Mark Twain was an American writer, humorist, and moralist, best known for his novels Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain was born as Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. He was two months premature and in poor health, so his mother, Jane, was protective and indulgent. His father, John, was a storekeeper and lawyer who struggled to earn enough to support his seven children. He owned land in Tennessee that he thought would become valuable, and he instilled that dream in his children. Twain later said, “It is good to begin life poor; it is good to begin life rich—these are wholesome; but to begin it prospectively rich! The man who has not experienced it cannot imagine the curse of it.” John Clemens died when Samuel was only 11.
Samuel grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, where he learned to love steamboats. Hannibal inspired the fictional town of St. Petersburg, home of Mark Twain’s most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The Clemens family owned a slave, Jennie, but they sold her to pay off debts. The family took in boarders and sold much of their furniture to survive.
Samuel left school when his father died and became an apprentice printer at the Hannibal Courier. At the age of 15, he began working for his brother, Orion, who owned a small newspaper, the Hannibal Western Union. While there, he developed skills as a printer, writer, and editor. He also worked for newspapers in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Keokuk, Iowa.
When Samuel was 21, he joined the crew of a Mississippi River steamboat, and two years later he became a licensed steamboat pilot. He helped his younger brother, 19-year-old Henry, to find similar employment, but sadly, Henry died during a boiler explosion. Samuel Clemens was not on board, but he blamed himself. He was otherwise successful in his career as a pilot until the Civil War erupted, halting most river traffic. He fought on the Confederate side, with the Marion Rangers, for about two weeks.
Samuel went west with his brother, Orion, who sympathized with the Union side during the Civil War and was appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory. Samuel prospected for gold and silver, with little success, so in 1862 he joined the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, a California newspaper, as a reporter. While there, he adopted the pen name Mark Twain, which is a nautical term for two fathoms or 12 feet of water, deep enough for riverboat navigation. He wrote not only news stories but also editorials and short stories, developing his trademark folksy style.
Twain briefly returned to mining, after leaving journalism, to avoid a duel and other difficulties. He heard a then-common tale about a jumping frog and developed it into a literary story. In 1865, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” was printed in newspapers across the country, and that story brought him a measure of fame.
In 1867, Twain cruised the Mediterranean for five months as the travel correspondent for the San Francisco Alta California newspaper, gathering material and writing letters about his experiences. During this excursion, he met his future brother-in-law and reportedly fell in love with his future wife from a photograph. His resulting book, The Innocents Abroad, was published in 1869. Twain was famous by this time, but he still had not achieved the wealth he always dreamed of.
Twain sought not only wealth but also acceptance by high society in the East, particularly in New York City and Boston. He married Olivia “Livy” Langdon, daughter of a wealthy New Yorker, raising his social status. He loved her and hoped that she would uplift him from his rustic manners.
Twain and his wife lived in Buffalo, New York, for a time, then moved to Hartford, Connecticut. They had four children. Their only son died as a toddler, and two daughters died when they were in their 20s. Clara Clemens lived to be 88 and performed as a singer with her husband, a pianist and conductor.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876. Twain began working on a sequel, which would take him many years to write. In the meantime, The Prince and the Pauper was published in 1881. That novel earned him some respectability in elite society.
Twain’s books Life on the Mississippi and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were published in 1883 and 1884, respectively. His wife did not approve of Huck Finn. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has always been controversial, with critics pointing to its course language and demeaning attitude toward slaves. Others counter that the novel’s protagonist helps a runaway slave, the slave Jim becomes a surrogate father to Huck Finn, and the novel ultimately condemns the slave culture of the South.
Twain still hoped to become wealthy. He invested a great deal of money in inventor James W. Paige’s automatic typesetting machine, and, in 1884, he founded a publishing company, Charles L. Webster and Company, named for his nephew. Huck Finn was the first book published by that company. In 1885, it published the memoirs of Twain’s friend, former President Ulysses S. Grant, which was a bestseller that saved Grant’s widow from bankruptcy. Unfortunately, Twain’s typesetting machine investment did not work out, and the publishing house went bankrupt as well. He began to feel bitter about his lack of financial success, perhaps remembering his father’s similar disappointment.
In 1889, Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a novel centered around time travel. In 1891, Twain and his family closed up their large home in Hartford and moved to Europe, to both save money and improve Livy’s health. In 1894, he published The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, about two boys, one born into slavery and the other free, who were accidentally switched at birth. Also in 1894, Twain assigned his property and copyrights to his wife and declared personal bankruptcy.
In 1895, Twain began a world-wide lecture tour to pay off his debts, even though he had no legal obligation to do so. His daughter Susy died in Hartford while he was away, and the remaining family never returned to their home in Connecticut. His wife died in Florence, Italy, in 1904, after a long illness, and his daughter Jean died in 1909. Nevertheless, Twain continued to write, mostly anti-government essays and his autobiography, and he paid all of his creditors in full. During his travels, he became an anti-Imperialist and served as vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League.
Twain was born shortly after the perihelion of Halley’s Comet in 1835, and, in 1919, he predicted that he would go out with it as well. The comet approaches Earth every 75 or 76 years. True to his prediction, Mark Twain died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, one day after the comet’s perihelion.
The legacy of Mark Twain lives on, more than a century after his death. Tom Sawyer, an ode to childhood, has never gone out of print. Huckleberry Finn is regarded by many as a masterpiece of American literature, even though it has been banned by some schools for its depiction of the slave Jim and the use of a racial slur. Controversy aside, Twain is remembered for his wit, his philosophical musings, and his ability to capture slang and dialect. He received honorary degrees from Yale, the University of Missouri, and Oxford. In 1920, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
Biography.com Editors. “Mark Twain Biography.” The Biography.com website, A&E Television Networks, 10 September 2019, https://www.biography.com/writer/mark-twain.
Crouch, Gregory. “Mark Twain Claimed He Got His Pen Name From a Riverboat Captain. He May Have Actually Gotten It in a Saloon.” Time, Time USA, LLC, 19 June 2018, https://time.com/5313628/mark-twain-real-name/.
History.com Editors. “Mark Twain.” History, A&E Television Networks, 21 August 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/art-history/mark-twain.
Lombardi, Esther. “The Story of Samuel Clemens as ‘Mark Twain.’” ThoughtCo, Dotdash, 18 February 2020, https://www.thoughtco.com/samuel-clemens-use-penname-mark-twain-740686.
“Mark Twain.” The Mark Twain House & Museum, The Mark Twain House & Museum, https://marktwainhouse.org/about/mark-twain/biography/.
Nix, Elizabeth. “8 Things You May Not Know About Mark Twain.” History, A&E Television Networks, 16 June 2020, https://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-mark-twain.
Quirk, Thomas V. “Mark Twain.” Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 14 August 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mark-Twain.
Hoffman, Andrew J. Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Harper Perennial, 1998 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0688161103/.
Howells, William Dean. My Mark Twain: Reminiscences and Criticisms. Andesite Press, 2015 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/129677029X/.
Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography. Simon & Schuster, 1991 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0671748076/.
Katz, Harry L. Mark Twain’s America: A Celebration in Words and Images. Little, Brown and Company, 2014 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0316209392/.
Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. Free Press, 2006 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0743249011/.
BODY OF WORK
Twain, Mark. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. University of California Press, 2010 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0520267192/,
Twain, Mark. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. University of California Press, 2013 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0520272781/.
Twain, Mark. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3. University of California Press, 2015 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0520279948/.
Twain, Mark. Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain. Bantam Classics, 1984 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0553211951/.
Twain, Mark. The Mark Twain Collection. Arcturus Publishing, 2018 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/1788285913/.
“Mark Twain,” Wikipedia — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain.
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