Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, one of the major authors of American fiction. Twain is also considered the greatest humorist in American literature. Twain's varied works include novels, travel narratives, short stories, sketches, and essays. His writings about the Mississippi River, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have been especially popular among modern readers.
Boyhood. Mark Twain was born on Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. In 1839, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a village on the Mississippi River. Here the young Twain experienced the excitement of the colorful steamboats that docked at the town wharf, bringing comedians, singers, gamblers, swindlers, slave dealers, and assorted other river travelers.
Twain also gained his first experience in a print shop in Hannibal. After his father died in debt in 1847, Twain went to work for a newspaper and printing firm. In 1851, he began assisting his older brother Orion in the production of a newspaper, the Hannibal Journal. Twain contributed reports, poems, and humorous sketches to the Journal for several years. Like many American authors of his day, Twain had little formal education. Instead of attending high school and college, he gained his education in print shops and newspaper offices.
Travels. In 1853, Twain left Hannibal, displaying the yearning for travel that he would experience throughout his life. He stayed briefly in cities such as St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati, working for low wages in print shops. He then traveled to Keokuk, Iowa, to assist his brother with more printing business.
In 1857, Twain made plans to travel to South America, and in April of that year, he started down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans. At this point, he made a decision with important consequences for his life and career. Instead of traveling to South America, he persuaded a riverboat pilot named Horace Bixby to teach him the skills of piloting. By April 1859, Twain had become a licensed riverboat pilot.
The profession of riverboat piloting paid well and brought Twain much attention, which he enjoyed. His piloting experiences also allowed him to observe the many kinds of people who traveled aboard the steamboats. He later reported that "in that brief, sharp schooling, I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history."
Newspaper work in the West. The beginning of the American Civil War (1861-1865) abruptly closed commercial traffic on the Mississippi River. After serving for two weeks with a Confederate volunteer company, Twain chose not to become involved in the war. He traveled to Carson City, Nevada, in 1861 with his brother Orion. Later, in Roughing It (1872), Twain humorously described his unsuccessful attempts at prospecting for gold and silver during this time and his eventual conclusion that he must support himself by newspaper journalism. He joined the staff of the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise in the summer of 1862. He first began publishing under his pen name on Feb. 3, 1863, while working for the Enterprise. "Mark Twain" comes from a riverboat term meaning two fathoms (a depth of 12 feet, or 3.7 meters).
Twain next drifted westward to California, where he wrote for the San Francisco Morning Call and a literary journal, the Californian. On Nov. 18, 1865, his first popular story—about "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"—appeared in the New York Saturday Press. In 1866, Twain traveled to the Hawaiian Islands, where he acted as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union. Following his return to San Francisco, he began a profitable lecture tour. Twain soon began to sense that his talents were growing beyond the limitations of the West Coast newspapers and magazines of his day.
Success and fame
Return to the East. In 1867, Twain took a voyage to Europe and the Holy Land aboard the steamship Quaker City. His travel letters to the San Francisco Alta California and the New York Tribune were collected in a popular book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). In the book, Twain ridiculed the sights and manners of the countries he visited, and the American tourists traveling abroad.
Encouraged by the prospect of future wealth from a literary career, Twain courted a young woman from Elmira, New York, named Olivia L. Langdon, whose brother had sailed with him on the Quaker City. The couple were wed on Feb. 2, 1870. Following Twain's brief career as a newspaper editor and columnist in Buffalo, New York, he and his wife moved to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1871. Their infant son, Langdon, died in 1872, but three daughters, Susy, Clara, and Jean, were born between 1872 and 1880.
Productive years in Hartford. In 1874, Twain and his family moved into a luxurious new 19-room house in Hartford. There, Twain entertained many prominent authors. Literary periodicals in Boston and New York City published many of his writings. In his 20 years in Hartford, Twain wrote most of his best works either at home or in his study at Quarry Farm, near Elmira, New York.
The Gilded Age (1873), which followed Roughing It, was Twain's first novel. He wrote it with his friend and fellow Hartford writer, Charles Dudley Warner. The title refers to the decades following the Civil War. This book satirizes the selfishness and money-making schemes that were common during that time.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) represents Twain's first major use of memories of his childhood. Twain modeled St. Petersburg—the home of an imaginative boy named Tom Sawyer, his friend Huck Finn, and the evil Injun Joe—after his hometown of Hannibal.
A Tramp Abroad (1880) draws on a European tour that Twain took in 1878. The book's narrator describes a walking tour of Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. He mixes stories, jokes, legends, and character sketches, while criticizing European guidebooks and culture.
The Prince and the Pauper (1882), set in England in the 1500's, describes the exchange of identities between the young Prince Edward and a poor boy named Tom Canty. This book pleased a refined circle of New England readers, but disappointed those who preferred the rugged energy of Twain's previous works.
Life on the Mississippi (1883) describes the history, sights, people, and legends of the steamboats and towns of the Mississippi River region. In the most vivid passages, chapters 4 through 17, Twain recalled his own piloting days. These chapters had originally been published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1875 as "Old Times on the Mississippi."
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, generally considered Twain's greatest work, was published in the United Kingdom in 1884 and in the United States in 1885. Twain had begun the book in 1876 as a sequel to Tom Sawyer. It describes the adventures of two runaways—the boy Huck Finn and the black slave Jim—and is told from the point of view of Huck himself. Twain used realistic language in the novel, making Huck's speech sound like actual conversation and imitating a variety of dialects to bring the other characters to life. Tom Sawyer also reappears in certain chapters, and his antics provide the familiar humor for which Twain was known.
Twain's story about Huck Finn, the son of a town drunkard, became a controversial book. Huck's casual morals and careless grammar disturbed many readers in Twain's time, and the Concord, Massachusetts, Free Public Library banned the novel in 1885. Some people have continued to dislike the novel because of Huck's unrefined manners and language. In addition, some modern readers object to Huck's simple acceptance of the principles of slavery and his use of racial stereotypes and the insulting term "nigger." However, for his time, Twain was liberal on racial issues. The deeper themes of Huckleberry Finn argue for the fundamental equality and universal aspirations of people of all races.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) introduces another colorful character, a machine shop foreman from Hartford, Connecticut, named Hank Morgan. Morgan finds himself magically transported back to England in the A.D. 500's. He decides to reform that society by introducing the economic, intellectual, and moral benefits of life in the 1800's. Through events in the book, Twain indirectly satirizes the reverent attitude of some British authors toward the legendary Knights of the Round Table. But at the same time, he raises questions about certain values in the American culture of his time.
Disappointments. In the 1880's, Mark Twain established and operated his own publishing firm. He also became interested in various investments, especially an elaborate typesetting machine. He lost almost $200,000 in investments in the machine between 1881 and 1894. Also, his publishing company declared bankruptcy in April 1894. Thus, in January 1895, Twain found himself publicly humiliated by his inability to pay his debts.
Twain eventually recovered from his financial difficulties, through his continued writing and a successful lecture tour in 1895 and 1896. During this much-publicized tour, Twain lectured in such places as India, South Africa, and Australia. By the time he returned, he had become an international hero. Twain enjoyed this attention, and his habits of smoking cigars or a pipe and wearing unconventional white suits contributed to his showy image. He also made use of his position as a public figure to cynically criticize U.S. foreign policy.
Although he was recovering from his financial problems by 1898, Twain had begun to experience tragedy in his personal life. Susy, his oldest daughter, died of meningitis in 1896, while her parents and sister Clara were abroad. In 1903, Twain sold the beloved house in Hartford, which had become too closely associated with Susy's death. His wife, Olivia, who had developed a heart condition, died on June 5, 1904. His youngest daughter, Jean, died on Dec. 24, 1909.
Later works. Despite his business and personal difficulties, Twain managed to continue writing. His works during his final years included The American Claimant (1892), about an impractical character named Colonel Mulberry Sellers. The novel was based on an unsuccessful play he wrote with author-critic William Dean Howells in 1883. The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) is a detective novel set in the village of Dawson's Landing, another name for Hannibal. In this story, Twain focused on racial prejudice as the most critical issue facing American society. He drew on actual historical sources in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896). In Following the Equator (1897), Twain recounted his experiences on his overseas lecture tour of 1895 and 1896. In his story "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899), he described a practical joke that exposed the greed of the smug leaders of a town.
As Twain's career progressed, he seemed to become increasingly removed from the humorous, cocky image of his younger days. More and more of his works came to express the gloomy view that all human motives are ultimately selfish. These works also reflect Twain's lifelong doubts about religion and his belief that all human acts are predetermined and free will is an illusion.
Twain died of heart disease on April 21, 1910. He left behind numerous unpublished manuscripts, including his large but incomplete autobiography. One pessimistic but fascinating tale, The Mysterious Stranger, was published in 1916, after Twain's death. This story, which exists in three versions, describes a visit by Satan to an Austrian village during the Middle Ages.
Since the 1960's, some people have come to view Mark Twain's life and outlook as gloomy and even tragic. His later, more bitter works, such as The Mysterious Stranger, were neglected in the years immediately following his death. But they have recently received more attention, resulting in a broader understanding of Twain's personality and works.
Although viewed as having a serious, sometimes pessimistic side, Twain remains best known as a humorist. He effectively used comic exaggeration to attack the false pride and self-satisfaction he saw in humanity. One of his greatest accomplishments was the development of a writing style that was distinctly American, rather than an imitation of the style of English writers. The loose rhythms of the language in his books give the impression of real speech. Twain's realistic prose style has influenced numerous American writers. Ernest Hemingway stated that "all modern American literature comes from ... Huckleberry Finn."