At a Glance

Mark Twain himself was Twain’s first successful work of fiction. Born in 1835 as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Twain worked as a river boat captain on the Mississippi while a young man. When the pilots called out the depth of the river, “mark twain” meant that the river was two fathoms deep. A master of vernacular English, Twain eventually traveled all over America (and beyond), paying attention to how people really spoke and what really entertained them. He published poetry, jokes, tall tales, nonfiction, and, of course, some of the greatest novels in American history. His characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn seem to capture the meaning of boyhood, America, and life on the wild Mississippi River.

Facts and Trivia

  • Twain grew up in Missouri, a slave state. However, when the Civil War broke out, Missouri didn’t join the Confederacy, so Twain and some friends formed a militia to fight on the Confederate side. This lasted until the first battle. When a man was killed, Twain deserted.
  • Twain was a successful lecturer, generating money and fame via speaking tours throughout the United States and Europe.
  • When Twain disliked you, you knew it. His essay “Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” does an entertainingly malicious job of taking apart the author of Last of the Mohicans.
  • Twain made lots of money, but he lost most of it. He was as bad at investing as he was good at writing, and he eventually had to declare bankruptcy.
  • Ernest Hemingway once said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

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Biography

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

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.”

Early Life

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.

(The entire section is 8,156 words.)