Close Reading Assignment

    Our course is taking a very wide-angle look at "Mark Twain" – we're interested in what he meant to Samuel Clemens, what he meant to his contemporary audience, and at least some of the many things he has meant to American culture in the hundred years since Sam Clemens' death. And for your final essay or project, you can choose to focus on just about any aspect of that long story. But whatever you choose to write on, a good essay for this course will be one that develops its ideas by looking closely at its texts, that analyzes much more than it generalizes.

    So the goal of this short writing assignment is to give you a chance to practice looking closely, and thinking analytically, by giving you the chance to get deeply inside a passage from one of American literature's masterpieces of style and voice. You'll begin by identifying a short (about 150-250 words) passage from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that interests you, either because of its theme, or its tone, or its technique. Then begin your paper by copying out the passage, word for word, as the text you'll interpret. Then, in 250-400 words of your own, discuss what you see happening in the passage, what it means or says or suggests. "The difference between the almost right word & the right word," Twain wrote in 1888, "is really a large matter–it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning" — so why does the novel use just these words in your passage? Be very specific; make sure your interpretive discussion quotes the exact words, images, patterns. And be clear about what you think they mean.

If you want, at the end you can connect what you see in the passage to larger themes or issues in the novel, or even in Mark Twain's work as a whole, but for the most part I want you to keep focused on the specific passage you've chosen.