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Mark Twain [pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens] (1835-1910), quintessential American humorist, lecturer, essayist, and author wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876);
“Tom did play hookey, and he had a very good time. He got back home barely in season to help Jim, the small colored boy, saw next-day's wood and split the kindlings before supper--at least he was there in time to tell his adventures to Jim while Jim did three-fourths of the work. Tom's younger brother (or rather half-brother) Sid was already through with his part of the work (picking up chips), for he was a quiet boy, and had no adventurous, trouble-some ways.” Ch. 1
Protagonist Tom Sawyer is introduced together with his friends Joe Harper and Huck Finn, young boys growing up in the antebellum South. While the novel was initially met with lukewarm enthusiasm, its characters would soon transcend the bounds of their pages and become internationally beloved characters, inspiring numerous other author’s works and characters and adaptations to the stage, television, and film. The second novel in his Tom Sawyer adventure series, Huckleberry Finn (1885), was met with outright controversy in Twain’s time but is now considered one of the first great American novels. A backdrop of colourful depictions of Southern society and places along the way, Huck Finn, the son of an abusive alcoholic father and Jim, Miss Watson’s slave, decide to flee on a raft down the Mississippi river to the free states. Their river raft journey has become an oft-used metaphor of idealistic freedom from oppression, broken family life, racial discrimination, and social injustice. Ernest Hemingway wrote “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
“We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next..” Ch. 12
Missouri was one of the fifteen slave states when the American Civil War broke out, so Twain grew up amongst the racism, lynch mobs, hangings, and general inhumane oppression of African Americans. He and some friends joined the Confederate side and formed a militia group, the ‘Marion Rangers’, though it disbanded after a few weeks, described in “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” (1885). His article “The War Prayer” (1923) “in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause” is Twain’s condemnation of hypocritical patriotic and religious motivations for war. It was not published until after his death because of his family’s fear of public outrage, to which it is said Twain quipped “none but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.” Though he never renounced his Presbyterianism, he wrote other irreligious pieces, some included in his collection of short stories Letters From Earth (1909);
“Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very, very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm.”
Mark Twain grew to despise the injustice of slavery and any form of senseless violence. He was opposed to vivisection and acted as Vice-President of the American Anti-Imperialist League for nine years. Through his works he illuminates the absurdity of humankind, ironically still at times labeled a racist. Though sometimes caustic “Of all the creatures that were made he [man] is the most detestable,” as a gifted public speaker he was a much sought after lecturer “information appears to stew out of me naturally, like the precious ottar of roses out of the otter.” —from his Preface to Roughing It (1872). He is the source of numerous and oft-quoted witticisms and quips including “Whenever I feel the urge to exercise I lie down until it goes away”; “If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes”; “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children”; “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes” ; and “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Twain is a master in crafting humorous verse with sardonic wit, and though with biting criticism at times he disarms with his renderings of colloquial speech and unpretentious language. Through the authentic depiction of his times he caused much controversy and many of his works have been suppressed, censored or banned, but even into the Twenty-First Century his works are read the world over by young and old alike. A prolific lecturer and writer even into his seventy-fourth year, he published more than thirty books, hundreds of essays, speeches, articles, reviews, and short stories, many still in print today.
Early Years and Life on the River 1830-1860
Mark Twain was born in Florida, Missouri on 30 November 1835, the sixth child born to Jane Lampton (1803-1890) and John Marshall Clemens (1798-1847). In 1839 the Twain family moved to their Hill Street home, now the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum with its famous whitewashed fence, in the bustling port city of Hannibal, Missouri. Situated on the banks of the Mississippi river it would later provide a model for the fictitious town of St. Petersburg in Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
When Twain’s father died in 1847 the family was left in financial straits, so eleven year old Samuel left school (he was in grade 5) and obtained his first of many jobs working with various newspapers and magazines including the Hannibal Courier as journeyman printer. “So I became a newspaperman. I hated to do it, but I couldn't find honest employment.” He also started writing, among his first stories “A Gallant Fireman” (1851) and “The Dandy Frightening the Squatter” (1852). After traveling to and working in New York and Philadelphia for a few years he moved back to St. Louis in 1857. It was here that the lure of the elegant steamboats and festive crowds drew his attention and he became an apprentice ‘cub’ river pilot under Horace Bixby, earning his license in 1858. As a successful pilot plying his trade between St. Louis and New Orleans, Twain also grew to love the second longest river in the world which he describes affectionately in his memoir Life on the Mississippi (1883).
“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”
An important part of a river pilot’s craft is knowing the waters and depths, which, for the mighty Mississippi and her reefs, snags, and mud are ever changing. To ‘mark twain’ is to sound the depths and deem them safe for passage, the term adopted by Clemens as his pen name in 1863. In 1858 his brother Henry died in an explosion on the steamboat Pennsylvania. Life on the river would provide much fodder for Twain’s future works that are at times mystical, often sardonic and witty, always invaluable as insight into the human condition.
Beyond the Banks in the 1860’s
With the outbreak of Civil War in 1861 passage on the Mississippi was limited, so at the age of twenty-six Twain moved on from river life to the high desert valley in the silver mining town of Carson City, Nevada with his brother Orion, who had just been appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory. He had never traveled out of the state but was excited to venture forth on the stagecoach in the days before railways, described in his semi-autobiographical novel Roughing It (1872). Twain tried his hand at mining on Jackass Hill in California in 1864, and also began a prolific period of reporting for numerous publications including the Territorial Enterprise, The Alta Californian, San Francisco Morning Call, Sacramento Union and The Galaxy. He traveled to various cities in America, met Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Dickens in New York, and visited various countries in Europe, Hawaii, and the Holy Land which he based Innocents Abroad (1869) on. Short stories from this period include “Advice For Little Girls” (1867) and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County” (1867).
Marriage, Tramping Abroad, and Success
In 1870 Twain married Olivia ‘Livy’ Langdon (1845-1904) with whom he would have four children. Three died before they reached their twenties but Clara (1870-1962) lived to the age of eighty-eight. The Twain’s home base was now Hartford, Connecticut, where in 1874 Twain built a home, though they traveled often. Apart from numerous short stories he wrote during this time and Tom Sawyer, Twain also collaborated on The Gilded Age (1873) with Charles Dudley Warner.
A Tramp Abroad (1880), Twain’s non-fiction satirical look at his trip through Germany, Italy, and the Alps and somewhat of a sequel to Innocents Abroad was followed by The Prince and the Pauper (1882). Hank Morgan, time traveler in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) reflects Twain’s friendship with pioneering inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla and interest in scientific inventions. Twain also continued to uphold a busy lecture series throughout the United States. In 1888 he was awarded an honorary Master of Art degree from Yale University.
For some years Twain had lost money in various money making schemes like mining, printing machines, the Charles L. Webster Publishing Co., and The Mark Twain Self-Pasting Scrap Book though he never lost his sense of humour. In 1892, friend and fellow humorist and author Robert Barr, writing as ‘Luke Sharp’ interviewed Twain for The Idler magazine that he owned with Jerome K. Jerome. Twain’s novel The American Claimant (1892) was followed by The Tragedy of Pudd'Nhead Wilson (1894), first serialized in Century Magazine. Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) was followed by Tom Sawyer, Detective in 1896. His favourite fiction novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896) was first serialised in Harper’s Magazine. By 1895, unable to control his debts, he set off on a world lecture tour to Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, and South Africa to pay them off. Following the Equator (1897) is his travelogue based on his tour, during which he met Mahatma Gandhi, Sigmund Freud, and Booker T. Washington.
With another successful lecture tour under his belt and now much admired and celebrated for his literary efforts, Mark, Livy and their daughter Jane settled in New York City. Yale University bestowed upon him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 1901 and in 1907 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by Oxford University. The same year A Horse's Tale and Christian Science (1907) were published. While traveling in Italy in 1904, Livy died in Florence. For Twain’s 70th birthday on 30 November 1905 he was fêted at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York, where he delivered his famous birthday speech, wearing his trademark all-year round white suit. That year he was also a guest of American President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt at the White House and addressed the congressional committee on copyright issues. He was also working on his biography with Albert Bigelow Paine. His daughter Jane became very sick and was committed to an institution, but died in 1909 of an epileptic seizure. In 1908 Twain had moved to his home ‘Stormfield’ in Redding, Connecticut, though he still actively traveled, especially to Bermuda.
Mark Twain died on 21 April 1910 in Redding, Connecticut and now rests in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Livy’s hometown of Elmira, New York State, buried beside her and the children. A memorial statue and cenotaph in the Eternal Valley Memorial Park of Los Angeles, California states: “Beloved Author, Humorist, and Western Pioneer, This Original Marble Statue Is The Creation Of The Renowned Italian Sculptor Spartaco Palla Of Pietrasanta.” Twain suffered many losses in his life including the deaths of three of his children, and accumulated large debts which plagued him for many years, but at the time of his death he had grown to mythic proportions as the voice of a spirited and diverse nation, keen observer and dutiful reporter, born and died when Halley’s Comet was visible in the skies.
“Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all—the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved.” —Twain’s last written statement
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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