Mark Twain, pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), American writer and humorist, whose best work is characterized by broad, often irreverent humor or biting social satire. Twain’s writing is also known for realism of place and language, memorable characters, and condemnation of hypocrisy and oppression.
Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835, and moved with his family to Hannibal, Missouri, a port on the Mississippi River, when he was four years old. There he received a public school education and spent his childhood in contact with the people who made their living from the river. After the death of his father in 1847, Clemens was apprenticed to two Hannibal printers, and in 1851 he began setting type for and contributing sketches to his brother Orion’s Hannibal Journal. Subsequently he worked as a printer in Keokuk, Iowa; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and other cities.
In 1857 Clemens set out for New Orleans by riverboat, with the intention of going on to South America in search of adventure. Talks with the boat’s pilot, however, revived Clemens’s boyhood dream of “learning the river,” and he was taken on as an apprentice. He received his license as a pilot in 1859 and worked as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until the American Civil War (1861-1865) brought an end to travel on the river. In 1861 Clemens served briefly as a volunteer soldier in the Confederate cavalry. Later that year he accompanied Orion to the newly created Nevada Territory, where he tried his hand at silver mining.
|III||BECOMING MARK TWAIN|
For almost a year Clemens worked as a prospector in Nevada, but without much success. During that year he began contributing humorous sketches to the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper published in Virginia City, Nevada, and in 1862 he became a reporter for the paper. Seeking a good pen name, he chose Mark Twain, a Mississippi riverboat phrase called out to test the water’s depth; “twain,” or two fathoms (12 feet) deep, meant it was safe for navigating. In May 1864, a quarrel with a rival journalist, whom he challenged to a duel, forced Twain to flee to San Francisco, California. For the next two years he worked for various California papers. During this time he met American writers Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, who encouraged him in his work.
In 1865 Twain reworked a tale he had heard in the California gold fields, and within months the author and the story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” had become national sensations. The story, which was published in several newspapers, is a typical example of the tall tale, or exaggerated tale of the frontier, which was the basis of much of Twain’s humor.
Early in 1866 the Sacramento Union commissioned Twain to do a series of letters about Hawaii. Their popularity encouraged him to try a humorous lecture based on his experiences. Its enormous success marked the beginning of his career as an internationally famous and popular humorous lecturer. As a result of his Hawaiian triumph, Twain was commissioned by a San Francisco newspaper to supply a weekly newsletter on New York City. After his arrival in New York City he saw an announcement for a Mediterranean cruise and persuaded the newspaper to send him on it.
Twain wrote of his cruise to Europe and Palestine in The Innocents Abroad (1869), a highly successful travel book that is a delightful combination of humor and shrewd observation. The Innocents Abroad shows Twain at his irreverent best, debunking the awestruck and uncritical admiration of many Americans for European civilization. Besides supplying the material for the book, the cruise brought him the friendship of Charles Langdon, whose sister Olivia married Twain in 1870.
|IV||SETTLING IN HARTFORD|
With help from Jervis Langdon, his prosperous father-in-law, Twain bought an interest in the Buffalo, New York Express, intending to make journalism his career. The venture proved unhappy. Jervis Langdon died of cancer, and the Twains’ son, Langdon, died in infancy. In 1871 the couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where their three daughters were born: Suzy in 1872, Clara in 1874, and Jean in 1880. Much of Twain’s best work was written in the 1870s and 1880s in Hartford or during the summers at Quarry Farm, near Elmira, New York.
After publishing Roughing It (1872), an account of his early adventures as a miner and journalist, Twain wrote his first novel, The Gilded Age (1873), in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner. Although not entirely successful, the book nevertheless contains some sharp and revealing insights about American political life in the 1870s. That period in United States history has often been called the Gilded Age in recognition of the novel’s accurate representation of a time of greed, wealth, and corruption.
|V||THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER|
A visit from a boyhood friend reminded Twain of youthful escapades in Hannibal. After two or three false starts, Twain found the right approach and worked on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at intervals throughout 1874 and 1875. Published in 1876 it established Twain as a master of character and situation as well as humor. This celebration of boyhood in a town on the Mississippi River draws heavily on Twain’s memories. In his words, Tom “was all the boy I ever knew.” Rejecting the standard pattern of juvenile literature in which good children are rewarded and bad children are punished, he wrote a novel about real youngsters, vividly and humorously describing their impressions and their adventures.
The many colorful incidents in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer include Tom's courtship of Becky Thatcher, his plans for a pirate gang, and his escapades with his friend Huckleberry (“Huck”) Finn. In one of the book’s best-known scenes, Tom is ordered to whitewash a fence as his punishment for playing hooky. He gets his friends to do the work by making it seem a great honor. Much of the plot revolves around a murder, which Tom and Huck witness. Terrified, they hide on an island. When they secretly return to town, they find that the townspeople think them dead and have arranged their funeral. At the funeral, Tom and Huck are discovered to be alive. They become heroes by identifying the murderer and saving an innocent suspect.
|VI||THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN|
Almost as soon as Tom Sawyer was completed Twain planned a companion story, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Begun in 1876 it was repeatedly put aside but finally published in 1884. With Huckleberry Finn, generally considered his masterpiece, Twain reach the highest level of his creativity. Especially outstanding is Twain’s portrayal of the freethinking, pioneer spirit of Huck, who fights pretense and hypocrisy with good-humored common sense. 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 classics of American literature.
The story is narrated by Huck, a rough, good-natured boy of little education but keen intelligence, who lives with the Widow Douglas. Huck is kidnapped by his shiftless father, who keeps him prisoner in an isolated cabin. The boy escapes and, together with a runaway slave, Jim, sails down the Mississippi on a raft. During their trip, Huck and Jim encounter many unusual characters, including two families involved in a senseless feud and a pair of scoundrels who swindle innocent townspeople. Their experiences bring about a strong friendship between the boy and the slave, but their adventures end when Jim is captured and held at the farm of Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Sally. When Tom comes to visit his aunt, he, with Huck’s reluctant help, concocts a fantastic but unsuccessful scheme to free Jim. Huck later learns that Jim has long since been granted his freedom by his former owner.
Faced with the prospect of being adopted by Aunt Sally, the self-reliant Huck decides to go West, saying: “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Thus Huck becomes the symbol of untamed America, someone who will not bow to the conventions of a society that is crowding in on him. The novel is a masterpiece in its choice of episodes that reveal the conflicts of the age, in its dramatic tensions, its folklore, its varied cast of characters, and its naturalness of language.
The adventures of Huck and Jim show Huck (and the reader) the cruelty of which people 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. In one of the book’s most powerful scenes Huck decides that, even if it means committing a sin, he won’t return Jim to slavery: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”
Unlike Tom Sawyer, in which a mature narrator recalls his youth, Huckleberry Finn is told in the first person, through the mouth of a 13- or 14-year-old boy. To keep the narration plausibly within the limits of Huck’s mental and emotional development was a triumph in itself. But additionally, American backwoods vernacular (everyday speech), previously used only in low-life satire, here became a literary instrument for the first time. Moreover, the vernacular is applied to a cross section of pre-Civil War Southern society, from its dregs (Huck’s father) to its aristocracy. It takes numerous readings to grasp the subtlety with which social levels are differentiated and to understand that the book’s true hero is Jim.
|VII||OTHER WRITINGS AND LATER LIFE|
Among the books Twain worked on, while Huckleberry Finn was set aside, were A Tramp Abroad (1880), which describes a walking trip through the Black Forest of Germany and the Swiss Alps, and The Prince and the Pauper (1882), a children’s book that focuses on switched identities in Tudor England. Life on the Mississippi (1883) combines an autobiographical account of his experiences as a river pilot with a visit to the Mississippi nearly two decades after he left it. The first part of the book, about his early experiences, was originally serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1875 as Old Times on the Mississippi. In the second part of the book, Twain records the changes he finds upon his return: Railroad competition has endangered the river trade and the riverboat pilot is no longer a respected figure. Twain regrets the passing of a great era and protests that the train is no substitute for the elegant riverboat.
In 1884 Twain formed the firm Charles L. Webster and Company to publish his and other writers’ works. At first it was a profitable venture. The first publications were Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Personal Memoirs (two volumes, 1885-1886), by American general and president Ulysses S. Grant. A disastrous investment in an automatic typesetting machine led to the firm’s bankruptcy in 1894. To economize, Twain and his family went to Europe in 1891 and for the next decade had no permanent home. After the firm failed, Twain announced that he would pay all debts in full, and in 1895 began a successful worldwide lecture tour. The tour and the book based on it, Following the Equator (1897), paid off Twain's debts. But while Twain was touring, his daughter Suzy died of meningitis.
Twain’s work during the 1890s and the 1900s is marked by growing pessimism and bitterness—the result of his business reverses and the death of his wife, Olivia, in 1904 and his daughter Jean in 1909. Twain died less than four months after Jean, on April 21, 1910, in Redding, Connecticut.
Signs of Twain’s bitterness appear in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Intended as a satire on the cruelty and credulity of people in feudal England (see Feudalism), the tale veers from farce to tragedy and back again. Other significant later works are Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), a novel set in the South before the Civil War that criticizes racism by focusing on mistaken racial identities, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), a sentimental biography. Twain’s other later writings include short stories, the best known of which are “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899) and “The War Prayer” (1905); philosophical, social, and political essays; the manuscript of “The Mysterious Stranger,” an uncompleted piece that was published posthumously in 1916; and autobiographical dictations. His last, most scathing attack against “the damned human race,” Letters from the Earth, was kept from publication by his daughter Clara until 1962.
Twain’s work was inspired by the unconventional American West, and the popularity of his work marked the end of the domination of American literature by New England writers. He is justly renowned as a humorist but was not always appreciated by the writers of his time as anything more than that. Successive generations of writers, however, recognized the role that Twain played in creating a truly American literature. He portrayed uniquely American subjects in a humorous and colloquial, yet poetic, language. His success in creating this plain but evocative language precipitated the end of American reverence for British and European culture and for the more formal language associated with those traditions. His adherence to American themes, settings, and language set him apart from many other novelists of the day and had a powerful effect on such later American writers as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, both of whom pointed to Twain as an inspiration for their own writing.
In Twain’s later years he wrote less, but he became a celebrity, frequently speaking out on public issues. He also came to be known for the white linen suit he always wore when making public appearances. Twain received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1907. When he died he left an uncompleted autobiography, which was eventually edited by his secretary, Albert Bigelow Paine, and published in 1924. In the mid-20th century controversy arose regarding the teaching of Huckleberry Finn in schools because of the book’s supposed racism. Some parents and school boards felt that the portrayal of Jim provided a negative stereotype of blacks, and they objected to Twain’s use of the racial slurs of his time (Jim is called “Nigger Jim”). Yet Huckleberry Finn provides an indictment of racism, and many teachers believe that, if well taught, the book opens students’ eyes to issues of racism, freedom, conscience, and self-definition in American soc