Mark Twain, Great American Author

By Sasha Coles

A portrait of Mark Twain, American writer, taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907.

A portrait of Mark Twain, American writer, taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907.

There's a good reason why your high school English teacher assigned you a Mark Twain novel. Tourists visiting the United States in the late nineteenth century had two things on their must-see list: Niagara Falls and Mark Twain. Twain’s newspaper articles, speeches, and books made him the most famous American of the period. Mark Twain—born Samuel Langhorne Clemens—achieved that status by writing accessible, humorous stories that captured the essence of the raw, rough-and-tumble American experience. Over the course of his life, he worked as a journalist, publisher, steamboat pilot, inventor, speculator, and miner, among other things (that list would make any person feel unaccomplished), but we know Twain best for his writing. Twain based the plot, characters, and themes for his stories on his own life. He garnered a reputation for straying from the facts and embellishing what “really” happened, but his imaginative and amusing tales, filled with clever social criticism, appealed to a mass audience and continue to thrill us readers today!

Mark Twain’s childhood in the American South served as the basis for his most popular work. Jane and John welcomed their son, Samuel, into the world on November 30, 1835. The Clemens family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, in 1839, and Little Sam quickly earned a reputation for being a wild child. Sam gave Jane a bigger headache than her other six children combined. At one point, Sam infected himself with the measles because he wanted more attention from his peers, and he had a penchant for swearing when his mother was out of earshot. He and his buddies skipped school to swim in the Mississippi River, explore the dark passageways and deep caverns of Glasscock’s Island, and play “pirates,” “bandits,” and “Indians.” They did not have much respect for rules and enjoyed scamming local merchants and frightening people on the road to Sunday church service.

A first edition copy of  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  (1885). Image from  William Creswell .

A first edition copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Image from William Creswell.

Slavery played a critical role in Sam’s early life. At various points during his childhood, his parents owned and temporarily hired the labor of black men and women named Jennie, Uncle Ned, Sandy, and Charlie. Sam witnessed townspeople beating runaway slaves and threatening abolitionists with lynching. These elements of Sam’s upbringing—slavery, the Mississippi River, shenanigans with his peers, and the unique character of southern life and culture—had a deep, lasting impact on him and provided the framework for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), and The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). is early years also explain why his name is emblazoned on the riverboat at Disneyland.

As a young adult, Sam Clemens pursued many different careers and began to make a name for himself as a writer. Sam’s foray into the literary world began when he apprenticed for a local newspaper in 1848. Over the next decade, he worked as a printer and journalist in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. He then decided to embark on his childhood dream of earning a riverboat pilot license. In 1858 he paid Horace E. Bixby $500 to teach him how to “read” the depths, banks, and reefs of the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans. Piloting was a dangerous job in those days, though! Obstacles like detached trees threatened to puncture the boat’s hull, and boiler explosions killed hundreds of riverboat passengers, including Sam’s own brother, Henry. Sam worked on the river until the Civil War broke out in 1861. He lasted for two weeks as a Confederate soldier before heading west with his brother, Orion, who had been appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory. After 19 days in a stagecoach, they reached Carson City, a booming mining town. Over the course of the 1860s, Sam failed as a miner on the Comstock Lode, ran from a pack of hungry wolves, published a story in the Saturday Press that made him famous, traveled to Hawaii (known then as the Sandwich Islands), went on a transatlantic cruise to Europe and the Middle East, and began earning as much as $100 for each public appearance. He also signed his first story with his pen name, “Mark Twain,” a steamboat term that meant the river was at a safe depth for passage. Twain wrote Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), and Life on the Mississippi (1883) about his travels, although he personally did not care for the discomfort and inconvenience of being away from home. Click here for a useful timeline of Twain’s life.

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
— Mark Twain

From the 1870s to the turn of the twentieth century, Twain built a family and reached the pinnacle of his professional success. Twain married Olivia Langdon in 1870. When they met, he was so taken with Olivia that he faked an injury to spend more time with her (I am sensing a theme here...). “Livy” was his best friend, and she offered pointed feedback on Twain’s writing. He would read his chapters out loud to his wife and their three daughters—Susy, Clara, and Jean—to get their reactions and feedback. Twain wrote A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) at the family home in Hartford, Connecticut, and at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York (take a virtual tour of Quarry Farm here!), where they spent most of their summers. At this point, Twain achieved significant fame at home and abroad. He rubbed elbows with the most significant public figures of the period, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Keller, Ulysses S. Grant, Lewis Carroll, P.T. Barnum, Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison, to name a few. The public always sought out Twain’s comments on current events. He became increasingly obsessed with politics and felt personally committed to the “wronged,” so he spoke out on behalf of suffragists, Chinese immigrant workers, the urban poor, and labor unions. Twain was also an ardent anti-imperialist and condemned the war with Spain in 1898, the annexation of the Philippines, and the brutal treatment of the Congolese by the Belgians. Twain’s professional success, which included honorary degrees at Oxford, Yale, and the University of Missouri, depended on the domestic labor—cooking, cleaning, and childcare—provided by Livy and the family’s staff, including young female domestic servants and African American cooks and butlers.

Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
— Mark Twain

Personal and financial tragedies accompanied Twain’s rise to fame. He and Livy lost their infant son, Langdon, in 1872. Economic instability and a series of unwise investments resulted in the bankruptcy of Twain’s subscription publishing company. Twain moved his family to Europe for four years, and he finished his “favorite” work, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), at a villa in Florence. To pay off his debts, he embarked on a year-long, worldwide lecture circuit and wrote a book based on that trip. An oil magnate ultimately saved him and his family from complete financial ruin, but meningitis took his oldest daughter, Susy, in 1896. Twain lost Livy in 1904 and Jean in 1909. Much of what we know about Twain’s life comes from the friendship he developed with Albert Bigelow Paine during this period. Paine became Twain’s biographer, and the pair spend the next several years discussing Twain’s life and work. They even lived together in Manhattan and Redding, Connecticut. Their task became increasingly difficult, however, due to Twain’s recurring chest pains. Twain deeply resented his illness, he said, for keeping him from reading, smoking cigars, and playing billiards. In 1910 Twain passed away of a heart attack. He was survived by Clara and her husband, Ossip Gabrilowitsch. President William Howard Taft remarked on the death of a great author who brought pleasure to millions of readers across the globe.

The Mark Twain Riverboat at Disneyland testifies to Twain’s longstanding legacy and impact. Walt Disney greatly admired Twain, and the riverboat uses steam power to transport guests back into the nineteenth century and around the Rivers of America. Click here for a useful timeline of Twain’s life.

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A depiction of the   Baton Rouge   riverboat from  Life on the Mississippi  (1883) by Mark Twain.

A depiction of the Baton Rouge riverboat from Life on the Mississippi (1883) by Mark Twain.


Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography (1907)

Larzer Ziff, Mark Twain (2004)