Mark Twain ( 1835 -1910 )
Mark Twain was the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the world famous American traveller, story teller, humourist, journalist, lecturer and novelist who acquired international fame for his travel narratives of mid-19th century America and for his adventure stories of boyhood in the Southern states, especially ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ‘(1876) and ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ‘(1885). A gifted raconteur, dry, observant humourist and a ruthless critic of pomposity and self- aggrandisement , he became a popular public figure and one of America’s best and most beloved writers.
Born November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, his real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Frail as a child Twain was close with his mother, sharing her sense of humour. Twain’s father, John Clemens, was a self-educated lawyer who ran a general store.
In 1839 the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri and John Clemens worked as a justice of the peace. The town of Hannibal would later inspire the fictional town of St. Petersburg, the setting for Twain’s famous novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
During his youth, Twain saw despair and death at first hand , sickness , epidemics, drownings, a body in his father’s office and continual violence toward slaves.
In 1847 Twain’s father died of pneumonia and shortly after, young Twain left school to become a printer’s apprentice at the ‘Missouri Courier’, a Hannibal newspaper. For the next several years Twain drifted to different cities, working as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, while educating himself in public libraries.
In 1857 Twain he booked a passage on a steamboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans in order to travel to South America to make his fortune. But he so loved this experience, that he decided to become a Mississippi River steamboat pilot instead. Twain was apprenticed and earned his steamboat pilot’s license in1859. In particular, he enjoyed the respect and camaraderie that life on the river offered.
In 1861 Mississippi River traffic was mostly halted, due to the Civil War. This ended Twain’s career on the river so briefly he joined a small Confederate unit, the Marion Rangers, more from nostalgia for his Southern roots than from a desire to advocate slavery. In fact ,Twain was an adamant supporter of the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves.
After the civil war, Twain’s brother, Orion, campaigned for Abraham Lincoln during his run for the presidency. As a reward, he was given the post of secretary to the Governor of the Nevada Territory. Twain briefly worked with his brother, then left to mine for silver, unsuccessfully, in Nevada. He then began working at the ‘Territorial Enterprise,’ a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. For the first time, in 1863, he used the pen name Mark Twain in letters for the ‘Enterprise’. ‘Mark Twain’ was a memory from his riverboat days – it actually means a river depth of two fathoms, safe for steamboats to navigate.
After absconding from a duel, he eventually wound up in Calaveras County, California, where he heard a tale about a jumping frog contest. This would become the basis for Twain’s 1865 story, later retitled as ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’, published in newspapers across the country and bringing Twain his first taste of celebrity.
Twain moved to San Francisco in 1864, still as a journalist and in 1867, a local newspaper funded a trip for him to visit the Mediterranean, including a tour of Europe and the Middle East on which he wrote a collection of travel letters. After an acquaintance with her brother on this trip,Twain met and fell in love with Olivia Langdon, who came from a wealthy abolitionist family. They married in 1870 and had four children though only their third daughter, Clara, outlived her parents.
In 1874 the family moved into a 25-room home in Hartford, Connecticut. In this home Twain would write ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, ‘The Prince and the Pauper’, ‘Life on the Mississippi’, and his masterwork, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’.
Huck was modelled after a boy he had known back in Hannibal, Tom Blankenship. Twain said, “In ‘Huckleberry Finn’ I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.”
‘’Huckleberry Finn” has been both adored and criticized over the years. Some see it as a condemnation of slavery as seen through the eyes of a boy who was raised to accept slavery as acceptable, but it is an iconic American novel in that it promotes debate on such issues and touches people to their core.
Twain amassed a large fortune, particularly for the times, but he lost all his money by speculating on a new mechanical typesetting machine and through the failure of his publishing company. In 1891 the family closed up their home in Hartford and relocated to Europe, for financial reasons and as Twain’s wife was in poor health.
Twain was adept at turning a phrase and using homespun humour, not only in his written works, but also in the public arena, so he travelled the world in 1895, making money as a public speaker and eventually paying off his debts, even though he was not legally required to do so.
Twain grew somewhat bitter later in life, especially after losing two of his adult daughters in their twenties and his wife at the age of 58. His 1906 work, ‘Eve’s Diary’, conveyed some of his sense of loss. He also wrote essays condemning anti-Semitism, lynching and the brutality of Belgian rule in the Congo.
Mark Twain was a creative thinker and an innovator. In addition to the failed ‘Paige Compositor’, he held three patents for his own inventions and his self-pasting scrapbook was a financial success.
He also loved dogs. He once had three collies, named I Know, You Know, and Don’t Know.
Later in life , he developed a strong anti -imperialist and even revolutionary republican views which he espoused during all the various political and social changes of the times, becoming vice-president of the American Anti-Imperialist League from 1900, until his death.
In 1910, on April 21, Mark Twain died of a heart attack at his home in Redding, Connecticut. That night Halley’s Comet was visible in the sky as it was on the day he was born, 75 years before.