His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, but he is I better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. One of the important figures in American literary history, Twain holds a unique position in American literature. He was not only a great writer; he was also a famous humorist, a spinner of yarns, a journalist who satirized the hypocrisy of man and society, and a novelist who used laughter to fight against the tyrannies that seek to take away man’s freedom.
Born in Florida, Missouri, November 30, 1835, the son of a storekeeper-lawyer father, Samuel Clemens was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, where his family had settled when he was four years old. Sam never finished elementary school but got his education chiefly in the school of experience and from his keen observation of people and events common to a sleepy frontier town located on the western bank of the Mississippi River.
Young Sam’s favorite pastime was watching the mighty paddle wheel steamboats as they made their way up and down the river. Nearly every time a steamboat docked at Hannibal, red-haired Sam Clemens was there to greet it, to look, and to listen as fur trappers, Southern gentlemen, homesteaders, salesmen from the East, and ladies in fine clothes came down the gangplank. And he absorbed the talk of riches out West and of new lands to be conquered.
In 1847 the death of Sam’s father brought an end to his carefree days, and he had to go to work at the age of 12 as a printer’s apprentice. Completing his apprenticeship at the age of 15, he went to work as a printer for his brother Orion, publisher of the Hannibal Journal.
In the ensuing years, Sam worked for his brother as foreman, sub-editor, and feature writer and doubtlessly learned a good deal about writing. At about the age of 16, he began to publish some of his own writing in the Hannibal Journal -humorous poems, joking commentaries on the news, and satirical observations of fellow townspeople.
When he was 17, Sam left Hannibal and wandered eastward as far as New York. Along the way he worked as a printer in several cities and wrote often to Orion, who printed his letters in a special column in the newspaper. After he returned to the West, Sam again went to work for Orion, who had moved to the state of Iowa.
But the lure of the Mississippi was too strong, and at the age of 21, Sam returned to the river to realize an old ambition, that of being a Mississippi River steamboat pilot, In 1857, after 18 months’ apprenticeship under Horace Bixby, pilot of the steamboat, Paul Jones, Samuel Langhorne Clemens earned his steamboat pilot’s license. For the next four years he steamed up and down the Mississippi and got to know the name and position of every feature of the river. He describes this experience in Life on the Mississippi, remarking at one point that “when I had learned to read the face of the water as one could cull the news from the morning paper,… I judged that my education was complete; so I got to tilting my cap to the side of my head, and wearing a toothpick in my mouth at the wheel.”
In 1861, the Civil War disrupted Mississippi River traffic and ended Sam Clemens’ career as a steamboat pilot. His career as Mark Twain, the writer, was about to begin. In that same year, he and Orion boarded an overland stagecoach for a 1,700-mile journey from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Carson City, Nevada. Orion had been appointed territorial secretary for Nevada and had asked Sam to accompany him to his new job.
Sam quickly adjusted to the rugged life of a frontier mining town but soon succumbed to silver mining fever. Although he spent a year prospecting for the elusive metal, he met only with failure. All was not lost, however. During the long months of his search for easy wealth, Sam heard and remembered many miner’s yarns which he was later to utilize in his writings. In Roughing It, an account of his life in mining country, he observes that he learned “that gold in its native state is but dull, unornamental stuff, and that only lowborn metals excite the admiration of the ignorant with an ostentatious glitter. However, like the rest of the world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of mica.”
Nevada’s leading frontier newspaper, the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, printed several of Sam’s colorful and humorous sketches of frontier life and finally offered him a job as an editor. Within two years he was known throughout the western frontier as the “Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope.”
In 1863, he assumed the name Mark Twain, a term he remembered from his days on the steamboat, meaning “a depth of two fathoms – clear passage.” In becoming Mark Twain, Sam Clemens became a new personality.
By December of 1864, Mark Twain was forced to leave Virginia City after he and a rival newspaper editor tried to settle a difference of opinion by fighting a duel! He went from Virginia City to San Francisco, a city still caught up in the excitement of gold fever. While there, he published a miner’s yarn, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The tale was an immediate success and made the name of Mark Twain famous all over the United States.
In 1865, after spending five months in the Sandwich Islands – as Hawaii was then called – Twain returned to the continent and launched a public lecture tour about his experience. He was an overnight success, and in 1867, with the money he had earned from lecturing, he was able to go abroad for the first time, visiting France, Italy, Spain, and Palestine. Newspaper accounts of his trip were later revised and published as The Innocents Abroad (1869), his first important book.
Shortly after he returned from his trip, Twain fell in love with Olivia Langdon, the only daughter of a wealthy Elmira, New York, businessman. They were married on February 2, 1870. In 1871, they moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain had built a $100,000 mansion with the money brought to him by his literary successes. There he and Olivia lived for 20 years, entertaining friends, making frequent trips to Europe, watching their daughters grow up, and enjoying a happy life together.
It was in Hartford, in the years between 1871 and 1891, that Twain wrote his two masterpieces, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). These novels, together with other Twain writings of the
54 period, A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1882), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), are felt by many critics to mark the beginning of modern American literature.
Twain’s greatest fame and his importance in American letters rest largely on his two best-known novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The latter is generally considered to be his greatest novel. Like Twain’s journalistic reports, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are filled with concrete details which he had observed, remembered fully, and set down. Idyllic in nature, Huckleberry Finn presents a picture of the town of Hannibal in the days of Twain’s boyhood, yet the story of Huck and Jim has dark overtones. The world that they see is not a hoped-for one of peace and beauty. It is a world of fear and cruelty and violence and injustice in which the innocence of Huck and Jim provides a sharp contrast between what is good in the natural boy or man, and what has gone wrong with adult society.
Twain tells the two stories as he reminisces about the old life, the old days, “the old faces (that) have looked out of the mists of the past; old footsteps (that) have sounded in my listening ears; old hands (that) have clasped mine; old voices (that) have greeted me….” The result was a rich panorama of America during Twain’s boyhood and youth.
All of Twain’s books are molded from the clay of his past; in most of them he is the hero. Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi are almost completely autobiographical; The Innocents Abroad caricaturizes the gullible American tourist; The Prince and the Pauper expresses Twain’s hatred of injustice and of the need for mercy.
As he grew older, Twain grew increasingly depressed and disillusioned by what he called “the damned human race,” and his later works such as Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) and The Mysterious Stranger (published posthumously in 1916) mirror his growing bitterness. The Mysterious Stranger, his last book, is an allegory that suggests that life is in reality only a dream.
Twain’s success as an author, public speaker, husband and father, was not reflected in his choice of business investments, and at the age of 55, he found himself on the verge of bankruptcy. In June 1891, with funds he had managed to scrape together, he left Hartford and took his family to Europe where living was cheaper. A gypsy life followed as the family moved from city to city while Twain wrote ceaselessly and even gave lectures to earn enough money to overcome his financial losses. His efforts were fruitless, however, and in April 1894, he declared bankruptcy with debts totalling $94,000. Nevertheless, by 1898, true to his midwest code of ethics, Twain had paid off all his obligations, although during those four difficult intervening years he had endured the added burden of ill health and the death of his daughter, Suzy.
At the height of his fame, Twain and his family returned to the United States after nine years of self-imposed exile. His popularity was so great that he was deluged with honors and invitations to lecture, and by the turn of the 20th century, he was one of the best-known public figures in the United States, and world-famous as well.
The joy of his success, however, was dulled by two personal losses, the death of his wife in 1904 and his youngest daughter, Jean, five years later. In spite of his grief, Twain continued to amuse the American public with a seemingly inexhaustible store of wit and humor. For example, on reaching the age of 70, he said: “Seventy! I’m old. I recognize it, but I don’t realize it.”
On April 21,1910, while Halley’s Comet, which had ushered in his birth 74 years earlier, flashed across the night sky, Samuel Langhorne Clemens died. Shortly before his death, he had remarked to a friend: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It
is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.”
Mark Twain left his mark upon American literature. The stories he told still delight millions of people around the world. What he wrote was full of the gusto of the West and the colorful life he had known intimately and recorded as a student of human nature and the common life. What he left as an added legacy is the inspiration of a man who rose above setbacks and tragedy to carry on, sustained by his indomitable spirit of creativity.