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Mark Twain and the Culture of Progress

A National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for School Teachers in Virginia City, Nevada, and Hartford, Connecticut, offered by The Mark Twain House & Museum

July 10-29, 2011

Dear Colleague:

Thank you for your interest in our institute. Mark Twain and the Culture of Progress offers an in-depth examination of two seminal works in Mark Twain’s oeuvre – his 1872 travel memoir Roughing It and 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Over a three-week period, we will delve into Twain’s evolution as a writer as it is reflected in these works and simultaneously explore the environs in which they were created–Virginia City, Nevada, and Hartford, Connecticut. Both locations were crucial to Twain’s development, and provide an exceptional opportunity to study the author’s life and work through the powerful intersection of classroom and experiential learning. We will also seek to situate these texts within the broader historical themes of industrialization, technological innovation, territorial expansion, and imperialism which transformed 19th-century American society.

Virginia City

The institute begins in Virginia City, Nevada, where Samuel Langhorne Clemens got his literary start as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise. During this period (1861-1864) he assumed his famous pen name and honed his professional persona as “Mark Twain.” In Roughing It, Twain chronicled his firsthand impressions of Manifest Destiny and the myriad ways in which the onslaught of American ”civilization” dramatically changed the landscape and the culture of the United States.

Our full slate of scholarly presentations will be enhanced by several field trips to sites either that Twain visited while living in Nevada or that date from his era. We will explore an old silver mine, travel to a Paiute Indian reservation, visit a government boarding school for native children, trek through the ruins of an old U.S. cavalry fort and Pony Express depot, and see the Nevada State Museum.


After a flight to Hartford, our institute will reconvene in the Museum Center at Twain’s elegant Gilded Age home, a National Historic Landmark where the author lived with his family for nearly twenty years while writing most of his greatest works. Twain embraced the technological revolution that was underway in the nation’s metropolitan centers, and his home features many of the newest domestic conveniences, including a gravity flow heating system, split chimney flues, flush toilets, speaking tubes, a battery-powered burglar alarm, and two telephones. Although Twain was fascinated with material progress, he eventually became ambivalent about technology’s ultimate benefit to humanity.

Hartford’s “modern” lifestyle inspired Twain to write A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a novel in which the protagonist, a time-traveler and foreman at Hartford’s Colt Firearms Company named Hank Morgan, introduces 19th-century technology to the ”primitive” society of 6th-century England. While intended to advance the civilization of Camelot, Morgan’s actions produce unforeseen and apocalyptic consequences.

It was also while living in Hartford that Twain’s fascination with automated printing processes led to his ill-fated investment in a local prototype device called the Paige Compositor, which eventually bankrupted the author and compelled him to undertake an around-the-world lecture tour in 1895 to restore his financial solvency.

While traveling abroad, Twain witnessed the full impact that Western culture was having on remote regions and peoples, which mirrored what Twain had seen happening to Native Americans at the height of Manifest Destiny in Nevada. Twain came to recognize that material progress did not always translate into human progress, either for colonial masters or their subjects.

Once again, our scholarly presentations in Hartford will be enhanced with field trips to several historic sites, most especially “Coltsville,” the industrial ”company town” that inspired A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and gave definition to Twain’s ambivalent reaction to the “progress” that it represented in Gilded Age America. Twain’s own lavish and technologically advanced mansion will also serve as another example of how the writer came to view the material progress of his age as a very mixed blessing.

Please click on the links below for further information.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment of the Humanities.

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