Twain: Icon and Iconoclast

Mark Twain’s writings reveal the changes in American culture that took place through the Civil War.


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Creative Thinking: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication and Collaboration


This lesson asks students to examine samples of Twain’s work in the context of pre- and post-Civil War America. Students will also be encouraged to probe William Dean Howells’ characterization of Twain as "the Lincoln of our literature" as a backdrop to the study of Twain’s work throughout the course of the unit.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Be introduced the diverse literary voices of Mark Twain.
  • Exercise reading, research, collaborative, and writing skills.
  • Expand skills of critical analysis.
  • Explore the ways a writer mirrors and shapes the culture of a given time period.
  • Gain insight into and appreciation for the ways autobiographical material can be the inspirational center for creative expression.

Teaching Approach

Comprehensive Arts Education

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Research
  • Information Organization
  • Cooperative Learning

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Familiarity with the work of Mark Twain:

  • Mark Twain includes a complete bibliography, biography, and footage of Twain filmed by Thomas Edison.
  • Online texts for a very full list of Twain's work.

General knowledge of U.S. history, including social and cultural changes surrounding the Civil War:

Prior Student Knowledge

  • General knowledge about Lincoln
  • Broad understanding of U.S. history, including the Civil WarWar

Physical Space

Computer Lab


  • Individualized Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

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



1.    Begin a study of Mark Twain with questions about his life:

  • Who is Mark Twain?
  • In what time period did he live and write?
  • What is his real name?
  • From what source did he get his pseudonym?
  • What spectacular natural phenomenon occurred at his birth and reoccurred at his death?
  • Have you previously read anything written by Twain?
  • If so, what is your impression of Twain as a writer?

2.    Assign students the task of gathering biographical information on Twain from Web and print media
(See Teacher References section for resources). Draw together, as a class, a brief biographical profile, giving particular attention to identifying the dates in which he did most of his writing, and the geographical locations where he lived.

3.    Create a graphic organizer using the information collected.
As a class, determine whether a timeline, a cluster (word web), a map, or other type of organizer would be the best way to show the information. (Houghton Mifflin’s Graphic Organizer site offers a variety of blank forms.) Post the graphic organizer with the information on a bulletin board or wall for reference throughout the unit.

Build Knowledge

1.     Share with students the following excerpt from William Dean Howells’ tribute to Twain in his essay “My Mark Twain.”
As background, explain to students that William Dean Howells was a close friend of Twain; also, that Howells was a writer and long-time editor of Atlantic Monthly, a highly respected magazine, still in existence, that published many of Twain’s works.

“It is in vain that I try to give a notion of the intensity with which he [Mark Twain] pierced to the heart of life, and the breadth of vision with which he compassed the whole world. ... Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes—I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another and like other literary men, but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.”

Note that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a contemporary writer, also refers to Twain as “Lincolnesque.”

2.     Initiate student exploration of the comparison of Twain to Abraham Lincoln.
Ask students to make a list of words, phrases, and ideas they would apply to Lincoln, based on biographical stories they have heard about his early life and presidency, their study of his role in history, and any personal experiences such as visits to the Lincoln Memorial or any of the museums built in his honor. Encourage students to think of a range of points on which to build comparisons:

  • His log cabin background and schooling
  • His anecdotal, colloquial style in presenting his ideas
  • His stance on slavery
  • His reputation for telling humorous tales
  • His power with formal language (Gettysburg Address, for instance)
  • His ability, as a public speaker, to win a crowd
  • The reputation he holds as one of America’s greatest statesmen.

3.    Create a Venn diagram comparing Lincoln and Twain, and post it with the graphic organizer created earlier.
Encourage students to add to both over the course of the unit, and to refer to them in completing assignments or in discussions.

4.    Give students time to read, or read aloud to the class, selections from Twain’s work from before and after the Civil War.


1.    Project or distribute the following quote from Mark Twain:
“The eight years in America from 1860 to 1868 uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the national character that the influence cannot be measured.”

2.    Have students identify the key words and phrases of the quotation and restate the quotation in their own words.
Challenge students to test Twain’s assertion with specifics gathered in the problem-solving assignments outlined below.

3.    Divide the class in half, assigning one half to study the pre-Civil War period (1830-1860) and the other half to study the post-Civil War era (1865-1900).  
Divide each half into small collaborative groups to gather data about their time period. Suggest that each group focus on one of the following topics, and prepare a summary for class presentation on the ways their data supports Twain’s assertions. Individual members can choose among the suggested sub-topics, conduct their research, and then reconvene as a group to negotiate conclusions.

    • Growth of transportation: railroads, steamboats, river commerce, canals, and roads
    • Economic climate: changes in the agrarian South, rich natural resources of the new West, intensification of industrialization, “Gospel of Wealth,” Social Darwinism and “robber barons,” expansion of international trade, and labor/management tensions
    • Philosophical change: slavery, Darwin and the theory of evolution, "laissez-faire" economics, and Freud and the changing image of women
    • Political climate: slavery, impact of new wealth and party politics on grassroots politics, women’s suffrage, impact of Western expansion, and implications of America as an emerging world power
    • Realignment of social strata: in the agrarian South, the expanded frontier, and cosmopolitan cities; the impact on small towns in the United States; the impact of wealth (the new American aristocrat); and the impact of immigration and ethnic tensions
    • Cultural change: the growth of a national consciousness; attempts at weaning America from European manners and mores; Americans abroad; changing styles in architecture, fashion, interiors; Victorianism as a cultural force; the cultural implications of new wealth and a leisure class; the impact of new inventions and technology; and new art forms

4.    Give students time in the computer lab or library to conduct their research, or assign it as homework.
Also give students time to meet in their groups to discuss and organize their research.

5.    Have the student groups create graphic organizers showing what they learn, and present their organizers to the class.
Encourage students to consider more than one possible chart – perhaps Venn Diagrams or T Charts, for example – and to choose the one that best conveys the information they’ve discovered. Post completed organizers with the others for the unit. If space is an issue, have student groups create small charts, or get together to create a single chart for each half of the class, showing the most important information.

6.    Have pairs of students script conversations between Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln. Encourage students to take the following steps to maximize success:

  • Narrow the topic, choosing from the points captured in the graphic organizers.
  • Incorporate elements of the wit and verbal eloquence characteristic of both Twain and Lincoln.
  • Use quotes from either man as starting points for the scripts.
  • Use anecdotes, as both men did to build a point, win a debate or argument, and/or captivate an audience.
7.    Have volunteer pairs perform their scripts for the class.


1.    Read Mark Twain’s 1899 short story, "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg," and answer the questions on the handout, Questions about "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg" .  
The full text of the story is available at Google Books. Read the story aloud or have students read it for homework. Have students complete the worksheet individually, and discuss their answers as a class.

2.    Assign an essay to synthesize all the ideas and information students have gathered during this lesson.
Ask students to draw from their reading, research, collaborative conclusions, and class discussion to respond to the following assertion:

“In ‘The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg,’ Mark Twain uses parody and burlesque to rail against the "pretensions, prudishness, and all kinds of pomp and circumstance" he felt had overtaken much of American culture in the last part of the 19th century.”

3.    Remind students that a successful paper of critical analysis has certain characteristics:

  • It is effectively organized, with a clear structure.
  • It contains a clear thesis.
  • The critical position is vigorously defended with specific textual evidence from the literary source.
  • Quotes and paraphrases from the source are correctly referenced.

4.    Share some of the papers, focusing especially on the ways the writer uses the text to build a convincing argument.

Resources for this step:

Questions about "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg"


Assess the students based upon the following criteria:
  • level of serious and cooperative participation in research and collaborative assignments.
  • substantive contributions to class discussion and special projects.
  • range and depth in analysis.
  • organization, meaningful substance, rhetorical skill, and poise in formal oral presentation.
  • alignment of written performance with writing process rubric.
  • general level of engagement in all activities and assignments.
Explore the term “innocence,” an ambiguous label often put on Americans and the American culture, and redefined in various situations and in different time periods. Share with students that Twain wrote a novel titled Innocents Abroad. As preparation for further study of Twain, encourage students to express their ideas about how the term would be applied to the American outlook of pre-Civil War times, and in what ways the definition might change when applied to post-Civil War times.


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Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Rebecca Haden

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