Article abstract: In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Twain gave America the prototypical initiation novel, but his humor and nostalgia for the past increasingly gave way to his pessimism about man’s technological “progress.”
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. The ancestors of his mother, née Jane Lampton, and his father, John Marshall Clemens, were mostly English and Irish and had lived in Virginia and Kentucky. While both sides of his family claimed distinguished English ancestors, those aristocratic ties were never clearly identified, and the Clemens family was hardly affluent when Samuel was born. Nevertheless, Samuel’s father was a cultivated, educated man (he had studied law) who was determined to be successful financially. Consequently, because there appeared to be more opportunity, in 1839 the elder Clemens moved his family to Hannibal, located on the banks of the Mississippi. Unfortunately, John’s financial dreams did not materialize, and he died in 1847, when Samuel was eleven. Partly by default and partly because of her personality, Jane Clemens became a central influence in Samuel’s life. In fact, the similarities between his mother and Olivia Langdon, his wife, were so pronounced that one could speculate that his mother’s influence subconsciously affected his choice of a wife.
Shortly after his father’s death, Samuel, probably for financial reasons, was apprenticed to a local printer, and his newspaper career was launched. In 1850, he went to work for his older brother, Orion, on the Hannibal Western Union, and until 1857, he worked as a typesetter for various newspapers. During this period, he also wrote sketches and published his first story. His newspaper career was fortuitously interrupted in 1857, when he learned to be a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. Those experiences formed the basis for his Life on the Mississippi (1883) and also deepened the influence that the Mississippi had on the body of his work. In 1862, he first used the pen name “Mark Twain,” taken from the river boatmen’s cry to indicate two fathoms of safe water. When the outbreak of the Civil War brought his piloting career to an end, Twain served briefly with some Confederate “irregulars,” but he gladly accepted Orion’s offer to accompany him to Nevada, where Orion served as “secretary” to that territory.
During his Nevada years, Twain unsuccessfully prospected for gold and silver and successfully returned to the newspaper world, writing for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, where he developed, partly through emulating humorist Artemus Ward, his lecturing persona. In 1864, he moved to San Francisco, where he continued his newspaper work on the Morning Call and also contributed work to the Californian, a literary magazine. Among his California works was “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a short story that catapulted him to national prominence and established him as a spokesman for the vanishing American frontier. After a trip to Hawaii, about which he wrote and lectured, he left California in 1866 and went East to New York City.
Twain’s decision to go east was a significant one. Despite his “frontier” humor and Southern speech, he became an Easterner who looked nostalgically to the South for his literary landscape and to the West for his values. In effect, Twain was split between the progressive, materialistic East of the future and the reactionary, individualistic Southwest of the past. Even Twain’s appearance seemed a contradiction: A handsome man given to elegant clothes (white suits became his trademark in his later years), he was also a cigar-smoker and whiskey-drinker who never became “genteel” in manner. Far from subscribing to the notion of “art for art’s sake,” he made writing his business and was ambitious both financially and socially. In fact, it was the split between art and business that produced works that appear inconsistent, contradictory, and careless. The pressure to make money did cause him to produce inferior work, as Twain himself acknowledged.
Shortly after moving to New York, Twain met Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent preacher and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). When he learned that Beecher’s congregation was planning a Mediterranean steamboat excursion to Europe and the Holy Land, he persuaded the Alta California to finance his trip in exchange for providing the newspaper with travel letters, which were popular at the time. The revised travel accounts eventually became The Innocents Abroad (1869), a book that enabled him to abandon his newspaper work and to devote his full attention to writing. The trip was also significant because it resulted in his marriage, in 1870, to Olivia Langdon, whose brother had met Twain on the voyage and had showed the author Olivia’s picture. During their thirty-three years of marriage, Olivia was the ideal wife and confidante, but she also served as an unofficial “editor” whose moral views tempered Twain’s writing.
After his marriage, Twain embarked on what was to become a typical divided course of action: He began to write Roughing It (1872), and he acquired part ownership of the Buffalo Express, the first of a series of unsuccessful business ventures. Another pattern was also established during the early years of the marriage: depression caused by sickness and death. Olivia’s father died in 1870; Olivia herself was sick and gave birth prematurely to their first child, Langdon, who died in 1872. Despite these setbacks, Twain moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut, where he built an impressive mansion, a symbol of his ambition and materialism.
Twain’s Hartford years were his most productive artistically and financially. In 1873, he published, in collaboration with his Hartford neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age, his first attempt at an extended work of fiction. After successfully adapting the novel to the stage (1874), he published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876 and, in 1880, published another travel book, A Tramp Abroad. In 1882, The Prince and the Pauper appeared, and in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his most artistic and significant novel, was published. Within a month, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was embroiled in censorship problems that continued to plague the novel, but the novel also quickly became a best-seller and has become one of the most widely read and taught novels in American literature.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the first publication of the Charles L. Webster Publication Company, which Twain formed after having problems with his previous publishers. Like his father, Twain believed that he had business acumen, and the financial success of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (1885-1886), which Twain published in his publishing company, Charles L. Webster and Company, confirmed his belief that he was both a financial and artistic genius. In 1886, an overconfident Twain, who optimistically believed in technology and in the promise of a typesetting machine, acquired half ownership of the Paige Typesetter; in 1889, he purchased all rights to the machine. By the time Twain ended his futile speculation in the ill-fated invention, he had accumulated debts of $100,000. In an effort to economize, he closed his Hartford house in 1891 and moved to Europe, but he was bankrupt by 1894. Even his substantial earnings from the publication of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) could not compensate for the financial strain caused by his obsession with the typesetting machine.
Twain, to his credit, did not attempt to take advantage of bankruptcy laws and instead set about paying off his debts by undertaking an exhausting round-the-world lecture tour in 1895 and by continuing to publish books: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), and Following the Equator (1897), a travel account prompted by his 1895 lecture tour. These sales, coupled with a lucrative contract with Harper and Row for rights to his collected works, enabled Twain to pay off his debts in full by January of 1898. Although he recovered financially, Twain suffered several setbacks from which he never fully recovered. While he was in England in 1896, his favorite daughter died of meningitis; his already frail wife died in 1904, after suffering from physical and mental problems; his daughter Clara married and settled in Europe in 1909; Jean, his other daughter, died scarcely two months after Clara’s marriage.
Despite the misfortunes that plagued him after 1898, Twain continued to write prolifically, but most of this material, because of its nihilistic philosophy, was not published until after his death. Olivia, who was concerned about his image and who served as his literary editor/censor, opposed the publication of the deterministic tract What Is Man? (1906). The Mysterious Stranger, which occupied Twain for several years and which existed in various versions, was not published until 1916, when Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain’s official biographer, conflated the versions and published his reconstruction as Twain’s own work. Twain, who had been left quite alone by Clara’s marriage and the deaths of his wife and other children, died April 21, 1910, long before the American public had been made aware of the “literary Lincoln’s” darker side.
In many ways, Mark Twain was as contradictory a person as his real name and pen name suggest. The adoption of the pen name indicates, to some extent, a person not content with himself but determined to forge a new personality, to create a new person—in effect, not unlike James Gatz/Jay Gatsby, to be both creator and creature. Like Gatsby, too, Twain was caught up in the American dream of material success, social ascent, and technological progress; unlike Gatsby, however, he came to satirize and scorn many of the values to which he subscribed.
For most Americans, Mark Twain is indelibly associated with Huckleberry Finn, the youthful protagonist who “lights out for the territory” rather than return to the “civilization” represented by Aunt Sally. Yet The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains another juvenile persona who only “plays” at nonconformity and rebellion: Tom Sawyer. There is as much Tom Sawyer in Twain as there is Huckleberry Finn. Even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is more than it appears to be, juvenile fiction in the vein of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; it is also an initiation novel which depicts a boy’s adventures and his inner growth, presents the conflict between appearance and reality, and satirizes Southern gentility and aristocratic pretension. Because The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is such an enjoyable story, however, many readers ignored the Colonel Sherburn incident, with its scathing indictment of mankind. For many readers, Mark Twain was the lecturer-writer of juvenile fiction and travel books, a humorous teller of frontier tales.
Twain’s humor was considerably blacker than the general public, which lionized him, believed. In some ways, his humor was similar to Ambrose Bierce’s, but that similarity was overlooked by a public which dubbed the latter “Bitter Bierce.” As his ambitious entrepreneurial schemes failed and his loved ones died, Twain became increasingly pessimistic about men and about institutions, and his later works are marked by pessimism, determinism, and nihilism. Although Twain was nostalgic about the innocence of children, the children in The Mysterious Stranger are light-years away from Tom and Huck. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court provides yet another example of public unwillingness to confront the complexity that was Twain. Twain’s novel satirizes the institutions, particularly chivalry and the Church, of medieval England, which is juxtaposed to turn-of-the-century America, represented by Hank Morgan, a believer in progress and technology. Morgan’s well-intentioned technology, however, ultimately produces only death. When Twain’s novel was adapted to film, it was bowdlerized into a musical starring Bing Crosby.
Twain was very much a product of his age. As a spokesman for an already vanishing frontier, he lampooned the pretense and the institutions of the East while he yearned for the lost values of youth and individualism. These nineteenth century values were in conflict with the twentieth century technology he first embraced and then, like Henry Adams, came to despise.
Brooks, Van Wyck. The Ordeal of Mark Twain. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1920. A seminal book on Mark Twain in which Twain is seen as a victim of his environment. Brooks’s book criticizes the role that Eastern respectability had in neutering Twain’s work and discusses the frontier as a negative influence.
DeVoto, Bernard. Mark Twain’s America. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1932. DeVoto’s book attacks the thesis espoused by Brooks and insists that the frontier, particularly frontier humor, actually made Twain a better writer. DeVoto’s book is seen as a healthy corrective to Brooks’s book.
Ferguson, John De Lancey. Mark Twain: Man and Legend. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1943. A well-written study that takes into account previous Twain scholarship. Contains some particularly interesting commentary on the significance of the river in Twain’s fiction.
Geismar, Maxwell. Mark Twain: An American Prophet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1970. Geismar opposes the view that commercial interests and censorship weakened Twain’s work and claims that Twain’s greatness was partly a result of his lifelong interest in the past and in childhood.
Lynn, Kenneth S. Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1959. A sympathetic treatment of Twain’s use of Southwestern folk humor in which Lynn discusses Twain’s artistic use of that humor.
Miller, Robert K. Mark Twain. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983. Miller’s book contains a biography and helpful critical analyses of Twain’s major works.
Salomon, Roger B. Twain and the Image of History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961. One of the best treatments of Twain’s conceptions of history and of human nature, Salomon’s book explores the role of the dream as a means of escaping the implications of Twain’s nihilism.
Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. Smith traces Twain’s problems with style and structure in several of his novels, examines his ethical ideas, and discusses the conflict between contemporary culture and native American humor.
Tenney, Thomas Asa. Mark Twain: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1977. The most comprehensive bibliography of Mark Twain scholarship, the book is indispensable to the Twain scholar.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Mark Twain: The Man and His Work. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1935. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967. A good overview of Twain and his work. Slightly changed from its first edition and contains a helpful bibliography.