Mark Twain is often called the Great American writer and to this day, he remains one of the most important figures of the American literary tradition. Many Mark Twain books are regarded as classics and remain required reading even today.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in a small riverside town in Missouri in 1983 and raised in Hannibal. This town should later become the setting for his most famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain is a man who’s known for being controversial, brilliant and witty. He forever changed the landscape of American literature and even other literary titans speak of him in the highest tones.
William Faulkner termed him ‘the father of American literature,’ while Hemingway famously said, ‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.’
Yet, Mark Twain wasn’t only famous for his river novels. He’s also known for his essays, his travel writings, his social commentary and his autobiographical writing.
He’s regarded as one of the greatest writers, storytellers and humorists of all time.
Over the course of a life full of travel, he wrote twenty-eight books and over one hundred short stories.
Even today, his social commentary and criticism of American politics and society remains relevant. Many of his quotes remain widely shared, especially in today’s age of social media.
While The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is often the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the name Mark Twain, he’s got much more to offer as a writer. If you’re, however, looking for other recommendations, I’d recommend you checking out my list of the best Hemingway books.
For this article, I put together my very own list of the fourteen best Mark Twain books that have earned their place on every reader’s bookshelf.
Table of Contents
- Following the Equator
- The Innocents Abroad
- The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
- The Prince and the Pauper
- A Tramp Abroad
- Life on Mississippi
- The Gilded Age
- The Mysterious Stranger
- The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
- The Autobiography of Mark Twain
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- Roughing It
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Following the Equator is Mark Twain’s last work of travel writing. It’s a global travelogue in which he criticizes imperialism both in the countries he visited, but also at home.
In the early 1890s, Mark Twain’s career had gone sour. Following a series of poor investments and bankruptcy, he embarked on an international speaking tour. This trip, lasting from 1895 to 1896, allowed him to travel the world and visit the various countries of the Victorian British Empire.
He visited Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa and shares the oppression, superstition, racism and ignorance he witnessed.
One can notice that this is one of his later works. Mark Twain seems older and sadder than in his earlier works. His sense of observation and his wit, however, remain as sharp as always.
Following the Equator is a work that comprises loving sketches of the places he visited and is full of lovely prose, humor, irony and plenty of political incorrectness.
While he criticizes many of the foreign cultures and customs he witnesses, he also criticizes the tendency of American society to export their values to ‘lesser’ peoples.
While Following the Equator is one of his lesser known works, it’s still a fantastic piece of travel writing and one of the best Mark Twain books.
When Mark Twain grew up, he used every chance he got to travel the world. This passion is especially visible in his earlier works, like The Innocents Abroad.
The book became a bestseller during his lifetime and remains one of the most popular travelogues ever written.
The Innocents Abroad showcases Mark Twain’s talent as a travel writer and documents his journey through the Middle East and Europe with plenty of humor. He visits the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Vatican, the Sphinx and many other places. He describes each of them in his typical humorous fashion and shows his wit by pointing out their peculiarities and political incorrectness.
While The Innocents Abroad is regarded as a non-fiction book, the truth might lie somewhere between fact and fiction. One can tell that many of the stories are a bit too fantastical and are clearly enriched by Mark Twain.
What’s most interesting about this work, however, is that it gives us insight into Mark Twain’s younger days. What we see here is a young, witty and idealistic man who’s merely started down the road to become one of literature’s Greats.
The Innocents Abroad is not only one of the most popular travelogues ever written but also one of the best Mark Twain books.
While this work’s a short story, it deserves its place on a list of Mark Twain books. It’s without a doubt the most popular amongst the over one-hundred short stories Mark Twain has written over the course of his life and brought him nationwide attention.
Originally published under the title ‘Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,’ it details a story in which a man’s stuck in a one-sided conversation. His interlocutor’s a man who loves the sound of his own voice, barely lets the narrator get in a single word and tells endless, but ultimately pointless, stories. Eventually, the man wraps it all up with the story of a jumping frog.
While it’s a short story and thus much shorter than the many other works on this list, it remains a perfect example of Mark Twain’s brand of humor.
The Prince and the Pauper was Mark Twain’s first attempt at writing historical fiction.
It’s a story set in 1574, and follows two boys born on the same day and of nearly identical appearance.
One is Tom Canty, a pauper who lives in Offal Court of Pudding Lane in London with his abusive and alcoholic father. The other boy’s a price, namely Edward VI of England, son of Henry VIII of England.
The two of them trade places to experience the other’s life. Now the prince is living in poverty and the poor boy lives in fear of discovery. Both are now desperate to make it in the world of the other.
The Prince and the Pauper is as clever and witty as you’d expect from a Mark Twain book.
While it’s regarded as a children’s book, it’s commentary on social inequity and not to judge others by their looks makes it a great read for adults as well.
The Prince and the Pauper is definitely a Mark Twain book that’s worth a look and a must read for fans of his work.
‘A man who keeps company with glaciers, comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by.’
From this quote, one can tell that A Tramp Abroad is another work of travel literature, but one mixed with many autobiographical elements.
It’s a sequel to The Innocents Abroad, and this time Mark Twain’s referring to himself as a tramp and not as innocent anymore.
The book was inspired by a fifteen months long trip across central Europe and across the Alps from 1878 to 1879.
It highlights his journey through central and southern Europe with a friend named Harris, a character he created for the book. The two of them travel through Germany, the Alps and Italy.
Even from the chapter titles alone, one can tell how humorous a work A Tramp Abroad is.
The chapter titles include “Alp-scaling by Carriage,” “Chillon Has a Nice, Roomy Dungeon,” and “Why Germans Wear Spectacles.”
It’s a highly entertaining travelogue full of social criticism about the Germans, the Swiss, the Americans and the English.
What’s interesting about A Tramp Abroad is that it’s much more introspective than his former travel writings, including many of his personal thoughts.
Overall, A Tramp Abroad is a fantastic book, especially for its commentary and I regard it recommended reading for anyone interesting in travel writings or Mark Twain books.
Early in his life, Mark Twain had aspirations of becoming a steam boat pilot. That’s where his pen name originates from. Mark Twain is originally a term that signifies a depth of two fathoms or twelve feet, which is a safe depth for riverboats.
Life on Mississippi is essentially a memoir and piece of travel literature. In it, he details his younger days as a steam boater on the Mississippi before the Civil War.
It paints a colorful picture of the Mississippi area, including notes on the river and many towns alongside it.
Life on Mississippi also includes a retelling of a trip Mark Twain took from New Orleans to Saint Paul years after the Civil War. In it, he describes the many changes he witnessed along the river.
The book is both a travelogue and a historical account of the Mississippi river.
Overall, it’s a brilliant piece of non-fiction, a great travelogue and another fantastic Mark Twain book.
The Gilded Age was Mark Twain’s first attempt at writing a novel and was co-authored by Charles Dudley Warner.
As the story goes, it was apparently a result of a bet the two of them set with their wives.
It’s a sharp satire that paints a realistic picture of post-Civil War America, American manners and morals. What’s interesting to note is that the title refers to the three decades following the Civil War and essentially coined the term.
The Gilded Age can be seen as a great example of political criticism. It specifically targets the inner workings of Washington, D. C.
It pokes fun at political figures, opportunistic businessmen and the general hysteria at play in the capital. The book especially criticizes the politics and the rampant corruption of the post-war years.
Its cast of characters comprises crooked politicians, plutocrats, pretentious bankers and naïve bystanders.
It’s a lovingly written novel which is accompanied by humorous illustrations depicting both the politicians and speculators that drove American politics.
Yet, the work also serves as a cautionary tale and remains relevant even today. It depicts the influence money has over the American government.
If you’re solely interested in Mark Twain’s part of the novel, stick to the first eleven chapters of the novel. Overall, The Gilded Age is a highly memorable novel and a Mark Twain book that captured an entire period in American history.
The Mysterious Stranger is a work which was only published posthumously by Mark Twain’s biographer and was unfortunately never finished.
It’s regarded as one of Mark Twain’s darkest works and was written after much heartbreak and disappointment in life. It represents a departure from his earlier humorous writings.
The book contains many of Mark Twain’s musings on man’s dual nature and the battle between God and Satan for our lost souls. It’s a contemplation of human nature and a critic of many aspects of organized religion.
The novel’s plot revolves around a group of boys in sixteenth-century Austria. One day, a mysterious stranger shows up in their town. Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that the man might indeed be the devil.
By the end of his life, Mark Twain was a beaten man and concluded that we’re all flawed creatures. The book showcases his cynicism and disillusionment with humanity and that none of his earlier humor and carefreeness remains.
While it’s regarded as one of his lesser works and is much darker than others, it’s still a fantastic Mark Twain book.
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson is essentially a work on racism in America.
It revolves around two boys who look nearly identical. One’s born into slavery because of his 1/32 black ancestry. The other’s white and born to the master of the house.
The first boy’s frightened mother, a slave, switches the babies to give her son a path towards success and respectability. As a result, the two children live reversed identities. Yet, each one of them grows into their destined roles in society.
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, however, also comes with a fantastic support cast that’s as interesting and eccentric as we’re used to from Mark Twain. I especially came to love David Wilson. Every scene he was in was a delight to read.
At first glance, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson might seem nothing but an entertaining novel, but it’s much more. It’s a witty, clever and expertly woven commentary on slavery and racism.
It brilliantly covers the zeitgeist of white versus black, good versus evil. Yet, it also shows Mark Twain’s darkening outlook on life.
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson is another fantastic Mark Twain book, one that feels as relevant today as it was during the time it was written.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a pinnacle work of satire and a fantastic time travel novel.
Mark Twain was supposedly inspired by reading Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. His idea was to mix the notions and habits of the present day with the necessities of the times of King Arthur.
It tells the story of Hank Morgan, an engineer who’s thrown back in time to the year 538 AD and the court of King Arthur. The results, of course, are as disastrous as they are humorous. Soon enough, his shenanigans run rampant at court.
He challenges the great magician Merlin, and using his modern-day inventions and scientific discoveries becomes the prim sorcerer at court.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court essentially showcases the contrast between feudal monarchy and democratic values in the most humorous of ways.
Yet, the book can also be seen as a cautionary tale against our tendencies to romanticize the past, and even questions the ideals that became dominant after the Industrial Revolution.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is another fantastic and funny Mark Twain book, but once again, deeper messages are hidden inside of it. It’s very well worth reading.
Mark Twain’s autobiography is another one of the Mark Twain books only published posthumously. This one, however, by his own express wish.
While Mark Twain had tried to write an autobiography himself, he could never complete it.
In the last years of his life, however, he would dictate to others or talk to a Stenograph. From these notes, an autobiography was eventually created.
Yet, Mark Twain’s autobiography differs widely from those of others. It’s not in chronological order since he talked about whatever came to his mind. It’s a stream-of-consciousness patchwork of memories, anecdotes, tales and his personal philosophy.
During his life, Mark Twain experienced the gold rush, The Civil War, the Reconstruction and its decline and even the onset of the American Indian Wars. He also endured heartbreak, bankruptcy, but also traveled around the globe.
Mark Twain’s autobiography is full of the wit and genius that made him such an endearing writer. Many of the stories detailed in this work are remarkable.
This book, however, also gives us a unique look at the man that was Mark Twain. He shows us his brilliance and his experiences, but also his flaws and his short attention span.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain is a last testament to how exception a writer and human being he was. It’s without a doubt a Mark Twain book anyone interested in the man should read.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of the books Mark Twain is most well-known for and one of his most-beloved works.
While its original publication was a commercial failure, it eventually became a bestseller during his lifetime.
The novel contains a bit of everything: treasure hunts, disappearances, true friendship and young love. What it’s most of all, however, is a coming-of-age tale for the ages.
The story’s set in the 1840s. It follows a boy named Tom Sawyer who lives on the shore of the Mississippi river with his Aunt Polly in the town of St. Petersburg.
Tom Sawyer is a troublemaker, a romantic and a dreamer. His mischievous adventures often land him in trouble. He even falls for Becky Thatcher, the new girl in town and daughter of the local judge.
When he confesses to her, however, he gets humiliated and plans to run away from home. He soon befriends another boy, Huckleberry Finn and from then on, their troubles double. This culminates in them witnessing a murder at a graveyard which forces the boys to run away from home.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a must-read for anyone who loves American literature, coming-of-age stories or those depicting underdogs.
It’s even more wry than its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What makes it such a delight to read, however, is Mark Twain’s ability to tap into the minds of children and convey them to his readers. He captures both their youthful innocence, but also their general disrespect for all grown-ups.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a fantastic starting place for those who’ve read no Mark Twain books.
Roughing It was inspired by Mark Twain’s experiences as he traveled through the American West and the Pacific Isles.
It takes place during the years 1861 and 1867, when he traveled with a stagecoach with his older brother Orion.
It’s Mark Twain’s second book and the sequel to The Innocent Abroad and a semi-autobiographical memoir full of humorous stories about his own life and the Wild West.
In this book, Mark Twain shares one of his earliest adventures.
A young Mark Twain set out to mine gold in California. For this, he traveled from town to town in Nevada, to California and eventually Hawaii. During that time he mined gold in California, worked as a prospector, a reporter, a mill worker and a lecturer.
To bring forth all these tales, he often consulted his brother’s diary. Yet, he also used those notes for the occasional imaginary tale to entertain his readers.
We learn, amongst other things, of a near-death-experience, of deadly spiders, volcanos and a humorous encounter with Mormons.
While Roughing it is still a bit rough, especially when compared to his later works, it’s here Mark Twain began to hone his craft. Many of the elements that made his later works so endearing can be found here. They’re his witty observation of the most trivial things, the entertaining plot, his humor and his love for traveling.
It’s another earlier Mark Twain book, but one that gives us an interesting picture of his earlier days both in life and as a writer.
Roughing It is by many regarded as essential reading for fans of Mark Twain, American literature and travel literature.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is by many critics called the Great American novel. It’s by many considered the apex of Mark Twain’s writing career and skill. Even Ernest Hemingway praised it in the highest tones and famously said it’s where all American literature began.
It’s a deep-felt portrayal of boyhood, but also a satire of Southern society, particularly their attitude towards race.
In this sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, a 13-year-old boy flees his abusive home. Together with a runaway slave, he sails south on the Mississippi on a rugged draft.
Both of them are trying to break free, Jim from being a slave and Huck from the constraints of society. Throughout their travels, the two of them meet various people and get entangled in comical adventures. They encounter con men, witness fake deaths and even raging family feuds.
What’s most prevalent throughout the work, however, is Huck’s goodness and his disdain for racial prejudice.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an endearing, rich narrative of a boyhood adventure. What makes it such an interesting and enjoyable read, however, is our protagonists struggle to defy society.
Similarly to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it’s regarded as an adventure novel, but it’s also a commentary on the ugly side of society.
It’s all these parts: the humor, the adventure, the youthfulness of Huck, the troubles of Jim and its social commentary that have elevated The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the place it has today.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel for anyone, not only for fans of Mark Twain books or for American literature. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to do so.