Who is Mark Twain? Information on the biography, life story and books of Mark Twain. What did Mark Twain do?
Mark Twain; the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), America’s greatest humorist and one of its greatest writers. He is best known for two novels of boyhood life on the Mississippi River in the mid-19th century —Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. These books define boyhood in terms of play, pleasure, and youthful adventure, for Mark Twain, who grew up along the Mississippi, could not forget his childhood and its play. But personal experience tells only part of the story. Twain’s creation of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer was also rooted in his extensive apprenticeship and hard work as a writer.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in the small village of Florida, Mo., on Nov. 30, 1835. His parents, John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton Clemens, descendants of slave-holding Virginians, had been married in Kentucky and had made their way through Tennessee to Missouri. When Sam was 4, his father, an impractical man with grandiose ideas of making a fortune, moved the family to Hannibal, Mo., where “the great Mississippi, the majestic Mississippi [rolled]its mile wide tide along.” There, on the west bank of the river, with steamboats making their daily stops, Sam spent his boyhood.
By the time he was 18, Sam had served an apprenticeship as a printer on his brother Orion’s
Caper and had tried his hand at writing juvenile urlesque. He even had one humorous sketch, The Dandy Frightening the Squatter, published in B. P. Shillaber’s Carpet Bag, a New York periodical. During the next 10 years, from 1853 to 1862, he continued his efforts as a humorous writer, using such pseudonyms as Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, W. Epaminandos Adrastus Blab, Sergeant Fathom, and Josh.
During those same 10 years Sam also pursued another art as rigorous as that of writing—piloting steamboats on the Mississippi. He might have remained a pilot had not the Civil War intervened. But the war closed the river, and, after two hectic weeks in the Confederate Army (from which he “resigned,” as he drolly referred to his desertion), he went to Nevada with his brother, an abolitionist whom President Lincoln had appointed secretary to the territorial governor. And so, while the Civil War raged in the East, Samuel Clemens found himself searching the West for silver, and, son of his father, dreaming of making a fortune.
The Western Years
Clemens’ career as a prospector and miner was an utter failure, however, and he fell back on journalism as a profession. In 1862 he secured a job with the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise and quickly demonstrated his capacities as a reporter and humorist. A year later, in February 1863, he adopted the pseudonym “Mark Twain,” a river phrase meaning “two fathoms deep.”
The pen name seemed to free Clemens’ genius, and from that time on, his life was committed to the art of the professional humorist. This does not mean that Mark Twain’s assimilation of Samuel Clemens was sudden or dramatic, for about half of Clemens’ work remained straight reporting. But humor relentlessly prevailed.
Twain’s humor, like that of most frontier practitioners of the art, was a kind of “literary” violence, comparable to the physical violence of the frontier. Not surprisingly, therefore, Twain departed Virginia City when his running bout of invective with a rival journalist threatened to become a duel of pistols rather than a duel of words.
From Virginia City, Twain went to San Francisco, only to have his repeated assaults on the city government involve him in a feud with the police force. As a result, according to his own recollection, he fled with Steve Gillis to Angels Camp in Tuolomne county, where Steve’s brother Jim had a cabin on Jackass Hill. In that region of played-out mines inhabited by disappointed old prospectors, Mark Twain heard the tale of the jumping frog, which he transformed into The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. When this brief humorous masterpiece was published in the New York Saturday Press in the autumn of 1865, it deservedly won Twain fame in the East.
The publication of the Jumping Frog signaled a change in Mark Twain’s fortunes. His career as humorist was fairly launched, and all the res-tiveness he might later feel in the role could never turn him away from it. He not only wrote humorous sketches for magazines and newspapers (among them Bret Harte’s Californian), but also widened his journalistic efforts by accepting an assignment in Hawaii in 1866 as travel correspondent for the Sacramento Union— an assignment that freed him to use his talents as a roving humorous reporter. Beturning from Hawaii, Twain made his debut as a lecturer, including in his first brief tour a triumphant performance in Virginia City. Then he left the West forever—a writer, journalist, lecturer, and, above all, a humorist.
The event that unified Twain’s activities and gave him worldwide attention was his voyage in 1867 on the Quaker City, which was bound for the Holy Land on the first organized pleasure trip from the New World to the Old. The record of that trip, first written in the form of dispatches to the San Francisco Alta California and then rewritten as The Innocents Abroad (1869), brought him fame as well as the fortune he had sought as a miner.
But Twain wanted more than fame and fortune. He also wanted a wife, and he had no sooner returned from abroad than he set out to win one. His choice was Olivia Langdon of Elmira, N. Y. From the moment he saw her picture in her brother’s stateroom on the Quaker City, Olivia was never out of his mind—or so Twain always insisted.
His courtship began as unpromisingly as his prospecting career had begun. Thoroughly rebuffed by his frail lady, he used the period of his initial defeat to write The Innocents Abroad on the one hand and hundreds of love letters on the other. By the time the book was completed, his letters had won Olivia’s consent to marry him. During their engagement he subjected proofs of The Innocents Abroad to her censorship and approval, and for the 34 years of their married life he continued to present his work for her inspection.
Olivia was indeed his chief censor, though not the first one; the first had been Mary Mason Fairbanks, a fellow passenger on the Quaker City. Later he relied heavily on William Dean Howells for similar services. Critics, scholars, and admirers of Mark Twain have frequently lamented his subjection to such censorship, but it is possible to see it as a crucial strategy of his humor—a way for the “low” humorist in the very act of gaining indulgent approval to release charges of subversive feeling that would not seem threatening.
Twain’s marriage in 1870, shortly after the publication of The Innocents Abroad, was as much a part of his professional career as his discovery of a pseudonym or his early triumphs as a writer. The young couple first lived in Buffalo, where Twain set himself up as an editor of the Buffalo Express. But the work exhausted him, the paper lost money, and his wife was often ill. After two years he gladly sold his interest in the paper at a loss of $10,000.
The Hartford Years
Twain had not lost everything, however. He had written Roughing It (1872), a remarkable autobiographical account of his Western years. Though not as popular as The Innocents Abroad, it placed him in full literary competition with Bret Harte, whose tales and sketches of Western life were enormously successful. By supplementing his income with occasional lecture tours, Twain was able to settle comfortably in his favorite city, Hartford, Conn. There he could keep a sharp eye on his publisher, Elisha Bliss, and also be in a center of literary activity. In the snugly informal literary neighborhood of Nook Farm, next door to Harriet Beecher Stowe, he built a flamboyant home that parodied the gingerbread architecture of the Victorian period and at the same time suggested the studied gaudiness of a steamboat.
Mark Twain’s Hartford years were unquestionably his most creative. Following Roughing It, in relatively swift succession he published The Gilded Age (1873), a satire written in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner; Old Times on the Mississippi (1875), a series of sketches for the Atlantic magazine that carried him backward in time to the great days of steamboating but forward in art to a complete mastery of humorous autobiography; and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a novel that reached into his childhood. And finally there was his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, begun in 1876 but not finished until 1884.
During the years between, Twain was involved in a host of projects. He collaborated on a play with Bret Harte; returned to Europe in an effort to repeat the success of The Innocents Abroad but succeeded only in producing A Tramp Abroad (1880), one of his dullest travel books; wrote The Prince and the Pauper (1882), a popular and thoroughly respectable children’s book but distinctly inferior to Tom Sawyer; and returned to the Mississippi River region in an effort to produce a lengthy travel book.
The immediate result of the Mississippi trip was Life on the Mississippi (1883), the best part of which is the first quarter of the volume, the “Old Times” sketches. But the chief result was the completion of Huckleberry Finn. With its publication in 1884, Twain not only realized the highest possibilities of his humorous art but also neared the summit of his fortunes.
Although from the beginning of his career Twain had been fascinated with business and inventions, and had invested in dozens of uncompleted projects, by 1884 he had put most of his money into the publishing firm of Charles L. Webster and Company and into the Paige typesetting machine. One of the first books to be published by Webster was, in fact, Huckleberry Finn, and no sooner was it a success than Twain had the inspiration of publishing General Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs (1885-1886). Discovering that Grant, ill and in need of money, was about to accept a contract at the conventional royalty, Twain confidently offered much more generous terms and secured the contract. This audacious generosity proved to be good business: the Memoirs had an enormous sale, and Twain paid Grant’s widow a single royalty check of $250,000, probably the largest of the 19th century.
Publishing interested Twain, but the Paige machine interested him more, and by 1887 it was consuming all his available capital. Indeed, it exerted such an influence on him that at one point he wanted to finish A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) on the day the machine was scheduled to be completed. But, according to Twain, James Paige, the inventor of the machine, was a perfectionist, who by endlessly taking his masterwork apart in an effort to improve its mechanism, never quite completed his project. As a result Twain began driving his pen harder and harder in order to finance his other enterprises. Not even the profits from A Connecticut Yankee, An American Claimant (1892), Tom Sawyer Abroad (1893), Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), and a host of lesser publications could keep him from bankruptcy.
Twain did go bankrupt, but he was saved from complete rain by Henry Huttleston Rogers, a Standard Oil tycoon, who helped him in business matters and advised him to transfer his copyrights to Olivia, thus preserving intact his most valuable property. With Rogers managing his financial affairs, Twain was released to write Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), which he insisted was his greatest work, although most critics regard the book as his most lifeless long work.
Twain was not content with simply writing, however. Because he wanted to pay his creditors 100 cents on the dollar, he undertook a round-the-world lecture tour. He had almost completed it when he was devastated by the news that his favorite daughter, Susy, had died in Hartford of meningitis. This tragedy, following hard upon his bankruptcy, left him in a black mood that lasted from 1896 until 1904. During this dark period, in which he was filled with despair and self-reproach, Twain filled rooms with manuscripts, most of which were fragments. Not only was his comic genius ill-adapted to the symbols of despair, but his creative forces were clearly waning. Even The Mysterious Stranger, the most interesting work of the period, was left unfinished and was pieced together by his secretary, Albert Bigelow Paine, the man Twain chose to be his official biographer, and published in 1916.
Paradoxically, the bleak period ended when Olivia died in 1904 in Florence, where Twain had taken her in an effort to restore her health. With her death, Mark Twain entered the last phase of his career. Writing for him was essentially over, but there remained the kingdom of personality, and he ruled it absolutely. White-haired, white-mustached, clad in his famous white suit, and showered with honors by an admiring world, he triumphantly settled into his last home—Stormfield, in Redding, Conn.—and passed humorous judgment on the entire human race. His chief literary work of this period was his autobiography, published posthumously in 1924, which he garrulously dictated to Paine.
After the marriage of his daughter Clara in October 1909 and the death of his youngest daughter, Jean, in December of the same year, Twain was truly alone. Ravaged by age and failing health, he died in Redding on April 21, 1910.