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Literature >> 19th Century
humorist, essayist, journalist
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835, the sixth child of John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens. The family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, in 1839. Poor health kept Samuel indoors throughout much of his early childhood, but by age nine he had regained his health and was able to join the rest of the town's children outside. His father died when he was 11, and Samuel left school to become a printer to help support his family. He started out working in Hannibal, primarily as a typesetter for his brother Orion's newspaper, the Journal, but left Hannibal in 1853, living and working in St. Louis, New York City, and Philadelphia before returning to work with Orion, this time in Muscatine and Keokuk, Iowa.
In the fall of 1856, Clemens moved to Cincinnati. The following spring he boarded a riverboat for New Orleans, intending to go to South America to seek his fortune collecting coca along the Amazon River. He changed his mind along the way, however, and persuaded the boat pilot to teach him to pilot instead. He worked as a cub pilot until April, 1859, when he received a license to pilot on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans. The outbreak of the Civil War closed the Mississippi to commercial traffic and Clemens left the river.
In July, 1861, Samuel and Orion set off by stagecoach for Nevada, where Orion had been appointed Secretary of the Nevada Teritory and Samuel tried his hand at gold mining; he failed. Samuel wrote humorous stories about his experiences in the West and signed them "Josh." These stories got him a job with the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in the summer of 1861. He first signed himself "Mark Twain" in a dispatch to that newspaper on February 2, 1863. The name comes from a riverboat term meaning two fathoms (approximately twelve feet) when the depth of water for a boat is being sounded; "mark twain" means the waterway is deep enough to navigate.
In May, 1864, Twain left for San Francisco, where he worked as a reporter for The Morning Call and wrote for two local magazines. He first came to the attention of Eastern readers when his story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" appeared in the New York Saturday Press on November 18, 1865. He visited the Hawaiian Islands for the Sacramento Union in 1866, and sent back both serious and humorous accounts of his experiences there. He returned to San Francisco, and gave his first public lecture there on October 2, 1866.
right: poster advertising one of Twain's lectures, using an illustration based on 'Jumping Frogs'
Twain's reputation spread rapidly after he returned from a cruise to Europe and the Holy Land in 1867. Humorous accounts of this trip first appeared in letters to newspapers, later as lectures, and finally as the book The Innocents Abroad, which was published in 1869.
On the cruise, Twain met Charles Langdon, who showed him a miniature painting of his sister Olivia. Twain fell in love with Olivia through the picture. He finally met her in person in December, 1867, and the two were married in February, 1870. They settled in Buffalo New York where Twain had become a partner editor and writer for the daily newspaper the Buffalo Express. In 1871, the couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where in 1874 Twain used the profits from The Innocents Abroad to build one of the most spectacular homes of the day; the porch, staircase, and other parts of the house were built to suggest a Mississippi River steamboat. The Twains had four children -- Langdon (who died in infancy), Susy, Clara, and Jean.
left: the Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut
By the 1890's, Twain had earned more money and fame than he could have ever dreamed of, but he invested in dozens of get-rich-quick schemes, most of which failed. These schemes, combined with a national financial panic in 1893, left him deeply in left. In an effort to economize and pay back his debts Twain moved his family to Europe in 1891. The income from his books and from a world lecture tour in 1895 and 1896 helped him regain much of his wealth, but his misfortune continued. Susy, his favorite daughter, died in 1896. In 1903 after living in New York City for three years Olivia became ill and she and Samuel moved to Italy, where she died a year later. After her death Twain lived in New York until 1908 when he moved into his last house Stormfield in Redding Connecticut. In 1909 his middle daughter Clara was married. In the same year Jean his youngest daughter died from an epileptic seizure. Four months later, on April 21 1910 Samuel Clemens died at the age of 74; he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York.
His Major Works
Twains's early writings consist of humorous sketches, letters, and newspaper accounts. His first humorous story to be published was "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter," which appeared in the magazine The Carpetbag on May 1, 1852. "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (November 18, 1865) is considered by most critics to be Twain's best early work. In it, he retold an old story about a frog being filled with buckshot, but he turned the story into a character sketch of frontier types.
Twain used his many travels as an excuse for stories, jokes, old legends, bits of descriptions, character sketches, and satirical comments on the life of the time, as well as the basis of many "travel books," beginning with The Innocents Abroad (1869). Roughing It (1872) was based on his trip to the West from 1861 to 1866; and A Tramp Abroad (1880) with a walking trip he took in Europe in 1879. Most of Life on the Mississippi (1883) was the result of a trip from New Orleans to St. Paul in 1882 and 1883, but he also included several chapters based on his days as a cub pilot.
Twain's first novel was The Gilded Age (1873), a satire written with Charles Dudley Warner that tries to capture the frantic life and uncertain values of the period following the Civil War. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) describes the adventurous life of an imaginative boy in a small Missouri town before the Civil War. Twain used his own boyhood to create Tom's hometown of St. Petersburg (Hannibal), as well as the book's three principal characters -- Tom, Tom's friend Huckleberry Finn, and Injun Joe. The novel was, and remains, very popular with youngsters because the story remains focused on the adventures of Tom and his friends and contains none of the "moralizing" then common in books about boys.
left: illustration from 'Tom Sawyer'
The Prince and the Pauper (1881) is the story of Edward VI, a boy who was King of England, and Tom Canty, a poor boy who looked almost exactly like Edward.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in England in 1884 and in the United States in 1885. It deals primarily with the adventures of Huck Finn, a homeless boy, and Jim, an escaped Negro slave, as they travel down the Mississippi River, as told by Huck himself. The language used throughout the book gives the impression of real talk, complete with slang common at the time and even intentional misspellings that were meant to reproduce how the characters spoke. The book was fairly unique for its time because, as the story progresses, Huck becomes more and more aware that Jim is a human being rather than a piece of property.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) is a satire based on the King Arthur legends. It describes the adventures of a New England mechanic of the 1800's who is magically transported back to the England of the 500's. The novel combines slapstick comedy with satire to show how scientific and industrial developments can make men indifferent to human suffering.
Twain's last novels include The American Claimant (1892), Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), and Tom Sawyer Detective (1896).
Many of Twain's essays and journalistic works are satirical attacks on current events. He also attacked man's false pride in his moral sense and his presumption in considering himself godlike. In the essay What Is Man? (1906) and other works, he argued that everything man does is predetermined and that free choice is, therefore, an illusion.
Chronology of His Works
The Innocents Abroad (1869)
This page was last updated on 02/01/2017.