Who Was Mark Twain?
Christened as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain was born on November 30, 1835 in the small river town of Florida, Missouri. He was the sixth child to John Marshall Clemens Jane Lampton, Twain grew up amid small-town life in Florida until the age of four, when his family relocated to Hannibal in hopes of an improved living situation. He is considered to be one of the major authors of America fiction. 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 (Gribben:
Boyhood and Travels).
Twain’s formal schooling ended after the age of 12, when his father passed away. First
learning as an apprentice in a printer’s shop, and then working under his brother, Orion, Twain quickly became familiar with the newspaper trade. Twain indulged in the frontier humor that flourished in journalism at the time: tall tales, satirical pranks, and jokes. However, Twain was restless due to his inability to save his wages, and ultimately switched professions after realizing an old boyhood dream of becoming a river 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." 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) (Gribben: Newspaper Work in the West).
Twain traveled and gave lectures while he worked for the newspapers. His first literary success came in 1865 when he published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County.” Soon thereafter,
he had another success with Innocents Abroad in 1869 (Monkeyshines par. 3). Twain courted a young
woman from Elmira, New York, named Olivia L. Langdon, whom he married on February 2, 1870. In November of the same year, their first son, Langdon Clemens, was prematurely born. Unfortunately, the Clemens family was soon moving into debt. When over 67,000 copies of Innocents Abroad sold within
its first year, the American Publishing Company asked for another book. At Olivia's persuasions, the couple moved to the domicile town of Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain penned Roughing It, a
documentation of the post-Gold Rush mining epoch published in 1872. With the birth of their first daughter, Susan Olivia, in March of the same year, the Clemens family appeared prosperous. However soon thereafter, the death of Langdon, and the only mild success of Roughing It added to their hardships
After traveling to Europe and lecturing once again, a turning point in Twain's career was marked by the publishing of The Gilded Age, a novel written in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner about the 1800s era of corruption and exploitation at the expense of the public welfare. Published in 1873, The
Gilded Age was Twain's first extended work of fiction and mapped him in the literary world as an author rather than journalist. After the success of The Gilded Age, Twain began a period of concentrated
writing. In 1880, his third daughter, Jean, was born. By the time Twain reached the age of fifty, he was already considered a successful writer. His popularity sky-rocketed with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,
which is seen as an autobiographical book, with Tom being a version of Sam Clemens the boy, innocent but mischievous, and deep-dyed in literary romanticism. It was his breakthrough work, his first completely individual book that was not revised from previous works or off of notes, but entirely from his own memories and dreams. One of Twain’s influences in life was a Tale of Two Cities, written by one of
his favorite authors, Charles Dickens. Two of Twain’s other great novels were The Prince and the
Pauper (1882), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Everett 91-93). The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn (1884), the sequel to Tom Sawyer, is considered Twain's masterpiece. The book is
the story of the title character, known as Huck, a boy who flees his father by rafting down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave, Jim. The pair's adventures show Huck (and the reader) the cruelty of which men and women are capable. Another theme of the novel is the conflict between Huck's feelings of friendship with Jim, who is one of the few people he can trust, and his knowledge that he is breaking the laws of the time by helping Jim escape. Huckleberry Finn, which is almost entirely narrated from Huck's
point of view, is noted for its authentic language and for its deep commitment to freedom. Huck's adventures also provide the reader with a panorama of American life along the Mississippi before the Civil War. Twain's skill in capturing the rhythms of that life helps make the book one of the masterpieces of American literature (Encarta Mark Twain).
Mark Twain died on April 21, 1910, having survived his children Langdon, Susan and Jean as well as his wife, Olivia. In his lifetime, he became a distinguished member of the literati, honored by Yale, the University of Missouri, and Oxford with literary degrees. Perhaps more than any other classic American writer, Mark Twain is seen not only as an author, but also as a personality that defined an era (Encarta Mark Twain).