Mark Twain, 1835-1910
Mark Twain was a man ahead of his time from the day he was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, fully two months early, in tiny Florida, Missouri. Not surprising for a preemie, a profound sense of mortality shadowed him all his life. In addition, Twain survived a youth marked by deaths both sudden and grisly.
Not only did his forbidding father, Judge John Marshall Clemens, die of pneumonia when Twain was eleven, but Twain is said to have witnessed the autopsy through a keyhole. He also sat at his beloved brother Henry's bedside as he lay dying after a steamboat explosion, and Twain forever blamed himself for getting Henry his fateful job on board.
Three other formative experiences made Twain the writer he became. First were the gifted storytellers he grew up listening to, many of them slaves. Next came his early job as a printer's apprentice. There he literally put words together, by handsetting type, and observed up close what made sentences sing or clang. Finally came Twain's years in California and Nevada, where he became a newspaperman and found his voice as a writer. There he chose the pen name "Mark Twain," a riverboat expression meaning two fathoms deep, the divider between safe and dangerously shallow water. A tall tale called "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865), widely reprinted almost immediately, cemented his national reputation.
Twain returned from the West and set out for the East—specifically the Middle East, where he traveled on the first-ever luxury cruise and filed dispatches back to stateside newspapers. The eventual result was a national bestseller, The Innocents Abroad (1869), and highbrow acceptance from the tastemakers at The Atlantic Monthly magazine.
Meanwhile, Twain's personal life settled down. After years of bachelorhood he married Olivia "Livy" Langdon, whom he had first glimpsed in a cameo carried by her brother, Charley, on shipboard. Charley introduced the couple on their return, and after two years Twain overcame the Langdons' misgivings and they married. She was demure and he was outrageous, but somehow it worked. After the death of their firstborn son, they raised three daughters and lived as happily as Twain's dark moods permitted.
Twain's imperishable memories of his boyhood led to the writing of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and, eventually, its more challenging sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Twain wrote well and prolifically almost all his long life, but these two companion pieces stand apart as his masterpieces of childhood and childhood's end.
Financial uncertainty and death haunted Twain's last years even more than they had his first. He went broke keeping up the beautiful house he had built in Connecticut and investing in a series of harebrained schemes. A daughter died, then his adored but frail Livy, and then yet another daughter. Through it all he kept writing—fiction when he could, essays when he couldn't, plus magnificent letters and journals by the trunkful. Revered across America and around the world, Twain died on April 21, 1910.
Twain on Writing
"God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by." —from an 1878 letter to his brother Orion
"There is no such thing as ‘the Queen's English.' The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!" —from Following the Equator, 1897
"No sir, not a day's work in all my life. What I have done I have done because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn't have done it." —from a 1905 interview
"I never write ‘metropolis' for seven cents, because I can get the same money for ‘city.' I never write ‘policeman,' because I can get the same price for ‘cop.'" —from a 1906 speech, "Spelling and Pictures"
Mark Twain, 1867 (Library of Congress)
An illustration from the first edition printing of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876. (Mark Twain House and Museum)
Mark Twain c. 1907 (Library of Congress)