Better known as Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens is one of the most renowned authors in American literature. Ernest Hemingway once said, “All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since” (“Clemens”). Twain’s diverse life, many careers, and fascinating stories have captured the imagination of many and earned him numerous awards.
Twain was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, and grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. Twain started school when he was seven years of age (Twain). In 1847, when Twain was twelve, his father died; and he dropped out of school, becoming a printer’s apprentice. By seventeen, Twain was writing stories and sketches for the newspapers he helped print. During the 1850s, Twain went on to pilot steamboats on the Mississippi River, and in 1859 obtained his own pilot’s license. He did this up until the Civil War began.
After a brief service in the Confederate Militia, Twain moved out west. He worked as a silver miner and a reporter in Nevada and California (“Clemens”). In 1863, he adopted his pseudonym, Mark Twain. It is a nautical term meaning “water is at least two fathoms (twelve feet) deep and thus easily traveled” (“Twain”). Later, Twain went on to be a traveling correspondent for a multitude of newspapers. He traveled all over the world and his letters were collected into an assortment of many books.
Twain was married in 1870 to Olivia Langdon and moved out east. He briefly lived in New York and then moved to Hartford, Connecticut. There he lived for twenty years, and his three daughters were born (Leary). When Tom Sawyer was published in 1876, it won Twain worldwide recognition (“Twain”). After that, Twain immediately started to work on the sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“Clemens”). At this point in his career, Twain was famous. Anything he wrote would sell, but his ideas ceased. In Sketches New and Old (1875), Twain collected and published some of his miscellaneous writings (Leary).
In the late 1800s and also 1890s, Twain experienced major financial problems. He lost hundreds of dollars invested in the development of the unsuccessful Paige typesetting machine. Many of his later works were written with the intent of making money. The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins, managed good sales and further helped Twain with his financial woes. Following the Equator, published in 1897, helped immensely, too. Twain also started lecturing again, and by the 1900s had repaid his debts.
In the 1890s, after improving his financial situation, Twain’s personal life and health suffered. During this time, Twain and his wife experienced a variety of ailments. Their daughter, Olivia Susan, also suffered. She got meningitis and died in 1896. Twain’s wife began having emotional problems. After traveling to Italy, her health drastically declined (“Clemens”). In 1905, she died (Leary). Four years after his wife’s death, another of Twain’s daughters fell ill with epilepsy. She drowned while she bathed. Finally, Twain’s third and last daughter suffered a nervous collapse. Doctors forbade them to communicate because their relationship had often been argumentative.
With the money from excerpts of his autobiography, Twain built a house in Redding, Connecticut (Leary). Twain’s health continued to trouble him. He suffered from angina, a heart disease. Twain died on April 21, 1910. He was buried in Elmira, New York. His full autobiography was published posthumously (“Clemens”).
Twain wrote a plethora of literary pieces over his lifetime. His own life was a major influence on his stories, and places he lived and knew show up in his tales. One of the settings in both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Detective, was his uncle’s farm. Twain also embodied friends, family, and people he knew into his stories (Twain). According to Twain, Huckleberry Finn was inspired by a man he knew of named Tom Blankenship. Twain’s description of Blankenship from his autobiography would serve perfectly for Huck:
He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person-boy or man-in the community. (“Clemens”)
Through his works, Twain illustrated his readers' minds with pictures of these colorful characters. In 1865, Twain published his first important sketch, Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog. His sketch was reprinted in Twain’s first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867) (“Clemens”). While in San Francisco, Artemus Ward had encouraged Twain to write The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865). Most of Twain’s western compositions were hastily, and often carelessly, done.
Twain was a traveling correspondent for numerous newspapers, writing many letters about his trips. In 1865, Twain went to Hawaii to report on a new excursion service there for the Sacramento Union. His accounts were published in the newspaper and were collected in Letters from the Sandwich Islands (1938) and Letters from Honolulu (1939). In 1866, Twain was contracted to become a traveling correspondent for the Alta California. His accounts of this trip were collected in Mark Twain’s Travels with Mr. Brown (1940). While on a cruise to Europe and the Middle East in June of 1867, Twain was a traveling correspondent for two American newspapers. These letters were later collected as The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869) (Leary). The Innocents Abroad was Twain’s second book published in 1869 (“Clemens”).
Roughing it, which was published in 1872, recounted Twain’s time in Nevada and contained some of his works from The Letters from the Sandwich Islands (Leary). Twain’s first novel, The Gilded Age, was written with Charles Dudley Warner. The Gilded Age was published in 1874 (“Clemens”). His second novel was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).
Twain’s steamboating experiences on the Mississippi expanded into Life on the Mississippi (1883). With more diverse and exotic settings, The Prince and the Pauper (1882) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) were published. Finally, after seven years of working on it, Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in 1885. He went on later to write Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), and some unpublished tales were also collected in Hannibal, Huck, and Tom (1869) (Leary).
During the last decade of his life, Twain grew bitter and misanthropic. Likewise, his writings also grew bitter, especially after his wife’s death. The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899) was especially pessimistic (“Clemens”). Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896) was so serious that at first Twain would not let his name be associated with it (Leary). The Mysterious Stranger (1916) is another example showing the darkening transformation in Twain's writing style (“Clemens”). The subject matter of King Leopold‘s Soliloquy (1905) is hypocrisy in the treatment of inhabitants of Congo. Twain’s book What Is Man? (1906) was described as a “diatribe of despair” (Leary). Adam’s Diary (1904) humorously showed man as a blunderer. Eve’s Diary (1906) showed a man saved from the error of his ways only through the influence of a woman. Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909) was a pessimistic story, partially disguised by humor, telling of how celestial creatures hold man in low esteem. Some of Twain’s opinions of man’s greed and lust were so harsh they could not be published for another century. When some appeared in Letters from the Earth (1962), they were no less bitter than before (Leary).
Throughout his lifetime, Twain was awarded for his many achievements in literary arts. Yale University presented him with an Honorary Master of Arts degree, Litterarum Doctor, in 1888. Yale also awarded him with Latin Legum Doctor in 1901. The University of Missouri cited him for his works in 1902. Twain was named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1904. Oxford University handed him another Litterarum Doctor degree in 1907 (“Clemens”). His hard work paid off with fame, but his personal trials determined his fate.
Twain’s interesting, diverse life, and his fascinating stories have captured the hearts and minds of readers of all ages and will for many more years to come. His immense talent brought people stories and characters they could relate to and hold dear, passing his quotes down through the generations and becoming a charming part of American culture that the whole world can share.
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