is there a prevailing heroic ideal in America?
  • Is there a prevailing quality of humor in America?
  • If you think so, how would you define it?

3. Share with students excerpts from the following works:

Build Knowledge

1. Return to the question raised in the first activity: Is there a type of humor that is characteristically American?

After cautioning students to use appropriate taste in their selection of an example, ask students to share favorite jokes. As a class, isolate specific elements that students think contribute to the humor of the jokes.

2. Have students complete an in-class writing assignment in which they construct an analysis of what they consider to be the central force or forces of different types of humor. Share the written responses. Construct a list including:

  • The undercurrent of human limitations
  • Human foibles
  • Our inability to control the physical environment
  • Exaggeration of experience and personality
  • Manipulation of language
  • The irony of the unexpected
  • The juxtaposition of the logical and the illogical (incongruity)

Help students recognize these elements of humor if necessary.

3. Divide the class into collaborative groups (3 to 5 students each) to study examples of American humor. Have students choose from among these topics:

  • The nature of humor in the exchanges between the "interlocutor" and "end men" (refer to the Vocabulary handout within the Resource Carousel for definitions) in America’s early minstrel shows
  • The nature of humor in vaudeville, an indigenous American art form
  • The nature of humor in the American circus, including clowns, side shows, barkers, etc.
  • The humor found in early radio shows such as those of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, and Fred Allen
  • The nature of humor in Broadway musicals such as Once Upon A Mattress, The Producers, or Spamalot; remind students that the musical is an indigenous American art form
  • The nature of humor in early movies such as those of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges
  • Diverse types of humor found in movies and TV sit-coms, particularly those that are about American families, are positioned in American settings, or involve Americans abroad
  • Diverse ways that American cartooning visually projects humor
  • The humor of stand-up comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Demetri Martin, or Jon Stewart.

4. As a class, develop a definition of American humor. Have students re-examine their list of the central foci of humor. After adjusting the list in light of their research into American humor, have students compare this list with their list of American characteristics. Use these two documents to develop a definition of American humor.


1. Have students read Mark Twain’s "How to Tell a Story." Quiz students (in written or oral form) on such aspects as these:

  • How does Twain differentiate among "humorous," "comic," and "witty" stories?
  • What key points does he make about how a "humorous" story should be told?
  • What points of comparison does he draw between the style of the "humorous" storyteller and that of the "comic" storyteller in handling the "nub" and the "pause"?
  • Twain makes the point that the humorous story is an American development. What, in Twain’s perception, is the "basis of the American art of storytelling"?

2. Assign students to read one or more of the following Mark Twain selections:

(These selections should be previewed by the teacher to assess their appropriateness for the teacher’s school community.)

3. Divide students into collaborative groups (3 to 4 students per group) to analyze Twain’s humor. Emphasize that students should use specific examples from the texts to prove their points. Have students use the class definition of American humor, as well as the following study questions:

  • Does Twain follow, in his written work, any of his advice from "How to Tell A Story"?
  • Does Twain use the basic elements of the tall tale?
  • How does Twain project the colloquial flavor of the tales?
  • Can students find examples of caricature in Twain’s stories?
  • Do any of the selections demonstrate incongruity as a central humorous force?

4. Ask students to compare other examples of humor they might have read with Twain. Depending on the reading list for your school, these might be possibilities:

  • Voltaire’s Candide
  • Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal
  • Cervantes’s Don Quixote
  • Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream


1. Hold a humorous “yarn" contest, in which students spin a story orally. Let the rules for judging be based on Twain’s statements in the assigned article about how a humorous story should be told. Encourage students to use some of the devices they have observed in the Twain readings in building their yarn.

2. Let students deliver their yarns in collaborative groups (4 or 5 students per group). Each group should select a winning yarn out of the group.

3. Share the choices in the large group. Ask students to comment on ways the winning responses honor Twain’s advice on "How to Tell a Story."

Extend the Learning

Essay Prompt

Consider the following comments made by William Dean Howells on Twain’s achievements as a writer, and write an essay based on one of the three options outlined below:

“His great charm is his absolute freedom in a region where most are fettered by convention. … [H]e saunters out into the trim world of letters, and lounges about at will. … [H]ow entirely American he is. … [H]ow truly Western he is … with more honest laughter in [his humor] than humor ever had in the world till now. … [H]is work … expresses a civilization whose courage of the chances, the preferences, the duties, is not the measure of its essential modesty. … [H]is single-minded use of words strongly conveys intention from the author’s mind to the reader’s mind. … It is the Abraham Lincolnian word … and what finally appeals to you, in Mark Twain, is his common sense. … [Twain] is the Lincoln of our literature."

1. Clarify, and support or challenge, Howells’ assertion that Mark Twain is "the Lincoln of our literature." Be sure to use specific evidence from your analysis of Twain’s writings. Remember that a paper of comparative analysis should balance the evidence, i.e., each key point made should be shaped with references specifically to both Lincoln and Twain when arguing the connections.

2. Take a position about Howells’ statement, "how entirely American he [Twain] is." Return to the class list of characteristics. In developing your arguments, examine such aspects as Twain’s colloquial flavor, the regional local color. But also consider other points that Howells makes about the nature of Twain as a writer. Be sure to build your defense with a good body of specific references from the texts of Twain’s writings.

3. Develop an assessment of Mark Twain’s work as true national literature, using the first few paragraphs of Walt Whitman’s "Preface" to Leaves of Grass as the springboard of your analysis. Be sure to use specific evidence from both Whitman’s text and Twain sources in building your argument.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
National Standards in Other Subjects



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Rebecca Haden

Kennedy Center arts education resources have a new home!

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  

ArtsEdge is an education program of

The Kennedy Center 

with the support of

The US Department of Education 

ARTSEDGE, part of the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, is generously funded by David Rubenstein.

Additional support is provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee
for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.

The contents of this Web site were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not
necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.
Unless otherwise stated, ArtsEdge materials may be copied, modified and otherwise utilized for non-commercial educational purposes
provided that ArtsEdge and any authors listed in the materials are credited and provided that you permit others to use them in the same manner.

Change Background:

Connect with us!    EMAIL US | YouTube | Facebook | iTunes | MORE!

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  
    Privacy Policy
| Terms and Conditions


You are now leaving the ArtsEdge website. Thank you for visiting!

If you are not automatically transferred, please click the link below:

ArtsEdge and The Kennedy Center are in no way responsible for the content of the destination site, its ongoing availability, links to other site or the legality or accuracy of information on the site or its resources.