“There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he less savage than the other savages.”— Mark Twain
Mark Twain has entered permanently into American popular culture. Almost everyone is familiar with the image of the man—the unruly mane of white hair with matching mustache and eyebrows, the white suit, the ever-present cigar. And most people quote his sayings, including many who don’t know it’s Mark Twain they’re quoting: “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to”; “To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did; I ought to know because I’ve done it a thousand times”; and, of course, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote under the pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist. . He went on to pen several novels, including two major classics of American literature, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was also a riverboat pilot, journalist, lecturer, entrepreneur and inventor.
As Twain’s books provide insight into the past‚ the events of his personal life further demonstrate his role as an eyewitness to history. During his lifetime‚ Mark Twain watched a young United States evolve from a nation torn apart by internal conflicts to one of international power. He experienced America’s vast growth and change – from westward expansion to industrialization‚ the end of slavery‚ advancements in technology‚ big government and foreign wars. And along the way‚ he often had something to say about the changes happening in his country.
Twain grew up in Hannibal‚ Missouri‚ on the banks of the Mississippi River. Missouri‚ at the time‚ was a fairly new state (it had gained statehood in 1821) and comprised part of the country’s western border. It was also a slave state. Twain’s father owned one slave and his uncle owned several. In fact‚ it was on his uncle’s farm that Twain spent many boyhood summers playing in the slave quarters‚ listening to tall tales and the slave spirituals that he would enjoy throughout his life.
In 1847, when Twain was 11, his father died of pneumonia and the following year, he began work as a typesetter and contributor of articles and humorous sketches for the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper owned by his brother Orion. When he was 18, he left the journal and worked as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. He joined the newly formed International Typographical Union, the printers union, and educated himself in public libraries in the evenings, finding wider information than at a conventional school. Besides publishing stories in The Muscatine newspaper, on a voyage on a steamboat to New Orleans down the Mississippi, Twain was inspired and became a river licensed pilot himself in 1858. The pseudonym, “Mark Twain,” comes from his days as a river pilot. It is a river term which means two fathoms or 12-feet when the depth of water for a boat is being sounded. “Mark twain” means that is safe to navigate.
In search of a new career‚ Twain headed west in 1861‚ at the invitation of his brother‚ Orion‚ who had just been appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Lured by the infectious hope of striking it rich in Nevada’s silver rush‚ Twain encountered Native American tribes for the first time as well as a variety of unique characters‚ mishaps and disappointments. These events would find a way into his short stories and books‚ particularly Roughing It.
After failing as a silver prospector‚ Twain began writing for the Territorial Enterprise‚ a Virginia City‚ Nevada‚ newspaper where he used‚ for the first time‚ his pen name‚ Mark Twain. Wanting a change by 1864‚ Twain headed for San Francisco where he continued to write for local papers.
In 1865‚ Twain’s first “big break” came with the publication of his short story‚ “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog ” in papers across the country. A year later‚ Twain was hired by the Sacramento Union to visit and report on the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). His writings were so popular that‚ upon his return‚ he embarked upon his first lecture tour‚ which established him as a successful stage performer.
Hired by the Alta California to continue his travel writing from the east‚ Twain arrived in New York City in 1867 and signed up for a steamship tour of Europe and the Holy Land. His travel letters‚ full of vivid descriptions and tongue-in-cheek observations‚ met with such audience approval that they were later reworked into his first book‚ The Innocents Abroad in 1869. It was also on this trip that Twain met his future brother-in-law‚ Charles Langdon, the son of a rich New York coal merchant. Langdon reportedly showed Twain a picture of his sister‚ Olivia‚ and Twain fell in love at first sight.
After courting for two years‚ Twain married Olivia (Livy) Langdon in 1870. They settled in Buffalo‚ New York‚ where Twain became a partner‚ editor and writer for the daily newspaper the Buffalo Express. They would eventually have four children, one of whom died in infancy
When Twain relocated to Hartford, Connecticut in 1874 with his wife Olivia and three daughters, Susy, Clara and Jean, it was during those years that he published his most famous books‚ often finding a summer refuge for uninterrupted work at his sister-in-law’s farm in Elmira‚ NY. Novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Life on the Mississippi (1883) captured both his Missouri memories and depictions of the American scene. Yet‚ his social commentary continued. The Prince and the Pauper (1881) explored class relations as does A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) which‚ going a step further‚ criticized oppression in general while examining the period’s explosion of new technologies. And‚ in perhaps his most famous work‚ Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)‚ Twain‚ by the way he attacked the institution of slavery‚ railed against the failures of Reconstruction and the continued poor treatment of African Americans in his own time.
Twain had a way of witting under-the-radar about race – for years most people saw the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a boy’s book. Then he tried again with Pudd’nhead Wilson (serialized 1893 in The Century Magazine before being published as a novel in 1894), which was seen as a funny book until the civil rights era of the 1960s. Of course, Twain knew blacks from the 19th century perspective, but he was also very progressive. He contributed to the college expenses of two or three black students. One who went to Yale (Warner T. McGuinn) went on to become a mentor to Thurgood Marshall, so there’s that connection.
In an attempt to gain control over publication as well as to make substantial profits‚ Huckleberry Finn was also the first book published by Twain’s own publishing company‚ The Charles L. Webster Company, founded in 1884. A year later‚ he contracted with Ulysses S. Grant to publish Grant’s memoirs; the two-volume set provided large royalties for Grant’s widow and was a financial success for Twain as well.
Twain made a substantial amount of money through his writing, but he lost a great deal through investments, mostly in new inventions and technology, particularly the Paige typesetting machine by Linotype. While the publishing company enjoyed initial success, it went broke soon after, losing money on a biography of Pope Leo XIII with fewer than two hundred copies sold. He lost not only the bulk of his book profits but also a substantial portion of his wife’s inheritance.
Twain’s writings and lectures, combined with the help of financier Henry Huttleston Rogers, a principal of Standard Oil, enabled him to recover financially. Twain’s tour itinerary took him to Hawaii, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, India, Mauritius, South Africa and England. Twain was in demand as a featured speaker, performing solo humorous talks similar to what would become stand-up comedy. However, traveling overseas fueled Twain’s growing anger toward imperialistic countries and their actions such as the Boer War in South Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. By 1898, the Spanish-American and Philippine War redirected Twain’s wrath toward the American government. HIs three months in India became the centerpiece of his 712-page book, Following the Equator. When he returned to the United States in 1900‚ his finances restored‚ Twain readily declared himself an anti-imperialist and‚ from 1901 until his death‚ served as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League.
Twain passed through a period of deep depression that began in 1896 when his daughter Susy died of meningitis. Olivia’s death in 1904. After his wife’s death‚ Twain lived in New York until 1908 when he moved into his last house in Redding‚ Connecticut. The deaths of his close friend Henry Rogers and daughter Jean in 1909, deepened his gloom. Four months later on April 21‚ 1910‚ Twain died at the age of 74. Twain’s surviving child, Clara, lived to be 88, and had one daughter. Clara’s daughter died without having any children, so there are no direct descendants living today.
Like any good journalist‚ Samuel Clemens‚ a.k.a. Mark Twain‚ spent his life observing and reporting on his surroundings. In his writings he provided images of the romantic‚ the real‚ the strengths and weaknesses of a rapidly changing world. By examining his life and his works‚ we can read into the past — piecing together various events of the era and the responses to them. We can delve into the American mindset of the late nineteenth century and make our own observations of history‚ discover new connections‚ create new inferences and gain better insights into the time period and the people who lived in it.
For this reason, Twain is highly regarded by serious literary critics. He is the subject of many biographies and countless works of literary analysis. Even more tellingly, he is held in extremely high esteem by other writers. One of the earliest tributes—and still perhaps the best-known—appears in Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa (1935): “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. . . . [I]t’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man (1952) is considered one of the greatest American novels since World War II, explained in an essay what Twain had meant to him and to American literature: “Mark Twain … transformed elements of regional vernacular speech into a medium of uniquely American literary expression and thus taught us how to capture that which is essentially American in our folkways and manners. For indeed the vernacular process is a way of establishing and discovering our national identity.” One hundred years after his death. Mark Twain remains as central as ever not only in American literature but in American life.
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